Musical Myth Number 1: Being able to play an instrument is a unique, innate skill. You either have it, or you don’t.
I have to admit, this was a view I was forced to agree with during my formative years. This was partly due to the fact that many relatives would constantly remind me of this fact anytime I even thought about going near an instrument and also my early attempts didn’t really help to dispell the myth.
My first brush with musical destiny came in the form of that incredibly versatile ‘instrument’ – the Triangle. Hey – don’t mock. Those things are more difficult to master than you think. It was always going to be an ambitious undertaking – a primary school production of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’. I was a precocious 7 year old with something to prove and a will to succeed. ‘Better to burn out than fade away’ I remember thinking, as I anxiously waited for my single note at the crescendo of the first movement. My eyes grew wide with expectancy and my little 7 year old heart quickened slightly as I heard the music rising majestically to it’s conclusion. Wait for it . . . wait for it . . . and . . . now!
However, the only sound I created in that performance was a dull thud, followed by a sharp intake of breath, as I missed the triangle and clobbered my thumb with the beater. My teacher was frantically ‘stage whispering’ for me to try again, but to no avail. My remaining energy was spent on holding back my tears of shame and embarassment.
“Don’t worry,” said my Dad, “you tried your best. Some people just aren’t musical.”
Two years on and you find me now as a slightly over confident nine year old. My self belief had certainly taken a battering from the ‘Triangle Incident’ (as it became known), but I still loved music and felt that it was only a matter of time before my virtuosity would make itself apparent. Finally it would appear that the time was at hand, when our teacher produced a small corduroy bag that contained a musical instrument that we could all learn. I could barely contain my excitement as she theatrically pulled out . . . the Recorder! Wow! ‘What is it?’ I thought. I just knew it was going to be my passport to musical greatness and couldn’t wait to hand over my mum’s hard cash for that little baby. I can still remember my disappointment when I finally got hold of one, along with the book of tunes that we could learn.
“Er, Miss? There seems to be a printing error in my music book. It only seems to contain variations of the same 3 pieces of music – London’s Burning, Frere Jacques and Three Blind Mice.”
Come on. When was a rendition of London’s Burning ever going to stoke the fires of musical creativity (no pun intended)?
“Yes, but we can all do different parts and do a ’round’!” the teacher cried enthusiastically.
It has to be said, I have since realised the Recorder does hold a certain charm – The Beatles, Fool On The Hill anyone? But, such things were a far from my mind as my frustration and lack of patience lead to me ‘accidentally’ losing the instrument a few months after starting my lessons.
“Well, you’re not having another one if you don’t find it,” warned my mum.
Oh well. Never mind.
Which leads us to what, for many years, I considered to be my ‘strike 3’. I was progressing gently from a Triangle to the Recorder to . . .the Violin – of course! It was the next logical choice. Everybody knows the old ‘Triangle-Recorder-Violin’ method. And I just knew that it would be easy. It was just a little wooden thing with 4 strings that you played with an old piece of horse hair – how hard could it be?!
Fortunately, the school had agreed to lend pupils an instrument to get them started and see how we would get on with it. We got to take our own violins home the night before our first lesson. I couldn’t wait to get it out of the box and start playing. I lasted about 15 minutes before the cat had a seizure and my parents began inadvertently teaching me some new swear words. I wasn’t perturbed though. I knew I’d be fine after my first lesson. Just needed to know ‘what the notes were’.
With hindsight I think the violin teacher probably recognized it was a mistake to try to teach eight 10 year old boys at the same time. We didn’t even make it to the end of the first half an hour lesson before he ‘asked us to leave’. The problem arose even before we had put the bow to the strings. The teacher would start at one end of the line correcting our posture and instrument position and no sooner had he moved to the next pupil, the previous kid would slightly lower his elbow or arch his back slightly. After about 20 minutes he was a nervous wreck, running up and down the line moving an arm here or adjusting a hunched shoulder there. It looked like some strange Japanese game show. Obviously we found this completely hilarious and could not contain our amusement, meaning we moved out of position even more. We had our instruments immediately confiscated and were told to get out before we’d even had a chance to play a note.
Typical state school. They give up on you so easily.
After some consideration I was forced to admit, it had to be true: You can either do it or you can’t. So although I toyed with playing keyboard when I was 12 (I got one for Christmas and spent the next few weeks trying out all the different sounds and pretending to play along with the demo track) I pretty much ditched the idea of ever being able to play an instrument.
I joined a band as a singer when I was 16 and although I was mercilessly teased for not being able to play an instrument I still didn’t have the courage to try to learn to play anything. I found this really frustrating as even before I played an instrument I was always keen to write song melodies and lyrics – but you try communicating with a guitarist when you don’t even know what a chord is. Most of them will just mock you and then play a Blues lick really loud just to compound your ineptitude.
That was until a few years later, I met my friend and co song writer, George. Here was a guy that was a great player, but had loads of patience and actively encouraged me to suggest where the melody should go. After a while of playing and writing together, he finally convinced me to pick up the guitar and have a go myself. His view was, and still is, if you are prepared to put enough time and enthusiasm in to it, then anyone can learn. So I got my first guitar, George showed me some stuff and I started to learn simple songs. I cannot tell you the thrill I got when I first managed to play Peggy Sue. Not long after that I started writing my first simple songs and from then on I fell in love with the guitar.
That was now over ten years ago, and I have to admit my playing ability did pretty much peak quite a few years ago. I got to a level where I could play most simple songs and write my own little tunes and pretty much left it at that. Which is fine. Some people want to be able to play to the level of Rock God. Some, like me, just want to play, sing and write stuff. I let George do all the complicated stuff.
So don’t let your doubts, or those of other people, dissuade you from having a go. Learning to play an instrument is one of the best things you can do. It’s great for improving mental focus and dexterity not to mention being great fun. If I can do it, with my terrible musical history, then anyone can. I would love to hear how you get on.
The BBC have a site which is a great place for info on how to get started and why it’s a good idea. http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/playitagain/
If you are thinking about guitar lessons and are local to Leicestershire in the UK, I wholeheartedly suggest checking out the George’s Go Guitar Lessons Website.
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