Ideas for learning musical instruments as a family?
November 19, 2018 4:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in encouraging regular playing with my family. Here's the rundown: my 4th grader is learning flute but struggling. Wife grew up playing piano but hasn't for many years. I played trumpet thru high school & college, but haven't picked it up for a loooong time. I also made a stab at acoustic guitar but didn't stick with it. I think we'd all be more motivated if we were working together on pieces. Musical MeFites, help me with ideas on what (music/instruments/iOS technology) could get us up and enjoying playing together fast.
posted by sapere aude to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you are asking for instrument recommendations ...

The ukulele is reasonably priced, fun, easy to learn, inoffensive and lightweight. If you want to play 3 chords you can learn your first song in about 15 minutes. If you want to play virtuosic pieces you can do that too. There are whole clubs devoted to playing it and a ridiculous number of free resources online.
posted by bunderful at 5:17 PM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Check out Yousician teaching service on iOS. It won’t help you jam but it will help you learn, current free offering is decent, limits the lessons to 15-20 min/day.

Use the garage band virtual drummer to give you an easy and good backing beat. It can do folk and rock, hip hop and electronic genres too.

Do you have a decent MIDI keyboard? If so check out garage band’s synth stuff too. Some pianists hate it but it may open a whole new world.If you don’t have one, consider getting one.

Get some tambourines and cheap glockenspiels and all sorts of little percussion toys. Music is fun and anyone can grab a little thing to bang or shake.

The main thing is to show support and enthusiasm for all these ventures, and to seek inspiration. Lizzo can knock you over with her hip hop/jazz flute and rap/soul music. Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers will make you boogie with all sorts of keys. Miles Davis or Dizzie Gillespie might be trumpet heroes. It’s not so much about those specific people as finding some set of performers who you can all enjoy and be inspired by.

Music playing and appreciation is a family value, make sure you value it and model that well, and the rest should follow.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:28 PM on November 19, 2018

Recorders! Easy to learn, can be fun together or apart. You can get different keys and make a harmonic band. My paternal grandmother did it with her family and spoke highly of it. Recorders are cheap and the skills you learn are transferrable to other instruments.
posted by blnkfrnk at 5:47 PM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Not sure if this is what you’re looking for, but we started off playing the Rock Band video game and ended up with a garage full of drums and amps.
posted by doctord at 6:29 PM on November 19, 2018

I would start with your daughter. If she is committed to flute (for now) then you want her to either be playing flute or easy percussion (tambourines etc). Flute + trumpet is hard, because of the volume difference. Maybe piano/keyboard for wife plus ukulele for you? Not quite a band but you could make a joyful noise.
posted by metahawk at 7:03 PM on November 19, 2018

Not an instrument/tech rec, but - I grew up in a musical-ish family and one thing we did for a while was a holiday "musical e-card": we would pick some traditional carol, pick up our instruments and practice a very basic arrangement (this was when my brother and I were kids, so it was really more for the cuteness factor than any technical excellence, shall we say), record it and email it out to our relatives, who would then oooh and aaah as appropriate. Since the holidays are coming up maybe this could be a good motivator!
posted by btfreek at 7:23 PM on November 19, 2018

My vote goes for picking the guitar back up and then getting a digital keyboard loaded with simulated instruments so you can play around with different sounds. I think with flute + guitar + keys + digital percussion (usually a feature on those keyboards) you'd have something like a band going.

I'm not sure about getting music arranged for that combination of instruments other than to google it.
posted by space snail at 7:33 PM on November 19, 2018

Side note: Whatever other instruments you get for family band, let your daughter try them out too in case her difficulty with flute stems from a poor instrument fit rather than just the inherent drudgery of practicing. I know in my school band they railroaded the kids into a long-term commitment to the first instrument they could make a sound on rather than taking any time to figure out individual interests or aptitude.
posted by space snail at 7:40 PM on November 19, 2018

My family had a set of Christmas carol books with different parts for different instruments. The family Christmas band was always fun and messy. It looks like you can now buy such things online, and not just for Christmas carols.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:01 AM on November 20, 2018

The ideal would be to have a musician there with you who could judge exactly where you are on your various instruments, work out what sort of project would be the best fit, and coach you through it.

In other words, a music teacher.

I'm not sure what kind exactly to recommend. Ask around, and maybe google for your town and "band coaching"?
posted by bfields at 7:13 AM on November 20, 2018

Thanks for the great responses to an admittedly vague question. I guess it boils down to "here's the varied experience among the three of us, has anyone found one weird secret that catalyzed the shift from an uphill battle to downhill in music participation."

