Pick an instrument and stick to it!
August 31, 2011 3:38 PM   Subscribe

I love music, but every time I try to take up an instrument I get frustrated with sucking and give up. How do I not do this?

Yeah, I was the kid who came to lessons every week and hadn't practiced.

I've spent the majority of my life taking a few weeks of lessons and then losing motivation because of the long, long road it will take to become decent. I can't say that was always the reason since I quit my second instrument around age 10, presumably before I realized how badly I probably sounded.

Music is my passion and I'd like to go beyond the listening level, but I can't seem to make myself put in the work to do it. Instruments I've started and stopped (in some cases multiple times): violin, cello, guitar, drums, theremin, piano. With guitar, I gave up not because it sounded bad but because I had a LOT of difficulty forming the chords with my fingers. Piano sounded decent fairly quickly but I still couldn't make myself stick to it. It seems like the only time I do stick to anything is if I jump right into trying a complicated song instead of yankee doodle, chords, Green Day, etc. I've spent hours trying (and failing) to play Moonlight Sonata well, all the while knowing if I'd stuck with the basics for a few weeks it wouldn't be so difficult. Same thing with guitar and struggling with complicated tablature instead of learning the basics and -then- working my way up. But if I start with the basics... I quit.

Any suggestions on how I can get over this mental blockage? I really -want- to stick to an instrument at least enough to become semi-decent. I want to be able to write little songs and feel more connected to the art form.
posted by biochemist to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
You might be a different personality type to me, but the only thing that motivated me to continue to practice music (I'm a decent viola player now) was playing with others. Luckily the town where I lived had a good system of junior orchestras for beginning and more advanced string players, so I had groups to play in right from the start.

If this sounds like you, perhaps pick an instrument that's useful for playing with others, and see if there is an orchestra/band/whatever for adult beginners in your area?
posted by altolinguistic at 3:52 PM on August 31, 2011

I have a lot of the same problems, so I may not be all that helpful, but I do have a few suggestions:

* Most adults don't have the patience to sit through all the "Yankee Doodle" business. I don't think there's anything wrong with throwing yourself into playing "real music" right away. Talk to your teacher about what music is going to give you the most bang for your buck (i.e. maybe not Moonlight Sonata, but there are loads of important and beautiful piano pieces that don't require huge amounts of technical skill), and recognize that you're *also* going to have to work scales, etc.

* Set clear goals for yourself. Not just "I want to feel more connected to the art form." "I want to be able to play a simple song at my parent's anniversary party." "I want to be able to write down this song I've got stuck in my head." "I want to serenade my girlfriend/boyfriend."

* Play with others - makes you SO MUCH MORE accountable, and is a great source of clear goals.

* Recognize that if you can't make yourself put in the work, it may be because you don't really want to do the work. You may like the *idea* of playing an instrument but it really is a lot of work just to achieve competence.
posted by mskyle at 3:59 PM on August 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

A really powerful motivator for me has been learning to play something challenging and appealing, but manageable for my skill level - or a manageable stretch, at least.

The thing is you don't have to get much better at piano to be able to play things that sound darn impressive to anyone who didn't seriously study piano - i.e., most folks - and to play things that are challenging and satisfying. My piano teacher gave me a couple of Bach Inventions to work on and they were hard to learn and I felt great when I conquered them. There's also a really wonderful Chopin nocture that was simple enough that I could play it after one year of "real" lessons, but meaty enough that I could sink my teeth into it. Took me a few weeks to learn it - it was beautiful and I was freakishly proud and played it over and over again. If you MeMail me I'll dig up the names of those pieces and email them to you.

Moonlight is frakkin hard. Work up to it.

(And algolinguistic is right - playing with other people is a great motivator as well).
posted by bunderful at 3:59 PM on August 31, 2011

To clarify: I'm not saying you're lazy or anything if you don't want to put in the work. Just saying that it is A LOT OF WORK. I mean, there are loads of things I'd like to be good at, but I know I've got to pick and choose which ones I focus my attention and time on (and I am TERRIBLE at this).
posted by mskyle at 4:02 PM on August 31, 2011

Do all that you can to find an awesome teacher who loves
music and teaching so much that they don't care what level you're at and will break everything out for you and go at your pace. I'm not even exaggerating when I say I think of my guitar teacher as a music therapist of sorts, even though that's not technically part of his job. He got me past so much of my anxiety about playing, and mostly just because he loves music so much he's just happy to help people learn to play, and could care less about who can pull off the best licks or whatever
posted by sweetkid at 4:10 PM on August 31, 2011

When you've picked up an instrument in the past have you focused just on lessons or have you messed about with it, freeform? The two instruments I've played in a strictly-lesson fashion were dropped the second class was over. The two instruments I picked up on my own because I loved to mess about with them have brought me endless joy and I keep coming back to them.

