A lot of people would love to pick up and learn an instrument. Yet for many, that’s all it ever is, a dream. In the following segment, I hope to address a list of common misconceptions that people have about learning an instrument as an adult, with the aim of encouraging you to discard these beliefs and to pursue your musical interests. I have often discussed these with my guitar students, but they can be used for any instrument imaginable.
Table Of Contents
1. “I have no time”
I don’t think I’d be stretching the truth very far if I say that I’ve heard this statement at least a thousand times up to this point in my life. Often when I’m having a conversation with somebody I’ve just met, or even somebody I know, the topic of me being a musician might crop up. I will often ask if the other person plays music as well, and I very frequently get the “I’d love to but got no time” reply. I hope to be able to dispel this myth and encourage anybody who would love to take up an instrument but is afraid that they won’t have time to just ignore this preconception and go fot it. It doesn’t matter if you simply want to jam along to your favourite song at home, join a band and play live, or even eventually make a career out of it, this principle will apply.
I truly believe that the biggest reason why this misconception exists is because people tend to greatly overestimate just how much time they’d actually need to dedicate to regular (ideally daily or almost daily) practice, in order to achieve a satisfactory level of proficiency on any given instrument. Many think they have to spend hours every day sitting down by themselves in an isolated part of the house, tinkering away at their craft, only coming out to get some sunshine and fresh air once every second full moon. But the reality when learning an instrument is quite different.
Now don’t get me wrong, in a day and age where people crave shortcuts and super fast results, the last thing I want to do is to give the impression that you will become a [insert instrument of choice here] super god in just 48 hours by following three simple steps. You will need to put in time and focused effort over the span of weeks and even months in order to start seeing very noticeable results… unfortunately there is no magic bullet or super secret formula that you can use to avoid that, and I’d be lying to you if I said there was (at least I’ve never found one, but I’m open to being proved wrong). On the other hand however, the amount of time you would actually need to put in every day in order to start seeing said results is probably less than you think, and much more doable for integrating into your daily routine. I also understand that a lot of people are genuinely incredibly busy, juggling a job, family, social commitments, etc… I hope that what I’m about to say next will show you how you can still pick up an instrument even if you have all those commitments.
It is my firm belief (and I say this having used this system on myself and also students I’ve taught over the years) that if you can set aside 20 minutes a day for focused, diligent, purposeful practice, you can start seeing results much faster than you think. I honestly think that most people can find a way to carve out 20 minutes each day for practicing. If you think that 20 minutes is too much, maybe you can take a closer look at your current time-management system and make some necessary changes, in order to free up that time, be it waking up earlier, going to bed later, spending less time online, etc… but for most people, it’s definitely within their power to do it! Over the last couple of years I myself started learning new skills, both musical and non-musical, such as learning drums, singing, spanish and meditation. Often I don’t have more than 20 minutes a day to dedicate to each (and sometimes even less than that)… but because I make the practice mindful and intentional, I have been able to see consistent results and have improved rapidly over the course of a few months.
There are a couple of books I’ve read in the last couple of years relating to time management and productivity that I’ve found to be really beneficial with helping me improve my own time management skills and get more things done in less time. One of them is Getting Things Done by David Allen, and the other being Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog.
Now, and this is crucial… notice all the adjectives I used to describe this practice. I don’t want people to think that just noodling about aimlessly for 20 minutes while checking your facebook feed will get you amazing results… unless you’re truly a once in a generation gifted prodigy (I certainly wasn’t), if all you have is 20 minutes, you need to use them well. The underlying principle here is quality over quantity. You need to know what you’re going to be practicing beforehand, for how long you’ll be practicing each exercise/chord/whatever you’re learning, and what your aims for that practice session are. You should be focused on the task at hand with no distractions around you. If you must, let other people in your house know that you’re going to be practicing and that they should leave you be for the next x amount of minutes (the same approach you’d take if you were to do a meditation practice, for example), although I understand that this might not always be possible for various reasons. You also want to be recording yourself regularly so that you can gauge the progress you’re making, listening back and figuring out what areas you’d like to work on in your next practice session.
Of course it goes without saying that if you do have more time to practice, then that’s even better. The more time you spend practicing diligently, the faster you’ll progress. I remember running home from school to get all my work done so I can start practicing. I’d spend hours and hours each day locked up in my room, with a metronome and an exercise notebook to keep me company. I think there was a time during the summer holidays when I was easily practicing 8 hours a day (thinking about that today I laugh at how excessively I pursued it sometimes, but such is the vigour of a teenager’s vision). But if you don’t have the luxury of 8 hours practice shifts then fear not… you can still follow your dream of being a musician. If you truly want to learn an instrument, just go for it!!
If you want an example of how to practice, I’ve written this article, which details a way in which you can learn chords better and quicker… this principle can be applied to anything you learn, so give it a look!
2. “I Don’t Know Theory”
Music theory is one of those things that often appears in people’s minds like a big scary monster, lording over their hopes and dreams of ever picking up an instrument. In order to hopefully destroy this one, I’m going to make a distinction between two different kinds of theory. The first is general theory. This is musical theory that can be applied to any instrument, and can be studied from books/articles/videos without picking up an instrument. In other words, it’s like the written version of a driving test. The other is applied theory, which is theoretical principles that are applied to and studied/observed in the context of an instrument while you’re in the process of learning.
