Here are some common falsehoods that people use to stop themselves either from starting to learn to play an instrument, or from continuing to learn and improve.
I’m too old
You are never too old so long as you have desire and passion. These are the two most important ingredients for learning anything. Desire creates the ambition to “want” to learn and passion will sustain the ambition. Older people often have more time at their disposal, especially if they are retired – this means more time to practice!
Age is not a barrier to learning as there are many examples across multi-disciplines which have proven this, and assuming one has good physical health, the only barrier is the will of the mind.
I don’t have enough time
Time, as they say, is of the essence, but limited time should not be a factor that prevents someone from doing something. A single day contains 24 hours and people will grab 5 -10 minutes to do a multitude of things; taking a cigarette or coffee break, catching up on emails, TV news, or surfing the internet etc. There are many ways in which one can swallow up 10 minutes and considering that there are 1,440 minutes in a 24 hour day, 10 minutes is absolutely nothing.
Yes, you have to sleep, yes you have to eat, relax and perform a host of other duties, and yes, having a musical instrument at hand is not always possible, but just think for a moment about 10 minutes of concentrated and quality practice – 10 minutes of learning something new – improving your technique and expanding your creativity. So much can be accomplished if this time is used well.
Setting aside 2 x 45 minute practice sessions per week is not as beneficial as daily sessions of 10-15 minutes. Regularly forging a connection between yourself and your instrument yields far better results in both the short and long term than erratic involvement. A top professional tennis player still practices daily even though they have reached a great level. You need to retain a sense of fluidity and association between what you have learnt cerebrally, muscularly and intuitively.
Music learning (involving practise) can be extremely stimulating if you embrace it in the right way. 10 minutes is a small window of distraction where you can completely forget about the outside world and plunge into the realm of challenging and stimulating your grey matter. Knowing “how” and “what” to practice is the deal clincher and when you see the benefit of your endeavours, practice then becomes very enjoyable. 10 minutes becomes 15 minutes, 15 minutes becomes 20 minutes and before you know it, watching the TV will be ranked lower for sheer pleasure value than practising the piano!!
This instrument can’t be for me as I don’t feel like practising
What is practice? Repetition after repetition, and yet more repetition of the same stuff – countless scales and loads of repertoire that serve to please your music teacher and to enable you to pass your music exams??? If you have ever seen programmes like the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year competition, the young contenders all profess how much they enjoy playing and do not think anything of practising 6 hours a day, or even more. They seem to relish it. I remember feeling envious of how focused they all seemed and asked myself where I was going wrong. Why didn’t I feel motivated to practise? After all, practice makes perfect doesn’t it?
At school, I was told that I would never be able to speak French. My teacher and I had a mutual disliking for each other. I really dreaded going to French classes as I knew it would be one hour of tedium. There was no stimulation or encouragement – the lessons were certainly not engaging so I therefore felt extremely un-enthused. The teacher never once gave an inkling of concern for anyone, I think she was just going through the minimum of motions. I didn’t progress and I subsequently gave up trying. And yet now I can speak French, far from perfect, but I can speak it all the same. I had to live in France to accomplish this. You soon realise what you need to pick up in order to be able to converse and be “street-wise”. It certainly wasn’t what I remembered from school…….
I guess being streetwise is what is needed for practice – to realise the centrally important things that one must work on to gain the most benefit overall. Scales are very important of course for technical fluency but they also serve as compositional models that can provide the stable vocabulary for chord progressions and melodic invention. Each scale has its very own character or personality and one can produce a wide variety of colours depending on which scale is chosen as a starting template. I personally practise scales in three stages to gain a strong visual mapping, lasting muscle memory and freedom to more anywhere with the scale form for improvisation. The benefit is absolutely tremendous, and very exhilarating, when performing as you can “experience” the fruits of your labour.
Perhaps it is not the instrument – more likely it is one’s negative reaction to the instrument as a result of not knowing what to practice or how to practice it effectively……….
If only I had talent
One first has to establish what talent actually is! Essentially, I think of it as the embodiment of an acute awareness, a natural affinity with a given subject. This implies that a hard activity is simple for a talented person; it is as if the activity is embedded as part of who they are – that person therefore has an enhanced capacity, a kind of hard-wiring, or perhaps a connection to a greater force. How one chooses to view it theoretically is entirely personal as there are still questions that remain unanswered by science – Is talent inborn and if not, can it be developed throughout our lifetime? I believe that our immediate surroundings are pivotal in its development, or even in its “awakening”.
I am convinced that a seed of talent lies in all of us. In some it is dormant, but in others it is highly active from an early age without any apparent coaxing. If we are fortunate enough to come into contact with something that germinates the seed early enough in our lives, then we have time to work on it. In music, my perception of “talent” relates to a natural sensitivity and awareness of melodic and harmonic colour and rhythmical form. You can also throw in a natural ability for letting go of the conscious self through a willingness to succumb to a “higher force”. Can this be learnt? I believe it can, however, some will have to work harder at it than others.
