Why learn an instrument?
There are many benefits to learning to play an instrument, exercising the brain is definitely high on the list. Playing an instrument like guitar involves coordination and physical dexterity as well as learning new concepts. It can help to improve your concentration and motivation through discipline in your practice regime. There is also the feel-good factor that comes when you achieve something that maybe previously you thought you might not be able to do. Playing music with other musicians can also help us with social interaction and learning to work as a team, to make sure the overall sound of the group sounds good. Getting back to the brain musical activity uses almost every region of the brain so that we can decipher pitch, rhythm, tempo, timbre and also we need to access our memory (to remember chord shapes, chord sequences etc.) If you would like to learn more about this I would recommend ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’ by Daniel Levitin which is quite readable even though he is talking about some complex subjects.
Something which a lot of adults have said to me over the years goes along the lines of “If only I’d learnt guitar as a child, children learn how to play much easier.” If you’re using this as an excuse not to learn an instrument let me set the record straight – children have as much difficulty learning the guitar as adults. I have taught a lot of children to play guitar and while some will pick things up quickly others will struggle – just like adults do. If only this magical land existed where every child learning guitar can immediately play perfectly when I show them something just once, my job would be so much easier.
Let’s be realistic – learning guitar (or any instrument except possibly triangle) is not easy. But then the benefits to be gained, especially in respect to keeping that brain of ours active, are most definitely worth the effort.
How do I get my fingers to stretch?
Chords like C & F that stretch over 3 frets can be difficult at the beginning. Part of the problem is that we use our weaker hand to make the chords and this takes time to get stronger and for the muscles to stretch. Try placing the third finger into position first for these chords. If it is really proving difficult then it might be an idea to look for a smaller guitar as the frets would be a little bit closer together. You could also try using a capo on the 3rd or 4th fret, this will move your hand into a position where the frets are closer together and make it easier to stretch those fingers. After a few weeks you can try moving the capo back a fret to see if the fingers can now stretch that bit further and over time keep moving the capo back until you are able to play without it.
Every time you position your fingers to play a chord you should be trying to get them just beside the fret as close as is possible. The last part of the previous sentence is important because in some chord shapes it is just not possible to get all the fingers right beside the fret without contorting your hand. You cannot sacrifice the other conditions of finger placement just to stretch to the fret. So you must use your fingertips, have the first knuckle bent, do not let your first finger touch the neck and keep your wrist reasonably straight. This all might seem like an impossible task at first with the C chord but it should in time, with practice, be possible to get all three fingers right beside their respective frets. This should be a conscious part of your practice routine until it is no longer something you need to worry about. Remember don’t hurt your hand trying to get this in your first attempt, stretching muscles will take time, be prepared to give it the time it needs.
I’ve mentioned before in other posts about practice the importance of focus. Some students over the years have told me that they like to practice while watching TV. This is not something that I would recommend. I feel it would be better to focus entirely on the practice for a shorter amount of time instead of spending a longer period only half tuned into the task at hand. There are more and more distractions in our daily lives and our smartphones have become needy tamagotchi (anyone remember them? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamagotchi) that demand our constant attention. So if you intend to improve your playing of an instrument, give yourself and your brain the time that it needs to absorb all the information that is happening while you are practicing.
Remember to practice the elements of your playing that need work. Spending hours playing on autopilot everything that you can already play will not help you to achieve the next level in your playing. An interesting part of the following TED video is that practicing in your mind can also be beneficial. So if you had no instrument to hand but were able to visualise your hands playing a piece that you are currently working on it will help. This isn’t an excuse though to just think about practicing and hope that it will improve your playing. Check out my other posts about practice for guidelines on how long to practice for.
I got a very interesting book as a Christmas present – Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. It’s an examination of how music can affect our brains through the stories and experiences of different people. The book doesn’t just concern itself with musicians, as music can have an affect on anyone even people who might consider themselves as non-musical. I am only about a quarter of the way through the book but was just reading about how music can physically alter our brains. The process of playing a musical instrument – all that practice, repetition, moving fingers, hand-eye coordination, reading notation – can enlarge certain areas of the brain. This part caught my attention “Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician – but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation.”
I can remember a point when the catchphrase of the day was that ‘music makes you smarter’ and he references in the book the Mozart effect, whereby it was popularly believed that listening to classical music would increase intelligence. (Apparently the original research was that listening to Mozart would temporarily affect abstract spatial reasoning). So, while listening might not make me smarter, exposure to music and in particular learning a musical instrument stimulates so many areas of the brain that “music can be every bit as important educationally as reading or writing.”
