Learning to play a musical instrument

Almost everyone has some innate musical ability, often unrecognised or not appreciated, but, to be fair, not every instrument suits everybody. Equally, not every style of music suits everybody, and ‘music’ itself is a very big subject. I try to give all pupils as broad a musical background as possible.


1) Instrument

Anyone learning to play an instrument needs one to practice on. Firstly, you actually need an instrument to practice on. I have several times been told that the potential pupil will buy a piano when he/she has learnt to play! Equally, beware of instruments advertised as suitable for beginners as they are usually suitable for scrap. Use a reputable dealer and be cautious be cautious of ebay. Secondly, the instrument must be of reasonably good quality - this does not mean it has to be expensive. A beginner can easily be put off learning by a poor instrument. I am able to offer advice on this - it costs nothing and saves a fortune!

2)  At what age should a person start to learn to play?

I don’t like to take on youngsters under 5 or 6. There are specialist schemes which can be used, but I’m afraid I don’t.  7 to 9 is an ideal age. My oldest pupils have been ‘well past retiring age’ and learning for their own interest, to keep the brain active, to keep the fingers working or out of personal interest. They also tend to be very conscientious! There is no ‘too old’ but learning becomes harder as one gets older. 

3) The 3 month stop

Often after 3 months or so pupils want to give up because they feel they are not making any progress. In the first few months progress is rapid and everything is new and exciting then progress appears to stall, hence the ‘stop’. There follows a few weeks of consolidation which tend to go unnoticed, then things go back to normal. It happens to nearly everyone (myself included!). You have to be aware that it will happen, that you will get through it, and that your playing will continue to improve.


4) Reading music

Like learning a new alphabet, reading music takes time and practice, but not half as much as most people think. Reading music ties in with theory of music – not essential but very very useful. Anyone going down the exam route is strongly advised to keep instrumental exams and theory exams running together. Once you have reached the dizzy heights of Grade 5 playing, you cannot progress further unless you also reach Grade 5 theory with some music schools.


5) How much practice should I do?

As a general rule, for those starting out, ‘little and often’ seems to be well proven as effective– 10 mins. twice a day seems better than 30 mins once a day. As the player progresses the amount of practice needed increases so a pupil working on grade 5 would need an hour daily and for higher exams even longer. Targeted and concentrated practice is far more use than just sitting there and playing, or even worse just practicing mistakes. The point of practice is to learn all the bits and pieces covered in the lesson – hence the pupil is involved in learning to play.

6) How long a lesson do I need?

I find it best to have a lesson weekly, and in the interests of my calendar I run half hour periods. For the very youngest with a limited concentration span I try and include fun activities into the lesson to keep the interest. For pupils up to about Grade 4 a half hour session for practical is adequate, though I try and include some theory during that time. For pupils of G5 and upwards an hour weekly becomes a necessity. Some pupils prefer hour long lessons with the time divided between theory and practical work. I also like to keep lessons running during the longer school holidays. From experience I have found particularly the summer break can put students back a couple of months.


7) Books

Generally, I expect pupils to buy their own– and bring them to their lessons. They should also support their local music shop where they can look before buying, something it is not so easy to do on-line. Don’t ignore charity shops either. It is possible to buy surprisingly good music books there. I do keep copies for loan or my own use. I don’t expect pupils to lose my books! 


8) And talking of accompaniments

For those who have string or brass lessons, I am able to offer an accompaniment service for exams (and sometimes concerts). Generally I don’t charge for this. I also do exam accompaniments for other teachers. You don’t have to use me – but find out what another accompanist costs!