Back on New Year’s Day 2020, I made the resolution that this would be the year I’d finally learn trad music. I had been toying with the idea of learning tin whistle for years and even learned a handful of basic tunes. But I had made no real commitment to it.
The start of 2020 started well and my friend Liam (who was learning the mandolin) and I started meeting one evening a week to practice some trad tunes we’d picked out. Then Covid happened and strangely this was the thing that spurred us both on even more.
We decided we would have a half-hour Zoom call three evenings a week and pick tunes from a Comhaltas tune book we each had a copy of.
The progress was slow to begin with and consistency sometimes waned in the times when lockdown was lifted during the year, but for the most part, we were steady with our three calls per week. We were also joined by another friend, Brian (who was learning trad on guitar), at the start of 2021 and the three of us continued to learn together.
Since we started and up to this date, we have learned about 60 different Irish tunes including jigs, reels, hornpipes and slides. We’ve also started learning a few Irish songs together. We don’t feel by any means that we’ve mastered trad music but we have enough technique and tunes built up at this stage that it’s now a very enjoyable experience playing together.
In many ways, the last year has given us an even bigger grá for Irish music and sparked us to want to learn more and continue developing as musicians.
At DabbledooMusic we often get feedback from teachers, parents and the general public who claim they “aren’t musical” or that they “would have always loved to have learned an instrument”. It seems like a cliché at this point to say it, but anyone really can. Whatever you want. All it takes is a bit of commitment, a plan and some structure to help you get there.
No matter what music you'd like to learn whether it’s singing songs, play pieces on the piano or learning trad music, it’s a wonderful way to spend time yourself and as a way to connect with others. If you’re a parent or teacher, being able to learn music yourself will also be a big inspiration for your own children or the children in your class.
So with all that said, and with the summer months upon us, here are our 6 steps to learning a new instrument.
1. Learn an Instrument and Genre of Music you Like to Listen to
If there is an instrument or musical style you’ve always wanted to play, let that be your starting point. You may decide on a simpler genre or instrument to begin with, but setting your ultimate goal from the outset is very important. For instance, if you’ve always wanted to play electric guitar solos, starting with learning easy songs on the acoustic guitar or even the ukulele could be an easier place to get you started.
For more info on this, check out our blog Best Musical Instrument for My Child to Learn? A Beginners' Guide for Parents
2. Get the Right Instrument and Resources
When you’ve decided on what you want to learn, the next step is to get a decent instrument you can start learning on.
You don’t have to go out and spend a fortune on one, but get one that you think sounds nice. It will definitely make a difference in your enjoyment of playing as you start to learn. Most good music shops should be able to give you advice as to an ideal instrument to suit the stage you’re at. Renting an instrument could also be an option to get you started too.
There can be some other resources you might need to think about investing in including:
- Instrument case
- Instrument maintenance - such as rosin for string instruments or valve oil for brass instruments
- Instrument stand - particularly useful for something like a guitar or ukulele
- Music stand - if you intend to learn through reading music
- Sheet music - if you’re learning from a book or printing our sheet music etc.
3. Find the Right Teacher
Sometimes people learn better on their own but for many, getting lessons from a teacher can be an ideal place to start. An experienced teacher will be able to plan out the steps to best help your development and will also be able to give you a good understanding of the technique and posture you need for playing the instrument.
When someone is a beginner, elements such as correct technique and posture can be forgotten about and this can be detrimental to progress further down the line. Having a teacher to keep these things in check for you, can avoid long periods of re-learning further down the road.
Finally, pick a teacher who makes you enjoy learning the instrument. If a teacher is teaching you in a way that doesn’t suit you and disengages you from learning, find another teacher.
4. Learn With Others Who Share Your Same Target
This was perhaps the most important factor in keeping me committed to the new instrument. The social accountability created from having others who share the same goal of learning made the whole process much easier for me.
You might decide to learn together with a friend or you could arrange a group lesson with a teacher. By not showing up to lessons or practicing what you’d committed to, you’re now also letting down the other person and that can be a great way of maintaining your own musical motivation.
5. Have a Regular Commitment to Learning
The thing that's great about going to a lesson with a teacher is that together you set a weekly or biweekly time to meet. This implies a level of commitment and will allow you to plan the rest of your life around this time slot. When you're learning on your own, this can be more challenging.
If you’re learning with friends, setting a regular interval for meetings and trying to keep yourself committed to that time is important. For me, when I was learning with the other 2 guys, we met 3 times a week on Zoom at 5.30pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That regularity definitely helped with maintaining our engagement. It also helped focus us on what we had to practice in the lead-up to those sessions.
6. Have a Target Milestone to Work Towards
This is not necessary for everyone. Sometimes children who learn an instrument work towards doing grade exams which can work well for some but can also be too much pressure for others.
A milestone could be simply a decision to learn a tune that you can play for your family on Christmas day. The best target milestone I ever came across was from an adult student I used to teach who wanted to learn the trombone in secret. The reason for this was so that he could surprise his brother by playing 2 songs with a ska band he booked for his brother’s 50th birthday. Needless to say, he achieved this goal and his brother was gobsmacked!
With whatever you try to learn in music, we wish you the very best of luck! We'll give the last word to Jimi Hendrix on the subject....
When asked about learning the guitar and practicing to improve himself, Jimi said:
“It was so hard for me at first. I knew about three songs, and when it was time for us to play on stage I was all shaky, so I had to play behind the curtains. I just couldn’t get up in front. And then you get so very discouraged. You hear different bands playing around you, and the guitar player always seems like he’s so much better than you are.
Most people give up at this point, but it’s best not to. Just keep on, just keep on. Sometimes you are going to be so frustrated you’ll hate the guitar, but all of this is just a part of learning. If you stick with it you’re going to be rewarded. If you’re very stubborn you can make it.”