Why learn an instrument?
There are many benefits to learning to play an instrument, exercising the brain is definitely high on the list. Playing an instrument like guitar involves coordination and physical dexterity as well as learning new concepts. It can help to improve your concentration and motivation through discipline in your practice regime. There is also the feel-good factor that comes when you achieve something that maybe previously you thought you might not be able to do. Playing music with other musicians can also help us with social interaction and learning to work as a team, to make sure the overall sound of the group sounds good. Getting back to the brain musical activity uses almost every region of the brain so that we can decipher pitch, rhythm, tempo, timbre and also we need to access our memory (to remember chord shapes, chord sequences etc.) If you would like to learn more about this I would recommend ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’ by Daniel Levitin which is quite readable even though he is talking about some complex subjects.
Something which a lot of adults have said to me over the years goes along the lines of “If only I’d learnt guitar as a child, children learn how to play much easier.” If you’re using this as an excuse not to learn an instrument let me set the record straight – children have as much difficulty learning the guitar as adults. I have taught a lot of children to play guitar and while some will pick things up quickly others will struggle – just like adults do. If only this magical land existed where every child learning guitar can immediately play perfectly when I show them something just once, my job would be so much easier.
Let’s be realistic – learning guitar (or any instrument except possibly triangle) is not easy. But then the benefits to be gained, especially in respect to keeping that brain of ours active, are most definitely worth the effort.
How do I get my fingers to stretch?
Chords like C & F that stretch over 3 frets can be difficult at the beginning. Part of the problem is that we use our weaker hand to make the chords and this takes time to get stronger and for the muscles to stretch. Try placing the third finger into position first for these chords. If it is really proving difficult then it might be an idea to look for a smaller guitar as the frets would be a little bit closer together. You could also try using a capo on the 3rd or 4th fret, this will move your hand into a position where the frets are closer together and make it easier to stretch those fingers. After a few weeks you can try moving the capo back a fret to see if the fingers can now stretch that bit further and over time keep moving the capo back until you are able to play without it.
Every time you position your fingers to play a chord you should be trying to get them just beside the fret as close as is possible. The last part of the previous sentence is important because in some chord shapes it is just not possible to get all the fingers right beside the fret without contorting your hand. You cannot sacrifice the other conditions of finger placement just to stretch to the fret. So you must use your fingertips, have the first knuckle bent, do not let your first finger touch the neck and keep your wrist reasonably straight. This all might seem like an impossible task at first with the C chord but it should in time, with practice, be possible to get all three fingers right beside their respective frets. This should be a conscious part of your practice routine until it is no longer something you need to worry about. Remember don’t hurt your hand trying to get this in your first attempt, stretching muscles will take time, be prepared to give it the time it needs.
I’ve mentioned before in other posts about practice the importance of focus. Some students over the years have told me that they like to practice while watching TV. This is not something that I would recommend. I feel it would be better to focus entirely on the practice for a shorter amount of time instead of spending a longer period only half tuned into the task at hand. There are more and more distractions in our daily lives and our smartphones have become needy tamagotchi (anyone remember them? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamagotchi) that demand our constant attention. So if you intend to improve your playing of an instrument, give yourself and your brain the time that it needs to absorb all the information that is happening while you are practicing.
Remember to practice the elements of your playing that need work. Spending hours playing on autopilot everything that you can already play will not help you to achieve the next level in your playing. An interesting part of the following TED video is that practicing in your mind can also be beneficial. So if you had no instrument to hand but were able to visualise your hands playing a piece that you are currently working on it will help. This isn’t an excuse though to just think about practicing and hope that it will improve your playing. Check out my other posts about practice for guidelines on how long to practice for.
Targeting root notes This is a technique that a lot of beginners struggle with. For example you’re playing a D chord but the chord diagram has an ‘X’ over the 5th and 6th strings meaning that you are not to play those strings. The root note of the chord then is on the first string you can play, in this case the open 4th string. The problem is that when you strum the chord you hit all six strings and this makes your D chord sound, well…not too good. So you need to work on avoiding those ‘X’ strings and start targeting the correct starting point for your chord. I’m afraid I don’t have any quick fix for targeting the root notes, it really is down to practice. The thing to remember about practice is that it needs to be focused, so when trying to improve on a certain technique I would suggest doing it at the start of your practice session when you will be more alert. Try not looking at your right hand and start strumming the chord listening for which string you are hitting until you can hear that you’ve connected with the right string. By doing this you are trying to train your hand to remember the distance that it needs to travel to reach each string. Don’t be worried if you hit the wrong string at the beginning, practice is cumulative and it will improve if you work on it a little bit each day (or even better every time you pick up your guitar). After trying that experiment play the same chord but this time looking at your hand, making sure that each time you play the chord that you’re playing it correctly. Alternate between these two methods to train your hand so that over time you will be able to target whatever string you want without looking at your strumming hand. Check out these previous blog posts about practice and tips for practice
For adults I would say that it’s never too late to learn and to benefit from the many advantages of playing a musical instrument. An instrument like the guitar involves so many different aspects that it can be beneficial on so many levels, (improve coordination & discipline, reduce stress, creative expression) even more so if you are older. The myth is that it’s much easier to learn guitar when you are young. This is really too much of a generalisation, learning guitar is not easy regardless of age and an adult who is motivated to learn can learn as quickly as a child. The biggest hurdle for adults is time or more to the point – time to practice. It is impossible to improve at playing guitar without practice so it becomes essential to try to fit it in around your normal schedule. There have been various studies that suggest to master something (in our case playing an instrument) would take approx. 10,000 hours of practice which translates to about 3 hours of practice everyday for 10 years. Obviously if you start at an early age then this is achievable before you reach your twenties but also it’s worth remembering that these figures are if you want to be a master of the instrument, if you’re just looking to be able to play a few songs most students would reach that stage within a year. If you would like some further reading the book ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell explores this 10,000 hour principle examining high achievers in different fields.
