How to Deal with Frustration about Practice

How to Deal with Frustration about Practice

There you are, practicing your musical instrument of choice. If you’re like many people, you may do the same things over and over without improving. And that’s very frustrating! But help is on the way. There are ways of practicing that are effective. By effective, I mean that you are able to improve at whatever it is you are practicing. There are also mental ‘hacks’ that can help you feel less frustration with practice. In this article, you’ll learn seven tools for dealing with frustration about practicing.

Ready to learn some great practice tips and hacks? Let’s get started.

1. Set more realistic goals

Frustration happens when reality doesn’t meet our expectations. If you alter your expectations to a more likely outcome, your frustration will go away.

You have to accept that you may not get the results you want when you want them. Learning takes however long it takes. You definitely want to be as efficient as possible, but it’s still going to take a lot of time. If you can learn to enjoy practicing, the time will be a pleasure. And who doesn’t want that?

Choose music you can realistically master

A main area where students cause themselves problems is with the music they choose to work on. Most beginners and inexperienced teachers also choose music that is much too difficult. This only breeds frustration for most students. Be sure your repertoire is realistic.

Don’t be fooled by the word ‘beginner’ or ‘easy’ in the title. Beginning books always sell more copies than more advanced books, so publishers use these words to sell more books. It’s better to progress quickly through music you think is on the easy side. This approach will build skills that you can then apply to more difficult music. You wouldn’t give a 4th grader reading material at a college level and expect them to use practice to master it.

Once an early intermediate adult piano student heard me working on the Chopin “Etude Opus 10 No. 1,” considered one of the more difficult of Chopin’s many difficult piano studies. He said, “Can I work on that?” I said “No, not until you’re much further along.” This is like a weekend tennis player thinking s/he could take on Serena Williams.

He said, “Why not? I can sight read it at home.” I was familiar with this student’s sight-reading level. By sight reading, he meant that he could play the piece through very slowly. He would also be starting and stopping when convenient.

So, when you pick songs to work on, you want to choose something that you can play at the right speed. And, without starting and stopping. Just because you can play through a piece slowly with many pauses does not mean that you could master it.

Be sure the skills you are trying to learn are realistic

I had someone come once for a special lesson on piano technique. He wanted to learn how to raise his ring finger as high as all his other fingers. I told him this was physically impossible. Test it yourself – put all your fingertips on a tabletop and try lifting each one individually. The fourth finger does not lift as high because it has tendons running over the top of the knuckle.

(Classical composer Robert Schumann injured his hand and was not able to play piano anymore. It’s rumored that he was trying to strengthen his 4th finger with a special machine.)

I showed the student a way to get evenness and power in the fourth finger by moving the finger, hand and arm together. He was very disappointed. He felt I had not answered his question and left unhappy.

The moral of the story is that there are some things that are impossible to do no matter how you practice. You could never learn to run a marathon in cement shoes, no matter how you practice.

If you are feeling frustrated about not meeting a practice goal, do some research. See if other people are able to do what you are trying to learn. If so, then you can learn to do it too. If not, maybe there’s some other way to get the results you want. Keep researching until you find an approach that works for you.

2. Learn how to practice effectively

Practice is different than playing your song(s) from beginning to end. That’s playing music, not practicing music. Think about sports. Baseball practice is completely different than a baseball game. Practice means analyzing the problem you’re having, and working to overcome it.

Work in shorter sections

Most students choose sections that are too long and/or too difficult which creates frustration with practice. Let me introduce my friend George Miller, a psychologist. He discovered that most people could remember at least 5-6 “units of information”, and no more than 8-9 “units”. Seven was most typical number of bits of information that people could handle.

How does this apply to music practice?

When practicing, you are putting new musical information into your short-term memory. Once you have done this enough times, it becomes permanent, i.e., learned. This means that practice sections should have no more than 7 bits of information.

Some examples

If you are learning to read melody tab, it might mean that you only play 5-7 notes at a time. You could repeat your chosen notes 3-7 times, and then move on to the next set of notes.

Here’s another example. Let’s say you are having trouble making a chord change quickly. Isolate what individual movements are required and practice them one at a time. Then combine them – but no more than 7 movements at once. Soon you may start thinking of two or three individual movements as one thing.

That’s great! That’s effective practice! Now you can add in some more elements to your group of seven.

Combining strumming with singing

And here’s a final example: learning to combine strumming with singing. I’ve gone into a lot of detail on this one for two reasons. First, to give you a feeling for how to break things down and learn them in small chunks. And 2nd, because many ukulele beginners have trouble combining strumming and singing.

Here’s how to learn this crucial skill.

The first thing to do is make sure that you can do each of the skills separately. Can you strum your chosen song all the way through without stopping? Can you sing the whole song through without stopping? If not, practice each skill until it is are easy.

First check that you can strum the chords for your song in time to a video, backing track or metronome. Then learn to sing the song without playing. Listen and hum along with a recording or video to learn the melody. Then try singing along with a recording. You can refer to a book or sheet to help you remember the words. If that is too hard at first, try chanting the words in the rhythm of the song. Then add singing the words to the melody you have learned.

When you can sing the song, try clapping along as you sing the song, using the rhythm of the strum you will use. This will prime your brain to coordinate rhythmic hand movements with singing.

Now we’re going to integrate singing with playing. Try humming the tune along with your recording while holding an easy chord with your left hand. Next, try humming and strumming an easy chord. You can always start with an easier strum, say all downs, and then switch to a harder strum later. Finally, change from humming the tune to singing the words while you strum the chords for the song. Now you’ve got it!

If things still fall apart, there are several things to try.

Go back and repeat each step until it is easy, not possible.

Next, focus in on one line of the song at a time. For example, sing and strum the first line of your song as many times as you need to until it feels easy. (Or at least improved). Then move on to the next line. Continue until you can perform each line of the song easily.

