What is it really like to learn to play an instrument?

metronome with sheet music

By Nicole Douglas, Owner of Nicole Douglas Music Studio

I remember when I started taking piano lessons as a child, I wanted to be able to play my favorite songs right away. It was hard to learn to be patient with myself as I practiced. I would listen to others play and wonder why it was so hard for me. Well, now that I’m a teacher, I realize why—because I came into the experience expecting it to be easier than it really was. If I had understood before taking lessons that it can take years to master the songs I wanted to play, it would have been easier to be patient and to celebrate the small achievements along the way.

So, if you are just beginning or haven’t even started yet, what should you expect when starting to learn to play an instrument?

1. You can only go as fast as your brain can process

There are two analogies I like to use when I teach my students about being patient with their learning experience. The first has to do with learning to drive. Let’s say you just passed your driving test and now have permission to drive all by yourself. So, why don’t you go drive down the freeway at 70 miles per hour on that first day? Most of my students say, “Because I don’t want to die!” So, then I ask, but why is it that your parent can? We talk about how practicing makes things easier, but it takes time. And that one of the big reasons why driving that fast is easy for experienced drivers is because they learned to drive 15 miles per hour first. And then 30 miles per hour. Then 45, etc. Young students don’t realize that it’s not just the physical ability to drive that matters—it’s the ability to make sense of street signs and lights and cars and landmarks that make you a good driver. The faster you can comprehend and process all of those things at the same time, the faster you can safely drive.

man playing trumpet

So, when we are learning to read music and want to play a piece from beginning to end, we need to find the speed at which our brain can process all the moving parts and start there. Another helpful strategy is to select just a small part, take the time to process that whole part before you even start playing, and then allow yourself to only play that part. The key is to only play what can process.

2. You can only go as fast as your muscles and coordination can execute

The second analogy I like to use with students comes from Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself. He interviews Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone who describes the brain like a hill with fresh snow. Imagine the hill you’ve chosen has a fresh coat of nice, deep, fluffy snow. You take your sled, start at the top, and take the plunge down the hill. That first time, you and your sled create a path. You grab your sled, hike back up to the top, and sled down again. Where is your sled most likely to go if you start at the same spot? Very close to the original path. It will be different, but it will be the same, too. The more times you sled from that same starting point, the deeper the path and the more likely your sled won’t deviate from the path. And that is how we learn things as neurons fire in the brain. If we start from the same spot each time, our neuronal pathways will want to travel down the path they already went on. But it takes that work of hiking back up to the top and starting from the same spot to get those pathways to be deep enough to be easy to use. The more you use them, the easier it gets and the more what you learn gets moved into long-term memory. But if you wait too long, more snow will fall and you won’t be able to find the original path you started. (Doidge p209)

Your ability to coordinate your fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders, feet—every part of your body—relies greatly on the brain’s ability to fire the neurons needed to make them move in coordinated ways. And if you want those neuronal pathways to get deeper, you need to consciously ask them to move in very similar ways every time. That takes a lot of brainpower. I tell my students in my studio expectations sheet I send every year:

adult student with teacher

To become the best musician a student can be, practice time needs to involve the training of muscles to work with the mind and the eyes. This means working on skills and not just songs. Playing songs from beginning to end one time each day will not be enough to create muscle memory that will last until the next practice session, so expect to play short sections of songs repeatedly (usually about 5-10 times each passage), each practice session.

So be patient as you work through these skills that may sound easy but involve a lot of moving parts. You are forming beautiful, brand-new pathways down snowy hills. Just keep on walking up that hill and trying again. It will get easier.

3. Recognizing mistakes is a good thing

When babies learn to walk, they are going to fall down. But are the people watching telling the babies they made a mistake when they fall down? Can you picture all those people cheering that baby on and acting extremely happy over the simplest task of learning to stand and put one foot in front of the other? I wish we could keep that level of excitement about taking baby steps with learning to play an instrument. Okay, maybe not the same level of cheering—but at least celebrating a little.

The thing is, babies learn how not to fall by actually falling. They learn which muscles need to be used when they find out which ones don’t need to be used. The same is true about learning to play an instrument. We actually learn faster by learning what doesn’t work rather than by being told what does work but not being sure if we’re doing it right. That said, we can’t learn from our mistakes if we can’t even recognize they are there. So, if you noticed you made a mistake, that is cause for a mini-celebration—because you're now a step closer to improving your playing. A friend once told me, “If you made a mistake and you learned something, then perhaps it wasn't a mistake at all.” And as Bob Ross so eloquently stated, “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.” If you made a mistake and you recognized it and then you try it again with more thought the next time, you will learn so much faster.

4. Finding the right teacher for you

It's also important to find the right music teacher for you and what you want to get out of your music journey. When you're looking for your teacher, it's important to mention to them what are your expectations from the lessons and what you'd like to get out of your time with your teacher. Keep in mind, that your teacher should be sharing their thoughts with you regarding what is the reality of the lessons you'll be taking with them.

It's best that your teacher is up front with you, and keeps you focused on what you'll being getting out of the lessons, how long it will take, and frustrations that you might experience (which is inevitable).

You can find a great teacher through Tonara Connect's marketplace. Even before you purchase a lesson with them, you can send them a message to find out who they are, their teaching style, and if they're a good fit for what you're looking for!

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Other tips:

As far as what to expect for the actual lessons with your teacher, here are some other things to consider:

  • What to bring. Be sure to ask your teacher, because they may have different guidelines on what they expect you to bring to your lesson. For certain instruments, some teachers have specific requirements regarding extra strings, reeds, and rosin to have on hand.
  • Lesson time. Be prepared and show up 5 min before the lesson starts, but don’t enter the studio until your lesson time so as not to interrupt the previous student’s lesson. This goes for online lessons, too.
  • Missed lessons. You are paying for a time slot with your teacher, so if you are late and miss part or all of that time slot your teacher will not be able to give that back to you, as the next time slot is for the next student.
  • Assignments. Your teacher will be giving you specific things to work on during the week. Find out if you should bring a notebook to write things down or if your teacher will be using an online assignment option, like Tonara Studio.

And what do you do if you’ve had a bad week and didn’t practice? Keep coming to lessons. We all have tough weeks here and there. (And in 2020, we’re just all doing the best we can!) Sometimes seeing your teacher again is just what you need to get back on your feet and overcome that part that was difficult or that you didn’t fully understand. So, climb back up to the top of the hill with your sled and try again. The rewards are so worth it.