best way to learn an instrument???
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best way to learn an instrument???

alison 21 May 02 - 10:48 AM
Mark Clark 21 May 02 - 11:33 AM
Sam Pirt 21 May 02 - 01:37 PM
GUEST,Anahootz 21 May 02 - 01:57 PM
C-flat 21 May 02 - 02:07 PM
53 21 May 02 - 02:33 PM
SharonA 21 May 02 - 02:35 PM
GUEST,John 24 May 02 - 05:08 PM
53 24 May 02 - 05:15 PM
weepiper 24 May 02 - 06:05 PM
JohnInKansas 24 May 02 - 07:13 PM
NicoleC 25 May 02 - 02:12 AM
treewind 25 May 02 - 04:50 AM
Crane Driver 25 May 02 - 06:47 PM
GUEST,Sean 19 Sep 02 - 09:48 AM
Peter T. 19 Sep 02 - 12:52 PM
pattyClink 19 Sep 02 - 02:30 PM
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Subject: best way to learn an instrument
From: alison
Date: 21 May 02 - 10:48 AM

I received this via email... thought I'd get a lot more opinions if I posted it here



Hi Alison. I'm a university lecturer with a Certificate in Education, and my wife is a nursery teacher currently taking an MA in Education. I'm trying to find the answer to a deceptively simple question.

What is the best way to learn to play an instrument? I'm practising the concertina (30 mins most days) but I feel my progress is painfully slow, and when I try to play for someone I 'lose it' and make loads of mistakes. Lots of questions arise.

1.How should I practise?
2.What should I do when I make a mistake?
3.At what stage should I try to use additional fingering (at present its mostly one finger at a time)

I'm also trying to help my children learn to play the recorder.
I'm sure there must be resources - someone must have done a study on this topic - but I can't find anything.
Can you help?


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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument
From: Mark Clark
Date: 21 May 02 - 11:33 AM

Alison, There is a lot of input here on good ways to learn an instrument. Many of us have expressed our thoughts in a number of threads. If John has access to the Web, direct him to the PermaThread Index at the top of the thread list, he'll find a lot of suggestions from some very experienced teachers.

There are as many “best” ways to learn an instrument as there are people who wish to learn. Given the educational experience of John and his wife, they probably have a good understanding of their preferred learning styles. Perhaps the most important tip is to play with other (skilled) musicians as often as possible. Having other musicians moving you along is one of the very best ways to hone your technique. One shouldn't put this off waiting for his or her skills to come up to performance level. It's sort of like jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool as a novice swimmer but much less risky.

      - Mark

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: Sam Pirt
Date: 21 May 02 - 01:37 PM

Hi, a nice thread this one...

Theres lots and lots of different ways to learn how to 'play' an instrument, my advice is go for it. Play along with advanced players, ask them questions even get them to give you lessons. But most importantly when you have a lesson note down the things to tackle then as you work at it you will slowly cross all of these things off as you master them. You will find the best way you find you learn.

In a nut shell though the more you play the better you will become. Don't for get it is an instrument you are playing and they are played in many different ways. You see I think you have to find what fits you. Obiouly technics that have exsisted for years clearly work otherwise people would have stopped playing the instrument that way.

I am about to start learning the nyckelharpa of which I only know of three other players in england. What I am going to do is to put all of what I have said above into practice. Following the ancient traditions of ways of holding and playing the nyckelharpa. It will be a voyage of discovery and it begins in July!!!

good luck and just have fun!!

Cheers, Sam

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: GUEST,Anahootz
Date: 21 May 02 - 01:57 PM

A note of caution about playing with those more advanced than you...know when to stop playing.

I learned more by listening intently with my mandolin on my lap. I expect the same courtesy from new players now that I showed when I didn't know my ass from my elbow.

To thwart any caustic replies, I am all for inexperienced people playing with more experienced people, and as a matter of fact, I try to insert myself in as many "High-Caliber" jams as I can. I think that if the newbie realizes (earlier=better) that they can call a tune at their tempo and most folks will enjoy it, even if it is "Cripple Creek" at 60 bpm, they will not be as nervous and enjoy the experience more. The flip side is, after you called your tune, KNOW WHEN TO PLAY AND WHEN NOT TO PLAY.

Don't be a jam-buster. That's all I ask.

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: C-flat
Date: 21 May 02 - 02:07 PM

I certainly believe that playing along with others will advance learners quickly. Not neccessarily with "advanced" players as all too often what's happening will be beyond them and may intimidate a nervous beginner.There's plenty of intermediate level players around who enjoy the chance to swap ideas and help others along. I've been playing for 30 years and try never to turn down the chance to busk/jam/playalong with anybody especially when they're better than me.