F'r example, I've been playing banjo (self-taught) for about 15 years now. I can't play "Dueling Banjos" or "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on my banjo because I have no interest in learning them. But I can improvise along with Kind of Blue because that's what I want to be able to do.

Beyond "learning to play an instrument," what do you want to do? Play live at an open mic? Jam along with your favorite CD?

If you want to write songs, you might consider approaching that side first, as musical proficiency does not necessarily lead to songwriting skills.
posted by lekvar at 4:12 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Watch this video by Ira Glass. It's about storytelling, but I think it applies to any sort of creative work.
posted by beandip at 4:36 PM on August 31, 2011 [4 favorites]

I've found that folk music (bluegrass, folk, old-time) is a good place to start, because there are so many regular jams in my city. Sociability is key, for me. Pick an instrument, go to the jams, write down what people are playing, and hire a teacher to teach you those songs. (Obviously this only works if you *like* bluegrass, old-time, etc.) Also, bass players are always in great demand.
posted by Ollie at 4:36 PM on August 31, 2011

Also, I don't mean to say you're lazy either, but music isn't your passion, at least not playing music, if you're not practicing, and sucking, and getting humility from that, and trying, trying again, and wandering around the house eating snacks to avoid practicing, because you know how far your level is from where you want to be, but picking up (or sitting at) the intstrument and playing anyway, and trying trying trying to get that one sequence right and up to tempo and experiencing the sweet relief in your mind when you've kind of got it close to right and just want to do it again, but then the next time you try it comes out wrong so you do it all again...
posted by sweetkid at 5:06 PM on August 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

Get Rock Band and learn how to play drums.
posted by empath at 5:38 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

As an inadequate and practice-avoiding drummer, I can assure you that drums are no different from any other instrument in this regard.
posted by flabdablet at 5:45 PM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, if you want to play an instrument, play an instrument, not a video game.
posted by sweetkid at 5:57 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I want to be able to write little songs and feel more connected to the art form.

If this is your main goal, all you need are three chords (and the truth).
posted by Wordwoman at 6:26 PM on August 31, 2011

Do not get Rock Band to learn drums, please. I was a lot like you. I tried guitar... didn't have passion for it. Piano, sorta the same mess. Then came the drums and THAT was my ticket. I've always been most passionate about rhythm so this was a challenge but something I knew I can learn. I practice everyday even when I don't feel like it. I started mastering grooves to music I love. 6 months into it, I found myself performing in front of live audiences. Never knew opportunity could happen so quickly. I knew I was going to learn an instrument, I just did what felt natural to me. The key thing was confidence. I knew I was bound to make mistakes but the challenge I took on helped me gain perspective and confidence in other areas of my life. Go find your instrument.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 7:05 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

For some people, having a nice (not necessarily expensive) instrument helps maintain interest in playing and practicing. I really like all the guitars I have, and I've traded away all the ones that didn't, somehow, speak to me, and kept those that did. For different reasons, I also like my fiddle (which belonged to my mother's father, a century ago) and my circa 1850's bowl back mandolin. I see that all the instruments get looked at regularly by professionals, and are setup correctly, and I play them weekly, for a least a few minutes each.

And I find that learning new technique, and the music that it makes possible, is another strong motivator. When I first learned how Roy Buchanan did a pinch harmonic on the guitar, I was fascinated; it was probably a week before I could do pinch harmonics at will, and about 5 years before I could do them as musically tasteful embellishments.

Frustration, like a quitting smoker's urge for a smoke, fades in about 30 seconds, I find, if you take a few, slow deep breaths, and keep practicing.
posted by paulsc at 9:01 PM on August 31, 2011

Also, if you want to play an instrument, play an instrument, not a video game

I can guarantee you that 2 months practicing on rock band will get you a nice bit of confidence before taking lessons, with no scary commitment.. You'll at least be able to keep a beat, and develop coordination with your limbs. And if playing drums isn't for you, you'll know it.
posted by empath at 9:08 PM on August 31, 2011

To tack on a life experience. Rock band does not teach you how to keep a beat. The first students I studied with took lessons because they played Rock Band. Lord almighty, they were horrible and I think a couple of them dropped out. Rock Band is not a real set, not even a real electronic set, plus you have to hit it AFTER the beat of a song. Not very realistic. Just sayin'.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 3:52 AM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're going to try piano again, maybe look into a different teaching method for adults. I can't vouch for it (because I also avoid all practicing) but maybe the Fake books could get you started. They concentrate on chords in the left hand and picking out melodies in the right.