We are all capable of a wide range of emotions and express said emotions freely through specific gestures, but most commonly through language. What is language? Language is a system that allows emotion to be expressed, whether verbal or written. It is a system that we pick up freely at first during our infant years, and then systematically through organised learning throughout school.
Before a child ever learns the alphabet, they will have had a few years of daily word and phrase exposure, and all through a totally natural process – absorption through play and basic interaction. There is no pressure – a child, clueless as to the definition of a noun, adjective or verb, will find ways of expressing themselves. They learn how to chain certain words together in order for them to get what they want. When a child starts learning the alphabet, they already have a base knowledge of words and phonetics. Learning the alphabet is the first step to help them organise and recognise the “written” forms of what are essentially already inside their head. BUT, a grounding had already been pre-established.
Imagine if a child had to master the alphabet before they had experienced hearing any words or had been allowed to try and create sounds, or more importantly, PLAY with words? It would be catastrophic. They would not be ready; it would be too early to face that kind of challenge. There would subsequently be generations of people growing up believing they were illiterate and incapable of ever learning to be able to speak properly or to read or write. We all know what a falsehood that would be.
So why then is one forced to learn about music notation before ever being allowed to play and express oneself freely? Before we are taught what is “right or wrong” (which is a falsehood in itself) and before we learn to fear being chastised for making a “mistake”, wouldn’t it be great if everyone was allowed to play as freely with music as we are with words before being “evaluated” and sometimes “trashed” by the music educational institutions that make money through the graded exam system. While this system works well for many people, there are just as many if not more who feel alienated by it. This is why there are so many people out there not playing music – they have been led to believe that they have no ability for it. I have witnessed this time and time again during the 18 years that I have been teaching. I have met people with a huge natural capacity for music yet who believe they are rubbish and have never tried to connect because they didn’t fit in to the traditional system that is offered widespread for music tuition.
We are judged most profoundly during our school years, a lot of which affects our future lives, and yet we are all so different; we mature intellectually and psychologically at different times.
So what am I saying here? Music is a system which can be learnt traditionally but also, and perhaps more profoundly, from free play. In whatever field your talent lies (if not in music), music can still be enjoyed and learned from a perspective that is both creative and technically productive. With the right teacher [Me :-)] and/or course [Mine :-)] any latent talent can be coaxed out of hiding and a musical path can be created which will ultimately be rewarding and beneficial on both mental and physical levels.
One more thing! Do not confuse performance technique with talent. Anyone can achieve a good technique – this is down to practice – a lot of it!!
I can’t possibly have any natural ability as I can’t read music
One the greatest tragedies in traditional music learning is the notion that all things related to notation provides the yardstick from which ability is measured – this is defined by the educational establishment. Note reading is a prerequisite for most music schools. If you can read music from a score, and if you can sight read, then this means that you can be valued as, and “termed”, a musician.
Being valued creates a strong emotion (and also a sense of belonging – being part of the respected musician’s community). This puts pressure on a lot of people to succeed, as everyone wants and needs to be valued, but, if you are one of those people who has been led to believe that music is hard, then deciphering notation can be daunting. The ensuing struggle can lead to a fragile ego which, if left to its own devices, can create the biggest falsehood of all – that of failure i.e. not being valued. If you have no value as a musician, you can’t possess any natural ability, right? WRONG…….. I have lost count of the number of people I have met who have achieved grade 8 level in piano and yet are so unmusical. I had a great aunt who could sight read extremely well, she even had her LRAM (Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music), but was incapable of creating a simple melody. But hang on, let’s just pause for a moment to reflect on what music really is.
Music, as a natural sonic medium, has been around far longer than the dry mathematical mechanisms that were invented to measure and portray it. Reading notation is a discipline, one that relies on the fast deciphering of symbols in relation to pitch and time, especially concerning “sight reading”. This could be viewed as some kind of typing test, a technical test, not one that measures one’s inherent musical ability.
A musical brain, that which belongs to a musician, is one that should possess the capacity for creating a melody, constructing harmony and has a natural understanding of rhythm. Should a painter be able to create his or her own vision or duplicate other artists’ works? Both require skill, but each can be valued differently.
And before you say “Ahhh, but my rhythmical sense is awful” – rhythm can be practised (as can understanding and reading notation). You couldn’t walk or ride a bike at first, but once mastered, it becomes as natural as breathing.
I can’t possibly be as good as they are
Never compare yourself to others. What you are actually comparing is the sum of your experiences. Someone who is better than you musically might have had a lot more experience, practised longer and harder over a greater period of time. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. One often compares one’s own weakness with someone else’s strength – this is very unhealthy and is a sure way to plunge into a spiral of negative thinking.
Rather than being self critical, look to others’ experiences as a means of enrichment from which you can draw inspiration in order to motivate yourself into wanting to improve. Plant the desire for your own experience to be a long and rewarding journey. If you really want it, reach out and grab it. Remember, jealousy stunts growth and inhibits your personality to shine through your music.
So, remember to look for the positives in both yourself and other musicians.