A philosophy of learning musical instruments

Learning musical instruments may seem like magic, the domain of some 'elite', or 'inborn', but it isn't. It is a collection of skills that can be developed with practice.

A helpful reference is to observe an expert ocarina player, and stop to ask, what are they doing? You might notice they are:

  • Holding the instrument in a way that allows them to perform what they want.
  • Fingering the notes of the song they are playing.
  • Tracking rhythm to play notes at the right time.
  • Ornamenting the music using their fingers and breath pressure.

On top of these obvious factors, there's also the things that happen in the players mind, out of direct sight:

  • Understanding the structure of music, and the emotional effects it creates.
  • Reading sheet music, improvising, and / or playing by ear.
  • Imagining how they want to phrase and ornament the music, to make it sound musical.

Many of these things must come together at once, and as such it may be natural to ask the question 'what should I start with?'. The answer might be surprising:

One should have a basic awareness of everything as soon as possible.

By starting with a basic awareness of everything, one's skill in everything will naturally grow over time. Also, it's easier to remember things that relate to what we already know, and we can gradually expand our knowledge outwards from there.

In fact, this can happen pretty organically as everything in music is interconnected:

  • You may start with an idea like 'i want to play my favourite song'.
  • One might then practice the rhythm of the melody, and look up how to finger the notes.
  • And then in doing so, you might notice that you're frequently mis-covering finger holes, and then spend a bit of time practising this.
  • Then, you may spend some time listening to other performances, and imitating them to develop some musicality.

This approach has been given the name 'Simultaneous learning' by music educator Paul Harris. He has written extensively on the topic, and is worth looking up.

Playing any musical instrument is a skill that develops over time, but is something that almost anyone can learn how to do.

Finding the fun in process

As we will be exploring shortly in Practising the ocarina effectively, learning to play instruments is not something that happens quickly. Nor is it like mainstream entertainment, designed to drip feed constant dopamine hits.

Learning to play musical instruments is a journey of small gains and gradual refinement. We need to find our own enjoyment in the process. But, as long as you keep moving in the right direction you'll eventually get to your destination.

Consider why you started learning to play. Perhaps you like the sound of the ocarina, were inspired by an impressive performance, or enjoy the idea of making your own music. All of those are great.

But the human mind is a fickle beat, easily distracted by new things. To stick it long term, we need to find something else to keep us on track.

Turning your instrument learning into a social experience is a great option, as practising with others at the same learning stage, and helping each other is a lot of fun. As is performing and playing with other musicians generally.

But with progress we move from the elation of having played our favourite song, to the process of refining our skill. We can also find interest in the details of what we are doing. Through close attention, we may notice errors in our performance. Working to improve them and seeing the gradual improvements over time is enjoyable.

And another factor is to understand why we are doing what we are. Consider scales for example, the bane of many a music student. On the surface they may seem like mindless repetition of the same action, what's the point? The point, as we will see shortly, is to learn how to effortlessly move between the notes on our instrument.

In practice, some skills take longer to develop than others. It's important to stick with it and try to disconnect from outcomes. Focus on enjoying what's happening right now, and the results will come.

Connecting information

In my time performing, I've often encountered people who say things like 'I can't sing in tune', and then express admiration for a relative that can. But they never stop to question why they can.

Information isn't magic. Humans are animals that have evolved to obtain information from their environment through their senses. It makes sense that if we haven't taken the time to learn how to do something, we won't be able to do it.

The ability to sing in tune depends on the control over one's voice, and knowledge of how the notes should sound. Some people happen to make the needed mental connections by dumb luck, but almost everyone can learn through good deliberate practice.

A great deal of what one is doing while learning music is developing connections between different ways of expressing the same information.

If you consider pitch for example, we encounter it expressed in numerous different ways:

  • Literally, in the pitches of sounds.
  • Visually, through 2D shapes on a page.
  • Mechanically, through the fingerings of an instrument.
  • Textually, through note names, 'A B C' or numbers like '1 2 3'.
  • Intrinsically, by singing.
  • Touch, by feeling vibrations.

A 'can't do' is the result of a missing connection. We may have learned to connect the notes on a page to notes on our instrument. But if we 'can't play by ear', it's because we have never learned to connect what we are hearing to the instrument.

Developing these connections is a matter of experiencing the two things we are trying to connect in the same context, in a way that the information is digestible.

And we can do that by simplifying the problem:

  • To start connecting pitches to our instrument, we can start with music that uses only 2 or 3 distinct pitches.
  • To connect the rhythms we hear to their equivalent notation, we can quiz ourself on a small selection of rhythms.

In both cases, once the basics are learned we gradually add more. We expand outwards by relating things to those we know, finding analogies, or recognising when parts of one melody show up in a different one.

One of the challenges of playing music is that it depends on things that people do not naturally do in other areas of life. It is extremely unlikely that anyone can name a note purely on what the vibration feels like to the touch. It isn't something that humans have any evolutionary or social pressure to do.

But this also appears around skills musicians do need to develop. Aural (ear) skills being a good example as most non musicians are visual focused, and simply do not pay attention to what they are hearing in any detail. The needed neural pathways are non-existent, and need to be cultivated from zero.

In comparison, someone who grew up around music would learn to recognise the common patterns in the sound passively. Someone who doesn't have that experience can develop those skills, but it can take longer for the results to manifest.

Developing connections also applies to numerous other aspects of music including:

  • How the distances between notes relate to the intervals they represent.
  • How a series of notes, be it aurally or in some notation, relates to the mechanics to perform them on an instrument.
  • How some ornaments relate to the physical actions that produce them.

Matching difficulty to your ability

When you learned to read as a child, did you start out with a huge saga like Terry Pratchett's Discworld? That would be crazy wouldn't it?

Yet people constantly make this same mistake when learning musical instruments. They try to do something too hard too soon, then assume that they can't do it at all. With everything, one must master the basics first.

One can try to solve this problem alone by breaking things down and creating their own methods. But the trouble is that there is so much information it can be difficult to know how to approach it effectively.

Graded learning systems are worth looking at because someone else has done the work to figure out a sensible difficulty progression for you. As of the time of writing, such systems are in their infancy for the ocarina, but its not difficult to find them for similar instruments like the recorder.

A teacher or mentor can also do a great deal to help you structure your practice time and pace your learning, which is discussed later in The value of mentors and teachers.

Adults can 'logic' their way through problems, understanding concepts abstractly. But this isn't necessarily the right approach to learning musical instruments.

As we will be exploring in the next article in this series, a great deal of what it takes to play instruments well involves training the subconscious mind, or 'muscle memory'. It involves a lot of rote training, and the process works much the same in adults as for children.

You can understand the logic of what your fingers should be doing in minutes to hours, but developing the muscle memory to actually do it will take far, far longer. In other words, your mind learns faster than your fingers.

Logic is most helpful for communicating with other musicians, and in understanding the 'why' behind what you are doing in practice.

Have fun

Playing music should be fun, irrespective of if you are a complete beginner, or an expert. There is absolutely no harm in messing around with the instrument, learning some songs, or trying something new techniques to keep things interesting.

It is however best to be wary of shortcut methods. They are not inherently bad and can provide an easy path to get started. Yet they often omit information and details that will end up harming your progress in the long term.

As with everything, it's a matter of finding balance in your practice.

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