I can't give a link, but I've seen titles like "You Too Can Be a Fake Piano Player" and another one that was like a performer's cheat book.
posted by CathyG at 7:51 AM on September 1, 2011

In my opinion, there is a balance which has to be achieved in order to maintain motivation and make progress on a musical instrument.

1) You have to do the hard work - countless repetitions of exercises to train your muscles, your ears, and your brain. If you don't do the work, you'll never get the skills.
2) You need to experience regular rewards for that work, in the form of being able to make music that you actually care about. If the rewards don't come quickly enough or often enough, you'll lose motivation and quit.

What I would suggest is figuring out what is the absolute easiest piece of music that you could aspire to that would be personally satisfying for you to play. If you can grit your teeth and make it through to this first song, then you are past the first major stumbling block in learning to play. After that, you can polish up your first piece, find some equally easy songs that use the same skill set, learn to add some simple ornamentation to what you've just learned, and ultimately start working towards a new piece that is slightly harder.

Some more random thoughts:

If you enjoy folk music, this can be a great place to start. The easiest versions of folk songs are typically about as easy as music gets, but you can gradually add complexity as your skills increase until you reach virtuoso level.

As others have mentioned, playing with others is a great way to learn and get motivation. You can start sounding like you're making "real" music a lot quicker if you do it in a band. If you get a bass, you can start out playing just a single note on the 1st and 3rd beats of the measure while the other players handle some of the trickier stuff and you'll still feel connected to the music.

If you want to try guitar again, learn the basic first position chords in the key of G (G, C, D, Em, Am) and learn to use a capo when you need to change keys. These are pretty much the easiest chords to play and you can make some wonderful professional-level music with just those basic tools.

Learn to accept that there is a lot of repetition that has to come in-between your brain knowing conceptually how to do something and the point where the neural motor pathways have been built so that your muscles can actually do what you're telling them to. Lets say you're trying to make a C chord on the guitar and you just can't seem to get your fingertips to come down on the right frets and strings so that the chord sound cleanly. Congratulations - you're perfectly normal. Try this - make the chord as best you can. Check to see if each fingertip is actually on the correct fret and string - correct yourself if necessary. Pluck each string to hear if it is ringing freely or not. Don't beat yourself up if you hear a few clunker notes - this is just feedback that you are providing so that your brain can train your neural pathways. Let the chord go. That's what - 10 seconds? In 5 minutes you can repeat this process 30 times. Now take a break, massage your sore fingers, go do something else for a while. Come back later and do this a few more times throughout the day. With 20 minutes of daily practice you can manage 120 repetitions of forming the chord. Make sure you do one of your practice sessions right before bed, since your sleeping mind will review what you've been practicing. Follow this regimen daily, and within a week you'll have 840 repetitions and you'll likely be able to consistently form the chord. Now you can start the same sort of drill for switching quickly between the G, C, and D chords. Within a few weeks, you'll ready for your reward - your first 3-chord song. You don't have to start with Yankee Doodle - there are a million wonderful 3-chord songs out there.

Besides practicing the physical skills for a particular instrument, learn to study other aspects of fundamental musicality - this will make your progress on your instrument go more smoothly. Here is some advice I offered in another thread for starting to learn the basics of rhythm.
posted by tdismukes at 8:27 AM on September 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

If the lack of sophistication of beginner music is the death of interest, I really endorse you play with other beginners. You can each be relatively poor at your instrument but it will sound like real music when you all play together. If you want to do something that is a band or symphony instrument, there is probably a student/beginner band in your area. Even the tiny town I grew up in had one called the tri-county band. If you can't track one down yourself, contact a community music entity of some kind like a volunteer symphony or a volunteer opera company. They all know about one another and will push you in the right direction. Otherwise, you can always start a rockandroll band or play folk music together. Bluegrass musicians do a lot of free-form jam sessions.

I started music lessons at a young age on the piano and the flute and, even though I sucked at the flute, I stuck with it because I played in a band. I'd say I totally sucked at it for at least two years but I didn't notice it because playing in a band was really fun. Then, once I learned the one instrument, I was able to transition to one I was really good at, French horn, and stick with it again because I was in a band. Play with others. Even experienced musicians do this to stay interested in their instruments.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:10 AM on September 1, 2011

Rock Band is not a real set, not even a real electronic set, plus you have to hit it AFTER the beat of a song.

Not true. It works just fine with a real midi drum set. And a real guitar, for that matter.
posted by empath at 12:57 PM on September 1, 2011

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