I know from teaching a lot of children and especially teenagers when approaching exams, it is very difficult for them to take the time to practice as it is seen as time not spent studying their other subjects. Everyone needs a break when doing intense study and I have always encouraged such students to try to use their instrument practice as a break in their studies. Hopefully parents will see that playing/practicing a musical instrument while not conforming to the usual idea of studying can in fact help to stimulate the very areas of the brain that are needed for more conventional study and there is no reason why the two could not work hand in hand.
For anyone wishing to further investigate the matter try:
Gaser and Schlaug 2003
Hutchinson, Lee, Gaab and Schlaur 2003
Nina Kraus, Mussacchia et al.
Over the years I’ve met a few famous people, mostly while working in music shops. It was in the late 80’s while I was working in one of these shops, Waltons in Dun Laoghaire, that I first met the guys who would go on to form Rollerskate Skinny. Back then they were the Hippyshakes and they would come into the shop quite a bit. But then Dun Laoghaire seemed to have a disproportionate amount of musicians for such a small town and most of them tended to gravitate towards the music shop as a hangout. A couple of years later I was working in London. I’d seen that Rollerskate Skinny were playing in the Camden Falcon so being a bit homesick and eager to see some people I knew from back home (and also to catch a great gig) I went along. The pub part of the venue was absolutely heaving but somehow I managed to find the lads from the band. We were at the bar and they introduced me to Shane MacGowan’s sister. As far as I can remember Shane appeared not too long after. I was awestruck, the Pogues and Shane were legendary back then. In the early 90’s Shane’s behaviour was well documented and commented on and by this stage he’d left the Pogues as a result. But I couldn’t believe I was standing beside this great songwriter at a fairly dingy bar in London. Even now as we head into the Christmas season Fairytale of NewYork must be one of the most requested songs at this time of the year (and one of the best too). Although he was standing beside me at the bar I wasn’t talking to him but I did meet him properly years later back in Dublin, when he used to come into Waltons on Georges Street. He was definitely a lot calmer than years previous! For the record that Rollerskate Skinny gig in the Falcon was definitely one of the loudest gigs I was ever at.
Targeting root notes This is a technique that a lot of beginners struggle with. For example you’re playing a D chord but the chord diagram has an ‘X’ over the 5th and 6th strings meaning that you are not to play those strings. The root note of the chord then is on the first string you can play, in this case the open 4th string. The problem is that when you strum the chord you hit all six strings and this makes your D chord sound, well…not too good. So you need to work on avoiding those ‘X’ strings and start targeting the correct starting point for your chord. I’m afraid I don’t have any quick fix for targeting the root notes, it really is down to practice. The thing to remember about practice is that it needs to be focused, so when trying to improve on a certain technique I would suggest doing it at the start of your practice session when you will be more alert. Try not looking at your right hand and start strumming the chord listening for which string you are hitting until you can hear that you’ve connected with the right string. By doing this you are trying to train your hand to remember the distance that it needs to travel to reach each string. Don’t be worried if you hit the wrong string at the beginning, practice is cumulative and it will improve if you work on it a little bit each day (or even better every time you pick up your guitar). After trying that experiment play the same chord but this time looking at your hand, making sure that each time you play the chord that you’re playing it correctly. Alternate between these two methods to train your hand so that over time you will be able to target whatever string you want without looking at your strumming hand. Check out these previous blog posts about practice and tips for practice
Where I grew up in a suburb of Dublin there used to be a little music shop, ‘Pat Dolans’, buried in the heart of the housing estate. It was less than a ten minute walk from my house. I used to love going in to look at all the guitars that I couldn’t possibly afford. The guys in there were always helpful and friendly and let me try some of the expensive guitars. I walked in one day as one of the staff was showing a guitar to a customer. It must have been a new model but I can’t remember what it was. His sales talk was what has stuck with me to this day; ‘Man, you hit this switch and it’s instant fucking Led Zeppelin.’ Wow, that’s how you sell a guitar I thought. Well he had me sold, the only drawback being that at 16 I had no money. When years later I was working in music shops selling guitars I always wondered about the wisdom of maybe trying to use his line, but I think if it was premeditated it wouldn’t ring true. I like to think that the pure enthusiasm he had for that guitar just happened to find it’s expression that way. There have been a few guitars I’ve tried over the years that felt amazing, inspiring, as soon as you’d sit down to play, but not that many. Considering I worked in 3 different stores over a period of about 14 years, I’ve tried a lot of guitars, some very expensive. So if you’re a guitarist and you find a guitar that you instantly bond with…buy it. Just be careful that you don’t end up thinking every guitar you touch is inspirational – this could become a costly exercise and possibly lead to GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).