Then try singing and strumming the first two lines of the song in a row. You will probably make errors that did not occur when you did each of the lines alone; this is normal. Go back and review each of the lines a few times, and then try repeating the two lines in sequence. After several tries, you should be able to play and sing the two lines together. Go slowly enough that you can play with reasonable accuracy.

Next, review the third line to remind yourself how it goes. Now try performing all three lines in the correct sequence. Again, new mistakes or confusion will most likely surface. Go back and review any trouble spots, and then try combining all three lines again. Repeat as needed.

Do a small number of repetitions

Again, the number 7 comes up. You should only repeat a section for as long you can maintain your concentration. For most people that’s 3-7 times. You want to be sure that you are playing as correctly as possible. If you do 20, 30 or 100 repetitions, your mind will glaze over, and you will be practicing playing in a mindless way. This is not the way to achieve good results – and it’s boring and frustrating.

3. Avoid frustration with deliberate practice.

James Clear has written a lot about an idea he calls deliberate practice.  He says “deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.”

Our strategy for combining singing and strumming is an example of deliberate practice.

Here’s another deliberate practice strategy:

Slow down until you can play your chosen section perfectly. Then gradually speed up, while continuing to play your song with 100% accuracy. If you start making mistakes, slow the section down again.

If you have a teacher, ask him or her to show you some practice strategies. If you are part of a ukulele club or group, ask the more advanced players for some tips on how to practice. There are lots of friendly ukulele groups on Facebook. The book or method you are using may have some tips on how to practice. And please feel free to reach out to us with your questions about practicing. We’re happy to help.

4. Build your ability to concentrate.

You need concentration for deliberate practice. Concentration has to be developed. Heeding George Miller’s 7 items rule will make it much easier for you to concentrate and progress. You can also ask your teacher or musician friends for tips.

Consider setting up a plan for gradually increasing your practice sessions. You can also break your practice into two separate shorter sessions. This will make it easier to maintain your concentration.

It’s also important to figure out why you can’t concentrate. Here are some possible factors.

External distractions: If you’re constantly getting interrupted it is very hard to make progress.

Our brains need a certain amount of energy to switch focus from one task to another. Changing tasks many times is much more difficult than staying focused on one thing. One modern source of distraction is your phone or computer alert. If you can, it’s best to turn your device off or on ‘Do Not Disturb’ when you begin your practice session.

Low tolerance for frustration: It’s important to know that progress is not linear. It’s more like a staircase where you stay at one level for a while and then jump to another level. Knowing this can help you deal with frustration.

No clear order or plan: It’s good to set a specific attainable goal for yourself. “I will spend 15 minutes working in small sections on the guitar solo from ‘Hotel California’”. That way when you accomplish your goal you can feel good about it.

Lack of energy: Practice at a good time of day for you. If you are a morning person, see if you can squeeze in some practice in the early hours. And vice versa for night owls.

No interest: Remind yourself WHY you are practicing. What is your purpose for learning an instrument? What is your goal in practicing ‘Hotel California?’

Commitment: How committed are you to mastering whatever your task is? If you’re not committed, it’s easy to give up. Why are you practicing? What is the long-term reward you are hoping for? Reminding yourself of the why is a way to stay focused on working in the present.

5. Set rewards for meeting practice milestones.

Try to notice the small signs of musical growth. You can set goals that are realistic for you such as:

  • I will open my case 7 days a week
  • I will spend at least 15 minutes a day working on the B-flat chord
  • I will record myself once a month

When you meet your goal, give yourself a reward. This strategy can work well for younger players. But it works for adults too. We all enjoy feeling successful and getting rewards.

Try recording yourself at regular intervals. Then listen to older recordings to hear your progress. Many adults who are new to music are harshly judgmental about their playing. I recommend you reward yourself both for making a recording and for listening to it!

6. Take a break

The average human’s attention span is somewhere around twenty minutes. So, you’ll be more productive and less frustrated if you take some breaks to recharge.

Stop playing for a moment. Put your brain into recharge mode. You could set a timer for 3-5 minutes. Close your eyes, then listen to your breathing and the sounds around you. Maybe do some favorite stretches or grab some water.

If you are stuck, try working on something new i.e., new music or a new skill. Sometimes this will help you master the thing you were stuck on. There’s always time to go back to the old.

7. Find a practice buddy

You can agree to text or call this person each time you practice. Knowing that you are accountable to someone else can help you feel motivated. That motivation can translate into better progress and less frustration.

Well, there you have it. I hope you’ve found something to help you deal with frustration with music practicing. Perhaps you’ll even begin to enjoy your practicing! Once that happens, music will have a more permanent place in your life. To paraphrase a familiar saying, learning music is a journey, not a destination.

Can adults learn musical instruments?

Can adults learn musical instruments?

So, can adults learn musical instruments? Most of us humans love music. Many people didn’t have the chance to study music as a child and wonder if they can learn as an adult. Read on for the answer.

Neural plasticity continues into adulthood

Many adults think that only children are able to learn music. It’s true that children’s brains are very flexible. However, brain flexibility continues into adulthood.

Norman Weinberger is a neuroscientist at University of California Irvine. He has done pioneering research on the auditory system and the brain. He says that while it’s harder for the mature brain to learn an instrument, it’s not impossible. “A lot of people believe the brain isn’t very plastic after puberty. In fact, the brain maintains its ability to change,” Weinberger says. “Is it as easy to learn something when you’re 65 as it is at 5? No. But can it be done? Yes.”

Music uses a lot of the brain

That’s why, unlike with language, there is no single music center in the brain — rather, there are a lot of them. “When brain scans have been done of musicians, you find the enormity of the areas of the brain that are actually being activated,” Weinberger explains.

Music is good for us

Research shows that making music is good for the brain. It also may delay the onset of some of the mental decline of aging. Scans of musicians’ brains show that playing an instrument involves greater communication among different regions of the brain than with other tasks. This communication may lead a musician’s brain to create new neural pathways. Those extra pathways can provide musicians with “cognitive reserve” when dementia strikes. Canadian neuroscientist Aline Moussard says that musician’s brains “will be more able to cope and find new ways to do tasks.”

