Learning an instrument – Be a musician, not a machine

Before I begin, I would just like to make a point that this is not a step-by-step procedure on how to learn any instrument in the world, nor is it a guide of scale patterns and drills to get you started. I would like to share with you my personal philosophy of learning how to play a musical instrument. Why? Because I believe that the kind of mindset you have when starting anything new has a huge impact on your speed of progression. This is my opinion of what the proper mindset is while learning an instrument, whether it’s your first or your twentieth. Like almost everything in life, this subject is full of grey areas, and not everyone may agree with what I have to say, but this is based entirely off of my own experiences and what worked for me. I am addressing this way of thinking to everyone, whether they aspire to be a singer-songwriter or an oboist for a wind ensemble.

Understand music, not just the instrument

“When I was young I took piano lessons for 10 years, but I barely remember anything”

– A lot of people

Let’s think, for a second, about what a musical instrument is. I think the first sentence of the Wikipedia page for “musical instrument” sums it up nicely:

A musical instrument is a device created or adapted for the purpose of making musical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can serve as a musical instrument–it is through purpose that the object becomes a musical instrument.

The key word here is purpose. You can use any instrument to play a million scales, precise exercises, impressive drills, or even memorized songs, but the question is, can you create music? Can you stand there, alone, with no sheet music in front of you, no conductor, and no guidance, and play music that you didn’t memorize? This, I think, should be the goal in mind when learning an instrument. To be able to improvise and create music from your own head, on the spot, is one of the greatest accomplishments in your musical undertaking.

Those drills and exercises are important and serve their own purpose, but you need to keep in mind that they aren’t everything. Many of us have heard the stories about people who study an instrument for several years, only to forget everything they learned down the road. I would argue that this happened because they didn’t focus enough on the creative side of the coin. It’s like when you read several pages of a book, only to realize that you didn’t take any of it in. You know you understood each of the words, but you weren’t interested enough in the sentences they formed to retain any of the information or meaning.

So my suggestion is this: First learn to play the instrument enough to be able to produce and control musical notes. Learn how to play a couple of scales and chords (if it’s a chordal instrument, of course). You don’t need to learn every chord or scale in the universe, and you don’t need to play them at unbelievable speeds, just learn the basics so that you can begin creating music.

Think of yourself like a child aspiring to be a painter, and you have to start with finger painting. Once the art teacher shows you how to dip your hands in the paint and draw basic shapes on the paper, what do you do? Do you do it once, then say, “okay, next lesson”? No, you use that basic knowledge to go crazy. You paint blobs of color that might-sort-of-kind-of resemble a cat, little stars and circles that have no purpose or connection other than the fact that you “just felt like painting them”.  People with greater painting experience may pass it off as “just another child’s chicken scratch”, but you think it’s a masterpiece, and you had a whole lot of fun making it. It’s no different in the world of music. You shouldn’t learn the basics and say “okay, next lesson”, you should take what you’ve learned and go crazy.

Let me further explain this with my own story.

I started learning to play the guitar when I was about 11 years old. My father, also a guitar player, gave me two beginner books for Christmas and let me practice with one of his classical guitars. Every once in a while we would open one of the books and he would help teach me the basics. I learned how to play an open C scale, an open G scale, a couple of chords, a smidgen of picking technique, and a few songs that curiously resembled “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. After I began to understand the beginner stuff, I started to just…play. I would sit in my room and mess around with the scales I learned. I would pick notes at random and play them, then try to repeat what I just did. After I discovered that my Dad owned some basic recording software, I decided that I wanted to try to record some of these ideas. Like most 12 year old kids, I didn’t have any expensive microphones and audio interfaces, but I did have a plastic camera that came with the Lego Movie Maker set.

The hi-tech camera I used to record when I was 12.

Lucky for me, this little, plastic, Lego camera had a cheap microphone built into it, and better yet, the recording software recognized this microphone as a recording device. So, I would “borrow” my Dad’s electric guitar and amp from the basement and dangle the Lego camera in front of the amp with some tape. My Dad also had a multi-effects pedal, which I used to to get distortion and drum patterns. Armed with this technology, I fooled around with recording for hours. I would turn on one of the drum loops and play over it. With no one around to hear me, I was my only critic. Eventually I recorded my very first song.

It had a repetitive, digital drum pattern, looping over and over again until you wanted to punch the speakers. The melody, also repetitive, consisted of 4, maybe 5 notes in total. The guitar tone was cringe-worthy and the recording quality was abysmal. It was amateur, sloppy, disorganized, monotonous, repetitive, and it was absolutely awesome. The thrill of creating my own song was powerful and addictive. From that point on there was no going back. I made another song, then another, then another, all equally sloppy and repetitive. I learned how to finger paint and I hit the ground running.

This gave me a reason to practice those scales, chords, and picking technique. It gave it all purpose. It’s one of the reasons that now, about 10 years later, I still remember everything I learned, I’m still playing music, and I want to try any musical instrument I can get my hands on.

“That’s great and all, but I don’t have any fancy recording software”

Right off the bat I’d say that you don’t need software to record your musical ideas. It depends what you want to accomplish. When I suggest that people record themselves, I’m talking on any level. That being said, it’s actually pretty easy to get your hands on basic recording software these days. If you have a Mac, it most likely already has Garage Band. For Windows, Mac, or Linux, you can download Audacity absolutely free. Utilize this amazingly vast collection of resources known as the Internet and just try a bunch of things out. If you have a large sum of money to spend and want to go straight for the biggest names, check out Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Cubase, Ableton, and Sonar. Some of them even have free versions of their software, so feel free to explore their websites.

