When I was 9, I decided to join the school band. The band director asked me what instrument I was going to play (at that point, I had never played any instrument). I figured I’d better try the simplest one, easiest to learn. I said, “Drums.” The director said, “Nah, we already got four drummers, pick something else.” I looked at the clarinets, all covered with a veritable Jungle Gym of metal keys. All those keys! How do they ever learn to play those things? Clarinets, flutes, & saxes scared me off. I looked for the second simplest instrument. Trumpets—they only have three moving parts! I said, “Trumpet.”
That night my Dad took me to the music store and rented a cornet, and bought an elementary trumpet practice book. At home he placed it on the stand, explained the treble staff (Every Good Boy Does Fine, F-A-C-E), and said: Go to it. I was like, what?! How do I get started? Dad told me to just play. So I did. I learned the fingerings, made the notes, played scales, and started reading music for the first time. It’s like throwing a kid into the deep end of the pool to teach him to swim. In my case, it worked.
A few years later, I got out my Dad’s clarinet, and found an elementary clarinet practice book. I taught myself the notes the same way, and realized that appearances can be deceiving: trumpet fingerings combined with embouchure are really no simpler than clarinet keys, and the clarinet wasn’t half as tricky as it looked. I quickly became proficient on clarinet with no lessons, and in 11th grade the band director switched me to bass clarinet because he needed a fuller bass sound.
When I was 10, visiting someone’s house with a piano, I found Middle C and picked out a tune from my trumpet practice. The grownups said: Wow, he’s talented! Soon after we got our own piano and I learned the bass clef and taught myself to play right off. I did take piano lessons for years, but only after teaching myself first. I got to where I gave a recital and took first place in a regional piano competition when I was in 11th grade. I played Beethoven’s Sonate Pathétique in the recital and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D Minor at the competition. I have to admit the lessons helped!
When I was 15, I was consumed with the desire to play violin. I bugged my parents until they bought me one, and I just, you know, taught myself using an elementary practice book. By this time I had a solid grasp of music theory so I knew how to find the notes. If you’re really motivated to learn something, you’ll put the time and practice into it to learn it. That’s how I learned the violin, just by playing and playing a lot every day.
I soon figured out how to play chords on all 4 violin strings at once, so I strummed it like a guitar to play pop tunes. My Dad had a baritone ukelele (which has 4 strings tuned the same as the highest 4 strings on a guitar, only missing the deep A and E), so I used the guitar notations in pop song books to teach myself the chords. When I picked up a real guitar soon after, I just started playing on all 6 strings. No biggie. I played guitar, guitar, guitar for hours on end. I still jam guitar all the time and use it to compose new songs.
When I was 19, my friend was starting a band and invited me to play piano for it; he had a saxophone nobody was using so I just picked it up and played. It wasn’t much different from a clarinet.
The age of 19 was also when I taught myself the Arp 2000 synthesizer (they had one at my college) and also the Jew’s harp. I took synthesizer every semester (self-taught), learned what patch cords go where, and got automatic A’s (the only course requirement was to compose and record one piece), to keep my grade point average up and have fun doing it.
When I was 20, I borrowed my sister’s flute and started fluting like nobody’s business. Nothing to it.
When I was 23, my friend gave me an African mbira and this has got to be the coolest instrument in the world: anything you do on it automatically sounds good! It wasn’t even a question of learning how to play it. The main challenge was tuning it.
When I was 36, I finally got my own drum. A frame hoop drum called a gedang from Malaysia, pretty much the same as an Irish bodhrán. After practicing a lot I figured out how to make it sound good and invent some cool rhythms. Last year my wife gave me a small conga drum from the Dominican Republic and I’ve been practicing on that a lot. Fascinatin’ rhythm.
When I was 37, an Egyptian guy I knew was moving and sold me his ‘ûd. I quickly found where the notes were and played Arab tunes on it until it got broken.
So the point of my story is:
- Learn music theory and you’ll be able to apply it to learning any new instrument; it will save lots of time and effort.
- If you really want to learn to play, don’t go at it halfhearted. Plunge right in, get obsessed with it, and play it all the time, get it in your blood. Have fun with it and you’ll progress rapidly.