It’s possible that playing a musical instrument can reverse stress at the molecular level. This was the result of recent studies conducted by Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Applied Biosystems and published in Medical Science Monitor.

Playing music can also increase human growth hormone (HgH) production among active older Americans. A study by the University of Miami had two groups: one that took group keyboard lessons and one that did not. The group which played music had significantly higher levels of HgH than the group of people who did not make music.

Maybe you are convinced that music study is good for you. But you might still worried about whether you can play a musical instrument? Let’s look at some obstacles and come up with solutions.

Fear of failure

Many people are afraid to try new things because they think they might fail. But after 40+ years of teaching music, I can say with confidence that ability is not all that important. It’s much more important to have beginner’s mind and determination.

Beginner’s mind is a concept taught by Buddhism. Leo Babauta describes it as dropping our preconceived ideas about something. It means seeing things with an open mind, fresh eyes, just like a beginner.

Children have easy access to beginner’s mind. Most things are new to them. They find music study hard, but they are used to trying tasks that are hard.Children also usually have low expectations of what they might accomplish. So they don’t get that discouraged when they encounter an obstacle or have a short term failure.

Adults are used to feeling competent in their job and daily tasks. So trying something brand new that is hard can be stressful. Having realistic goals about music study will help you persevere. And choosing an instrument that suits you well will also help.

Time management

A 2009 Gallup poll surveyed adults who do not play a musical instrument. Eighty-five percent of adults in the U.S wish they had learned to play music as a child. 69 percent would like to play a musical instrument now. But another survey by the National Endowment for the Arts survey found that just 12 percent of U.S. adults were playing musical instruments. According to author Amy Nathan, the main barrier people encounter is lack of time to practice.

Here are our suggestions on how to make time in your life for music practice.

Turn your phone off

It’s possible that you spend 20-30 minutes a day on social media or cruising the web. You could use that time to practice a musical instrument! Turning your phone off can be scary at first. But if you turn your phone off for 20 minutes and focus on one specific skill or piece of music, you’ll have much more success than if you respond to every text.

Research shows that there is a cognitive price to pay for switching focus, say from practicing to answering a text message.

Life as you know it will not end if you turn your phone off. And when you turn it back on you’ll get the added bonus of feeling really popular when 16 alerts pop up.

Play less, more often

Yes, we just recommended playing less! You don’t have to play for six hours a day to stay sharp or improve. But make sure you keep up a daily schedule. As with physical fitness, shorter periods of regular, focused, distraction-free practice can make a huge difference. It’s much better to practice 30 minutes 5 days a week than 2 and ½ hours on the weekend.

Set up a schedule or a routine

Figure out what time is easiest for you to practice and plan your life around it. If you are a morning person, maybe you can get up 20 minutes earlier. If you are an evening person, you could play 30 minutes before making dinner.

Make it easy to get started

It’s much easier to start a task if you have everything you need at hand. So set up a spot for your instrument and gear. Then when the time is right you can dive right into work.

Set small goals for yourself so that you can get to done sooner

The brain releases a chemical that makes us feel good each time we complete a task. But learning to play music takes months, if not years. To get around this, create a short term task list for yourself. What mini tasks do you need to do in today’s practice? Write them down in a notebook or planner so you can have the satisfaction of checking them off.

Find music to work on that is fun for you

Once you get past the beginner level, study music that you love to play. Knowing that you will be connected to something you love as you work will help keep you motivated.

Yes, adults can learn musical instruments!

Our adult brains have plenty of resources to learn something new. Besides being enjoyable, learning an instrument as an adult will help you in many ways.

Have you started learning an instrument recently? Are you considering starting? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear about your experience.

Do you need talent to learn a musical instrument?

Do you need talent to learn a musical instrument?

If you’re thinking of starting music study, you may wonder if you need talent to learn a musical instrument. Let’s dive right in and explore this question.

What is musical talent?

“Musical Talent” usually means something like “aptitude”. It shows up various ways:

  • good sense of pitch and the ability to sing on key
  • good memory for music
  • keeping good beat or easily copying rhythms
  • ability to imitate music you hear
  • noticing off key or out of tune music
  • interest in a variety of music
  • sensitivity to environmental sounds

Aptitude is a less or more trait, rather like your height or weight. Everyone is somewhere on the scale. It’s not a yes/no situation where you are either talented or not. There will always be folks who are more talented than you, and also folks who are less talented than you.

And most people can develop the qualities just listed with practice.

Girl playing musical instrument

Is talent genetic?

Studies on musical ability and musical inability show strong genetic components to each. A 2008 study discovered that musical talent is roughly 50 percent genetic. Others estimate as high as 95% of the population have genes for musical talent. A 2001 study revealed that about 80 percent of tone deafness appears to be genetic.

But even if you have good ‘music genes’, you will need other things to be a successful music learner.

Here’s what you need to learn a musical instrument

models (music in your environment): we humans love to imitate one another. If you have never heard a certain kind of music, you will not be able to learn it. You will not even want to learn it since you don’t know it exists.

desire to learn to play: Learning a musical instrument is doable at any age, but you have to be motivated. It requires steady work over years to become skilled at playing music. Some instruments are easier to learn than others. Read our post about which instrument to learn first here.

willingness to work hard: Learning any complex skill takes careful training and hard work. Even with the best training, you must be willing to put in the time needed. A great book about working smart is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

access to an instrument and good quality teachers: Unless you are a singer, you will need to rent or buy an instrument. You will also need a motivating teacher that you can connect with. A good teacher will help you learn to use your practice time efficiently. She will also help you learn skills in the right order so that you are progressing steadily. Most teachers (and students!) start off with music that is too hard and jump around in no particular order.

So, do you need talent to learn a musical instrument?

Talent can help in the beginning. You’ll have early success and stay motivated for a while. But in my experience, persistence and hard work trump talent every time. Successfully learning a musical instrument is more about practicing skillfully. It’s also crucial to and find the teacher(s) that are right for you and your goals.

