Some students go through rigorous training. Some students attend private lessons daily, and for hours. Some students are gifted. Some students have access to thicker pocketbooks, and some students dedicate their lives to their instrument. However, “picking up” an instrument in your adult life does not have to be this rigorous; in fact, most of the time, it can’t. The idea of playing an instrument neither has to intimidate nor seem too esoteric. In my opinion, there are a few simple, though thoroughly immersing stages, on picking up a new instrument. These are my thoughts, as I’ve experienced them both first and second hand. Always adapt these steps to your comfort and your abilities, and it never hurts to get multiple opinions.
Learn to read music before you buy an instrument. You can play with scales and note relationships on a five dollar keyboard or a string instrument (piano, guitar) you already have. Learn the basics like keys, time signatures, clefs, notes, and measures, and names of the notes on the lines and spaces. This is universal knowledge that transcends any particular instrument.
Listen to classical, jazz, and rock, and make sure you are reasonably confident in your instrument choice. In other words, know what kind of sounds your instrument makes, and be sure those are most pleasant for you.
Invest in your instrument. Research what practical prices are, and find outlets for purchase. Buy a new low-end or a refurbished high-end version, because you want to make sure it isn’t going to require a lot of extra maintenance, resulting in periods of time you cannot practice. And, no one buys their dream instrument the first time in. It’s a prize, a reward for your drive and hard work.
Invest in accessories: Reeds, sticks, bows, wax, strings, swabs, dusters, music, music stands, and very importantly, a tuner and a metronome. If you’ve chosen a woodwind, start with only 3 low-numbered reeds so you can learn to develop your embouchure (mouth strength and form) and when those have been shot through, you can upgrade to stronger wood. Check sheet music out from your library, or download it from Virtual Sheet Music or another online source. Freecycle for old accessories. Check yard sales. This investment doesn’t have to be enormous.
Practice with your instrument. Study the charts on your teaching guides, make sure you understand your hand positions, posture, and embouchure, even if you don’t think you are quite right. Learn to care for your instrument, clean it, re-string it, wax it, tune it. Practice making long, gentle notes instead of short, squeaky, or trembling ones. If you are on a non-wind instrument, try repeating the same patterns, and see if you can get your fingers/ hands to perform, and repeat, simple rhythms and melodies. Practice this way and get comfortable with your new “body.” Experiment, and focus on calm, smooth transitions. Learn to lose inhibitions, embarrassment, and timidity around your new friend.
Find a teacher. You do not need to see your teacher more than once a week if you remain dedicated. Know that many awesome musicians never had teachers, and that you have hired one is a luxury. Look for teachers in the paper, in your neighborhood, in your local high school. (Nothing like a teenager telling you how to do it!)
It’s important to know that there is a mysteriously large number of people in your neighborhood who have played an instrument similar to yours sometime in their life. Ask your music store clerk: “Do I look right? Do you have a tip for me?” It is also important to know that teaching resources can be found online and in books aplenty. If you don’t feel like you have the right resource, keep looking. Remember to keep listening prolifically to recordings of your instrument.
For greatest success, make use the fact that most of what is learned in a high school band or orchestra is learned through contact with other players. Play with some high school kids. Find a local orchestra. Try and get a friend to break out their old instrument. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same instrument as the one you’ve chosen, because though each instrument has its individual quirks, playing an instrument requires the same set of skills: dedication, comprehension of reading and hearing music, and an inherent love for playing music.
Image courtesy of Petr Urbancik