I recently had a conversation with a friend. He doesn’t play the piano, but he wants to learn. In fact, he has been wanting to learn for a long time. I mentioned to him that I would give him a couple of free lessons. He countered that he had found this great learning video series on the internet, and for a few hundred dollars, he would be well on his way to learning all by himself!

Well, it so happens that I have also seen this internet advertisement. I found the website the same way he did, except that I was looking for ballroom dance videos. This website must be very well-positioned, because it seems to come up quite often in searches. And it advertises many self-learning videos in many subjects.

So, is it true? Can you teach yourself to play an instrument? Or to ballroom dance? Or anything else, for that matter?

I think it depends. For example, it is pretty easy for me to pick up and learn a new musical instrument. Then again, I had 13 years of combined private lessons and formal music education, plus another 30 years of professional experience, including workshops and advice from experts. I spent twenty-five of those years working in music book production for publishers of educational materials. I already have enough acquired experience to pick up and learn another musical instrument on my own. However, when it comes to learning a language –that has not worked out too well for me!

Another one of my colleagues – a college linguistics major who learned to speak Spanish as a second language at an early age – has had little problem learning and picking up languages, mostly on his own.

So I think that it is certainly possible to teach yourself a new skill, especially if you have experience and training in similar, related skills. But having little or no training will make this task much more unlikely.

But, getting back to my first paragraph: did my friend ever learn to play piano from the hundreds-of-dollars video series? Unfortunately, he did not. Because in fact my friend never even purchased the videos; he still hasn’t even purchased a piano! This leads me to believe that procrastination is often the real problem when it comes to self-instruction.

This doesn’t mean that self-teaching methods are bad. Some self-motivated folks are good at learning on their own. But if you find that months or years have passed and you are still not learning that instrument you set out to learn, it’s time to seek out a teacher.

©2010 Ernie Mansfield, Windsailor Music