In other words, when you start playing an instrument, there will be things that you might need to know that are theoretical in nature, but this will usually be principles that apply directly to what you’re learning at the moment. For example, when starting out with guitar, you might learn that every string has an alphabetical name, which is derived from the 12 tone system used in western music, and that you can combine a few of these tones to make chords. And so on and so forth. In other words, you don’t need to know any actual theory before you start learning. Any theory that you do need to pickup, you’ll do so along the way. It’s really not as daunting as many people think. Also, at the end of the day, the most important thing will always be using your own ears to determine what sounds good to you and what doesn’t… so any theory you do find yourself learning is simply a means to serve an end, the end being making and/or playing music that you enjoy. And you certainly don’t need to have any previous knowledge of theoretical concepts to start that process.
In fact, if you do want somewhere to start in terms of learning the very basics of theory, and how to apply them to instruments such as the guitar or piano, head over to this article that I’ve written which will give you a good overview of the fundamental principles.
3. “I’m not musical/rhythmical enough/I’m tone-deaf!!”
If you were to ask people whether most are born with an ability to speak latin and be a circus acrobat, they would laugh. Of course these are skills that have to be learnt over time. Yet when it comes to music for some reason, there seems to be a widespread idea that in order to play any sort of musical instrument, you need to have some sort of innate musical knowledge that will then flow out of you seamlessly once you pick up a guitar, cello, or whatever other instrument you want to choose. Now there is definitely a case to be made for certain people having more of a predisposition towards certain types of skills, and yes prodigies do exist. The reasons why this is the case are well beyond my area of expertise, but there is definitely a case to be made for a combination of genetics/epi-genetics, the environment somebody grew up in and the types of skills they were exposed to early on in life. So to say that everybody starts from the same point when it comes to music learning would be a misled idealistic statement at best. I know many musicians who just seem to ‘get it’, so whatever instrument they pick up, they can achieve a certain level of proficiency on it in a very short amount of time. However, this does not mean that if you don’t have this natural inclination then you’re resigned to a music-less life… far from it. I would also like to add that once you develop confidence and proficiency in one instrument, it becomes easier to transfer these skills onto other instruments as well, taking you less time to achieve more. For example, I have progressed relatively quickly in my drumming and singing practice because of the skills I developed while learning guitar and later on the bass.
You see for many (and dare I say most) people, any sort of musical ability needs to be learnt over time. Yes, initially you won’t like what you hear, but eventually you’ll start noticing improvements, which will boost your confidence and inspire and reinforce a positive feedback loop that will help you improve even more. If you think you’ve got a bad sense of rhythm, it can be improved… there are countless exercises that do that. If you want to sing but are tone-deaf, that can be worked upon and improved… again, there are countless exercises that do that. If your ‘ear’ needs developing, meaning that you want to become more sensitive to things like intervallic changes, harmony, melody etc… surprise, there are countless exercises that do that. You get the point. Some areas might require more work than others depending on each unique individual, but they can be improved for just about anyone.
Now will everybody make the same progress and get the same results? No. Depending on a combination of natural aptitude, dedication and intensity of practice, overall motivation and long-term vision, results may and will vary. But don’t let a perceived shortcoming in any musical area hold you back. Nowadays more there ever, there’s so many resources online (a lot of them available for free or very cheap) that will help and guide you through these common obstacles that you definitely won’t be struggling alone. If you can find a good teacher to get you started in the right direction, even better (although this is not always necessary). I hope this website can be one such resource, but there are definitely many others out there… so don’t the fear of not finding the information you need be what stops you!
4. “I’m Too Old To Learn An Instrument!”
I will say with as much genuine tough love as I can muster : nonsense! There is no such thing as being too old to start playing and or/writing music. I could sit here and start listing all the people who started out ‘late’ in their particular field and still managed to have a great impact on the world, but to be honest, I don’t even need to go that far. Just think about it this way… which of the following two do you think would cause you to feel most regret in the long term? Is it a) starting to learn music or playing an instrument because you’ve always wanted to, for the simple pleasure and joy of it or perhaps because you want to follow a certain path or b) not getting into something because you think you’ve already gone past some invisible cutoff point.
Something tells me far more people regret choosing the second option rather than the first. Now, if you were to tell me that you want to be a teen-idol sensation popstar, then yes, maybe there is a cutoff time for that (although take it from me as somebody who’s had a bit of a peek behind the music industry curtain, and I don’t think you’d really want to have that sort of life). But for anything else, any other type of musical and/or creative endeavour you want to do, you can do it. Go at your own pace, and as cliché as this might sound, keep in mind that the joy of any destination is in the journey you have to take to get there!
If you’ve been letting any of the reasons above stop you from pursuing your dream of playing music, then you should simply choose to ignore them and go for it anyway! It may be daunting or scary at first, but I promise you that you will be so glad you did once you get started. It’s far better to know that you tried something in life, even if you don’t end up sticking to it, rather than always having to always wonder what it would have been like… in other words, I don’t know anybody who’s regretted trying a musical instrument. And I genuinely don’t think you will either, so get playing!