A 22-year-old once told me “I always wanted to play the fiddle.”
“Why don’t you take it up now?” I asked her.
“I’m too old.” She said.
This, to me, was very sad. Sometimes all it takes is just a little courage to pick up an instrument and use it.
I have learned to play four instruments, some better than others. My first instrument was piano, taking lessons when I was 7 years old. I learned to play flute classically, in school. It wasn’t until I was well into my 20’s that I taught myself to play bass guitar. My most recent (and my most favorite) instrument is acoustic guitar.
When I realized that I could play whatever I wanted by ear or by intuition, it opened up a whole new world to me. Most classical teachers will tell you that you should have classical training first until you are fully versed and then you can feel free to experiment. Though I do somewhat agree with them, I would lean more on the “feeling free to experiment” side of things. Every human is an artist. The problem is that people, especially children, can be over-taught, leaving no room for artistic expression. Then instead of being able to use music, or any kind of art, to help them therapeutically with their feelings, they are forced to turn to something else as an outlet. If they run out of positive options they may turn to harmful alternatives.
That being said, there are definitely some basics that you have to physically learn. You can take lessons, but, if you are like me and you just want to be alone with your music and experiment, here are some tips I will give you:
1. Ask yourself in your heart what you really want to play. Go for that instrument, and do not think about whether it would be “too hard” to learn. All instruments are as easy and as hard as others, just in different ways. If it’s the one in your heart, you will take the time to learn to play it. If you try to learn something for any other reason I guarantee that it will sit on the shelf unused. If you like to sing I would strongly suggest learning to play an instrument that you can play chords on, not a wind instrument or percussion instrument. Pianos, guitars, banjos, etc. are great all-in-one instruments that you can sing your heart out with.
For further reading on deciding on an instrument, try Understanding Musical Instruments – How to Select Your Instrument by Jack Levine and Takeru Iijima: j 781.9 L. This book is directed towards children but I think it can help anyone. What I like about this book is the attitude the authors take towards music as artistic expression. It details all types of instruments.
2. Try to borrow the instrument from someone or buy a cheap used one. Don’t use a piece of garbage because you’ll just get frustrated, but don’t invest a lot of money until you’ve played for a little while and know what you want.
3. If you have a friend who plays this instrument, ask if they can give you a rudimentary lesson. For instance, if it’s guitar, ask them to teach you a few easy chords like G, Em, C, D. That is a song. There are hundreds of songs you can play with just those 4 chords. If you can play a song you will be able to instantly have fun, which will give you the motivation to continue learning and adding on new chords and new techniques as you go.
Here are some song books with easy chord structure:
Rise Up Singing 784.4 RIS
This Land is Your Land: Songs of America 784.4 THI
Songs of Work and Protest 784.4 FOW
Folksinger’s Wordbook 781.62 SIL
4. I think the best training you can give yourself in music is to learn music theory. If you can understand chord structure and scales you are halfway to learning any instrument.
Rudiments of Music by John Castellini (j 780.7 C) is a very thorough work on music theory, including teaching you to read music, which, in my opinion, is not necessary but definitely helpful.
5. Check out some books at OWL on how to play whatever instrument you are excited about. Here are some popular ones:
Play Drums Today by Ashley Brown (789.1 BRO)
Bass Guitar: From Basics to Bassist by Paul Scott (787.87 SCO) (This includes a CD)
The Folksinger’s Guitar Guide by Jerry Silverman (787.6 SIL) Please check out page 6 for Woody Guthrie’s note on guitar playing. I couldn’t agree more!
Popular Piano Self-Taught by Win Stormen (786.3 STO)
The Complete Guitar Course by Tom Fleming (787.871 FLE) Note: This book is awesome! There is a whole section on virtually every guitar chord. You can copy the pages in our copier for 15 cents a piece and keep them handy at home.
6. Play when no one else is around and express what is in your soul. If you can do this, you can turn to your instrument to help you therapeutically. This is much better to do than turning to a destructive vice in “times of trouble”.
Don’t forget, you’re never too old to learn something new!
Jesse Lee Harmon is the bookkeeper & library assistant at OWL and is currently humming her own song…