Approaching music as a beginner

Side Note

Do be aware that different people learn differently. Just because you cannot understand a single explanation does not mean that you are unable to learn music; it means that the explanation does not work for you. Different people explain things in different ways and these methods work better or worse for different individuals. Research as much as you can and you will run across something that gels with you.

To a beginner, music can seem impossibly difficult. There are numerous things to consider, and instruments themselves feel difficult and unnatural. Classical approach places early emphasis on technical exercises, and theory may feel like learning a bunch of meaningless rules, both of which can be boring and off-putting for a beginner. There are ways of approaching this so that it stays fun, but still teaches you how to play well.

I believe that the most valuable thing you can do as a beginner is to start learning to play music that you like. Hearing something that you recognise emanating from your instrument for the first time feels awesome. Through playing, you begin to develop a natural understanding and music stops being a black art. Exactly how you approach this doesn't really matter at first. For example, on a melody instrument, you can watch someone else and copy their fingerings. Another option is to learn an instrument's fingerings and figure out some tunes by ear. You could also match fingerings to sheet music, which is easier than you may think.

Can I use tabs?

Tablature or 'tabs' are a visual representation of the fingering and order of notes, depicting how to play a given tune on some instrument. They can be a great place to start and are intuitive. However, tabs—especially ocarina tabs—have serious limitations and will quickly limit your progress. As you will have to abandon them, it may be more efficient to use sheet music from the start, and this isn't as hard as you may think.

Music is quite a big subject with multiple components, including percussion, melody, and harmony. As you are here, I assume that you are interested in learning to play melody but, if you are less sure, I strongly recommend trying out all 3 to see what you enjoy most. Trying different instruments is a good idea in any regard. Everyone's hands are different and people also think differently, so some instruments will feel more natural to you than others do. Ignore reputations of difficulty and don't worry about playing well at first. Just see what feels natural.

Also, allow yourself to suck. Do not judge your ability on your first experiences as they will not be your best. Nobody sounds good immediately, so it is essential to have an environment that you can play without fear of embarrassing yourself. Having someone tell you to stop can be very off-putting, discourages you from practising, and thus brings your progress to a standstill. The ocarina is a questionable first instrument for this reason. They are loud and cannot be muted without ruining tuning and tone. I feel that electronic instruments are a compelling solution as they can be played on headphones and are thus silent. Software instruments like MIDI sequencers are also worth considering as they allow you to make music without repetitive motor practice.

You may not understand some things right away, and that is OK. They will fall into place once put into practice. You can also relate things to stuff you already know. I much prefer the American names for note durations over the traditional ones for that reason; 'quarter note' has more meaning than 'crotchet' as you probably already know what a quarter is.

Refining your technique

When you first start out, experimentation—that is, messing around with an instrument—is great way to learn how it works and what it can do. However, as you get better, it can start to limit you. Instruments frequently require techniques that are not intuitive. For example, when playing a wind instrument, it is best to control your air flow with the tongue, and failing to do so tends to create a 'beginner' sound. While you may eventually stumble on a good solution, making use of tutorials for your instrument can save you a LOT of time. Having a basic understanding from experimentation gives you a context in which to understand these details.

In order to develop your technique effectively, it helps to understand how learning works. Learning is not a linear progression in the sense of building a wall, each perfectly formed idea assembling into a whole. Rather, it's like bringing an image into focus. At first, you have only a vague overview—everything is so blurry that nothing makes sense—but as you change the focus, things become sharp. This applies to both physical motor skills as well as mental ones: a concept which made no sense suddenly clicks into focus, and initial crude and excessive finger movements gradually become refined.

When you approach a new task, everything feels arduous; you have to think about every little detail. However, if you stick with it, you notice that it gets easier. This is because your mind has two parts: conscious and subconscious. Your conscious mind is your thinking mind, the part hearing these words. Yet if you had to think about everything you do, you would quickly become overwhelmed. The subconscious handles these details. If you want to walk to the other side of a room, you don't have to think about all of the muscle actions that go into walking.

Musicians take advantage of this. Playing an instrument requires multiple things to happen at once, such as fingering, rhythm, and ornamentation, and this is simply too much for the conscious mind to handle. These tasks must be moved into the subconscious such that you no longer have to think about them. Musicians often call this 'muscle memory'; however, I dislike this term as it is misleading. In fact, the subconscious transition can happen with any task. You can develop a subconscious ability to read a piece of sheet music aloud in your head, yet doing so does not involve the muscles. Consequently, I feel it is more accurate to call it 'subconscious automation'.

This is why playing instruments requires repetitive practice. The act of doing the same thing brings the task to the attention of your subconscious. When you sleep, your subconscious notices this and starts to automate the task. This happens most effectively when you practise regularly. Also, because sleep is required to reify what you have learned, you will not see immediate results. Things will magically become easier after a few days.

Practising effectively

As the subconscious is not smart, it will automate bad practices just as readily as good ones. Thus, the first aspect of effective practice is to be aware of the details that go into playing a given instrument. With the ocarina, this includes:

  • Holding the instrument correctly
  • Learning the fingerings
  • Developing your breath control
  • Tonguing
  • Effective use of articulation
  • Listening and correcting your intonation
  • Developing a sense of rhythm
  • Using ornamentation to add interest
  • Developing a general understanding of music

As was discussed in the previous section, learning begins in the conscious mind. While it is flexible, it is both slow and can only really focus on one thing at a time. When you practise, the goal is to execute the task as accurately as possible so that your subconscious can automate it. Due to the limitations of the conscious, this means practising things slowly, and working on one thing at a time.