You want to strive to become the best you can. And you can become really skilled as long as you have a good training, learn from others and persist!

Think about your goals

It’s important to think about WHY you want to learn music. As with happiness, playing music is more about the journey than the destination. We each can learn a lot from studying music. I’m still learning things about playing the piano even though I started when I was five.

So if you can focus on enjoying where you are right now, the question of how far you’ll get is less important. And the question of whether you have ‘what it takes’ to ‘succeed’ (whatever that means) is a lot less important.

Benefits of playing a musical instrument

There are many benefits to learning to play a musical instrument. And you can reap these benefits no matter how skilled or unskilled you are. Here are a few.

Personal fulfillment. 80% of Americans think their music education added to their level of personal fulfillment (July 2014 Harris Poll).

Improve your brain. Students who played music in school scored higher on the SAT’s than those who did not play music. How much higher? 107 points on an 800 point scale. than students who didn’t play music. (Profiles of SAT and Achievement Test Takers, The College Board, compiled by the Music Educators National Conference, 2002).

Composer Murry Hidary says “playing an instrument regularly as an adult is one of the best ways to ‘use’ the brain. And it has emotional and psychological benefits.” Such as? Improved memory and cognition, because of the intense fine-motor-skill focus required. Playing music can also reduce anxiety and depression. That’s because listening to music spikes your cortisol.

You can get these all these benefits without becoming a rock star or American Idol winner. And people worldwide learn music without first knowing if they are ‘talented’. Why not learn a musical instrument without worrying about your talent level?

No, you don’t need talent to learn an instrument

So, our answer is no, you don’t need talent to learn a musical instrument. Instead, you need kindness towards yourself, dedication, determination and a good teacher.

 

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What is the best instrument to learn first?

What is the best instrument to learn first?

People often ask, “What is the best instrument to learn first?” While this is a good question to consider if you’re new to music, it is a little bit like asking, “What is the best food to eat?”

The Ukulele Sisters play eleven instruments and have taught thousands of beginners. So we definitely qualify as balanced ‘’music eaters’ and ‘chefs’, to stretch a metaphor.

Here are some factors to consider when deciding what is the best instrument for YOU to learn first.

Pick the instrument that inspires you

The best instrument to learn first is the one that inspires YOU. Learning music is fun at first but it’s also a lot of work. Most of the beginners I have taught are surprised at how much work it is to learn an instrument. So you want to pick an instrument to learn first that calls to your heart. There are always challenging spots in learning anything. Picking an instrument you love will help you keep going when things get tough. To sum it up: learn the instrument that you love most first.

A second factor in deciding which instrument you like is your response to its sound. Do you respond to the gentle plucking of a harp or the energizing beat of a skilled drummer at work? Maybe you love the singing, surging legato of romantic piano music? Or does cool smooth saxophone playing make your day? Use your emotions about sound to help you choose an instrument to spend time with.

What’s your goal?

Another consideration is the musical style you’re interested in. If you want to play a particular type of music, learn an instrument that’s central to it. For example, if you want to rock out , learn electric guitar. If you love Scottish Highlands reels, learn bagpipe. If you love Beethoven symphonies, choose violin or cello.

Are you working towards becoming a professional musician? You need to know piano to get a music degree even if you are majoring in another instrument.

Do you just want to have fun and maybe perform sometimes as an amateur? Any of the non-piano instruments could work great for you

Why pick only one instrument?

Learning more than one instrument will dramatically increase your understanding of music. The more you understand about music the easier it will be to learn your chosen instrument.

I’ll talk about this more below, but each instrument focuses on one aspect of music. For example, the drums provide the rhythm or beat to the rest of the band. Rhythm guitar provides the middle of the music and some of the beat. Single line instruments like saxophone usually play melody parts.

group of musical instruments

Here are the best instruments to learn first

OK, so here’s my ranking of the best instruments to learn first along with my reasoning. Remember, everyone will have their own view on this topic and that’s how it should be. I hope reading my ranking will help you make up your mind on which instrument to learn first.

1. Piano

I have played and taught piano for decades so of course I am biased. But lots of other people also think you should learn piano first. Western music is organized by scales which are basically stair steps of sounds. The spaces between each sound are either half steps or whole steps.

Pros:

Great visuals: The half and whole steps are laid out clearly on the piano keyboard. So learning piano can help you understand the structure of all Western music. You can just look at the piano keyboard to see how each pitch is related to another pitch. That’s why all music schools require students in all majors to learn to play the piano at a basic level.

piano keyboard

Make a complete song: It’s easy to play more than one note at a time on the piano. That means you can make a a complete musical texture by yourself on the piano. You can play the tune (what a singer would sing) and the background (what the backup band would play) at the same time. You can’t do that with a single line instrument like the saxophone or trumpet.

Gigantic pitch range: The highest note on the piano is higher than the highest note an orchestra can play. The lowest note is lower than the lowest instruments in the orchestra can play. This means that piano music can have incredible contrasts and drama.

Stays in tune: The piano has thick wire strings under a lot of tension. Pianos are tuned by professional tuners and usually stay in tune at least 6 months. So you don’t have to fiddle around with tuning before you can start playing.

Lots of styles to play: You can play classical, rock, blues, folk, and even popular tunes on the piano.

Sound great from the beginning: Even cats and dogs can get a sound out of the piano – remember Nora the cat? You don’t see a lot of videos about animals playing violin or saxophone.

Cons:

Big: The piano is large – about 6 ½” wide and at least 6” deep if you include space for the bench and someone sitting on it. That’s a lot of space for one instrument especially if you are sharing space with others.

Expensive: Sometimes you can find an old upright piano being given away for free. But, you get what you pay for. An instrument worth playing will cost at least $500-$1000.

