So Many Instruments…So Much Time
It’s no secret that many of you have been in lock down mode the past few months, and it’s also no secret that many of you have likely been going a little stir crazy trying to figure out how to spend your time. After all, it’s not common for most people -- outside of us freelancer/loafer types -- to be spending much time away from work during the day. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m sure many of you have gotten the bizarre text from Aunt Janet or cousin Buster at 2 a.m. asking you if you’d be interested in their homemade, vegan candles they’ve been mass producing, or maybe you’ve been the “lucky” recipient of that FB message from someone you haven’t heard from since high school. Perhaps you’re even the one sending those messages out—I know I am. (Personally, I have been spending a lot of time pondering the nuances and subtleties of Sam’s character arc in Quantum Leap…but that’s really its own story).
Regardless of how you’ve been spending your time and no matter how you feel about the past few months, there’s no denying it would have been (and still could be) an excellent time to pick up an instrument. With that thought in mind, I figured I’d start running down my thoughts on some of the different instruments out there to master and provide some (hopefully useful) tips for making a decision on what instrument might be worth picking up. From the piano and guitar to the oboe and bassoon, there is certainly no shortage of music making equipment out there for a person to invest time and money in, so every few weeks I’ll run down an instrument providing my thoughts and personal experience with a certain one. For purposes of this week, I’m simply going to mention a few primary instruments to consider if you’re bored at home and thinking about sending that candle text out. As always, I’ll keep things very surface level, but if questions arise or you just want to weigh in on the matter yourself, by all means, have at it.
Singing/Voice---It may seem strange that I’m mentioning this as an instrument here, but I fully believe the voice is an instrument, and I would argue, the most important one you could master. After all, if you’re a songwriter, you need to eventually have someone sing what you’ve written, so who better than yourself. I would also argue that the voice is by far the most practical instrument to showcase. Very few people and establishments have let me show up with my guitar to lay down some hot licks (not for lack of trying), but a voice can be showcased or practiced anywhere. Think karaoke, in the car, in the shower, sitting in the corner of the bar cause no one asked you to dance. That being said, I want to point out that what I’m referring to when I say “learning vocals” is not simply singing along with the radio when you have the chance, but rather that you look at it like any other instrument and work on the same types of skills. You can always work on pitch, but also think about doing breathing exercises to strengthen the diaphragm, singing scales, understanding harmonies, and practicing each of these elements just as you would with a guitar or a piano. Even if you think you can’t sing, most people can get significantly better at it with practice. The reality is that only 1 in 20 people are actually tone deaf (meaning they can’t differentiate notes), so the chances are you can hear the notes but just can’t hit them yet. That’s where focused practice comes into play.
Guitar—Despite how cool I make it look, guitar is not just for rock stars and songwriters. In fact, it really is an instrument that a person of virtually any musical persuasion or intentions can and should learn. If you’re seven years old or you’re seventy, there’s never a bad time to pick the guitar up and give it a go if you have the patience and passion to learn. The one thing I will say right off the bat about the guitar based on my own experiences having marginally learned a number of other instruments and worked with people trying to learn the guitar is that it takes a while to get to where you want to be. The number one reason (in my humble opinion) that people never succeed at the guitar is that they think that by the end of day one they will be playing the guitar riffs that drove them to pick up the guitar in the first place. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. It takes a lot of time and patience, but mostly muscle memory to hold your hands and fingers in awkward positions over and over and over again until it’s second nature, and I can tell you the first time that you make the seamless switch from a C chord to a D chord it will be like you just pulled off a magic trick that no one else in the world knows. If you decide to go for the guitar or are on the fence about continuing, force yourself to learn three or four chords before you decide to quit. Another plus for guitar is that you don’t need to know how to read sheet music if you don’t want to. Furthermore, you can find a guitar in virtually any price range meaning cost shouldn’t be a barrier for most people. Finally, because of its size, the guitar is easy to travel with and is somewhat of a two-for-one instrument since you can also sing along with it and work your vocal chops at the same time.
Piano—I am still kicking myself for not taking piano lessons when I was a kid despite my mom’s efforts to convince me. While I eventually taught myself the basics and enough to have fun and write music on it, you won’t find me in the latest piano bar ripping through song after song anytime soon. One interesting note about the piano that I thought was really cool and easier than the guitar is that many of the chord shapes are the same (all of them are the same on the bass hand if you’re playing octaves). This cuts down on the number of hand positions you have to memorize when first learning. Furthermore, even if a person has virtually no understanding of music, they could simply play any of the white keys together (key of C) and they would look like they knew what they were doing because all the notes work together (music theory’s a magical thing). With the electric keyboard available everywhere, the piano is also much more accessible than it once was when you used to actually have to learn on an upright piano. That meant going to Ms. Cranston’s house for most of us if there wasn’t already a piano in the house. Perhaps that’s why I never engaged the instrument earlier in life.
Brass Instruments---Welcome to summer vacation fifth grade when you have to make that all-important decision between learning an instrument and joining band or being sent to choir by default. (Fun fact, my brother once carried the entire 7th grade choir on his shoulders through a magical, if not slightly off key, Christmas recital in which the rest of his juvie-laden choir class either skipped or refused to learn the words). I myself chose trumpet and never looked back. I did however get moved to basically every other brass instrument in the band over the next eight years because I utterly sucked at all of them. Trumpet, baritone, trombone, tuba, you name it, I played it in at least one high school band concert. Putting those sad memories aside, I do genuinely wish I could still play trumpet since it really is a lot of fun to put in a jazz album and improvise over the top just as you would with a guitar or piano. Another major plus for learning a brass instrument is you will in all likelihood have to learn how to read sheet music, which is a little like learning a second language, always useful later in life. When I was a kid brass instruments were rather costly, but I believe in our modern-day Amazon world those burdens are a bit less.
Misc Stringed Instruments (ukulele, mandolin, violin, etc…)--- I won’t say too much here about this class of instruments since it’s not one I have spent a lot of time with. I will say that I received a violin a few years ago (at my urgent request) and have yet to play a note on it reminiscent of what the instrument should sound like. I did spend a great deal of time in the first days of receiving the violin simply trying to master how to hold the bow, and yet, still, little progress was ever made. Somewhat like the piano, I do have a tendency to feel that the violin or a similar stringed instrument is really one that is best learned as a youngster, but again, that’s only based off my poor abilities at it. (Fun Fact—Albert Einstein was a very accomplished violinist and played with some of the most prestigious groups of his day). As for ukulele or mandolin, if you are picking up your first instrument, I would recommend starting with the uke for sake of simplicity. It has less strings, and much like the guitar, is relatively easy to use as accompaniment for singing songs once you learn a few chords. There are different size ukulele’s, but I would also add that with their relatively diminutive size, they make a great starter instrument for children.
Obviously, these aren’t in-depth looks at each of these instruments, but hopefully they give you a general sense of whether one (or more) of them would be worth pursuing. As I said above, I will be writing more blogs in the future where I go in-depth with each instrument getting more into details about how best to start learning them, how to not get discouraged, and how to have fun trying to master each one as you desire. I’ll also try and help pass on some of the techniques and “duh” moments that I came across over the years that might save you some time and frustration I wish someone would have told me. That being said, thanks for checking out the blog again, and I look forward to hearing anyone else’s thoughts if they have any.