On Making Music. And Making Musicians.

I’d like to share with you something that I begin every lesson relationship with in my studio. Sometimes as a talk, sometimes as a written letter, but always as a precursor to what I hope will become a lifetime relationship between the student I’m about to begin teaching and the music they will hopefully master and love for the rest of their lives. I’ve found that the development of this respect for the work of becoming a good musician is as important as anything in their continued growth and success.

This letter is to my students, but just as importantly, to their parents.

You are about to begin the journey of learning to play a musical instrument, or perhaps you are already on that road and moving toward the knowledge and skills that will allow you to do whatever it was that inspired you to make this choice. You are perhaps on your way to opening the door to beauty, expression, fulfillment, and joy of your own creation, and for that I am really excited for you.

Before we begin, though, I would like to share some brutal, necessary, and important words of honesty with you. Read them with as open a mind as you can: they are a result of more than thirty-five years of learning, twenty years of teaching, thousands of hours of interaction with students and parents, many, many successes, and even more false starts, dead ends and disappointments.

Making music is wonderful.

It is an opportunity to create beauty where before existed only void and possibility. It opens the door to communication and connection on a level unmatched by many other experiences in life. It offers the fulfillment of the accomplishment of understanding, hard work, and successful collaboration.

However, there’s a tradeoff for all the wonderful results I just listed: Learning to make music requires work. Let me say that again, in case you missed it:

Learning to make music requires WORK.

Learning to make music is not something that you can simply acquire by wishing, wanting, or loving. Those things are vitally necessary to inspire success, but that success is the result of countless hours of acquiring skills, cultivating habits and abilities, shaping understanding and cataloguing knowledge that create the ability to call forth the alchemy of beauty, expression and connection that is good musicianship. There are no short cuts. There is no quick and easy route.

Playing an instrument takes a kind of concentration and attention to detail rarely required these days from children, and even from adults. If your aim is to protect your child from frustration or avoid it yourself, you should probably come to terms with this fact now and get it over with:

Playing music isn’t easy.

Anyone who tells you that is either lying or ignorant of reality. There are no capable musicians who just sat down and played like a genius one day even if that’s how they remember it, and you or your child will not be the exception. Those myths of musicians who could “just play” are exactly that: myths. Whether they took lessons or not, they spent hours and weeks and days of time alone with the instrument, becoming familiar with its mechanics, sounds, shapes, oddities, beauties, and creating a relationship that made playing it like second nature, even if nobody really noticed as they learned until they were good enough to make an impression.

No one, child or adult, likes to sit down and do something that is difficult.

It’s particularly hard for children to sit down and work hard at something that doesn’t provide an instant payoff, especially something that requires long and methodical work to master, which means that they’ll need to be reminded that they need to do it, and when, and why. No, it’s not fun as a parent. It’s not fun as a person learning either, necessarily, whether you’re an adult or a kid. Yes, it is necessary. No, there is no other option, but if you accept the responsibility and no excuses now, you’ll make your life easier in the long run and their or your musical life more successful and joyful.

Skills useful in music are skills useful in life, and learning to play music is mostly about overcoming frustration. 

It’s trying again when you want to quit, thinking through the hard parts, figuring out what you can do better, breaking them apart, approaching them in new ways and figuring them out, solving each bit one step at a time, putting them back together, and then doing it again and again until you get it right, and then again and again and again until you can’t get it wrong. This is what I mean when I talk about practicing, and what it takes to become a good musician, every day, all of it.

Every. Day. There are no short cuts. There is no quick and easy route.

The good news (and perhaps the bad news) is that this is not an instantaneous process: lessons learned and skills acquired will be measured in many, many successes and celebrations along the way. You’ll get to rejoice in so many frustrating challenges conquered and be astonished at the abilities you acquire. You’ll have fun in the middle of trying so hard to get it right. And you’ll get to play many, many beautiful things along the way to being able to play the thing that inspired you in the first place. It will be hard, but it will be so, so worth all the hard work. Then one day after a lot of frustration, you’ll sit down to play and it will be even more joy, and yes, fun, than hard work, and you’ll be glad you did it.

Making music can be joyful, but it isn’t easy. Do the work. It’s worth it in the end.