Teach Yourself to Play

I want to preface by saying that a teacher, or mentor is invaluable. They hear you differently than you hear yourself, they can correct any posture, or ergonomic issues, and they can guide you. You will learn faster with a teacher. That said, let’s take a look at how to teach yourself to play an instrument.

You love music! It shaped your high school years, early adulthood, it helped you choose your friends. But you find yourself saying, “I wish I learned to play when I was younger.” You still can. I did, and at age 30 I started teaching myself to play.

I didn’t have the time or money to spend on lessons, and from what I remember from my childhood, I hated spending my Saturday afternoons fingering boring scales and playing songs that my teacher wanted me to play but I didn’t. Still, I wanted to learn an instrument. Why did I choose to start learning something I didn’t know I would enjoy? What kept me going when I was bored of it? These will be questions that arise in your mind, and I’m going to give you some information that will help you overcome those walls. I will enable you to get to the point where you can say, “I’m glad I finally taught myself to play!”.

First, you need to ask yourself why do you want to learn? Some just have a yearning, and it’s easily understood to be a desire to play a musical instrument. Others have friends that need a bass player for their band. For me, it was because I started as a lyricist and wanted to be better able to communicate my compositional ideas to the musicians with whom I was working (my brothers). I wanted to be like them, have that fun they shared with each other, but also to be an artist. To create a song like Pearl Jam’s Jeremy, or The Boss’s I’m On Fire. Wow! Imagine writing a song that you never got sick of hearing; you never got sick of playing! To create an album like The Wall, or The White Album!

Keep in mind what your ultimate goal is, and continually strive for it.

Figuring out YOUR instrument

Teach Yourself to Play an Instrument

The second step is figuring out what instrument you want to teach yourself to play. I started learning on keyboard because the price was right, it took up minimal space, and I could plug in headphones, protecting the ears of my loved ones from my mistakes. Each of us has an instrument that draws us to music. You hear that cool distorted guitar, the beautiful piano whose keys seem to magically roll under the pianist’s fingers, or that bass groove that gets everyone dancing.

When you get learning your chosen instrument you realize that it has a personality much like your own. The bassist is a team player, he’s there for the song; the link between drums and guitar. The guitarist is flashy, with his solos and stage presence; larger than life. The pianist has gentleness and strength. When you find the instrument that matches your personality, you know you’ve found the right one to start with. You may find that you would rather play something else. After two years of loving keyboard, I found that I wanted to learn a string instrument. I tried guitar, but it didn’t click with me. The moment I strapped on the bass, however, I knew that this is the ONE!

Tools you'll need

Finally, you need the tools to get started with. You can’t buy a harmonica and immediately know how to play it. You need to learn how to purse your lips just right to be able to blow into only one of those little holes. Then you need to get the feel for the spacing between the notes and how far to move the harmonica across your mouth, etc. These tools are: knowledge, experience, desire. Each one of these tools is directly related to each other. Knowledge does not come without desire. More knowledge leads to more experience, which in turn builds desire. As you teach yourself, and strengthen your tools, the music will flow more naturally from you.

For example, when I was beginning to play, my brother-in-law came over and I had a set of little souvenir bongo drums. He took them and, without any accompaniment, played a piece of music. Now to him, it was just beating the drums. But he had been playing drums for so long, that when he hit them, music resounded! It just flowed out of him! I thought, ‘that’s where I want to get to. I want to do that.’

Getting Started

I highly recommend learning music theory. You may not need to in order to learn your particular instrument but it’s a must to becoming a great musician. The gems hidden throughout the language of music are worth finding. They will increase the depth and power of any future music you write/play.

Moving on.

Teaching yourself how to play an instrument can become difficult, frustrating, and time consuming. So much time and energy seems to be put into figuring out how to make sound come out of your instrument. Or in setting it up, proper posture, form. Just remember why you began learning to play. Remember also that you don’t need to be a genius to figure this stuff out. Children, the disabled, unschooled, elderly, all learn to play, so why can’t you?

Let’s focus on obtaining the tools

We’ve got desire, but experience and knowledge have yet to plug in and join the session. The knowledge is out there. You just have to Google ‘free music lessons’ and all sorts of information appears. You can come back to rhythmic.ca and have access to lessons on theory, reading music, instrument care (I’ll be posting future articles on bass and guitar adjustments and setups), etc. The knowledge is out there for the taking.

Once you’ve got your first bit of knowledge, you go to your instrument and immediately get your first bit of experience. You just discovered where ‘middle C’ is on the piano! Congratulations! No, that is not sarcasm, not in the least. Welcome to the world of music. You just applied yourself and used all three tools to begin your journey.

A little bit of time and work later, we’ve got some experience. Now we can go beyond the basic A through G, flats and sharps and delve into scales, modes, styles, harmony, in no particular order. You may find that some one tells you that there is an order you should go in. That you should learn scales first, then chords, or whatever.. Try it, why not? If it’s not fun, if it doesn’t get you feeling it, then try something else. Music does have rules, but the more you learn, you find out that the rules can be bent, broken, and even dismissed.

Becoming a Musician

Developing a good practice regimen is always a good idea. You need your warm ups! Find the stretches needed for your particular instrument, these will enable you to play for many years. Find some instrument-specific exercises. These will help develop both your physical dexterity, and your understanding of the instrument. And PLAYING. That’s where the feeling is. You should PLAY your exercises, too. Try to make everything musical.

Playing is all about feel. The feel for the instrument, for your body positioning, for the music. You need to feel it. So, when you’re flustered and don’t know how to proceed, just learn something! A new song, a new chord, a new way to finger your way through a passage. Buy a book, magazine, new set of strings. Something to make you feel it. Music is all about feeling! It makes us sad or happy, gets us dancing, grooving, wiggling (LMFAO!). FEEL IT! Listen to your favourite song. Break it down, analyze it, or just love it.

When you’re tired of your instrument or just plain bored, try talking to a fellow musician. Go to a music store and listen to the wide variety of players, both in styles and skill levels. For me, going to the store and playing a bass that I can’t afford, or plugging into a huge amp, is what encourages me. It’s a lot of fun, but when I get home to my bass and I clean it, then tune it, and put a bit of love into it, then when I pluck those strings, I remember why I love my bass and don’t need that $2,500 piece of wood. This is my baby. My musical love. Next thing I know, half an hour has flown by, and I just got my practice time in. I also keep my instrument easily accessible. If you don’t need to dig it out and do some sort of assembling, you will be more inclined to pick it up. Especially when time is a factor.

It’s simple to fall in love with music. When you teach yourself to play, you're in the process of falling in love. And it’s a love that always grows and never tires! Have fun!