The Best Way to Learn to Play a Musical Instrument: Who, What, and Why

The Best Way to Learn to Play a Musical Instrument: Who, What, and Why

About 30 years ago I asked a group of instrumental teachers I was working with to draft a curriculum for their teaching. It felt quite a heresy at the time. (‘A curriculum? But we’re professionals!’) After debating the whys and wherefores of what should be common to all, and what should be distinctly instrumental-specific, a reasonably detailed and comprehensive curriculum was produced, for which I wrote an introduction, including a statement: ‘The single most important ingredient in instrumental success is desire’.

I will confess that, at the time, I didn’t have (or use) any evidence or substance to back up the statement. It was more of a lofty proposition that, given instrumental learning is mostly an elective activity, and if they are to make best progress and achieve highest standards, children and young people have to really ‘want’ to do it. And perhaps in some cases that they might be drawn to it so strongly, that they literally ‘have’ to do it.

But that was that. The curriculum was published, used by teachers for a while, eventually superseded by other plans, put away, and then forgotten about.

In recent months, that original statement has returned to my consciousness, a bit like a ghost from the past, and it’s prompted me to think more about the notion of ‘desire’ in learning to play a musical instrument.

Part of the reason for its return has been the launch of The Music Commission: ‘a new enquiry exploring the role of progress and progression in the formation and realisation of a musical life.’ Launched in July 2017 the Commission hopes to ‘bring together new scholarly research and recommendations for policy direction, guided by the expertise and experience of the Commission panel. Its final report will be published in November 2018 and will call for significant changes to the way that governments, music organisations, schools, teachers, parents and learners think and talk about progress and progression in musical learning.’

I will, at once, declare an interest, as I am retained by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) as a music education consultant and, as they are the lead partner of the Commission, I give advice to it.

The choice of instrument, and importantly by whom it is chosen, and how and why, is also an important factor.

While I do not intend to focus on those individuals who go on to achieve the very highest of musical standards, and with it, a reputation for consummate artistry and professionalism (though they may be well included in the postulation that ‘desire’ plays a role in their success), I’m thinking about what is it that drives people, especially young people, to want to pursue a life in which playing a particular musical instrument, or indeed a range of instruments, plays a significant role – but not necessarily as a professional musician.

There is a range of data to suggest that very many more children start to learn a musical instrument, than compared with, say, 30 years ago. But a large majority seem to stop playing after their initial lessons (perhaps up to one year or so). In some senses this might not be a surprise, given that a large proportion of learners are in non-elective Whole Class Ensemble Teaching’ (or ‘Wider Opportunities‘ as it was first known in the early 2000s) where literally whole classes (+/-30 children) are taught the same instrument at the same time. The choice of instruments was, and in most cases still is adult-led with no, or little learner input into the decision.

There are arguably many conditions and ingredients that affect and impact upon a child learning to play a musical instrument, including, but not limited to, the nature and structure of what is offered in and out of schools, who chooses what is offered, the quality of teaching in lessons and beyond, the affordability of lessons and other activities, the geographic proximity of such activities, the cultural and social contexts of what is offered and most importantly, the extent to which the immediate family is supportive.

These conditions and ingredients act in a complex chemistry. Often, no single one has necessarily more effect upon learning than another, but in some contexts and circumstances, one or more can exert a huge (positive or negative) influence.

The proposition here, therefore, is that the choice of instrument, and importantly by whom it is chosen, and how and why, is also an important factor in that chemistry. And crucially that those children and young people who actively choose to play a particular instrument, because they really ‘want’ to play it, are likely to make more progress for longer. In other words if they have the ‘desire’ to play it, they are more likely to achieve higher standards.

But I’m left with so many questions, including:

  • What is a ‘desire’ for music? How does it exist and in what state(s)?
  • How, why, and when does ‘desire’ manifest itself?
  • What prompts a ‘desire’ to learn a musical instrument – a particular musical instrument?
  • Is ‘desire’ a generic human construct with a particular locus in learning a musical instrument?
  • Is ‘desire’ an emotional response to external stimuli or is it somehow pre-ordained?
  • Is there a link between certain individual personality traits or types, and the ‘desire’ to learn a particular instrument?
  • Can ‘desire’ be measured and/or assessed? Should it?
  • Is there any connection between ‘desire’ and concepts of aptitude, ability, and talent?

Or, more fundamentally, is success in learning to play a particular musical instrument actually no more than some ambition combined with the willingness to persevere, to be tenacious, determined, and persistent?

Einstein, himself a formidable musician, said: ‘It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.’

There’s probably a PhD in there for someone.


Nigel Taylor is a music education consultant and works with a range of local, regional and national organisations, providing authentic advice and guidance to support strategic and operational improvements. Nigel is also a conductor and has been a secondary school music teacher, head of music services, county music adviser, deputy head of school improvement, head of cultural development and an Ofsted-accredited inspector of schools in England. You can connect with him through LinkedIn and his website.


 

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