‘If Only I Could Play Like That!’
SEATED comfortably at the piano, Jon seems to make the music come to life. As the treble chords played by his right hand give increased richness to the melody, the well-controlled bass chords supply harmony and depth. Clever fill-ins and delicate runs, skillfully done, add sparkle to the music. Adrian, Brian, and Brett liven it up with their electric guitars, while Steve provides the finishing touch with his cool saxophone tones.
Such vibrant music stirs the audience to sing with gusto and feeling. This tastefully arranged and pleasing music encourages their best vocal efforts. No wonder someone wishfully exclaims: ‘Ah, if only I could play like that!’
Have you also felt that way when you listened to someone who played music well? Perhaps you have even lamented: ‘I know I could never play like that.’ But how do you know? Have you ever tried to learn to play a musical instrument?
Who Can Learn?
Some people have a greater natural aptitude than do others when it comes to music. But, really, anyone capable of learning to read and write can also learn to play an instrument. First, though, you must have a real desire to play the instrument and make beautiful music. It cannot be a mere passing fancy. You must be prepared to work at it.
Of course, just as not all persons become equally proficient at reading and writing, so not all who learn music will reach the same level of skill or ability to play with feeling and expressiveness. Nonetheless, if you enjoy listening to music, then learning to play an instrument can open up totally new dimensions to you. The difference between playing music and listening to it is the difference between actually playing a game and merely being a spectator.
Nowadays, there are two approaches to learning to play an instrument. In one the emphasis is placed on learning to read music and practicing scales as a foundation. However, many beginners get discouraged using this method. An alternative method is to help the student to play simple tunes by ear and thus become familiar with the instrument. This may encourage the learner enough to want to learn theory and to read music.
Is It Too Late to Start?
“Yes, I would love to play an instrument,” says 46-year-old Roslyn, “but it is no use trying to learn at my age!” Do you feel that way too? And is that really true? Can music be mastered only by the young? Not really. In music, as in all other fields of endeavor, the adage holds true: “You are never too old to learn.”
True, young people do have nimble fingers and eager minds that are usually quick to learn. For example, Frédéric Chopin, a child prodigy, gave his first piano recital at the age of seven! Violinist Yehudi Menuhin gave his first public performance in San Francisco at the ripe old age of eight! Naturally, they are the exceptions.
Our pianist, Jon, started to learn the piano at eight, but he says: “I must admit that the novelty wore off after just a few months, and it was only the persistence of my mother that made me continue. Now, however, I am very glad that she insisted.” Of course, Jon is not alone in his aversion to endless practice. This is one of the chief hurdles young learners have to clear, especially in the first few months when it seems they are getting nowhere with their lessons.
Older persons, on the other hand, often have more determination and motivation. This stands them in good stead when it comes to that indispensable ingredient to success—regular, daily practice. As far as being too old to learn is concerned, be encouraged by the comment of a university professor: “If life is rewarding and people continue to use their talents, they will keep growing intellectually regardless of age.” Arturo Toscanini, who conducted all his concerts from memory, reportedly learned and memorized the entire score of an opera—every word, note, and marking for all the singers and instruments—at the age of 85.
Picking the Right Instrument
Guitarist Brett volunteered this tip: “Don’t bother learning an instrument you don’t love. You will never put your heart into learning and necessary practice unless you are really attracted to the particular instrument you choose.” That is sound advice. So, of all the instruments you have listened to, which one will it be for you?
Like Brett, many young people are drawn to the guitar, surely one of the most popular instruments today. A guitar can provide the accompaniment for singing; it can supply the rhythm and harmony for other instruments; and it can furnish solo music. Another advantage of the guitar is that it can easily be carried anywhere, outdoors and indoors. Learning the basic chords and fingering is relatively easy, and a simple guitar is not expensive.
Keyboard instruments, such as the piano and the electronic organ, are also very popular. They can be studied with the help of either a teacher or one of the many simplified courses available. Although the piano is not portable, it is not uncommon to find one in places where friends gather. To provide accompaniment for friends singing as a group is but one of the pleasures even a relatively new student of the instrument can enjoy. There are also electronic organs with built-in devices that provide rhythms and special musical effects. Then there is the accordion, which has buttons for the left hand to produce bass chords. Simple tunes can usually be played on these instruments after only a few lessons.
However, there is a wide variety of musical instruments beyond the few familiar ones. Generally, they are divided into four categories: woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings. Best known in the woodwinds are: flute, piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone. In the brass section are: trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba. Percussions include: drums, cymbals, xylophone, tambourine, and timpani. And, finally, the strings contain: harp, mandolin, guitar, and the violin family—violin, viola, cello, and double bass.
Many people are deeply moved by the beautiful music produced by the strings, particularly the violin. But remember, to learn the violin, or any instrument of that string family, you must have a good, natural musical ear because they have no frets or keys as does a guitar or a piano. Playing the notes correctly depends on placing the fingers at precise positions on the strings, and you must rely on your ear to confirm accuracy and purity of sound.
Brass and woodwind instruments require strong, healthy lungs to supply a steady flow of air, or wind. Tones on all brass instruments are produced by the player’s lips vibrating on the mouthpiece. To play the woodwinds, you must learn to manipulate a set of keys while maintaining a steady flow of air through the instrument.
Most people think of cymbals, snare drums, kettledrums, bass drums, and so on simply as instruments to provide the rhythmic background or to keep time. But there is more to it. Besides a keen sense of rhythm, there is much a player has to learn about technique to handle the variety of instruments well, and a skillful, sensitive drummer is a boon to any orchestra.
How High to Aim?
So are you thinking of taking up some musical instrument? Remember, do not aim too high or spend too many hours trying to attain near perfection. You could easily become unbalanced in your use of valuable time.
Yes, you can learn to play—maybe not like a virtuoso or even quite ‘like that’ but well enough to bring a lot of pleasure to yourself and to those who listen to your music.
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‘If people continue to use their talents, they will keep growing intellectually regardless of age’