Loud: The acoustic piano is quite a bit louder than some of the other options listed below. If you are sharing your space with someone who is working from home, you may have to limit your practicing times. Another option is to get an electronic keyboard. Then you can play with headphones when you need to be quiet. Electronic keyboards are very popular these days. However, an electronic action is not as good for practicing on as an acoustic action. But being able to play more hours makes considering an electronic piano a good idea. And your keyboard can create all kinds of sounds such as harpsichord, organ, and strings.

Takes a long time to master: The piano has 88 keys and three pedals. To play it you need to use all 10 fingers plus your feet at the same time. It can take a long time to get the coordination needed to play it well. By long time, we’re talking 10 or more years of lessons with a skilled teacher.

Not so great for popular music: The piano was most popular in the 1830s through the 1920s. It is perfectly suited for music from those years: classical music and jazz. Playing pop, rock, hip hop and rap on the piano can be tough. It’s pretty hard to play music that was originally played by 3-4 skilled musicians with only one brain.

2. Ukulele

Well of course on a site called ukulele.io we are big fans of ukulele. Here are some of the pros of learning ukulele as your first musical instrument.

Inexpensive: You can get a serviceable instrument to try out for less than $100.

Portable: The Beatles often took ukuleles on tour because they are small and easy to stow and carry. You can even get waterproof carbon fiber ukuleles to take to the beach or campsite.

Small and easy to hold: The ukulele comes in four sizes. Find out how to choose the perfect ukulele size for you here. The first three have the same tuning and the fourth (the baritone) has a different tuning. Even the largest ukulele is quite a bit smaller than a guitar. So, if holding a guitar is a stretch, the ukulele will be a great fit for you. Read more about ukulele sizes here.

Play harmony: Like piano and guitar, you can play complete chords on the guitar. You can even play the melody plus the chords at the same time which is called ‘chord melody’. It’s great to be able to play a complete song by yourself.

Easy to learn without a teacher: Ukulele is very popular right now. So there are many online ukulele tutorial videos, books, and courses. You can check out our offerings here.

Easier than guitar: The ukulele has only 4 strings not 6 or 12 like the guitar. That means that the chord shapes you make with your left hand are simpler and easier to learn.

Great for popular music: Lots of popular songs sound great on ukulele. If you like music that has guitars in it, you will like the ukulele

Happy upbeat sound: Many people associate the ukulele with happy mellow feelings. And who can’t use more of that in their life?

Great for playing with others: Lots of people join ukulele clubs to play in a group with other strummers. There are clubs all over the world. Facebook is a good place to look for a ukulele group.

Or you can improvise or play duets with a friend. Many of our books include the melody written out in ‘tab’ plus chord symbols to make it easy for you to play duets. (Tab is an easy to learn way of writing down music.) One person can play the melody while the other person strums the chords.

Sound good fast: The four strings of the ukulele sound great all by themselves. And that’s before you learn how to play your first chord. It’s not that hard to learn to strum the ukulele, so you can play complete songs within a week or two of starting. In fact, our introductory book teaches you 21 songs in 6 days. They are easy songs of course. But you are creating complete songs with a melody plus an accompaniment all by yourself.

3. Guitar

Pros:

Lots of popular songs to play: The guitar is the main instrument of pop, rock, folk and country music since the 1950s. Which means that it is a great instrument to learn if you want to play any of these styles.

Affordable: You can buy a beginner quality acoustic guitar for around $200. No way could you start on piano or acoustic bass in that price range

Easy to jam with a friend: Like ukulele, you can easily play with a friend. One of you would strum chords and the other can pluck melody notes and/or sing. Just decide what scale you’re playing in and you’re ready to go.

Expressive: You can affect the sound you make by how you strum or pluck the strings with your fingers. It’s a very direct and intimate music making experience.

Acoustic vs. Electric? Again, this depends on what style music you want to play.

Acoustic guitar is generally more affordable to start, and electric guitar is a bit easier to play. The choice is yours and there is no wrong answer.

Cons:

Lots of guitarists: There are a lot more guitarists than any other type of musician. This means that the competition to play in a group is a lot tougher.

Too big: For some folks, the guitar is just physically too big. Or maybe getting your small hand to wrap around the neck and cover six strings is too much of a stretch? In that case, we recommend the ukulele.

Which is better – piano or ukulele/guitar?

It all comes down to what you would like to do with your music. Do you want to learn some of your favorite songs, or play around a fire with some friends? Then I would recommend ukulele or guitar. If you would like to get deeper into music and maybe learn some classical pieces, I would suggest piano.

4. Bass guitar

Affordable: Beginner bass guitars are super affordable. Lessons are cheap and abundant online and elsewhere, and finding sheet music is very easy.

Different from guitar: Bass is a separate instrument from guitar. It is larger than a standard electric or acoustic guitar. It has four strings rather than 6 or 12 and its sounds are lower than the guitar. Because it is low, it usually works with the drums in a band to create a rhythm.

The electric and the acoustic (stand up) bass have the same strings. If you play the acoustic bass, you can really easily learn electric bass or ukulele bass because the fingerings and notes are the same. This also means that acoustic bass students can practice on an electric bass guitar at home! Being able to stash an inexpensive instrument at home will save you money and a lot of schlepping.

Big: The acoustic (stand up) bass is big.  In fact, it is so big you might have to buy a new car to tote your instrument around. But you can get a smaller size bass for younger students. If you go with the acoustic or stand-up bass, it is really big – and expensive. 

Strings are hard to press: to get those low tones, the strings need to be thick. That makes them harder to push down, which can tire out your hand and arm.

Usually in the background: If you like to be in the front playing a solo, you will not like the bass. Most of the time the bass works with the drums and rhythm guitar to create the supporting texture of a song.

5. Violin & Cello

Beautiful singing sound: These two instruments are the main part of any orchestra. They make a beautiful smooth singing sound. Some of the greatest classical music has been written for them. Violin also shows up as a fiddle in bluegrass, country and folk music. Violin even shows up in jazz played by artists like Regina Carter and Stephane Grappeli. There is a wonderful jazz violinist in the HBO series ‘Treme’, along with a lot of brass players.

