Pick up an Instrument!

Instead of vegetating on the couch in front of the television or on the Internet each night, spend 15 to 30 minutes a night learning how to play an instrument.  It is much easier than you may think and the rewards are far greater than you imagine.  In this article I will dispel many of the common myths and try to describe the incredible benefits associated with playing music.

Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque eras just about everybody played a musical instrument.  In fact, those who played professionally were looked down upon as people who couldn’t get a “real job”.  It is only a very recent phenomenon that people have stopped playing music.  Unfortunately, our society is to the point where most people never touch an instrument and are even afraid to do so.

In fact, one time I was showing my new erhu to a bunch of friends.  I offered to let them try it.  With the exception of one, who was the only other musician in the group, no one was willing to give it a try.  They were clearly afraid of the instrument.  Here they were presented with an instrument they had never seen before and likely would never see again, and they refused this rare opportunity for fear they may not sound good.

If I try to play an instrument, won’t I sound bad?  Yes, you will sound terrible.  That is until you start to get better.  It is unreasonable to expect anyone to be able to pick up an instrument and sound like an expert (most professionals will tell you that this was not the case for them either – they had to work hard to get where they are).  But, for some reason, our culture has gotten to the point where it cannot tolerate any attempt at music that isn’t either perfect or computer-modified to the point of “perfection”.  I’ve been playing the violin for six years and I still sound terrible.  But that does not make it any less fun.

What is the point of playing an instrument if I am going to sound terrible?  Playing an instrument allows you to explore the music that speaks to you in a manner far more personal than simply listening.  Playing music with others, regardless of how good or bad you may be, is an incredible experience that simply cannot be described in text.

Isn’t learning to play an instrument hard?  Yes!  Of course it is.  The most worthwhile things in life are difficult.  That is what makes them worthwhile.  Most people don’t think twice about spending hours a day throwing the ball into a basket until they can get a three point shot down perfectly.  But, for some reason, people in our society can’t imagine putting any effort into learning to play an instrument.  It will take a lifetime to learn an instrument.  One does not learn an instrument solely to master it.  It is each little step of progress in the great journey that brings fulfillment and reward.

I heard you have to practice [insert large quantity here] hours a day.  I don’t have that much time.  You do not have to.  If you are pursuing a degree in music and/or wish to be a professional musician than practicing several hours a day is necessary.  However, if you are learning an instrument for fun you can practice as little as 15 minutes a day.  It really does not matter how much time or how often you practice; so long as you practice regularly.

I don’t know anyone else who plays an instrument.  Who would I play with?  Well, you not need to play with anyone to enjoy music.  You can play by yourself.  You can play with your favorite CDs.  You can download a copy of The Amazing Slowdowner to slow music down until you are better.  But, I will admit that playing with other people is a truly exciting experience.  Search online for people in your area who get together and play music regularly.  Ask if you can join in.  If you cannot find a group in your area, start one.

Am I going to have to pay for lessons?  That is up to you.  It depends on how patient you are.  Personally, I spent five years working on the violin myself.  I hit a plateau and became frustrated with the lack of progress I was making.  So, I decided to enlist professional help.  I’ve been taking lessons for nearly a year now and I have made more progress in that time than I have in several years of learning on my own.  Even if you decide to take lessons you can keep costs down by taking a lesson once a month or once every couple of weeks.  You can also keep costs down by buying “learn at home” methods.  Nowadays, these often come with DVDs, sheet music, and audio CDs.

Aren’t instruments very expensive?  Let’s consider the violin.  Someone getting started can buy a $200 violin or a $20,000 violin.  But, the $20,000 violin will not make that person sound any better than the $200.  At the beginning your skill set will limit the quality of your performance, not your instrument.  In fact, I know many professionals who are perfectly happy with $300 violin because of the venues in which they perform; they are too noisy for anyone to appreciate the subtleties of more expensive instruments.  You can also save a lot of money by shopping around at pawn shops.  A lot of kids buy instruments for school, play with them for a couple of months, get frustrated because they were not instantly great, and give them back to their parents who sell them off.

Will I have to learn to read music?  Technically, no.  Some people are better at playing by ear while others are better at playing from sheet music.  Regardless of where you fall in the spectrum I do recommend you spend some time learning to read sheet music.  It is not difficult and a quick Google search will turn up plenty of resources online to help you.

I cannot play an instrument.  I am not predisposed music.  Well, how do you know if you have never played instrument?  Most people think that those who play instruments are predisposed to music.  That is an arrogant assumption.  Musicians work hard to get where they are.  Anyone can play an instrument if they are willing to try.

I cannot play a [insert instrument here], [insert some comment about your physical condition here].  I thought the same thing.  I have short, fat fingers.  My violin teacher calls them paws.  But, every musician I ever talked to said, “yes you can”.  And it turns out that I can.  In fact, my violin teacher has mentioned that Itzhak Perlman has the same types of hands that I do.

Listen, most of the excuses are just that!  Whether you are inventing them yourself or you have heard them through others, they are just excuses.  You can watch religiously every episode of a new television show; but, that will mean little in a few years when the show is considered antiquated and uninteresting.  You can dominate the latest MMORPG; but, in a couple of years when the next great game comes out you’ll start at level 1 just like everyone else.  You can diligently compose a complete collection of stamps, cars, whatever; but those things truly mean very little and honestly don’t bring any happiness.

Spend your limited time in existence on activities that actually mean something to you and to those around you.  Even if playing instrument is just not your cup of tea, learn something, create something, teach something, be someone.

Please feel free to comment.

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