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Musicians' Corner October 2015

So you wanna take music lessons...

October 13, 2015


Teacher and Student

One of music's greatest gifts is its ability to be created by anyone. If you can hum a tune, whistle, or clap your hands, you can make music. But, learning how to read music and play an instrument is a complicated process that requires time, patience, effort, and good instruction. But, for parents or adult students with little or no formal music training, it's difficult to know what constitutes reasonable expectations when signing up for music lessons.

As lesson studio director, my most frequently received question is: "How many lessons will it take until my student can play this instrument?" That's a tall question. And, there's no concrete answer. As with any endeavor, the reward received is directly proportionate to the amount of effort exerted. Will you be able to play guitar like Eric Clapton after six lessons? Nope. Will you be able to play Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto after six months of lessons? Nope. Will you learn everything there is to know about the violin after six years of lessons? Sorry, nope. When we see and hear professional musicians perform, we are witnessing the result of a lifelong devotion to their craft. While a performance may appear effortless and a musician may look like he's having the time of his life onstage, there are decades of practice, lessons, hard work, and sacrifice behind that "effortless" performance. "But, Clapton makes it look so easy," you say? That's because he's a professional. He wasn't born one. He (and every other professional musician) became one through years of hard work.

So, what should you expect when you sign up for music lessons? First, you should expect to have a knowledgeable instructor. A qualified instructor is more than someone who knows how to play an instrument - it's someone who knows how to effectively impart their knowledge to others. A poor instructor will play something while a student watches and say, "Now, just do what I did." A good instructor will show a student how to do something and will correct their mistakes. An excellent instructor will patiently work with a student at the student's pace and ability level, present new concepts to challenge that student, provide encouragement, and foster a desire to learn. Any instructor incapable of providing those things, or one who promises expertise in "Six months or your money back! (Terms and conditions apply)," should be avoided at all costs!

Once you've found a qualified instructor, then what? What can you expect to learn? Good question. Your first music lessons will be devoted to the basics: proper posture, hand position, embouchure (for wind instruments), breathing and diction (for singers), and how to read music. Depending on the age and ability level of the student, it may take several lessons just to master the basics listed above. Also, if a student has no prior music training, music rudiments (time signatures, key signatures, rhythm, lines and spaces of the staff, and music terminology) are introduced in conjunction with learning how to play the instrument itself. Just as learning a language takes years of study, so does learning to read music. You may learn how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb in six lessons, but it will take over six-hundred lessons before you're ready to tackle Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto!

As you can see, becoming an accomplished musician is a lifelong learning process. A good instructor can provide guidance, but the burden of responsibility for success falls on the student. A student who practices daily will progress faster than one who only touches the instrument at their weekly lessons. So, we're back to the original question: What can I expect to gain from taking music lessons? The answer to that question depends on your goals. Do you just want to learn a few guitar chords to strum by the campfire? A month or two of lessons should accomplish that. Do you want to become first chair in your school band? You're looking at a minimum of a year of private instruction to win the coveted chair. Do you want to pursue music as a career? Plan on decades of lessons and thousands of hours in the practice room. Do you want to enrich your child's education with music lessons? The time frame's wide open on that one... Now you know what to expect - the only thing left to do is create a goal, choose an instrument, and sign up for those music lessons! 

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