Learning a new instrument fills a musician with pride and confidence, but the longterm benefits don’t end there. In fact, learning a new instrument has been linked to better memory and brain development for those that start at a young age – studies show that musicians tend to be more mentally alert, and a musician’s improved reaction time is correlated to their consistency in playing their favorite instrument.
While that might be enough to get some people to begin taking up guitar or piano or saxophone, far too many others who have an interest in learning a new instrument never take the time to actively pursue it.
The Barriers to Entry
So what stops many people from choosing an instrument that interests them and just going for it?
Some people believe that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks” – the notion that if you’re an older adult who is relatively set in your ways, learning an instrument will be too complex for your mind.
For others, learning a new instrument sounds great on the surface, and they understand the benefits it can bring to their lives… but being able to balance the interest in learning an instrument while also juggling the rigors of being an adult – a full-time job, a spouse, raising children – is far too challenging.
But the two above excuses pale in comparison with the biggest obstacles most people face – the worry of making a mistake and the fear of failure.
These fears extend far beyond just the realm of music learning. It’s in our nature to try to find reasons to not accomplish a goal we know is important when it involves the risk of messing up or failing.
Your friend, for example, may know that he needs to lose weight. He understands that there are successful methods in place to help him live a healthier lifestyle. And he is certainly aware of the mental and physical benefits of being slimmer.
However, overhauling your lifestyle is a difficult and daunting task – it’s so much more comforting to go to that family barbecue, eat cheeseburgers, and guzzle soda.
Falling into these old patterns of behavior feels good because of its familiarity. When something is familiar, it’s not scary. And if it’s not scary, you’re free from fear.
When seated nicely in your comfort zone, you never have to worry about making mistakes. You’re the master of your own cushy domain.
Fear: The Ultimate Musical Bogeyman
In truth, our mistakes are much bigger than simply making the wrong choices when presented with smarter options. In fact, when it comes to music learning, the fear of making mistakes can be crippling.
Some people are monumentally hard on themselves, or terribly embarrassed about being judged by others, so the idea of sitting with an accomplished individual that knows a given instrument like the back of their hand feels daunting.
In fact, if you’re an older adult that’s had a lot of success in your personal and professional life, it can feel downright intimidating to sit down to play the acoustic guitar or violin or keyboard and commit errors in front of your teacher.
The truth is, as human beings, many of us fear failure. And any time you’re posed with the opportunity to move outside of your comfort zone in order to have an enriching experience, the fear of failing can be so strong that it creates a “fight or flight” response within the body.
And many people do choose to take flight, running as far away as possible from the chance to learn a new instrument.
To have a new experience.
To acquire a new skill or tap into a talent that’s gone dormant.
A Necessary Evil
The problem with this choice is that it’s antithetical to the learning process. Whether you’re learning to ride a bike or play the piano, mistakes are a necessary evil.
”Nobody comes out of the womb being proficient in anything – not even the rare child prodigy. One has to hone his or her skills through commitment and hard work.”
You have to fall off your bike a couple of times before you understand how to properly balance your body weight on two wheels. And you have to hit the wrong notes a few times before you truly master the music alphabet.
When we have a fear of making a mistake, we make a mental connection to both danger and judgement. When it comes to music learning, it’s important to remember that your music teacher is present to help grow your skills, not shrink your ego. Wherever you choose to take music lessons is a safe space for all who enter. The only danger is in not walking through the front door.
Will you be a perfect student? No. Will you make mistakes? Absolutely. But it’s important to make mistakes.
You cannot learn how to play an instrument properly without seeing where you erred, and then using those mistakes as your foundation to master the instrument.
Holding your violin bow the wrong way initially and being corrected by your teacher will enable you to master the correct hold. Messing up a difficult bar or two leads you to hone in on the tricky spot and play it through until it’s no longer a problem area. Ineffective practice, with self-reflection and adjustment, will turn into deliberate practice.
For the Long Haul
Nobody comes out of the womb being proficient in anything – not even the rare child prodigy. One has to hone his or her skills through commitment and hard work.
Learning a new instrument is as much about the mind as it is about the body – both your memory and your muscle memory improve over time. How fast they improve is directly tied to your commitment to practice and repetition. Because learning a new instrument is very much a mental exercise, it would be wise to understand that your mental attitude helps set the tone for whether you will have success over the long term.
If you accept the challenge of learning a new instrument from a positive point of view – that you understand it won’t be mastered overnight, but through repeated practice and perseverance you will accomplish your goal – then you are already halfway there.
”Nobody loves hearing this, but learning an instrument is going to take a whole lot of good, hard work.”
LeBron James isn’t successful because he’s physically gifted. LeBron James is successful because he works hard at his craft. He’s dedicated. He’s persistent.
He doesn’t always find ultimate success in the form of a Championship ring every single year, but he doesn’t let his fear of failure hurt his chase for that success. Instead, he learns from his mistakes. He works hard in the off-season to get better. And he’s always back on the basketball court come the Fall.
This is how you achieve success in learning anything in life – especially a new instrument.
So, you have the positive mindset you need to embark on your musical journey. You have accepted that mistakes and failure will be a part of it – as will triumphs, breakthroughs, and revelations.
So how do you translate your mentality and musical goals into action?
Nobody loves hearing this, but learning an instrument is going to take a whole lot of good, hard work. This will mean playing the same tricky passage over and over until you’ve mastered it, wrapping your head around some difficult theory, and listening to criticism.
Practice everyday, even if some days, it’s only for ten minutes. If you’re learning alone through books or an online course, read them multiple times and take notes, if needed. If you’re getting in-person lessons from a teacher, never be afraid to ask for additional help. Internalize the music alphabet and learn to speak the musical language – these basics go a long way.
And remember: whatever mental gymnastics your mind is doing to keep you in a safe, familiar pattern, the truth is that can learn a new instrument. Failure only becomes a reality if you’re unwilling to take your shot.
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