After teaching one-on-one for more than twenty-five years I have a good understanding of the successes and difficulties people have with learning to play music. Every thing I have ever played, studied or taught boils down to some simple facts, and the most basic one is that music is a language. This is not a new idea to mankind, but it’s something I want to point out as its relevancy is often missed.
As you communicate with spoken words, you communicate with notes and sounds. There are only so many symbols, sounds and words to understand, and when you learn them you can speak, read and understand what it’s all about. Then, one either develops a small yet functional vocabulary or a large and involved one. And as people learn to speak before learning to read, learning to play music before learning to read music is an efficient first step. (And did you know there are only six little shapes that make up most of written music?)
You can break down the musical language into three categories: melody, harmony and rhythm. Melody is a series of single notes (note: a specific musical sound), Harmony is combinations of notes and Rhythm is the placement of sounds and notes. Besides physical technique and lyrics – that’s all there is to the mechanical fundamentals. The mechanics of music are finite. The creative application is unlimited.
To get more out of your playing, or get re-started if you’ve stopped, you can address your understanding of these elements, increase your vocabulary and clear up any confusions you’ve had. Start by looking up these words in a SIMPLE dictionary, as music dictionaries can get extremely involved. Also look up any related words you think of, then take your new understanding and listen to lot’s of music. Within that music find some melody, find some harmony and tap out some rhythms you hear; get some “ears-on” application.
Speaking of ears, you’ve heard of “playing by ear”? This means to hear or conceive sounds and duplicate what they are on your instrument. Some people do this naturally to a certain degree, whereas most people have to work at it. But all this entails is gaining some understanding of the language-the relationships of the sounds to each other.
As the intention behind the words you speak are actually the true communication, when the sounds you play parallel the sounds in your “inner ear” the music is truly alive and meaningful. This is easier to learn then one might think.
Two additional things you can do to increase your musical vocabulary are to 1) play single notes on an instrument and match them with your voice, and 2) create some simple sounds in your head and sing them: try to match what you create in your inner ear with your voice.
These are some main entrance points to learning the language of music.
An interesting part of teaching has been getting the idea across to students that you can’t experience something until you actually experience it; and you can’t experience it until you can actually do it. As you don’t know what it’s like to sit on a horse until you sit on a horse, you don’t really know what it’s like to play something well until you actually play something well! And until you actually hear something, recognize it and play on it on your instrument the first time you try, you haven’t experienced “playing by ear.” To learn these things, calm, relaxed and efficient practicing is necessary. There’s no way around this.
On a physical level, the purpose of practicing is to work out the kinks and hesitations to develop control over what you’re playing. To play with a tense body is like driving a car with the emergency brake on. Practicing too fast is like speeding through the mountains and screeching around the corners-you will most likely end up in a tree. You need to develop relaxed control before going fast-even with playing one note. Learn to relax when you play!
For ear training, practicing achieves a familiarity with sounds and what they are called. It’s similar to knowing what words mean versus being able to say them without understanding their definitions. An infant most likely doesn’t know what “green” is until someone points to something green and says “This is green”. It’s the same thing with ear training. You take some sounds, learn what they’re called and how to play them, then drill listening to and identifying them. Then as you can know and recognize a few different colors, or many of them, you learn to recognize a few musical sounds, or hundreds of them: small vocabulary-large vocabulary.
A major part of learning the language of music is practicing at the right speed; the speed at which you can actually DO whatever it is, then through repetition gaining control and certainty.(And some things need to be repeated hundreds of times before you get it-so be patient!) Then once you can do whatever it is, you can get it faster and more fluid. Practicing too fast is probably the number one boo-boo students make.
There are many elements to the language, and until the pieces are put together the puzzle remains unfinished. When I teach I spend a great deal of time simply filling in the holes that people have in their puzzles, and creating sequences of things to do to complete the picture: small picture or big picture.
Whether you are learning your first songs, learning to read or filling in the holes, find something you want to improve and create a realistic practice routine. Put your puzzle together piece by piece and eventually the picture will appear and you’ll speak more of the language of music.