As with any language, the key to learning an instrument is REGULARITY

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How is learning a musical instrument like learning a language?

When I was young I used to hear my parents discussing my musical “talents” with their friends, and reference would often be made of how music and languages go together well. I never really understood why the grown-ups would say this – it just seemed like a trope that got parroted out whenever the subject of my piano playing came up. Certainly, I didn’t feel like I was very good at languages at school, so to my young mind the connection seemed like a very obscure one.

But, with hindsight we don’t need to examine too closely the way music is learned to realise that the parallels with spoken language are actually very strong. In fact, some studies have concluded that music’s origins lie in vocal expressions intended to communicate specific, explicit meanings, i.e. spoken language. (For more on this, you could do worse than reading The Singing Neanderthals by Stephen Mithen).

Music, like spoken language, is a form of organised sound – organised, that is, within the confines of a temporal structure. Moreover, humans use music as a means of individual expression and as a form of social cohesion within groups. We often say that so-and-so song ‘speaks’ to us, and to our emotional centre in particular. We have also developed ways to record the music that we create by writing it down so that it can be communicated over larger distances, across wider expanses of time and to many more people. In this way, it becomes free of the shackles of the time and place that it is performed. As with other forms of written language, we have invented ingenious ways to get our musical ideas down on paper using letters (pitches), words (harmony and rhythm) and phrases (we use the word ‘phrase’ to describe these in music too).

When we learn to play a musical instrument we can do so ‘by ear’, in the same way that stories and poems have been passed on through aural traditions for millennia. We can also learn to read and write music, and this involves a very similar process to that which young children go through when learning to read their native languages – associating the sounds of that language with the symbols we use to record them on paper. It’s all about maximising exposure to both of these simultaneously.

Why do language apps reward daily engagement?

Despite not getting on too well with the modern foreign language lessons back at school, I’ve discovered as an adult that I actually really enjoy learning languages. In fact, trying to get to grips with the fundamentals of the French and Japanese languages has become one of my main pastimes. I enjoy the challenge of mastering grammatical rules and memorising vocabulary, but it’s also a lovely way to link into cultures that are both literally and metaphorically foreign to me.

As with learning music, there are a wide variety of approaches to learning spoken languages. One I’ve found really useful is app ‘Duolingo’. This sets a series of listening, reading and writing exercises for you to complete on a particular subject or aspect of the language you’re learning. There are some really important features of these exercises that are crucial to help the learner to progress and gain confidence:

  1. Each set of exercises is really short – I can usually complete them in between 3 and 10 minutes.
  2. They focus on one particular aspect, skill, grammatical rule or set of vocabulary.
  3. There is lots of repetition.

As with most language learning apps, Duolingo is set up to motivate students to engage with their learning in lots of short, sharp chunks. Not only are the sets of exercises short, allowing students just to dip into them when they have five or ten minutes to spare, but the system also rewards you when you come back to learn regularly. Firstly, it keeps a tab on the number of days in a row that you’ve played (giving you a ‘streak’ score – 1 point for each day). You can also earn in-game points (gems and ‘XP’) when you visit more than once a day.

There’s a simple rationale behind this: the makers of Duolingo know that the more often students visit the platform and do their language learning exercises, the more likely they are to increase their skill and confidence levels, thus enjoying the process more and so be more likely to want to do more. In other words, regular practise is self-perpetuating: the more you do it, the more you get out of it and the more you want to do it. (Of course, for the Duolingo programmers, that also means more advertising revenue for them, but that’s beside the point).

You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s exactly the same for learning music (or anything else, really). The more you do, the more you want to do. Learning in regular, short bursts tends to help learners pick things up in manageable chunks, allowing them to recognise their own improvement and then motivating them to do more. That’s why I always tell my instrumental and vocal students that it’s less important to count how much time you spend practising than it is to keep track of how long the gaps are between practise sessions – if you can practise at least once a day, even for a short period of time, that’s better than long practises that are less frequent and less regular.

How long should I practise for?

‘So, I should sit down at my piano or pick up my ukulele once or twice a day, but how long should I then spend playing?’

Again, we can learn a lot from the language learning apps here. To me, how much time you practise for comes down to your personal availability of time – some people clearly have a lot more leisure time than others. However, as we see on Duolingo, it’s not what you’ve got but what you do with it – you’ll recall that the exercises are organised around themes, with lots of repetition included to drive the message home. When we do our instrumental practise we take the same approach: the main body of our practise session should focus on just one or two specific things. What you’re currently learning will determine what those things are, but some examples could be:

  • Mastering the fingering of a particular passage.
  • Memorising the lyrics of a verse that you’re singing.
  • Working on some technical aspect such as the accuracy of a particular arpeggio run, or getting the intonation right when bending electric guitar strings.
  • Putting the hands together on the piano piece you’ve been working on, remembering to work phrase by phrase, bar by bar or even beat by beat.
  • Firming up your muscle memory by incrementally increasing the tempo on your metronome – playing through the same passage over and over again as it gets quicker.

