Guy Red Guitar Plants Outside Bench Summer

I’m Learning to Play an Instrument for the First Time in Years

 

I’ve played the trumpet for nearly a decade and, for the first time in as many years, I’m attempting in earnest to learn a new instrument. Over the holidays I was gifted a guitar and I am DETERMINED to MASTER it SO HELP ME GOD. With so many years having passed since I last picked up an instrument for the first time, I forgot how difficult the learning process is. My adventures in neo-instrumental exploration have helped me to relearn some important things about learning, particularly about learning to play an instrument. Here are just a few tidbits I’ve picked up that may be helpful should you attempt to broaden your musical abilities.

 

Patience

    By far the most important bit of knowledge I’ve regained in my guitar-related endeavors is the absolute necessity of patience, and this has manifested in several ways. 

Frequently, I’ve found my immediate response to being unable to find the right fingerings on the fretboard, properly sync my left and right hands when playing, or play a rhythm correctly to be frustration and a desire to put my guitar down and do something else. The finished product I desire is so tantalizingly close. I hear it every day in the music I listen to - excellent guitar players executing complicated chord changes and sliding with ease up and down the fretboard - and it kills me that there are hundreds, even thousands of hours of practice between my current skill level and adept musicianship. This is natural, though. Frustration is a normal part of the learning process. Rather than assuming my current lack of guitar-playing prowess to be a future lack of guitar-playing prowess (the mindset of, “If I can’t do it yet, then will I ever?”), I’ve chosen to just keep going. Rome wasn’t built in a day! Though I still get frustrated with the fact that I’m not an expert right out of the gate, I’m remaining patient and persisting through my presently fumbling fingers with the knowledge repetition and experimentation lead to improvement. 

Patience is also needed to get through pesky growing pains. There is often literal pain that accompanies learning to play an instrument, and this, as much as the technical frustrations that arise during the learning process, can be a terrible deterrent for new musicians. In the first week or two that I began playing the guitar, my fingers were constantly red and sore from being unaccustomed to pressing on a hard fretboard. I persisted, though, and by playing just five minutes a day I built up callouses and gained some strength in my fingers. Now, I don’t struggle nearly as much with pain or pressing while playing. These growing pains occur with every instrument I’ve played or seen played. When learning to play a wind instrument, it can take quite a while for new players’ chops to become accustomed to a mouthpiece. The same can be said for piano players attempting to gain dexterity in their fingers. I’ve grown to think of the first month or so of learning an instrument to be a weed-out course for musicianship. If you don’t have the patience or fortitude to break through, you’ll quit and find something else to do.

 

Start small

    The importance of starting small when learning to play an instrument is directly tied to the necessity of patience. My immediate desire, as a guitar player, is to be able to play at an expert level. This just isn’t possible, however. Not at the start. Rather than bumbling through Hotel California as the first song I played, I began with the basics. I acquainted myself with the names of my guitar’s strings, gained an understanding of the construction of my guitar, and learned basic chords. I started small! The first song I learned was Amazing Grace which required me to simply strum up and down, up and down with my right hand and move my left hand just a few different ways. And on top of that, I slowed it waaaayyyy dooowwwwn. In the case of learning to play a song, taking it at the original tempo at the start is almost never the best way to learn. By playing downtempo, I find it much easier to grasp a song’s concepts and apply things that I’ve previously learned. Only once I felt comfortable playing Amazing Grace slowly did it speed it up. With these things done, small, boring, and insignificant though they may seem, I felt like I had actually accomplished something, like I had made a step toward proficiency. At the start, I didn’t dive in too deeply and it gave me a greater interest in playing and a more solid foundation for future advancement. 

 

There are great resources out there

    I’ve heard it before: “I want to learn an instrument, but I just don’t know where to begin.” This is a legitimate complaint but with a little bit of research, it can easily be remedied. There is a wealth of information out there for new musicians, particularly on the internet. I found a great YouTube channel called Guitar at Work run by Shane Simpson. He provides excellent guitar technique and song tutorials with a smile and a charming Canadian accent. Shane also has a website, www.shanesimpson.com, where he offers free songsheets that accompany his YouTube videos.

 

    In all seriousness, I’ve found that, when it comes to learning guitar, I am my own worst enemy. Every little thing I do wrong fuels the little voice inside my head that tells me to simply put it down and do something else. But I enjoy music too much to do that. In sum, over the last two and a half months that I’ve been playing guitar, I’ve learned to be patient, to start small, and to take advantage of the resources available to me. Not to mention, I need to stay out of my own way.