Available in smaller sizes: It’s easy to get smaller size violins and cellos for children. They are available in ¼, 1/8 and 1/16 sizes. Read more about smaller violins here.

violins and cellos in orchestra

Easy to learn in school settings: Many schools have orchestra programs which offer lessons and loaner instruments to students. One of the Ukulele Sisters has a day job as a middle school orchestra director.

Always a group to join: Orchestras need lots of violins and cellos. So if you become proficient you’ll always be welcome to join a group. There are many amateur orchestras for adult players to join too.

Definitely will need serious lessons: These instruments are not easy to learn. It can take a while before you can make a good sound. You’ll need one on one lessons with a professional teacher.

With the right teacher, the Suzuki method of instruction can be a great option. Read more about the pros and cons of the Suzuki method here. 

Expensive: Even the cost of a starter instrument is on the higher side. Most school orchestra teachers recommend that you rent an instrument from a reputable dealer. You want someone who will handle repairs when needed, and look for a rent-to-buy program. It’s best to work with a business that is located near you so you can bring the instrument in to the shop in person.

Violins and violas are $20-$35/month depending on where your rent. Cellos are double that.

If you get to the point where you need a professional quality instrument, watch out. You could be spending thousands of dollars on just the instrument. The bows that you draw across the strings to make the sound are sold separately and can also be quite expensive.

6. Saxophone & other wind instruments

Wind instruments are a large group of instruments that you play by blowing into a mouthpiece. The flute is an exception – it is played by blowing across a hole. The oldest known musical instrument is a fragment of a bone flute from 60,000 years ago! Other popular wind instruments besides the flute are clarinet and saxophone.

Saxophone is easy to learn and is available in a variety of types and sizes. The alto saxophone is the most suitable for beginners. You can learn more about different kinds of saxophones here.

Easy to learn in school settings: As with orchestras, many schools also have band programs. Playing in the band can be a fun way to learn music and connect with other students in your school. I loved playing flute and piccolo in my high school’s marching band.

Not that many groups for adult wind players to join: Many wind players drop music once they leave school. When they don’t have a way to play with other people anymore it’s not as much fun. This was my experience. I didn’t get chosen for my university’s orchestra and never played flute again. For many years I wished that I had learned cello instead of flute.

There are not so many bands and wind groups for adults to play in because there’s not that much music written for band. Wind instruments like saxophone and clarinet sound great in rock and jazz. But wind instruments like oboe and flute are mostly limited to playing in orchestras. And orchestras usually need only one or two of each type of wind instrument. So you have to be really good to make the cut. The TV series Mozart in the Jungle tells the story of Hadley, an aspiring orchestral oboist.

Many years to master: There are lots of self-taught saxophone and clarinet players out there. But most wind instruments need training and discipline over many years to master. If you have a strong desire to learn one of them you definitely can do it. Just know that you will have to be very organized and identify a good teacher early on in your learning journey.

7. Drums

Fun: Drums are another instrument with a long history. It can be easy to make a sound at the beginning. But once you try to play with both hands and one foot at the same time, things become more challenging. Once you’ve passed this hurdle, you’ll get to a decent level where most rock blues and pop songs are playable. pretty quickly. In fact, choosing to play drums can be the quickest way to get proficient at playing a single instrument

Man playing drum

Lots of opportunities to play: If you get moderately skilled, you’ll have lots of chances to join bands. And it’s a good thing, because very few people have ever written a percussion only song.

Expensive: At first getting your drum kit set up will be expensive. Once you have a basic set up you’ll be OK for a while. Then you can gradually add different drums and cymbals.

Noisy: The drums are loud. Very loud. So many learners train on an electric drum kit to help neighbors keep their sanity.

8. Brass instruments such as trumpet

Easy to learn in school settings: Many school music programs offer lessons and loaner instruments. Playing in the band can be a fun way to learn music and connect with other students in the school.

Fun: Brass is great for the school marching band or orchestra. And it can be a ton of fun to be in the band at school sporting events. I mean, watch those dancing tubas in the Stanford Marching Band! Are they having fun or what! There is even a very famous college football play that included the band members.

However, when you no longer have the support of a school program, it can be difficult to keep your instrument up.

Not that many groups for adult wind players to join: As with wind instruments, there are few adult music groups that need lots of brass players. Adult orchestras only need one or two of each brass instrument, so you have to be good to get chosen to play. You can play jazz and some rock and pop on brass instruments. But brass instruments are not so common in styles besides classical.

So, if you’re learning a brass instrument at school, try to plan on how to continue once you are out of school. A good plan can be to learn a second instrument such as ukulele, piano, or guitar. That way you’ll be able to keep playing music when you leave school.

Very loud: Brass instruments are used when the music needs a loud or piercing sound. Think marching band and army signals. But neighbors most likely will not be enthusiastic about hearing daily brass practice. You can get a practice mute or play with just the mouthpiece some of the time. But you will need regular practice time when you can play your instrument unmuted.

So what is the best instrument to learn first?

Now that you’ve learned about the many options, I hope you’re ready to choose what instrument to learn first. If you are feeling overwhelmed with information and pros and cons – don’t freak out! Choose SOMETHING to get started. Even if you only try it for a month or two, you’ll learn a lot about music. And the knowledge you gain will help you as you move on to a second instrument.

Playing music as an adult is a great way to socialize and express yourself. Working with music will help you develop your creativity and thinking in new ways. In fact, music is often used to help folks rehabilitate from strokes.

So what do you think? Which instrument will you try to learn first? Let us know in the comments.

Which  Musical Instrument Should I Choose?

Which Musical Instrument Should I Choose?

 

“I love music and I’ve always wanted to play a musical instrument.

There are so many choices. Which musical instrument is best for me? How do I choose one?”

“As a kid, my family moved a lot, so I never was in one place long enough to do the whole “band” or “piano lesson” thing. Now I want to learn music. But I have no idea how to choose an instrument.”

