Thursday, April 26, 2007

More On Music

It’s not very often that I try to give advice or ‘teach’ on this blog, or even in my daily life for that matter. This is usually because I don’t consider myself an ‘expert’ in any field, so unless someone specifically asks me, I tend not to volunteer help. Who am I to tell people how to do something?

The exception to this rule is when I have an experience that I think can honestly help people. I don’t mean by writing a tutorial or step by step instructions on an activity…but sharing my “Ah ha!” moments that have helped me out immensely. Usually this isn’t a technical or ‘practical’ tip in the sense of “This is how you do this.” But more of a point of view or way of looking at something.

Today, I want to talk about music, or more accurately playing music and learning an instrument.

I think the questions I get asked most often by someone wanting to learn the guitar after they’ve heard me play is “How long did it take you to get that good?” “How much do you practice?” and “Did you take lessons?”

It’s questions like these that I believe cause people to never learn an instrument, or start and give up a few weeks later.

Why? Because it’s looking at learning an instrument as seeing a ‘final result’ and trying to get there as quickly as possible. Practice and learning is work, an unenjoyable chore, that you have to go through before you can actually have fun and play your instrument.

Well, this leads me to my first bit of advice. If you don’t enjoy practicing and learning an instrument, you simply won’t learn it. I hate to say it, but the time from when you first pick up your instrument, to being able to play it effortlessly is a l-o-n-g way off.

It’s like learning to drive a car. When you start you’re constantly thinking about everything you have to do. It takes a while before you start to drive almost on autopilot, when you change gears without thinking about it, and just stop your car instead of thinking “Push the brake, ok, slowing down, nearly stopped, push…the…clutch…in…now.”

For example, if I’m playing the guitar and I see the next chord is an A minor, I just think ‘A minor’, and my fingers find the frets on their own. However, it took a long time of “ok, put my index finger here, my middle and ring finger here, push down and hit the strings” before I got to that point.

This leads me to piece of advice number two.

Learning an instrument is a process, and no matter how long you play, no matter how much you practice, there’s always something else you can learn. No matter how goodyou are, you can always get better. It isn’t like you practice, practice, practice and then one day, take your final lesson and *poof* you can play the instrument.

The trick is to forget the ‘final product’ and just enjoy learning.

You see, if you’ve just picked up a guitar, and want to play like Hendrix of Clapton, you’re looking at years, possibly even decades of practice before you even get close to that level. You’re setting yourself a goal that seems so difficult and so far away that chances are you’ll give up.

What you should do is just break up your practice into nice small goals, and enjoy each achievement as you reach it. It’s that feeling of accomplishment and progress that keeps you playing and improving.

Like with learning the guitar, you might learn a couple of chords during your first practice. Sure, you might not be able to do them from memory the day after, and it probably takes you a while to get your fingers into position when you want to play them…but it’s something you didn’t know yesterday and it’s progress you can see.

In the grand scheme of things, you’re still years away from being able to play well, but it doesn’t seem that insurmountable any more. Once you’ve learned your first song, even if you have to play it incredibly slowly, you start to think “I couldn’t do this two weeks ago, I wonder what I’ll be able to do in another two weeks that I can’t do now?”

As I stated in the beginning of this post, you need this feeling of progress and achievement to keep you playing, because if you don’t enjoy your practice, you won’t enjoy playing and you simply won’t learn.

I can’t ever state this enough. You have to enjoy learning in order to learn an instrument. If you’ve been playing something for a couple of months, and practice has become a real chore and something you dread rather than look forward to it’s probably an idea to find another instrument you enjoy playing or try to change the way you learn.

For example, when I started learning guitar, I’d usually sit in front of the TV with my guitar on my lap, even when I wasn’t officially ‘practicing’, and just play with it, and go through the chords I already knew or would just pick at it.

This is more useful than you might think, because so much of learning an instrument is muscle memory.

If you watch a concert pianist or a talented guitar player, you see that their hands are moving in a blur and you wonder how they remember all those notes. The truth, from a certain point of view, is that they don’t. They’re operating almost on autopilot. This is what muscle memory is. It’s like you just know what you want to do, and your hands do most of the actual work on their own.

If this sounds like nonsense, think about typing. If you’ve done it for a while, you just think of the words you want to type, and your fingers find the right keys almost on their own. The best way I can explain this is that if someone asked me to draw out a computer keyboard, with all the letters in the right places, I’d actually have to think about it. Chances are, you would too…yet I can type at about 70 words per minute.

If I have to think about it consciously, it gets difficult. If I just relax and do it on autopilot, it’s incredibly easy.

I’m the same with playing guitar. If someone told me to write out the strings and frets that make up a particular chord, I’d have to think about it. Yet if you put a guitar in my hands and mention a chord, my fingers would find the frets almost instantaneously.

My final piece of advice is this. Learning an instrument is pretty easy, the only problem is that it seems really awkward and unnatural to begin with. It takes a lot of time to get to a certain point, but once you get there, it becomes easy. It’s just like learning to read. You start by learning the letters, the sounds they make, and sounding them out when they’re put together in words. Then you get to the point where you just look at a written word and what it sounds like just pops into your head.

It’s this ‘barrier to entry’ that puts a lot of people off. If you’re learning a new instrument, you’ll probably play for a few weeks and feel like you’re not getting any better. Then it ‘clicks’ and you suddenly find yourself progressing faster than you ever thought possible. Then you move onto the next phase of learning, and the cycle continues.

In conclusion, the one thing I hear an awful lot is people saying things like “Oh, I’d love to be able to play the piano/guitar/saxophone.” My answer to this question is simply “Well, why don’t you learn?”

There’s no age limit on learning something new, and if you’re short of time, there’s also no deadline or limit on how often you have to practice or how fast you have to progress.

So, if you’ve always wanted to learn a musical instrument, do it. What have you got to lose?

1 comment:

OzzyC said...

I'll second his notion. I played trumpet until I graduated high school. In my early twenties, I wanted to learn guitar. I picked it up for a month or so, and then dropped it, though my desire to play never waned.

Almost twenty years later, I picked it up again, and have been playing for about a year now. I'm still not an accomplished guitarist, and I may never be able to play like Clapton or Hendrix, but I am now a guitar player, and as long as I keep practicing, I will improve a little bit every day, and I will be a guitar player for the rest of my life.

It's never too difficult to learn something new, and it's never too late to attain additional knowledge.