You’ll notice that some software, such as Ableton, is focused more on MIDI sequencing than recording audio. This is something that I highly suggest you try to get involved in, as it is a way to easily jot down melodies in your head without needing an instrument. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a melodic idea, opened up Ableton, quickly programmed the melody, saved it, and went on with whatever else I was doing. I now have a folder on my computer filled with little ideas that I can expand on whenever I want.

You can also use music notation software to jot down your ideas. If you’re a bit of a computer junkie, check out my post on Lilypond, a free text-base notation editor, and it’s partner, Frescobali. For more conventional software, check out Finale and Sibelius. Again, I have hundreds of Finale and Lilypond files, all filled with quick ideas that popped into my head.

There are countless ways to jot down your musical ideas even without fancy recording software. Do you have a cell phone? It probably has a voice recorder feature. You can also use a good-old tape deck, a webcam, Windows Sound Recorder, Ubuntu’s Sound Recorder, anything! The list goes on and on.

The reason I am so persistent about recording your musical ideas is that it worked wonders for me. It really made a world of difference in terms of developing my “ear” for music. I have come up with a ton of song ideas after looking back through my old recordings and finding some snippets that I had completely forgotten about. Think of recording music the same as sketching a drawing. Recording a bunch of little ideas is like jotting down a bunch of quick drawings in a sketchbook. You can actually hear how you’ve progressed just as you can see how much better your drawings are.

“But I don’t want to write music!”

Just to clarify, I am not saying that you are only a musician if you write, record, and sell your own music. You don’t have to strive to be the next biggest rock star or composer. If all you want to do is learn guitar and rock out to Led Zeppelin, or learn flute and play masterful compositions in a disciplined ensemble, that’s absolutely fine. However, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I believe that these suggestions can still help.

Let’s take the example of the guitarist who only really cares about playing songs by his or her favorite band.

Extreme scenario 1: They never worked on developing an “ear” for music at all. Their only option is to have the song taught to them, either by someone who already knows it, music notation, or guitar tabs found on the Internet. Once they have learned the song, they are good to go, but only as long as they can memorize it. Given a long enough time where they didn’t play the song, they might forget how to play it and have to be “re-taught” before they can play it again.

Extreme scenario 2: They have spent a great deal of time experimenting with the scales and chords they learned and have a much better understanding of how song structures work. Thus, they have a well-developed “ear” for music. They can listen to the song, decipher the structure, and figure out how to play it on their own. They can even play along with the song during their first listen, playing chords that work over what they hear, or improvising melodies to create their own guitar solo over it. No memorization is necessary as it only takes them seconds to teach themselves the song.

In both cases, the guitarist is able to learn the song, but which of these scenarios sounds more fun? Sure, to a beginner guitarist the second scenario sounds like a dream too far to reach when they first start, but what I’m saying is that if you strive for scenario number 2, you will have a much more fulfilling experience with music. If your idea of learning an instrument is memorizing song after song after song, without diving deeper into what the instrument can be used for, you are destined for the first scenario. I believe that the suggestions I have given in this post will help you achieve the second scenario.

Now let’s consider the flute player.

Extreme scenario 1: They never worked on developing an “ear” for music at all. They have mastered their ability to sight-read music and have perfect technique, but they can only play music if it’s put in front of them. They can’t function without music notation telling them exactly what to play, when to play, and how to play. Being told to play with “more emotion” means nothing to them.

Extreme scenario 2: They have spent a great deal of time experimenting with the scales they learned, building their own melodies, and have a much better understanding of how song structures work. This makes learning their required music much easier and more enjoyable. Their playing is most likely more relaxed, as their brain is focused on what is happening musically, rather than being an emotionless computer. They can still play with perfect technique and sight-read better than anyone else, but now they are more in-tune (pun intended) with what is happening while they play with an ensemble. They hear what is going on and understand exactly what they are contributing as a musician.

Again, both scenarios result in the musician playing the required part, but the second scenario is more inviting because it sounds like they are having a much more fulfilling experience.

“So…what exactly are you suggesting I do?”

Let me summarize my points to give you a better idea of what I’m suggesting.

– When learning an instrument, go beyond the systematic exercises you are taught. Don’t learn them and move on, learn them and create with them.

– Jot down these creative ideas by recording them. Think about making your own musical sketchbook. This will help you see your progress, develop your ear for music, and give a greater purpose to the mundane exercises you’ve been working on.

– Remember that regardless of your ultimate musical goals, thinking creatively will help speed up your learning process. It makes music fun and fulfilling.

Would you rather buy a fish or a fishing pole?

This entire subject is something that can be discussed endlessly. I can go on and on, further expanding on how to think more creatively, discussing my opinion on the best way to start improvising (something I may post on in the near future), but for my own sake (and yours) I think I’ll end this post and leave you with one old question.

Would you rather buy a fish, or would you rather buy a fishing pole?

Think about it. Buying the fish is the easy solution, but it only feeds you once. Buying a fishing pole is a greater initial expense and you have to learn how to use it, but once you do you can catch as many fish as you want. This can be translated into the music world. Learning songs without being musical and creative is possible, but at the cost of the time it takes to learn and memorize each one. Learning how to be musical and creative gets you the fishing pole. The big initial expense here is having to go beyond just learning scales, chords, and technique. You have to put additional effort into understanding them, experimenting with them, and playing without being told what to play. Learning a song because you understand it musically is as fulfilling as eating a fish that you caught yourself.

I hope this post helped someone out there. If you like what you read, be on the lookout for expansions on this topic in the future. Until then, happy playing.