I hear comments like these often from people who want to play a musical instrument. In this post I’ll answer your questions and give you some good ways to go about choosing an instrument.

It is never too late to choose a musical instrument. And don’t worry if you pick one and then move on to another. Whatever you learn about music on one instrument transfers to the next. You’ll build knowledge about music that will help you learn whichever instrument you decide to stick with.

If you like music and you have an organized approach to learning, you will be successful. And,  you don’t need to read notes to play an instrument. It helps, but you can learn to play first and then decide later if you want to read notes. I’ll give more information about learning to read music notes in the 2nd article of this series.  

Listen to a lot of instruments and see which ones you like best.

It’s a good idea to listen and familiarize yourself with different kinds of instruments. Try listening to a variety of styles of music to expose yourself to a lot of different types of instruments. You can listen to musical instruments on Youtube. Green Bean’s Music has a nice series that plays short samples of each instrument. 

group of musical instruments
Woman with piano

Think about the following things…

What kinds of sounds do you like?

Do you like loud sounds? Or, do soft sounds give you comfort? Are you happy hearing the low, deep sounds like a roaring lion? Or maybe you prefer high sounds such as twittering birds? Think about which instrument sends tingles up and down your spine. You will be successful with an instrument that “speaks” to you.

What kind of music do you like?

Folk music? Indian ragas? Rock and roll? Hip-hop? Ragtime? Blues? Classical? Think of your favorite songs and which instruments are in those songs. This will help you decide what you want to play.

Do you like electric or acoustic music?

The kind of music you like will help you decide what instrument you want to play. An electric instrument can be played silently with headphones, which can be a big benefit if you are sharing space with others. And even if you prefer acoustic music, many instruments such as keyboards and guitars are also available with electric versions. 

How much space do you have in your home for a musical instrument?

Is space an issue? Would a grand piano take up your entire living room? Do you want an instrument that is portable? 

Do you want to play with others?

Do you want to be part of a band, orchestra or music club? Think about the instruments you can play with other people. Or, do you want to make music by yourself?

Girl playing violin

How much are you willing to spend?

Do you need to follow a budget? Are you in the market for something decent for under $200? Or, can you spend several thousand dollars on your new hobby?

Which instruments fit you physically?

Are you a large or small person? Do you have big or small hands? Being able to comfortably hold an instrument will make it a lot easier to play it once you have it.

Narrow down your choice of instrument

Once, you’ve thought about the above issues, decide what instrument family you like. The instrument families are: strings, keyboard, brass and woodwind, and percussion.  Common stringed instruments are violin, guitar, bass, ukulele. Common keyboard instruments are piano and organ. Common percussion instruments include all types of drums. Common brass and woodwind instruments are flute, clarinet, and trumpet.

So, let’s say you’ve narrowed your choices down to stringed instruments

You love guitar and the soulful sound of the violin. You think it’s really cool the way the bass provides the foundation for the song. So now it’s time to pick out a stringed instrument.

Here are some issues with these musical instruments

Guitar– Big with 6 strings. Chords are hard to change and the strings hurt your fingers.

Violin– Produces a beautiful sound when played by an expert, but it can squeak and scratches when played by a beginner. It’s hard to get the right notes because there are no frets. The bow is really difficult to manage. It’s EXPENSIVE.

Bass-Huge! An acoustic bass can take up a lot of space in your house. And if you want to take your bass with you to a group jam, you might need to get a larger car to carry it in. 

But I don’t read notes!

Never fear, you can learn to play an instrument first. Check out the 2nd post in this series to find out more about how reading notes fits in with learning an instrument. 

Man playing string bass
woman playing ukulele

 

7 Reasons why ukulele might be the right musical instrument for you

  1. The ukulele is smaller than the guitar. It has only 4 strings, rather than 6. This means the chord shapes are easier than on guitar. Also, ukulele strings are nylon so they don’t hurt your fingers, unlike metal guitar strings.
  2. There is no bow, so you don’t have the awful screeching sound that comes with beginners on the violin. And there are frets, so you know where to put your fingers. In fact, the ukulele sounds pleasant when you strum it.
  3. You can take a ukulele anywhere. It’s accessible and portable.
  4. The ukulele is acoustic, so you don’t have to worry about it being too loud for your neighbors.
  5. You can get a decent ukulele for under $200, so it is an affordable instrument. Once you have your first ukulele, you can learn to play and decide if you like it or not. For the cost of a ukulele, an instruction book and an online course, you can be off and running without breaking the bank.
  6.  The ukulele comes in many sizes, so you can find one to fit you. You can even get small, colorful ones for your kids so they can play too.
  7. Since ukuleles are quiet, you can play them with other people. It’s not like the guitar – a room full of guitars would be overwhelming. People play ukuleles in clubs and sing along.

What are the next steps? 

Read the next post in our series about learning to play a musical instrument without reading notes.

If you’re sent on ukulele, decide what size of ukulele works for you. You can read more about ukulele sizes here. 

Decide whether you would rather have private lessons or learn from a book or online course. 

If you decide to get started by yourself with a book, you might enjoy our reviews of the most popular ukulele books here. 

 

I Don’t Read Notes. Can I Learn a Musical Instrument?

I Don’t Read Notes. Can I Learn a Musical Instrument?

Lots of people ask “I don’t read notes. Can I learn a musical instrument?” We’re here to reassure you. You definitely can learn a musical instrument without reading notes. That’s because knowing how to play music does not mean you need to read music notes. 

In fact, playing without sheet music is called ‘playing by ear’. Musical notes are like letters or syllables in speech. Melodies are built out of notes just as words are built out of letters. Think about learning to talk. Once you knew your syllables and letters, you probably never thought of them again while talking. You just think about what you want to say. And you didn’t learn to talk by learning to read first.

We humans played music for centuries before the current music writing system existed. The oldest musical instruments are bone flutes that are between 40,000 and 60,000 years old. But written music as we know it today was developed and refined by European church musicians in the middle ages.

dog with music notes
They didn't read notes

There are many famous musicians who didn’t read music. Here are three: Paul McCartney, songwriter Irving Berlin, and opera star Luciano Pavarotti. While these folks didn’t read notes, they all were successful in a variety of musical styles.

