by Graham Trudeau
To start with a controversial statement; playing an instrument is fun, and provides valuable cultural and intellectual connections. Strangely, a similar premium is not placed on the ability to learn multiple instruments. I’d suggest that the value of learning a single musical instrument applies to every musical instrument you can learn. While the benefit to composers is most evident, the benefit for solo players is also substantial. Familiarizing yourself with another musical instrument changes how you think about music, as the varying pitches and techniques of each instrument broaden the scope and flexibility of your mindset. Similarly, learning the techniques required to play a new instrument can improve how you play an instrument you have more experience with, and spur ideas for innovative playing techniques.
With those benefits in mind, I suggest the following steps as ways to learn that weird instrument that you’ve been meaning to find out how to play.
1) Find detailed information sources regarding the instrument you wish to learn
Finding comprehensive sources for information on your instrument is an excellent way to ensure that your knowledge doesn’t have any superfluous gaps. Extremely popular instruments have a wide range of options in this regard: in addition to conventional texts, professionally made online video resources for instruments such as guitar and violin are freely available, and can be assisted by similarly numerous text resources. Slightly more niche instruments, such as the banjo, may require purchasing an introductory book from a music retailer in order to augment available, but low quality online resources. Exotic, ethnic, and specialty instruments will most likely require purchasing texts tailor made for the purpose of comprehensive self-teaching, due cultural and linguistic differences between you, and the country where the instrument is most popular. These specialty texts are most widely available through online retailers.
2) Familiarize yourself with basic care, tuning, and idiomatic techniques
While not particularly exciting, basic instrument care helps protect your instrument, and helps to avoid basic pitfalls which hinder your learning. In the event that you are playing a used instrument, it may also help you to identify parts of your instrument which need repair. Similarly, ensuring your instrument is properly tuned is an easy step in towards a smooth learning experience. Idiomatic techniques – common practices such as posture, playing methods, and standard progressions – are all important if you wish to play properly and with some degree of technical proficiency, rather than just carrying the same skills from one instrument to another. Additionally, idiomatic practices often have specialized notation, so learning the technique will result in easier, more nuanced reading.
3) Identify how pitches are arranged across the instrument
Identifying the positioning of pitches across your instrument is obviously required to produce any music on an instrument, but analyzing their arrangement in relation to your existing knowledge is an important step. It allows you to more effectively convert your existing musical knowledge between instruments – is it easier to move a semitone, or a perfect fifth? Are there alternate positions that make playing a certain interval easier? If the instrument can produce two intervals equally well, is there an implicit difference in timbre that makes one more appealing than the other? Analyzing an instrument like this is useful not only for informing your playing, but for determining which idiomatic techniques have endured due to legitimate merit, and which have been maintained due to tradition.
4) Find something fun to play
A short and simple step. While technical training is valuable (and should be practiced), scales aren’t going to leave you wanting to come back to your new instrument. Picking an enjoyable song to play will leave you wanting to practice more. Something with sustained notes is often a good choice, as it allows you to practice the techniques that go into actually sustaining a tone with your instrument, like embouchure, bowing, etc. Additionally, a song with a tempo that scales well is a good choice (dances are a strong option here), as it will let you initially focus on basic playing techniques, shifting focus to speed and clarity as you become more comfortable with the instrument.
5) Watch expert players
Watching professional musicians perform is an excellent way to expand what you know about your instrument. You may take away something as simple as a alternate posture which works better for you, or some strange extended technique you love the sound of. Simply, it’s a good way to see the numerous ways and instrument can be properly played.
Congratulations, you can now play a new instrument.