For adults I would say that it’s never too late to learn and to benefit from the many advantages of playing a musical instrument. An instrument like the guitar involves so many different aspects that it can be beneficial on so many levels, (improve coordination & discipline, reduce stress, creative expression) even more so if you are older. The myth is that it’s much easier to learn guitar when you are young. This is really too much of a generalisation, learning guitar is not easy regardless of age and an adult who is motivated to learn can learn as quickly as a child. The biggest hurdle for adults is time or more to the point – time to practice. It is impossible to improve at playing guitar without practice so it becomes essential to try to fit it in around your normal schedule. There have been various studies that suggest to master something (in our case playing an instrument) would take approx. 10,000 hours of practice which translates to about 3 hours of practice everyday for 10 years. Obviously if you start at an early age then this is achievable before you reach your twenties but also it’s worth remembering that these figures are if you want to be a master of the instrument, if you’re just looking to be able to play a few songs most students would reach that stage within a year. If you would like some further reading the book ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell explores this 10,000 hour principle examining high achievers in different fields.
Too young to learn guitar?
If you have a child who is really interested in learning the guitar then age 8 is a good age to start. I have taught children as young as 6 but in my experience it is better to wait until they are a little older, although there are always exceptions. They will need a smaller instrument so a six year old would usually need a ½ size guitar, an eight year old possibly a 3/4 size, but obviously this all depends on how big/small the individual child is. Although the general belief is that children learn things quicker this is not always the case as playing the guitar can’t be learnt by absorbing facts it is a physical thing that needs work therefore interest, motivation and willingness to practice are very big factors in learning an instrument.
Interest is very important and forcing children to learn an instrument because we think it will be good for them is not necessarily the best course of action. Countless times I’ve been told by adults that they hated the lessons on piano/violin or whatever instrument they were forced to learn as children. So it is important for us to make sure the child has an interest first of all. Also if as a parent you have never played an instrument before it is important to realise the amount of work necessary to learn how to play the guitar – it is not easy and requires a great deal of effort. So there needs to time available to practice. Practice has to be done at least 4-5 times a week, if the child doesn’t practice then there is a self-fulfilling downward spiral; no practice leads to no progress which in turn feeds the idea that “I’m not good at this” which can harden into an attitude of “I won’t bother practicing”… and so on.
So this leads to motivation where as a parent you need to encourage your child to practice. Try to incorporate practice into the daily routine eg. always first thing when they arrive home from school or straight after dinner or before they watch tv/play xbox. When we start to see progress, that moment when you can recognise the tune you’re playing, then the willingness to practice will kick in, the realisation that “I can do this” will encourage them to want to practice of their own accord. It is up to parents and teachers to make sure that they reach that stage.
I was sitting outside a café in Dublin enjoying a coffee and the evening sunshine when two friends passed by, making their way to Tower Records where Neil Hannon was launching his album ‘The Duckworth Lewis Method’. After explaining where they were off to they proceeded along their way. About ten minutes later they reappeared with Neil Hannon in tow. For whatever reason his piano/keyboard hadn’t arrived at the gig, so he was a bit stuck. He’d already tried a certain music shop on Exchequer St. to see if he could borrow one for the duration of the gig. Allegedly he was pretty much told he would have to buy the instrument before he could leave the shop with it. Fair enough you might say, but what about supporting your fellow musicians in need? He’s obviously not some chancer, he’s released about 10 albums and while he’s not Bono he is reasonably well known – he did after all write the theme music for ‘Father Ted’. All in all it seems their attitude just wasn’t cricket. My two friends thought of me and dragged Neil around to tell me his tale of woe. I had years previously worked in Waltons music shop so I said I’d see what I could do. With that, myself and Neil went in search of a keyboard. The guys in Waltons very kindly gave us a loan of a really nice digital piano and myself and Mr. Hannon humped it back down the street to Tower Records. What I couldn’t get my head around was why the roadies were standing outside the venue having a fag while the artist was sweating it out lifting a fairly hefty bit of gear down the road. The gig was a success from what I saw of it but unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the full duration because I had to get back to work. I’m kind of glad in a way because I wasn’t being paid as a roadie to carry the thing back!! Anyway here’s a video from the gig featuring said piano.