Speaking of styles, there are many musical genres that have a learning by ear approach. (See below for more about other styles of notation). In rock, hiphop, and blues no one plays from sheet music. Many folk genres around the world also rely mainly on playing and teaching by ear.

Even some classical musicians are taught without notes using the well-known Suzuki approach. This method includes printed sheet music books but there are also recordings. Children are expected to learn to play their pieces by ear with the help of parents and teachers.

 

Why would I want to learn to read notes?

You may be wondering why anyone would go to the trouble to learn to read musical notes. Well, there are a lot of useful things that musical notation does for you, the music student.

Being able to read musical notes is as useful to a musician as reading words is to you in your daily life. Forget about writing the next great novel. Imagine how difficult it would be to not be able to write a shopping list or read a text message from your friend.

If you are able to read music notes means that you can learn a song without having heard it before. If you can write musical notes, you can jot down ideas you have for a new song. then you can share them with others who read notes. – your teacher, your music club mates, or perhaps the band you’re starting in the garage.

And reading notes means that you can create, record, or learn more complicated music. That’s why students of genres like jazz and classical often invest the time to learn to read music notes.

woman with music notes on old piano

How do music notes work?

Musical notation developed over centuries. Which means that it is complicated and sometimes confusing. But, if you are learning a fretted instrument like ukulele or guitar, you’re in luck! These instruments have several different types of notation available. That means if you are a person who says “I don’t read notes” they are some of the easiest instruments to learn.

Here they are in order from least to most difficult.

Lyrics and Chords

Lyric and chord sheets have the words written out like a poem with chord symbols written above the words. Sometimes the chord symbol is a letter and sometimes it is a chord stamp. A chord stamp is an image that looks like graph paper with dots on it. Chord stamps are used for ukulele and guitar players as a diagram of how to play a chord.

Reading lyric and chord sheets is a type of music reading. The great thing about them is that you don’t have to read formal music notation. They can work well if you know how the melody of the song goes.

The downside is that you have to know the song to be able to play it from lyrics and chords. That’s because just looking at the lyrics and chord stamps does not tell you how the melody and rhythm of the song go. So, if you don’t know the song, you have to learn how it goes by listening to it, often many times. This can take a long time.

And sometimes the chord symbols are not correctly placed, so you have to be able to hear when to change the chord. Finally, before you can use lyrics and chords you have to already know how to play chords and keep a steady strum going.

Ukulele tablature

Tablature (tab for short)

Tab is a sort of road map that shows you where the notes are on your instrument. There is tab for guitar, ukulele, wind instruments and even piano. Tab is not that hard to learn to read and is very useful for guitar and ukulele. Read our post about how to read tab here.

In the image of “Yankee Doodle” to the left, the tab is the bottom set of lines with the numbers on it. The top set of lines with black and white circles is standard music notation.

A big downside to tab is that it is specific to one instrument. So if you write something in ukulele tab and hand it to a clarinet player, you will only get a confused look. Another issue is that it is not that easy to notate the rhythm of the song in tab. Read more about tab notation and rhythm here.

Standard Music Notes

Standard musical notation is universal for all instruments. It is a diagram of the sounds that should be played. It shows whether the sounds should be high or low which musicians call ‘pitch’. It also how long or short in time the sounds should be, which musicians call ‘duration’ or ‘rhythm’.

It takes the longest time to learn to read because it shows the most information. We can pick up a sheet music written in standard notation hundreds of years ago and know how to play it. Melody, harmony, rhythm, articulation and expression are all clearly notated. So, this kind of notation is the most powerful, but also the most complicated. You can learn what you need of this type of notation as you go.

Music notation developed over time and has many odd things that take a while to learn. Music notation is complex so that it can express complex ideas. There is a lot of visual information on a piece of sheet music and it can take a while to get used to decoding it. Once you understand what sounds are being called for, you also have to learn how to play them on your instrument.

On the bright side, if you learn to write music notes on the staff, you will be able to communicate with other players. You can hand your music to someone else who reads music and they will be able to play it on their instrument.

Should I learn notes at the same time as I learn my instrument?

Learn a musical instrument faster by not learning notes first

Get off to a faster start by focusing on playing

Most people who begin to learn a musical instrument are surprised at how difficult it is. So it’s best to start with an approach where you can feel successful early on. Your early successes will motivate you to continue playing. That’s why we recommend not worrying too much about reading notes at the beginning of your journey.

New research shows that multitasking is actually less efficient than doing one thing at a time. The brain can only handle so many new skills at once. Learning the coordination of how to play an instrument is plenty to focus on at first.

To play any musical instrument you will need to coordinate body parts in new ways. To play a wind instrument you’ll need to sync breath, mouth, tongue and finger movements.

To play guitar or ukulele, you’ll need to coordinate your hands to do two different things at the same time. You might also need to add singing to the mix. Plus remembering the words. To add in learning music notation can create an overload which will slow down your progress.

So, here’s the answer to the question “I don’t read notes. Can I learn a musical instrument?”: Yes, but timing is very important.

When is the best time to start learning to read notes?

When people can recognize what song you’re playing, you’re ready to begin learning to read music.

An added benefit: developing your ear

Think of the way children learn a language. They listen, then they speak, and only much later learn to read. They learn to speak by first listening carefully. If you learn your instrument this way, you will learn to listen carefully too. Since music is all about sound, it’s always a good idea to develop your listening skills.

All the above notation systems as valid, depending on what you’re trying to do. So, yes learn to read music if you would like. Once you’ve learned to read notation, you’ll be able to learn new songs more accurately and quickly. And you’ll be able to play music with others which is one of the great joys in most musicians’ lives.

Let us hear from you

Where are you in your musical journey? Have you learned to read music notation? Do you feel it helped or slowed your progress? Let us know in the comments below.