Choosing an instrument



If you've read the articles about Defining Your Taste, Branching Out and Learning to Listen: by now you’re a listening master. You’re setting aside time each day, experimenting, opening your ears and approaching music with a hunger and positivity that’s about to be put to good use.

If you haven’t already, you need to choose an instrument. Maybe you’ve chosen five instruments and can’t decide on your favourite; you might think you’re a singer, or a DJ, or a wood-block extraordinaire, but you’re not sure which is the right instrument to concentrate your efforts and become the centrepiece of your musical journey.

When I started on my journey I thought I was going to be a guitarist. I had owned a guitar since I was a child, I took guitar lessons at school, played guitar with my friends, and I had a natural talent for guitar that made the instrument enjoyable to play almost immediately.

Now I’m a drummer. 

I was thrust onto the drums when I started a band with my friends, because when we were deciding who would do what, they chose their instruments first. Drummer was the last position to be filled and I’d be damned if I was going to miss out.

It turned out drumming was initially just as easy for me as guitar was, and there were only a few other drummers at my school, while there were hundreds of other guitarists. I was quickly convinced I would be a drummer for life.  

So how do you know what’s right for you? 

Lots of people test out a few instruments before they settle on one to take seriously, and some very talented people are able to learn multiple instruments. Either way you need to make a distinction between talent and skill, and apply it to the choices of instruments you play.

Talent is something you’re born with. You might be a talented athlete, cook, mathematician or builder. It means that you have a natural ability to do something that not everyone can do so easily. Talent will get you started on your instrument and set you on the path to becoming skilled. 

Skill is something you earn. Obtaining a skill requires hard work over time, and because of this almost anyone can become skilled at almost anything. This means that if you find piano hard to begin with, but you really want to become a pianist, you can work hard and learn piano. You might have to work a bit harder than the naturally talented student, but you can still get there.

Successful musicians are sometimes talented, but they are always skilled. 

You will know you have a talent for an instrument if it feels natural to play soon after you first try. Not immediately, but maybe after a few attempts at making a sound, or a few lessons, things start to come together. You may notice you can make sounds typically made by more advanced musicians. Other people might compliment you and you might enjoy yourself after only playing for a short amount of time. I’ve taught students who sit at a drum kit for the first time and can play something basic immediately. They have natural timing; they are talented.

You will know you need to obtain a skill with an instrument if none of the above applies to you! If you pick up your instrument and don’t know where to start, and aren’t much better after a few weeks, don’t despair. This is how most people start learning an instrument. It’s not easy and requires a lot of work.

Use what you know about your listening preferences to guide your choices when choosing an instrument. Go through your favourite songs, albums and artists to pick out the elements you enjoy the most. If your five genres are all electronic music and you love EDM, maybe start by playing around with virtual instruments and computer software. If the sound of big-band moves you like no other, a good place to start looking for an instrument might be picking up a trumpet or trombone.

Deciding on an instrument can be the result of a variety of different circumstances but there are two things that an instrument absolutely must do before you commit to learning it:

It must speak to you. Before you can express yourself with an instrument, an instrument has to speak to you. Not literally of course, I mean that you should identify with it and enjoy the sound it makes. There should be some intrinsic aspect of that instrument that you connect with. It’s not much fun learning the trumpet if you can’t stand high-pitched sounds.

It must spark imagination. Guitarists learn electric guitar because of the clear picture in their mind of themselves; guitar slung low, one foot up on a foldback monitor, wind in their hair, stage lights flashing, soaring notes serenading adoring fans in the front row.

I learned drums for essentially the same reason; I thought they were cool and I could picture myself playing them. You might think the violin is the most refined and important instrument ever invented, and dream of one day blowing the minds of a theatre full of people who love violin. Whatever the instrument, it needs to set your imagination and enthusiasm running wild.

That’s it. Nothing else matters.

You want to spin vinyl, play the accordion or become a professional hand-clapper; it’s your choice. Just love it; the only person you should ever learn music for is yourself. If you’re making yourself happy learning an instrument, you will find your path clear and stick to your goals.