I agree that an electronic keyboard is a good idea, and would work well with guitar/uke. Space is an issue in our small house, so I was looking at less-than-88-key models, but unless you go all the way down to a 25 key MIDI model, they're all about the same width. Does the # of voices matter all that much? I assumed at the $2-300 price point the non-piano or organ sounds would be pretty cheesy.

Christmas carols are a great idea! And though I have the elementary school parent's usual revulsion to the recorder, that may be the easiest path to recognizable tunes.

And I agree on not locking a kid into one instrument long-term. I can't say I didn't enjoy trumpet for all those years, but I do remember how arbitrary the selection process was, and suspect something else would have served me better. I want to give my kid that opportunity.
posted by sapere aude at 11:15 AM on November 20, 2018

Regarding voices, low-end synthesizers have improved dramatically. One of my favorite factoids is that the 1991 Sonic game for the Sega Genesis used 1/3rd of the entire cartridge memory to contain the iconic "Se-ga!" sound at boot. Now memory is cheap, as are the sound chips needed to play all those samples at once in high quality. You can still tell the difference between a cheap digital piano and a high-end one, but it's not nearly the yawning gap it once was. Of course, not all the voices are going to be gems, but the more common ones, like piano and organ, will probably sound pretty good. Voice #347, alien kittycat, not so much. The differences are more in the weighting and action of the keys, and the degree of sensitivity.
posted by wnissen at 3:28 PM on November 20, 2018

This one's one model down from mine and close to your price range -- I think it has more or less the same instrument samples as the more expensive model and the main difference is in detailed piano features like simulated string resonance:

Casio Privia PX-160

I would recommend getting 88 keys and squishing it in somewhere! I initially had one with fewer keys and found myself needing the extra keys immediately if I wanted to play anything that wasn't in an exercise book.
posted by space snail at 4:12 PM on November 20, 2018

Thanks for the recommendation, space snail. I was looking at both that and the Yamaha P-45, which is coming in slightly cheaper. Wirecutter likes them both. Have you had a chance to compare the two brands from a quality and reliability perspective?
posted by sapere aude at 5:40 PM on November 20, 2018

I do think I was considering that one during my piano hunt for much the same reasons (lots of people calling it the best sound you can get at that price point), but ultimately went with Casio because I wanted a lot of different instrument tones to play with, and an opinionated minority even liked the Casio's piano sound better, so I decided they were probably comparable.

If you're anywhere near a Guitar Center or similar music store, they usually have a bunch of popular models out on display for people to try for themselves. Barring that, youtube comparisons are really helpful, too! (Warning: youtube comparisons are how I gradually upsold myself into getting a much more expensive instrument than I originally planned on)
posted by space snail at 7:05 PM on November 20, 2018

Instead of a $2-300 cheesy electronic keyboard, you could get a sub $100 Melodica - also known as a Melodion (Suzuki), and Pianica (Yamaha). The breath powered keyboard instrument is widely used in Asia for teaching first time music players. Available in 2, 2 1/2, 3 octave versions. Ranges include Soprano, Alto, and Bass. Buy 3 and harmonize?

It's not a loud instrument. Comparing my Suzuki M-37C to memories of my sister practicing her flute, I think they'd be compatible.

Obviously, any beginning piano instructional material would be relevant. That's what I used when I picked up a Melodion 40 years after my last piano lesson.

There is one drawback to a Melodica. It is extremely difficult to look cool playing one, at least until you get to the level where people buy tickets to your performances:
4 piece Flight of the Bumblebees
Steely Dan - 'AJA'
'Clint Eastwood' by Gorillaz with Snoop Dog
Excerpts from Melodica & acoustic guitar performance
My Funny Valentine with jazz piano
posted by Homer42 at 12:38 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree melodicas are awesome, also harmonicas.

The easiest way to turn it downhill is to make it fun, and often that means less structure and more honking, banging, plonking and squeaking. Serously, to me playing a simplified Ode to Joy or whatever is not that fun.

But if kiddo can clap and hit a tambourine while dad strums CFG and mom noodles on piano; that’s way more fun to me, YMMV. Jamming and improv is the way a lot of kids wil naturally seek to get into music, and then they hit strict formal lessons and decide they hate that, and that’s unfortunate.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:25 AM on November 21, 2018

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