Too young to learn guitar?
If you have a child who is really interested in learning the guitar then age 8 is a good age to start. I have taught children as young as 6 but in my experience it is better to wait until they are a little older, although there are always exceptions. They will need a smaller instrument so a six year old would usually need a ½ size guitar, an eight year old possibly a 3/4 size, but obviously this all depends on how big/small the individual child is. Although the general belief is that children learn things quicker this is not always the case as playing the guitar can’t be learnt by absorbing facts it is a physical thing that needs work therefore interest, motivation and willingness to practice are very big factors in learning an instrument.
Interest is very important and forcing children to learn an instrument because we think it will be good for them is not necessarily the best course of action. Countless times I’ve been told by adults that they hated the lessons on piano/violin or whatever instrument they were forced to learn as children. So it is important for us to make sure the child has an interest first of all. Also if as a parent you have never played an instrument before it is important to realise the amount of work necessary to learn how to play the guitar – it is not easy and requires a great deal of effort. So there needs to time available to practice. Practice has to be done at least 4-5 times a week, if the child doesn’t practice then there is a self-fulfilling downward spiral; no practice leads to no progress which in turn feeds the idea that “I’m not good at this” which can harden into an attitude of “I won’t bother practicing”… and so on.
So this leads to motivation where as a parent you need to encourage your child to practice. Try to incorporate practice into the daily routine eg. always first thing when they arrive home from school or straight after dinner or before they watch tv/play xbox. When we start to see progress, that moment when you can recognise the tune you’re playing, then the willingness to practice will kick in, the realisation that “I can do this” will encourage them to want to practice of their own accord. It is up to parents and teachers to make sure that they reach that stage.
Do I need a metronome? A metronome can be a great tool to help with your practice, it can help you to make sure you are playing ‘in time’ which is a very important part of playing music. But…be aware that if you are just starting to learn an instrument like guitar there is a lot of things to think about, (are my fingers in the right place, are all the strings sounding clearly, have I started strumming the chord from the right string etc. etc.) Adding the extra pressure of a metronome at this stage might actually be more confusing than anything else. So if you are a total novice I would suggest steering clear of metronomes for now. If on the other hand you are able to play all your basic chords and are able to move between them without too much difficulty and need to test yourself on the chord changes then a metronome will be of great benefit.
If you are at a stage in your playing where you are studying scales then a metronome is a must and will help you gauge your progress. Start off playing your scales in 1/4 notes (crochets) at 60bpm then try the same scale in 1/8th notes (quavers) at the same bpm then try 1/16th (semiquavers) again at 60bpm. If you can manage this without any errors (not just wrong notes, also fingering, tone, right-hand coordination) then increase the tempo to 70bpm and try the same process increasing the tempo until you find your limit – the point where errors start to happen. Now you should have an idea what you need to work on. Go back to a slower tempo and work on the element that needs attention (wrong notes, tone etc.) and next session try again until you can play at a higher tempo without errors.
Want to improve your playing – Buy a guitar stand. After your initial investment in your instrument I would suggest your next purchase should be a guitar stand. This will allow you to leave the instrument somewhere that is readily accessible so that you can pick it up when you have a spare moment and get some extra practice in. If your guitar is in its case, under the bed, upstairs in your bedroom and you’re in the kitchen but you have some time to spare, the hassle of going in search of your guitar might tempt you to just put it off until tomorrow. But if you can just pick it up, play a bit and put it back down somewhere handy then I hope it will encourage you to play a bit more. It should be said though that these extra little sessions shouldn’t count as your main practice, they should be used to help you work on something that needs some more time (maybe changing between two difficult chords or a tricky strumming pattern).
For more on this read my previous blog about how to practice
Do I need lessons? I want to learn guitar, there are lots of videos online do I really need to get lessons? I’d follow that with another question – Do you want to learn correctly? Yes there are lots of tutorials on the internet but a video can’t remind you to put your fingers in the right place or make sure if you’re holding the instrument properly and you can’t ask it any questions. Now you might say I’m biased (which I am) but this is coming from years of seeing students arrive for their first lesson not holding the instrument properly and generally falling into what we will call ‘bad habits’. Some of these students might have been playing for years and considered themselves beyond beginner level yet didn’t have the basics right. Bad habits as the name suggests are the opposite of good and usually require a lot of effort to correct. So better to learn correctly at the beginning, a good teacher is not going to let you away with ‘bad habits’. Another factor to consider here is motivation and having a weekly target (ie. your lesson) will help get you practicing so that you’re not wasting your precious time and hard-earned cash.
Don’t get me wrong the internet is a great resource for learning but you have to consider the credentials of whoever you’re taking advice from. Also, and I know this from having produced my own video tutorials, it’s very difficult to make a video that will answer all questions from every variety of student at every level. I suppose my main point is that the crucial stage of learning an instrument is the very beginning and a good start is half the battle.
How long should I practice? You should read the previous blog about practice too. The amount of time you have available will depend on your circumstance (working hours, homework etc.) so you need to decide on a goal for your practice each week and work towards that. (This week I’ll learn how to play an F chord properly or I’ll learn a new scale)
If you have just started learning and have never played an instrument before then about 20mins a day should be fine (if you’re an adult). If you have a young child starting to learn then 5-10mins daily should be ok to start with, the important thing being to encourage them to practice and develop a routine.
If you are at an intermediate stage and want to make some real progress well then at least an hour a day should do it.
If you’re studying classical guitar for example and your preparing for a grade 8 exam I’d say 2 hours a day minimum.
After some time practicing you will get a feel for how long you need to get all your work done and as you start progressing you will feel the need to practice more.