Deciding to learn a musical instrument may not seem like a big deal but, for many people, it can be a life-changing decision! We've all read about research that links musical learning with success in other school subjects, with health benefits and with increased social opportunities. However, the reason why most people play is that it is intrinsically rewarding. Music has always been an important aspect of human activity and society and the oldest musical instruments that we know about are thought to originate from around forty-two to forty-three thousand years ago.
Which instrument shall I learn?
First decide which instruments you like, then consider which one would suit you best – for instance, do you want to play in a band or play on your own? For adults, beginning to learn an instrument is often the fulfilment of something they have wanted to do for a long time so they will probably have a clear idea of which instrument to choose. Research (eg McPherson, Davidson & Faulkner, 2012) suggests that the intrinsic appeal of the sound an instrument makes, as well as the look and feel of it, influences which instrument children choose and also sustains their interest when difficulties are experienced. If a child is to learn at school, the choice may ultimately depend on what is on offer unless the parent is willing to buy an instrument and pay for lessons.
Buying an instrument
If you are buying an instrument, do take specialist advice on which model and make to choose, in order to avoid making an expensive mistake. Being able to practise on a 'good enough' instrument is so important - a lovely sound cannot be produced on a poor quality clarinet that squeaks no matter who plays it. It's understandable not to want to spend huge amounts of money at first, but a reasonable quality instrument can be a wise investment because you or your child will be less likely to give up.
How will I choose a teacher?
Finding a teacher who is right for you personally is of huge importance. You can search for teachers on the internet, then take a trial lesson with several teachers and consider which one you found the most inspirational and knowledgeable. Don't be afraid to ask questions and, if possible, base your decision on suitability for you or your child rather than on how much the teacher charges. More detailed advice is available here.
What is involved in learning to play an instrument?
Obviously you will learn to play pieces or tunes. You may also wish to improvise and play by ear and you will almost certainly want to learn to read music notation because this opens up a world of independent learning. Learning to read notation is really no more difficult than learning to read words and at least it conforms to regular rules, unlike learning a language! A good, all-round learning experience will include ongoing advice about how to make a great sound on your instrument at each successive level and should certainly involve developing good technique – the physical means that enables us to play fluently and without injury.
How will I learn pieces?
The teacher will guide you in how to learn and practise your pieces, and will advise you on appropriate repertoire, perhaps starting with a tutor book. Tutor books are available for adults as well as for children. As you progress, you will learn to play longer pieces that are more difficult and you will find that you can begin to choose pieces you know and like. To improve, it is essential to devote some time most days to practising. How you practise is of the utmost importance – practice only 'makes perfect' if you do it right! For detailed guidance on how your child should practise, see the E-Music Maestro Music Parent blog where there's lots of helpful advice.
What about scales?
Scales and arpeggios are truly useful because they help you with learning and understanding music and also improve your technique. Practising technical work may not be as rewarding as learning pieces but, to make it more enjoyable, you can have fun playing along to a backing track. You'll find backing tracks for early grade scales and arpeggios for most instruments at E-Music Maestro.
What else do I need to know?
Developing your musical ear is absolutely essential if you are learning an instrument because you need to understand the elements, such as pitch and rhythm, that create the music itself and you'll want to know exactly what musicians do to make a performance sound good. The elements of music will be addressed during lessons but this is not enough to ensure a well-developed aural understanding - a more structured approach is needed, particularly if there is any intention to take music exams. The most popular aural training programme is E-Music Maestro's online Aural Test Training, which provides an all-round aural education as well as preparing candidates for taking music exams in which aural skills, as well as playing pieces, are tested.
Who is E-MusicMaestro?
E-MusicMaestro is an independent, online music education company that we recommend, to help you or your child get the most out of learning to play an instrument; it not otherwise connected with John Packer. The directors of E-MusicMaestro are professional musicians, teachers and music examiners.
McPherson, G. E., Davidson, J.W., & Faulkner, R. (2012) Music in our lives: Rethinking musical ability, development and identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press