How to get started learning music or get back into music after a long break.
A short guide for adults
By Saul Richardson, B.Ed, MACE
Lots of people play music while they are at school. They take music lessons, play in different types of band or in orchestras, they sit for exams. And then, for whatever reason, they stop playing. University, work, family, life, all eventually take over and the music goes “on the backburner” or even stops altogether.
However, it is possible to start up again, and many people do. The good news is that it is never too late. Even people who haven’t played an instrument before can start from scratch, at any age, and find it really enjoyable.
If this describes you, then this short guide is for you. It will give all the information you need to either pick up from where you left off, or to start playing a new instrument as an adult beginner.
First in this post, part one, I look at how to choose which instrument to play, and what to buy. Then in part two I look at music teachers: what makes some better than others and how to find the best one for you.
1. Part One: Instruments
i. Instruments that are easier to play
ii. More difficult instruments
iii. Cheap or expensive?
iv. New or used?
2. Part Two: Lessons & music teachers
i. Why take lessons?
ii. Bad and “fake” teachers
iii. Seven signs of a bad teacher
iv. How to find a good music teacher
v. Tips for finding a teacher
vi. About the author
Part One: Instruments.
Each instrument or family of instruments has its own advantages and disadvantages to consider. Even if you never really plan to become the world’s best player but want to have a go, some instruments are just plain hard to play.
Easier for beginners
- Saxophone (tenor and alto)
- Electric bass
No instrument is really “easy”, but at least on all of these you don’t have to work too hard to get a decent sound out of them. Saxophones are hard at first, and take some time to get used to, but are probably the quickest of the wind instruments to get going on.
Violin is a bit harder than the others on this list, and definitely hard to play in tune and with a nice sound. Some people can find the vibration of the instrument against their body uncomfortable too. However, violin doesn’t demand the same physical effort as, for instance, the brass instruments.
A piano automatically makes a nice sound and is in tune without any effort from the player. It does demand good dexterity in the fingers as well as coordination between the left and right hands.
Guitar requires good dexterity in the fingers, coordination between the hands and does need care for each note to sound in tune. It isn’t just a matter of pressing down on a note – the angle of the fingers and the way you play the note will alter the sound quite a lot. That takes beginners a long time to master, as a general rule.
Contrary to what the salesman in the guitar shop will tell you, the acoustic guitar is not the easiest or best way for a beginner to start. Electric guitars are much smaller and easier to play. Also, the best instrument for a beginner is the best quality instrument you can afford, not the cheapest. Very cheap guitars, like any musical instrument, will never work properly. They will always sound bad, will be harder to play, near impossible to tune properly and are likely to discourage you. This applies to pretty well all instruments: buying a really cheap one is just a bad idea and false economy.
Electric bass has the same difficulty as the guitar, but has heavier strings so needs a bit more strength in the fingers. Bass players must have a strong sense of rhythm, great sense of pitch and be confident, able to play their part all by themselves even when everyone else in a band is doing something different. Double bass (acoustic bass) is like electric bass, but combined with the challenges of the violin as well. It also takes far more physical effort to play. It is one of the more difficult instruments for beginners.
Drums demand less fine dexterity in the fingers, but excellent coordination and independence between each hand and each foot. Advanced drummers have to be able to do four or more different things all at the same time, one or more thing with each limb. Drums are not usually well suited to very shy or weak people.
More difficult for beginners
- Brass instruments (such as trumpet, trombone, French horn)
- Double reed instruments (oboe, bassoon)
- Double bass
Brass instruments are not for everyone. They can sound wonderful, from rich and expressive to crisp and exciting. They certainly can pack a punch, but that doesn’t come easily. They take quite a bit of stamina to play and a lot of puff. Playing high notes on a trumpet, for instance, is really, really hard for most people. A big part of the difficulty in brass instruments is being able to get a good sound and reach all the notes. That is in addition to learning the actual notes and rhythms of music. Brass instruments take a fair bit of physical effort to play well.