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: 53
Date: 21 May 02 - 02:33 PM

Practice your chords. And then find you some songs that you like and then go for it. I've found that if I practice something that I like then I will be working on something that will be useful. Don't waste time on something that you may never use. This of course is for the guitar but it can be transferred to another instrument.

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: SharonA
Date: 21 May 02 - 02:35 PM

Anahootz makes a good point about calling a tune at the tempo at which the "newbie" can play it. If the novice player can find a group of other players who are friendly and willing to follow the open-circle etiquette of playing at the pace of the person whose turn it is, then by all means he should announce to the group before playing his song that he will perform the piece slowly and that he would appreciate accompaniment at that pace.

Alternatively he could form a group that would meet at one player's house or another, with some novices and some more-experienced players willing to help the novices along.

The important thing is to set a pace for the song one is practicing (and playing in a group helps to do that) and then to keep that pace throughout, no matter what. If you make a mistake halfway through the bridge, for instance, then pause a moment to get your bearings and jump back in again near the end of the bridge or the beginning of the verse. Then you'll know which part of the tune you need to devote more time to practicing when you're alone. Don't be impatient; your brain cells need time to train themselves to string together all those individual finger-motions to form the brain-command of "Play Tune X".... just as they had to learn the sequence of finger-motions to form the brain-command "Type the Word 'Concertina' ".

Just my 2˘ worth. Sorry I can't help with the additional-fingering question, more than to say, "Whenever you want to tackle it, whether you feel 'ready' or not!" In other words, don't let the structure (and monotony) of anyone else's practice method overwhelm your own enthusiasm for learning!

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: GUEST,John
Date: 24 May 02 - 05:08 PM

I'm an educator. I do appreciate your suggestions, and I'll take your advice and get some practice with other musicians. But this question is really bugging me. What I really want to know is whether there has been any research into the most productive techniques for learning an instrument. I feel that I'm not learning at anything like the rate I could, and I don't know how to do the learning better. Any thoughts?

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: 53
Date: 24 May 02 - 05:15 PM

It just grows on you until you get into a groove. Once you hit that spot with your practice you'll know it.

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: weepiper
Date: 24 May 02 - 06:05 PM

I taught myself to play the smallpipes for a year or two, and got frustrated because I couldn't figure out how to make tunes sound like they wanted to. So I started getting lessons from a friend, and after having to unlearn a lot of bad habits :-( it all began to fall into place. Do you have a teacher, or a friend who can occasionally give some tips?

The most useful thing he's taught me is to SLOW DOWN to the point of ridiculousness if there's a tune or a bit of a tune you're stumbling on. It's deathly dull but it really works, you can hear all the mistakes and how they're happening, and work on it from there.

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 24 May 02 - 07:13 PM

Guest John -

It may be that the only way to get a scholarly analysis of the best way(s) to learn an instrument will be for you to gather the comments from a few threads here and write your own.

The few more-or-less "scholarly" things I've seen usually get involved with what you need to learn, and seem to gloss over how you should do the learning.

As an anecdotal comment: At one point I was determined to practice seriously, and set aside a time to "work on things" and even kept to my schedule for a fairly long time. When I observed that I was making no significant progress, I switched from being obsessive about practice to another "style" of obsession.

I simply put the instrument where it was literally "in the way," and every chance I got I picked it up and played one or two tunes. Then I put it down, and finished what ever I was supposed to be doing. No pressure, and no hard work, but every time I got close to it, I "played with it."

While I can't say that I learned a lot of technical stuff that way, in a very short time I was a whole lot more comfortable with the instrument - and was able to return to more conventional study of the thing - and worried a lot less about occasional mistakes (the pros call them "an improvisation").

Practice is good. Variety is helpful. Practice/playing with others can be a real help. Being somewhat obsessive seems to be mandatory - but please do it politely.


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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: NicoleC
Date: 25 May 02 - 02:12 AM

Personally speaking, I learn more in 30 minutes with my fiddle teacher playing along with me and making comments than I do the entire rest of the week -- but if I didn't practice, my time with my teacher wouldn't be useful at all.

Playing along with more advanced players is good to a certain point, but if they aren't interested in *your* advancement as a player, your time could be better spent working through the difficult parts.