In an ideal world, you’ll also have time for some warm-up exercises, a play through some of the less challenging pieces you learned recently, and to perform some of your favourite music just for fun. If this is the case, that’s great – organise your practise time accordingly. But, if you only have 5 minutes, it’s better to get right on with the focused task that you have planned for the day. And, remember, tomorrow you might either repeat the same focused work, or else move onto the next piece of the puzzle.

Can I still learn through ‘passive’ exposure?

Lots of activities can compliment your practise regime. In addition to working through the structured language courses on Duolingo, I listen to the French and Japanese radio stations, read the news on websites from those countries, and always keep an eye out for books about the language and culture of these places. It’s not so much a holistic approach as a way of contextualising the language work that I do.

Again, we can draw parallels with music. Most people encounter music all the time in their day to day lives, listening to the radio in the car, in the background in a cafe, or listening for leisure and relaxation. The trick to turning this passive experience into a valuable contribution to your instrumental learning is to bridge the gap between just listening and taking a little bit more notice of what’s going on. This is especially the case in situations where you get to see as well as hear professional musicians performing – next time you’re watching Glastonbury on TV, really keep an eye on what that bass player is doing, how her playing is contributing to the overall texture of the music, and try to notice any specific notes, phrases, patterns or techniques that she’s performing.

Taking the opportunity to watch live music in person is even better – if you’re learning some Chopin for your piano grade, why note keep an eye out for classical music programmes in the area. You’re sure to find professionals performing music similar in style to that which you’ve been learning. Not only is it inspiring but doing so can provide insights into how music of a particular genre could be approached from an aesthetic perspective.

Do you have friends or family who enjoy playing music? Maybe one or two of them even perform in public or go to open mic nights. Here there’s even more opportunity to learn.. yes, from what you see and hear on the stage, but also by talking to your contacts about how they approach a song, a technique or even just how they manage their nerves up there under the spotlight.

How can we increase how regularly we are actively exposed to music?

If you want to make any activity a regular feature of your life then the best thing you can do is to make that activity a habit – something you habitually do each day or whenever you’re afforded the time and opportunity.

Some people build habit into their lives by being really strict about their schedules – spending, say, 20 minutes doing this thing at 8am and at 5pm every weekday and 11am on the weekends. If you go to school or have a job with very rigid hours then this can be an excellent way to get started. You needn’t be too severe with yourself if you miss the odd session, but hopefully scheduling in sessions at times of the day that you know you are usually available will help you to build a routine that will become completely natural.

I think it can be more difficult for people who’s schedules are less rigid – those of us who are self-employed, go to college or university, or who are retired. But, it’s still possible to build habits and routines around flexible working and family commitments. For example, I try to include some language learning and some exercise (running, walking or cycling) into every day. Because my days are all different, with students coming and going all day long, I just need to make sure that I plan each day as it comes. Today I managed to squeeze in my French language practise while I was having breakfast, and I’ll try to get out for some fresh air sometime in the early evening. Tomorrow will be different, but that’s alright as long as I try to make the time somewhere in my day for the things that matter to me. And, as I said, if worst comes to worst and I don’t manage it, then I’ll do my best to fit it in tomorrow. The key is to avoid succumbing to defeatism or, worse, overt self-admonishment. Just accept that you can’t always do everything you want to, and look forward to when you next can.

How do my lessons fit into this?

I see my music teaching role to be one primarily of guidance – showing my students the path that they will need to walk to get to where they’re trying to go. Walking the path, taking it step by step, is what my students do in their practise time. The reason for regular lessons as well as regular practise is, if you’ll excuse the ongoing metaphor, that students who are left to their own devices can get lost, encounter a junction, stray one way or the other, or get themselves stuck somewhere.

What I try to do in lessons is to show my students a clear way ahead, and agree to meet them again a short way further up to path where we’ll reconvene, assess how things are going and decide on the next steps. I hope that with my guidance and support students will find their learning journey easier, clearer and more fulfilling than they otherwise would. Hopefully, I can also be a cheery companion who will massively increase their chances of getting to where they want to go, and make it a fun and pleasant trip!

How do I book a regular lesson slot?

Lots of my students book their lessons one at a time, and that’s absolutely fine. I understand fully that in financial times such as these, music lessons are a luxury and one that many people can only indulge in with careful planning of their budget. However, if you are in circumstances that allow you to book your lessons in advance, then it’s worth remembering that my online booking system will allow you to book a slot up to 12 weeks in advance. This is especially important if you have restrictions as to the days and times that you’re available for lessons. Just click on the link below:

Choose the date and time of your first lesson, then choose the option to either book a recurring slot (i.e. the same time on the same day of the week for a specified number of weeks or fortnights ahead), or choose to “Add a time” (this will allow you to select additional lesson slots to book on the one transaction.

And, of course, if it’s not possible or practical for you to book your lessons a long time into the future, you can always come onto my website on the day that you would like to book a lesson and see what’s available. Most days you will find available slots that you can book up to 2 hours before the lesson start time.

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