Clarinet is a bit harder to play than saxophone, mainly because it has a more complicated system of fingering the notes which takes a long time to master. Flute has easier fingering like a saxophone, but can be hard to get a good sound out of and takes more puff than you might expect.
“Double reed” instruments, like the oboe and bassoon are difficult at first to get a good sound out of, hard to play in tune and require a lot of puff. They create quite a lot of pressure inside the lungs, and can cause dizziness or even blacking out in some people.
Double bass (acoustic bass) is like electric bass, but combined with the challenges of the violin as well. It also takes far more physical effort to play. It is one of the more difficult instruments for beginners.
If you want to know what the instrument is supposed to sound like, listen to a professional playing one. But if you want to hear what you’ll probably sound like for the first months (or even years), listen to some beginners playing.
Cheap or expensive? New or Used?
Every musical instrument comes in cheap as well as expensive models. You can also buy new or second hand. Which is better?
It is usually false economy to buy a very cheap musical instrument, especially if it is very cheap and brand new. Firstly, if you enjoy learning and go on playing for more than a little while, you will soon realize that you need a better instrument. Secondly, very cheap instruments are likely never to work properly. They will almost always sound bad, will be harder to play, near impossible to tune properly and are likely to discourage you. You’d be better off paying a bit more to start with.
The salesman at the music store will want you to buy a cheaper model. That is because they know that way you’ll be back again before too long to buy another, more expensive one. Don’t fall for it, just buy something reasonable. There are lots of user reviews of instruments online plus discussion in various forums and blogs. Do some research before going out shopping. Harmony Central (http://www.harmonycentral.com/) has lots of user reviews of instruments. Also search YouTube for video reviews and demos, as well as user feedback.
There are lots of companies and music store that hire instruments. This can be a good way to really find out if you are going to enjoy it. Often they will have a hire-purchase deal available too, so you can buy the instrument cheaply after hiring it for a time. This is still more expensive than buying it outright, but the cost is spread out over a long time.
Should you buy a new or a used instrument?
New instruments look great, come with warranty and after sales service from a shop (unless you buy online) and are a reasonably safe bet, provided you don’t buy a very cheap one. However, you do pay a premium for it being new and can be pretty sure, but not certain, that it will lose a big part of its value as soon as you take it out of the store.
High end instruments actually may increase in value over time. This can happen due to currency fluctuations, inflation driving up the cost of new instruments. For instance, a new Gibson L5S guitar purchased in Australia in 1998 cost about $5000. Five years later the cost of the new model was $14,000. Because of this, it would be possible to sell a well maintained ’98 model for at least the $5000 it originally cost, or even more.
The fact is that high end instruments maintain their resale value much better than cheap ones. A great instrument will always keep its value, especially if it is a well-known brand. After a few years, a budget model will be worthless.
However, if you buy a used instrument, beware of a few things! If you buy online, then you are taking a big chance. It may not work properly, and you are unlikely to get any after sales service. Any used instrument may be stolen, have damage disguised, or be a fake. If you buy a second hand instrument from a reputable store, at least there should be some warranty on it and better service, though expect to pay a bit more.
Lots of musical instruments are made in China at the moment. They are not necessarily bad, but if they are really cheap you know for sure that they are. Japan, USA, Canada, and Korea, among others, are some countries with a solid reputation for building quality instruments of many kinds.
Beware of fakes. If you buy from a store, make it a reputable one. If you buy on Ebay or elsewhere online, you are taking a chance. There are companies in China and elsewhere who build fake copies of big name instruments that look perfect to the untrained eye. This is especially true of guitars and basses. They come with a perfect logo, a serial number, stamped “made in the USA” and a genuine looking warranty booklet. There have even been instances of these instruments turning up for sale in less-reputable shops.
If in doubt, buy from a shop and either take an expert with you to check it out, or take it to someone right away to verify it after you have bought it. If you get it from a decent shop, you will be able to return it without any trouble. If your local store won’t do this, don’t do business with them.
In part two I’ll talk about how to find a good music teacher and how to tell if your teacher really is any good.