It is best to start practising these individual things slowly, and separately where possible, as this allows you to pay attention to the details. For example, if you are learning the ocarina, don't try to learn the rhythm and fingerings for a piece of music at once. Instead listen to the music and clap the rhythms, then learn the fingerings, and the subconscious will integrate the two for you. Always be critical of your playing, looking for mistakes and aiming to eliminate them.

Be aware that as your initial understanding of music is conscious, it is very different to how an experienced musician performs the task. You can move almost every aspect of playing an instrument to the subconscious such that you immediately know a fingering, which notes sound good together, and the rhythm represented by a piece of sheet music without having to think about it. The conscious mind is then free to do other stuff, such as think about improvisations.

As you practise, listen to what you are doing, as this will frequently indicate mistakes. Also listen to performances of what you are learning. You can learn all of the fingerings and scales for any instrument, but this in itself doesn't tell you how to use them in a way that sounds musical. Sheet music is also imperfect as there are details in a human performance it cannot represent. These finer details may be called musicality, and I feel they are best learned by listening to performances and replicating what you hear. With enough practice, you will build a mental library of sounds which come across in your playing.

As you practise, you will run across things that you find difficult, and take time to develop. Human nature is to be lazy; thus, you will feel an urge to give up when you run into such an issue, or an inclination to look for a shortcut. If you don't ignore that feeling, you won't make any progress. Just be comfortable working at whatever level you are at. Don't compare yourself to others.

Focusing your effort

Music is a big subject and not everything is applicable to every instrument. Focusing your effort on things that have the most immediate value to you means that you will use them, and thus remember them far more easily. As you learn, keep asking the question: what can I learn that will have the biggest impact on my playing right now?

While this question seems straightforward, answering it effectively is more involved than you may realise. The challenge is that inexperience can make things appear irrelevant that are not. One example of this is harmony. On most wind instruments, it may appear superfluous, as such instruments only play one note at a time. This assumption is misguided; while such instruments cannot sound in harmony alone, they can if played in a group. Having an awareness of how notes sound together will also help you with improvisation, and improves your understanding of the music you are playing.

Avoiding traps like this can be done in a few ways:

Developing a broad but shallow awareness. Normally, you can only comprehend things that you've been exposed to. For example, if someone has shallow experience in many subjects, they will see connections that someone highly skilled in only one thing cannot. Consequently, it is a good idea to have a broad understanding of things, even if you don't know the details. This enables you to recognise when you need to learn something you considered irrelevant. Listening to a video or audio tutorial on a subject can be an easy and effective way to develop this shallow awareness.

Questioning your current and past choices. Whenever you make a choice to ignore something, consider how it limits you. A wind player focusing exclusively on the treble clef won't impact them much, as almost everything they play is written in treble clef. Ignoring ear training on the other hand, will be more limiting as there are details in music that notation does not convey. As you progress, be prepared to learn things that you considered irrelevant if you notice that they start limiting your progress.

Seeking advice from a teacher. When you approach learning music by yourself, it can be difficult to know how you are progressing, and if something you are doing is holding you back. It is also easy to oversimplify things, or not perceive your mistakes in one area, due to spending all of your focus on other things. Having the guidance of a teacher is very valuable in this situation. They can highlight these errors so you don't waste time learning, then unlearning them.

Restricting your focus is not inherently a problem, a prime example being the job market. There is simply too much information in the world for any single individual to master, so people specialise in a smaller area. The main thing you should consider is how this limits you and how you should be willing to broaden your perspective as those limitations become a problem.

Do realise that limiting your focus is not an excuse to avoid things that you find difficult. Avoiding something condemns you to always be bad at it. If you work on it, even if it takes a long time, you will still make progress. Do you want to work in a way that will allow you to do something at an undefined point in the future, or do you want that point to come around while your skill is exactly the same as today?

Closing notes

Learn as much as you can, so that you are not artificially limiting yourself. Be patient and don't expect to become a great player overnight. Learning any instrument will take time, though approaching it using good technique will make the process much easier. There is no such thing as an easy instrument because playing well depends on a deeper awareness of music. An instrument is just a tool that makes a noise; it is the skill of the player that makes music.

When you begin to understand music, I actually recommend trying as many instruments as you can get your hands on. Don't worry about playing them well; just observe what they bring to the table. This offers you multiple perspectives on what you have learned and reinforces that memory; for example, learning to play a percussion instrument can help to develop your rhythm. It also gives you a sense of the limitations of different instruments and shows you that they are not as different as you may think. You may even find another instrument that you prefer playing.

I also feel that it is important to maintain an awareness of multiple genres of music. Different genres use the tools of music in different ways. Exposing yourself to more genres allows you to draw from all of these and use them to introduce variations into your playing. As a beginner, I do not recommend restricting your focus only to music from a single artist, movie, or game. There is value in deeply studying a single artist when you have more experience, but doing so as a beginner will severely limit your perspective.

Learning any instrument takes time. Just be patient and take joy in the fact that you are gradually progressing.

Thoughts on...

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