Learning an instrument

LEARNING AN INSTRUMENT

Learning an instrument is obviously the most important step you can make to becoming a musician. Without an object to create sound, your musical journey will take a different path.

Even if you choose to be an engineer, producer or manager, playing an instrument provides an understanding of music that will be an advantage when dealing with other musicians.  

Whether it’s a traditional instrument like the piano or guitar, your voice as a singer, or something more modern like synths, digital workstations or even augmented reality, the process of learning can be lifelong. Even the masters are still learning, still pushing the boundaries and trying to grow or improve. After all, that’s what makes it fun, right?

There are many facets to learning that culminate in not just a skill, but hopefully a passion that will slowly start to seep into your everyday life. And that’s the first tip on how to make learning easier; you need to become more than just someone who can play a piano. The piano has to become part of who you are. 

You need a strong foundation to build your skill, don’t skimp on the first step.

Relationship.

To begin with you need to relate to the instrument, we talked about this in the last chapter. You know you like it, but you need to take the relationship to the next level and become best friends with your instrument, you’ll likely be spending more time with it than anything or anyone else!

So how do you become friends with an instrument? You get to know it. Learn about it. Spend time with it. Treat it like any other friendship!

Research.

Let’s say you’ve chosen piano (but this can be applied to any instrument). Find out everything there is to know about the piano; where and when was the first piano made? What materials do they make pianos from? Who makes them? How do they make sound? What are the characteristics of that sound?

Examine your piano (or keyboard) and find out about the brand, then read the manual. Search, research and discover everything there is to know about the instrument itself. Obsess over it. Become a geek about your instrument; there’s nothing cooler than someone who can play well AND knows their gear.

Maintenance.

Keep your instrument in top condition. No matter if it’s second-hand (or third or fourth-hand), clean it regularly, keep it serviced or learn how to maintain it. Keep it free of moisture, store it somewhere dry, not too hot or cold. Get it a case! The best investment you can make other than the instrument itself is a good case to keep it in, or a cover to put over it.  

You need to take pride in it; the condition of your instrument reflects your own condition, and will encourage you to play more often. Who wants to play a dusty, sticky, out of tune piano?

Make it personal.

Give your instrument a name. It might sound silly, but personalising the instrument can help you look after it. Treat Elton every now and then with a fresh polish, new strings or a service. He’ll thank you for it by giving you longevity and a better quality sound.

Now we’ve got you loving your instrument, you need to actually learn to play it.

Technique.

Unfortunately that means you need to learn some technique. You can get by without learning to read music, although I don’t recommend it (we’ll talk about this another time), but you won’t get very far without learning the technique required to play your instrument. So take a deep breath, suck it up and start.

In our modern environment there are numerous ways to learn technique. Online courses and eBooks are becoming even more popular than physical music books and in-person music lessons. Whatever you decide will work for you, know that some sort of lesson regiment will help you progress much quicker and with a more solid base, than self-directed learning.  

Lessons.

You can spend weeks on YouTube watching instructional videos and piecing together what you think you need to know, but actual formulated lessons will deliver the required, structured information and ensure you learn correct technique. You need a strong foundation to build your skill, don’t skimp on the first step.

The above can apply to any instrument from cello to singing to software, there will be courses and lessons out there for any aspect of learning music you can think of. If you'd rather learn online at your own pace, or there aren’t any in-person lessons where you live, the internet is an incredible resource. 

Since we’ve been talking about piano; here’s my recommended online piano course, and a fantastic foundation for learning the piano - Piano Picnic.

Listen.

Let’s change it up and say you’re learning the tuba. Cool instrument, well done! You need to be listening to music every day that heavily features the tuba. You need to hear how it can sound in different arrangements and styles. Learn how other people are pushing the limits of the instrument. When you hear a tuba arrangement you particularly enjoy, find out who is playing it, then find out what else they’ve done and listen to that.

You need to get heroes. 

You could be an aspiring singer and have just discovered Nina Simone. Start listening, start researching; find out everything there is to know about Nina and how she sings. How is her technique described? How did she start? What makes her so good? Why do you like how she sounds? Then, start imitating her.  

If you’re learning the tuba perhaps look into the stylings of an influential tuba player like Arnold Jacobs.

Imitation sounds like a bad word, but honestly, it’s where everyone starts. Everyone. Here are the three most important words you will read in regards to your musical journey. Adjust your glasses. No, not those three words. Here:

Imitation, Innovation, Invention.

Imitation.

You first learn by imitating. We all start by imitating our heroes and the influential people in our field of interest, it’s a fact of human life from walking, to speech, to playing an instrument. Don’t be afraid to purposefully imitate; you have no choice if you want to learn. 

Innovation.

Innovation is when you take something that’s already known and change or alter it slightly to suit your need, or express your point of view. Most musicians never make it past innovation, it’s just another fact. There’s nothing wrong with being an innovator, it’s impressive in fact; having the ability to innovate means you have worked hard and you have skill and knowledge in your field.

Invention.

Invention is the highest echelon in the world of music, touched by a select few. It is the creation of something entirely original. Ludwig van Beethoven invented Romantic music. Les Paul (arguably) invented the electric guitar, and (also arguably) therefore rock ‘n’ roll. Innovation by Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flowers, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa lead to the invention of hip hop. 

So start imitating. You never know, it could be you to ascend into music history.

Once you have some basic skill and are beginning to grasp the techniques, possibilities and limitations of your instrument; start learning every song and album you can get your hands on that’s within, or just outside, your capability (this will progress as you do).

Start simple and progress in difficulty as you master each piece. Obsess over every detail until you can play it perfectly. Learning what popular musicians are playing and how to imitate them will develop the techniques required to become a master of your instrument.