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How Do You Learn an Instrument?

Someone once asked a well-known writer, “How do you write a book?” The writer replied, “Well, you get this magical device, called a pen…and then you get some magical stuff called paper…” implying, of course, that there is nothing particularly tricky or secret about writing a book, except doing it!

By the same token, there is really nothing that mysterious about learning a new musical instrument; even as an adult. All that you really need is a desire to do it, and a willingness to spend a few minutes a day practicing at home. This time is needed because the fingers and hands need their own time to learn the new skills. Although we would all like to be able to learn other skills, sometimes we don’t realize that simply logging in enough hours of practice is what we need to develop that skill.

Learning a musical instrument is a physical activity. It depends on developing some hand-eye coordination, and getting the fingers and hands used to being in the proper place and playing the correct notes. Much of this is physical muscle memory. Once accomplished, it makes learning very, very easy, and also fun!

The main difference between adults and children in their learning abilities is that a motivated child will just jump in and start playing, whereas by contrast, an adult will often try to use mental energy to “force” the fingers and hands to move in the right direction. This doesn’t work very well, and results in a lot of frustration. If I can convince an adult that there will be a reward – if they just make the time to practice a few minutes a day – then, after a while, they begin to improve. Then they start to really enjoy the whole experience of playing. They gain a feeling of accomplishment and start to feel good about their abilities.

So, what holds most adults back from learning an instrument? Most often, it is just a time management factor. If they knew that they would start to improve, and if they new that this would make them feel good about themselves, wouldn’t they do it?

This is why I recommend spending 15 minutes a day practicing. Most teachers recommend a minimum of 30 minutes. However, it is much easier for most people to find 15 minutes a day than 30 minutes. And, the way I see it, practicing 15 minutes a day will result in more minutes logged per week than trying – and not succeeding – in finding 30 minutes per day.

Many adults come to me because they want to finally start music lessons, but then they quickly get bogged down in the frustration of having to start from “ground zero”. I try to give them this perspective: from the time they were born, they had to learn so many things that they knew absolutely nothing about. From learning to walk, to learning to drive, to learning job skills; all these skills took trial and error, and failure along with success. As adults, they take all these skills for granted, and become unmercifully hard on themselves when they cannot instantly master a new skill. But often what it takes is not a heroic effort; it just takes a few minutes a day of working the fingers and hands on the new instrument. Once the fingers begin to master their new job, it is so much less stressful because the fingers seem to have a memory of their own.
Sometimes it is helpful to take a step back and observe yourself from a distance. Are you willing to be patient with your own self? Are you willing to be child-like, and take small steps to work on a new skill? If you are, then congratulations! Your chances of success are great!

© 2010 Ernie Mansfield, Mansfield Music/Windsailor Music (BMI)