I'm advancing pretty quickly with the fiddle. It's my fourth instrument -- the other 3 weren't right for me or something; I never managed to get a feel for them and they never made music in my hands no matter how hard I tried. Fiddle seems to suit me for whatever reason. If someone is really truly having difficulty with an instrument despite good instruction, practice and perseverance, it may be that they haven't found the right match yet. Some might say that they have no talent, but I think everyone can be proficient on something, even if it's only the triange :)

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: treewind
Date: 25 May 02 - 04:50 AM

What JohninKansas and Weepiper said!

Here's a few random thoughts

  • Inspiration. Learning an instrument is hard work and you really need the jitters for it or you won't have the patience to practice enough. You may get that by listening to other players, or just because you like the sound of the instrument.
  • Practice slowly. It's really true: if you can't play something perfectly at half speed you'll never play it well at any speed. And if you can't play at half speed, practice at quarter speed. The concertina, especially the Anglo concertina, has unique problems with being played ridiculousy slowly, but you have to find a way of taking a short section you are having trouble with and repeating it until it's automatic.
  • Playing in sessions is a great way of getting your general technique loosened up without noticing that you are playing for hours, and for keeping going regardless of mistakes, which is one thing you need to learn to do.
  • Playing for dancers as a solo musician is unparalleled as a way to learn to play with a good steady rhythm and again to keep going when you make mistakes.
  • Sessions are all very well, but you need to practice carefully (as opposed to justplay) some of the time to undo the damage they do.
  • Variety: concentrate hard on one simple tune to play it well; try lots of different tunes; find tunes that you really like or can do something special with.
  • An amateur practices until he can play it right: a professional parctices until he can't play it wrong
  • We're all different: whatever works for you is fine.
Enough platitudes - Ed.


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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: Crane Driver
Date: 25 May 02 - 06:47 PM

What I find, and the friends I have talked to agree, is that getting better through practice isn't a gradual, steady process. It's like a series of giant steps. For ages it seems like you're just making no progress at all, but if you persevere, one day you find you've made a sudden step up, and you're playing things you just couldn't imagine yourself doing yesterday. Then you stay at that level for another age, then another step upwards. So, keep doing what you can do, you will know when it's time to start on alternate fingering or whatever, because suddenly you can .

The only way to be a good musician is to be a bad musician, because if you're not playing, you're not getting better.


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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: GUEST,Sean
Date: 19 Sep 02 - 09:48 AM

Hi. has the Amazing Slowdowner for your PC or MAC that lets you slow down any Cd as it plays without changing the pitch. This is great help for beginners as you can play along with your favourite player and pick up on their style, all at a very very slow pace. Good luck. (p.s I have no connection with the product but have used it to great effect)

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: Peter T.
Date: 19 Sep 02 - 12:52 PM

I went and worked through the available literature on instruments and practice, etc., when I got started playing the guitar -- I am a professor, and I like to have the intellectual reasons down (a flaw, but what can I do?). I guess there were three categories, ideas, etc.:

Memory - there was general agreement that memory works roughly geometrically, 1,2,4,8,16,32. If you learn something and redo it or rememorize it on these days -- first day, next day, fourth day, etc.) -- that seems to be optimal (wastes the least amount of time. It was also generally agreed that you were better off with 10 minutes a day than big chunks of time once a week, for example; for physical memory.

Practicing -- as mentioned above, the writers stress going slowly, so as to avoid repeating mistakes that get ground into the brain. Speeding up happens after you have it down. There was the occasional writer who said you should speed up from time to time just to get the rhythm and feel of the thing right, even with mistakes. There were all kinds of advice on practicing -- doing it the same time every day, getting a separate space, or even enclave that triggers "practice mind", seeing practicing not as a chore but as a chance to explore.

Imaging, goal setting -- a lot of the literature talks about imaging -- don't know whether I buy it or not -- ranging from imagining yourself where you want to be, to working through the passages you are practicing on in your mind when you are not physically playing. There is also stuff on goal setting -- how ambitious to be about your final goal, and also setting measurable interim goals so that you can have interim rewards when times get rough.

There are a number of books on how to practice the piano (I could refer you to some, I collected some -- can't play anything on the piano). I don't know of any (apart from methods books of course) for other instruments. The piano books were full of all kinds of good advice for anybody doing anything along these lines (e.g. get your kids to start a looseleaf book with the songs they can do, or are working on in them). This gives them a sense of accomplishment early.

yours, Peter T.

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Subject: RE: best way to learn an instrument???
From: pattyClink
Date: 19 Sep 02 - 02:30 PM

1. Get a teacher. 2. Use all your fingers.

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