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Learning A New Instrument – Should I Teach Myself?

Photograph of the blog post author, Mary Woodcock

Mary Woodcock

29.4.2013

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Learning A New Instrument – Should I Teach Myself?

We all remember our first musical instrument (Mine was a Stagg BC300), and for some of you, that came with the promise of lessons. I, on the other hand, could not afford to do this, so embarked on the path of self-teaching – a path I will forever be on. When taking on a second instrument, the choice is still there, and still very relevant. The choice between having lessons and being self-taught should be one you do not take lightly, and will always boil down to personal preference. Do you want a specific structure in which you are expected to fulfil certain tasks with someone watching you closely, or would you prefer to pick and choose the content of each lesson and move at your own pace? Here are some areas you should consider before making a decision.

Cost

One of the most important factors in these economic times is cost. How much do you want to spend on music lessons? Lessons for piano and guitar can range from £20p/h to £100p/h, which, on a weekly basis, adds up to a substantial amount over a year, and you move at the pace the teacher wants you to. If you try the self taught methods, then the main costs come from buying text books, ones often used by music teachers for practice purposes, but without the extra weekly outgoing for meeting up with someone who will be more accomplished in their instrument. There are many free online courses that can easily be found by searching in Google, and they can be adjusted for any learning style. Remember, you get what you pay for, the better the teacher, the more they are likely to cost.

Preference in Music/Musical Instrument

Having spoken to many friends about when and how they learnt to play their instruments, it would seem that those who have been classically trained learned at a much younger age, and had paid lessons to not only learn how to play the instrument, but also to understand music theory. I, personally, cannot read music, but this has not been to my detriment so far in playing more popular styles of music; I still understand chord progressions and tablature. Depending on the instrument you wish to tackle, it would seem that those used heavily in Classical music forms would benefit from being taught by a professional, while those used more in Pop have less of a need, as they are often deemed to be more simplistic – many would disagree with that statement, but have you tried playing a violin without any instruction?

Improvisation

This is an area that is not often thought about when choosing whether or not to have lessons, but is something worth contemplating if you are looking to write your own music. Friends who have been classically trained have complained to me about not being able to improvise as well as those who have not, as when they were trained, they were taught to sight read, play what was in front of them, and not to deviate from what was written. This is partly due to the culture of classical music, compared to something like jazz or fusions where improvisation is used heavily.

If you do want to be taught, but not in a classical style, then it is up to you to find a teacher that will help you progress in a way suits you; after all, it will be your career, not theirs. From personal experience, all you need to be able to improvise is a good knowledge of scales and a bit of creativity.

Technique

One thing teachers of music regularly hark on about is good technique, whether this is in the mouth shape required for brass instruments or the finger movements for the stringed ones. The question would be whether you want to have ‘perfect technique’ or feel comfortable playing from the outset. I may not have the best technique on the planet, but I also have to work with restrictions – a shortened middle finger on my fret-hand is not conducive to looking and sounding perfect – so you have to think about the tools you are working with. For enjoyment, there is nothing worse than feeling awkward when holding your instrument.

Resources

There are almost unlimited resources for being both taught and self-taught. The Internet brought about the age of information and the music industry has thrived on it, not just for promotion and record sales, but also for the progression of young musicians.

It is easy to find blogs and videos of musicians who want to help others in various genres and for a wide variety of instruments, as well as online music bookstores where you can find sheet music for beginners with step-by-step guides. Some of these resources will also be used by teachers, but in a specific structure. If you are looking to be graded for your work, then having a teacher would be more useful as they are more likely to know what the exam board are looking for and be able to prepare you for these tests. As with any exam, it is all about the preparation.

When making your decision, it all boils down to you. What do you want when learning an instrument? As with all choices, there are many factors to consider, and there is always the option to mix and match. If you are in a position to afford lessons, but are not attracted to the structured learning, then have a few lessons to get used to the instrument and pick up some key tips on technique, but then hit the shops and go online in your own time to find your style. Learning a second instrument seems like it should be easier having already succeeded with one, but different instruments require varying skills and knowledge, so my advice would be to seek at least a few lessons first, especially if the new instrument is totally different to your first – like attempting to play the trumpet after years of playing guitar.

All comments welcome, don’t forget to share the blog guys.

Thanks The Music Gateway Team.

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