In this space I will usually write about things relating to music, teaching, learning and related topics that pertain to my area of expertise.  My goal is to make it interesting and informative enough for you to want to read it and take away something that you can use.

So...for this one...let’s talk about what it’s like to learn a musical instrument.

As I teach, I sit across from many, many students from all walks of life.  Inasmuch as everyone is different, everyone has the same thing in mind - “I want to learn to play this instrument!”  

The goal in itself is fairly simple, with many deeper levels of complexity that most students don’t think about.  After all, most people that start learning an instrument for the first time are usually just “hanging on by the skin of their teeth” for the first few months....or more.  If there is an equivalent to Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs in the musical world, most students are at the lower end of the pyramid just seeking survival.

Peak experiences are not even part of the students’ thinking and honestly will not be for quite some time.

In fact, I have told many an adult learner that starting a program of learning a stringed instrument is going to be uncomfortable at best, for a few months.  The reason for this is that, as an adult, one already does most everything pretty well on a daily basis....most of it taken for granted.  Think about it...you get up, take a shower, get dressed, have something to eat, drive to work, do your job, come home, fix dinner, write emails, do chores, etc. etc.  Each one of those things has an unlimited number of aspects involved with it that takes a huge amount of ability that we don’t even think about.  If you think I’m wrong,  just ask a cybernetics engineer who programs robotics....those things would take billions (maybe trillions) of lines of code to do...and still wouldn’t be as good as a human on a bad day.  SO...when you, as an adult are posed with a problem like playing the violin for the first time, you will probably feel like you are learning to take the first few steps as a toddler and THAT is WAY out of most peoples’ comfort zone.  

In fact, learning an instrument can shake up your self-image without you even being aware of it.  I have had some students confess that they had felt a certain diminished self-worth while in the beginning stages of learning.  This wanes, of course, with the passage of time and gradual progression toward more command of their instrument.

If you have read this far, all this may sound a bit negative and daunting.  WELL...the good news is that once one passes through this awkward stage of learning, the rewards are typically pretty great.  The world expands and new possibilities present themselves that never before existed.  Students begin to think, “Gee...I really might be able to do this....and actually make it sound like music!”  That, in itself is usually a big revelation that makes everybody feel pretty good.  

So, what can you take away from this that will be useful?  

Simple....the bottom line is that you have to stick with it in order to get to the good parts.     I have said many times, “If you can outlast the instrument, then you will learn it.”  This is especially true of the fiddle.  Persistence is a key element in learning a musical instrument as an adult, or child for that matter.  

As an instructor I give advice all day long, some of it followed, some not, but the one thing I can say without reservation is that if you start a learning program with a musical instrument, you will be rewarded with innumerable benefits if you hang in there.

So.....hence my website name:  Stick To Picking!

Next time we’ll touch on the subject of frustration and how to overcome it.

On this page you can read some helpful topics on how to better learn your instrument.  There are several here and I usually add a few from time to time as the need arises. Check them outthey are helpful.

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FRUS•TRA•TION  frəs-ˈtrā-shən


The feeling of being upset

or annoyed, esp. because of

inability to change or learn 


We’ve all seen it in others, had it ourselves and would really rather not deal with it.

Truthfully, I don’t know if there is a foolproof way of overcoming all frustration.  For the most part, it is an aspect of the human condition.  The subject of this blog is overcoming some of the contributors to frustration in learning a musical instrument.

Every day that I meet with students in order to teach, I encounter someone’s frustration.

It is one of the most common occurrences while trying to learn to play a musical instrument.

Whether you know it or not, as a musician, we have a rather tough task on our hands.  It is truly astonishing...what we’re called to do when we pick up our instrument to play.  Not only do we have to use our hands to accomplish very precise movements that have to be accurately duplicated over and over, we must also employ a certain part of our brain power to do something that is tremendously complex.

When that doesn’t go as expected, we become frustrated either because we have been unable to learn something or unable to change what WE do in order to perform some task...in this case, playing an instrument.  

I tend to lump frustration into two categories....transient and systemic.

Transient frustration is something that will pass within a short time as the student learns the material.  Systemic frustration is more like an unconscious attitude and tends to constantly cause trouble.  I’ll be addressing systemic frustration.

There are some factors that need to be considered when learning an instrument (and frankly we should always be learning something about it.)  The two major factors come in the form of questions:  What are your expectations? and What are your goals?  

Now, everyone is different in that not everyone learns at the same pace or in exactly the same way.  There are very talented musicians who have great skills and innate ability, and then there are others that fit into different categories with different levels of talent.

Unconsciously,  in the back of your mind,  you probably have a desire to play like some recording you have heard in the past, most likely played by one of those aforementioned talented musicians.  We have been exposed to recorded music most of our lives.  From infancy to old age, we hear music everywhere.  Most of that recorded music is played by professional musicians with years of training and experience.  

You might guess where I’m going with this. Since we have been programmed with perfectly recorded music, our natural desire is to emulate that.  Music that is poorly played with mistakes and other errors just doesn’t sell very well.

What does this have to do with frustration?  Well, on one level I have seen that with many students, their expectations are unrealistic and on another level they tend to lack clear, realistic goals.  Naturally, with unrealistic goals and expectations,  frustration is going to be a sure result.  This is a form of systemic frustration....a bit like an itch that you can never quite scratch enough to make go away.  If, on the other hand, every student had a clear idea in mind as to where he or she was going, defined by clear cut goals and realistic expectations, then frustration would be mostly limited to the transient type.

So, overcoming frustration is best done by implementing a few things that many students don’t do. 

First, you have to have a regular practice routine and it helps to make a recording of the first and last 5 minutes of your practice session in order to hear if you have made any progress.  This will help you understand that you are continuing to move forward and help you overcome the frustration that results from the subtle feeling of stagnation.  If you aren’t making progress, there is always a reason.  Your instructor should be able help determine what is blocking your progress.

Second, you should take the time to analyze your expectations and determine whether they are truly realistic or whether they are based on some nebulous idea of how much progress you should be making.  This activity should be revised and re-evaluated on a regular basis.  I can’t tell you how many adult students I have that, at the outset, thought  it would only take a year or two to learn to play their chosen instrument.  In fact, it takes manyYEARS to learn to play music well for most everybody.

Third, you must set realistic and reasonable goals, both short and long-term.  Set short-term goals for a couple months. For example, “I’m going to learn 3-4 new tunes in 2 months and be able to play them from memory.”  A good example of a long-term goal is,  “I’m going to be able to jam with other musicians within 3 years time, and know 20 common fiddle tunes that I can play from memory.”

Finally, expect and welcome course corrections on the way to your goal.  This means you are in touch with your progress and the learning process is taking place in a natural way....according to your given abilities.  

These are just examples but you get the idea.  As you get closer to the completion date you may have to re-evaluate and modify the goal, but at least you will have seen the progress made and can change your goals accordingly.

Learning an instrument should be done in small, easy to manage pieces.  Doing this will make it fun and SHOULD keep the frustration down to a minimum.


Stick to picking!