Thursday, April 19, 2007


Well today, the paypal transfers from my eBay auction and the linden dollars I sold finally went through, and I ordered my keyboard.

I decided on the Casio LK300TV, and from what I’ve read about it, and the online demos I’ve seen, this thing is awesome.

I think I can describe it as a mid high-end home keyboard. Everything I need as a beginner, but still good enough to where I don’t have to replace it after I progress a little.

[Just a quick note – if you ever want to learn an instrument, buy a decent instrument, not the ultra cheap, crappy version. If you keep at it, you’ll buy a better instrument within a few months anyway, and if you give it up, you can always sell it. Buying a cheapo instrument is false economy.]

My absolute favorite thing about this keyboard though, is the built-in lessons. You can connect it to your TV, and your TV shows the music, along with a diagram of your keyboard to show you which key to hit if you can’t actually read music. Even the keys on the keyboard light up. However, the best part about this is you can also connect it to your computer and transfer midi files to it. So if there’s a particular song you want to learn, you download a midi file of it (and midi files are everywhere online), transfer it to the keyboard (through USB or a SD card), and then can play that song as an interactive lesson.

I love that idea, and quite conveniently, it leads me to my main point, which is about learning to play a musical instrument.

When I first started to learn guitar, I bought “A Tune a Day”, which is pretty much the standard book series for learning instruments in England.

I hated it.

I mean, the first four pages of this book were about how to properly sit and hold the guitar. What ten year old kid wants to sit and hold the guitar properly? At that age, it’s all about the power-stance, and how to wail on it while jumping up and down!

I did what a lot of people starting to learn an instrument do. I picked up the guitar, full of enthusiasm, and quit a week or so later in total confusion and frustration.

I repeated this pattern for about a year. I could practice every day for weeks, and by the end of a few month’s practice…I was able to play the start of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.”

That, at least for me, is exactly what’s wrong with the traditional method of learning an instrument. You have visions of playing all your favorite songs, but by learning traditionally, you realize that playing the songs you actually like is a long, long, long way off.

Sure, by the end of your first six months, you can read music fairly well, know a good deal of music theory…but you’re still playing very basic versions of public domain songs…and no kid after seeing Clapton on TV dreams of sitting in the correct posture, playing “Away in a manger”.

Eventually, I talked to someone who was a talented guitar player. He gave me the best advice I ever got about learning the guitar. He said:

“Go to the music store and find a music book by one of your favorite bands. Make sure the music has chord diagrams, and learn that way.”

Basically, a chord diagram is a picture of the neck of your guitar, with dots showing where to put your fingers.

So, I bought the songbook of the Beatles’ Red Album. I got home, looked at the first chord diagram, matched it on my guitar and hit the strings.

Wow. It was a chord, and it sounded exactly like the first chord of Yellow Submarine!

Ok, there are obviously drawbacks to learning like this. I didn’t learn to read music until much later, and unless you know the song you’re trying to play, you have no idea of the speed and timing of it…but I didn’t care…I didn’t want to play music I didn’t know anyway!

My point is that within an hour of getting home, I could play the start of Yellow Submarine. Sure, It took me a full minute to change between chords, and I was a long way to being able to play the song fluently all the way through…but this was progress I could actually see. It was a noticeable step from Paulius – Ten year old with a cheapo, hand-me-down guitar to Paulius – Guitar God!

That’s what I think is wrong with learning to play a music instrument the traditional way. While it gives you a solid grounding that can lead to a full understanding of your instrument…when you’re first trying to learn, I think the most important thing is keeping up that motivation and keeping yourself enthusiastic about playing.

Sure, a year or so down the line when you can already play a good few songs, learning the theory about why those notes work together, why the chords match the lead, and understanding your scales so you know how to improvise over the top is important, and when you learn that, you feel you’ve accomplished something.

However, learning that at the start, before you can actually play a tune, that’s not progress you can feel.

Unfortunately, one of the things I found was people I knew who learned the traditional way tended to look down on me. This is something I’ll never understand. I was playing songs after 6 months that they couldn’t play when they’d been learning for over a year.

The way I look at it, if two people can play a song with the same skill, and one person learned how to play it by learning to read music, and the other watched a video and saw where the original performer put his fingers, what’s the difference? What’s more important? The results, or how you got to those results.

Of course, learning a musical instrument is a very personal thing. This way worked for me. Today, I can read music (although not spectacularly well), and learned theory as and when I needed it. I can hear a guitar song, and work out how to play it by ear. I can hear a song and improvise over it and stay in key.

If I’m completely honest, at this point I’ll admit I’m not quite as good as someone who learned the traditional way and has been playing for as long as I have…but I suppose my main point here is, if I’d have stuck with the traditional way, I’d have never actually stuck with learning the guitar, and wouldn’t have fallen in love with it as an instrument.

When it comes to learning an instrument, I think the most important thing is progressing quickly at the start, in a way you can actually see. When your ten years old, can only play “Silent Night”, and show your parents or your friends, they’re not going to be incredibly impressed, even if you know all the theory behind it.

On the other hand, when you can play a Beatles song (or whoever you happen to like) after only a couple of weeks, it gives you the motivation you need to keep learning.


OzzyC said...

I think it depends on what instrument you're learning. The guitar is a perfect candidate for shortcuts, but orchestra instruments should be learned by the classic method.

Regardless, I think that classic music training at some point is vital... or at least beneficial.

Paulius said...

Oh, I absolutely agree. I should have been clearer. All I meant was classical music training should come a little later in the learning process.