Why Do So Many People Give Up On Playing Musical Instruments? Part One

For Perspective . . .

I have played guitar since 1966. I taught guitar off and on from 1972 into the mid ’80s and I still work with a few selected students from time to time, although I do not teach as a business, nor have I for decades. Consequently, my writing will be strongly influenced by my familiarity with playing the guitar and teaching others how to do the same.

Learning In Instrument Involves Several Tasks

To become a physician one must learn, and in some cases master, a number of skills. A physician has to have good language skills and be facile with mathematics in order to be able to deal with the material. Beyond that, a physician needs to understand biology, and chemistry (at least to the extent it relates to biological processes) before they can even begin to master anatomy, pathology of disease, pharmacology and all of the other subjects med school will require. A pre-med education is, in itself, quite an accomplishment and people that graduate from medical schools probably started preparing for that goal early in life.On the other had, musicians tend to come to the instrument with the desire to play, but they may have absolutely no concept of the theory behind the music that they want to play.

You can’t blame the student. From their perspective, play an instrument appears to be very simple. Using the guitar as an example; one uses a strap to suspend the instrument, wiggles the fingers on one hand, moves the other hand rhythmically and music comes out. It varies from instrument to instrument, but with the exception of trombones, most instruments involve wiggling fingers (which select the notes being played), something to energize the instrument (the rhythmically moving hand for guitars, the mouth piece for wind instruments) and some way to control the relationship between the instrument and the body of the person playing it (guitar straps, saxophone straps, piano benches, or in the case of bagpipes; elbows). Pianos allow you to wiggle the fingers on both hands, which might suggest that it’s a good instrument for people that tend to fidget.

All well and good, until the fateful moment that an absolute beginner first picks up the instrument if their choice. It is at this point that things can unravel with astonishing rapidity. The smiling would-be guitarist sits in a chair, holds the guitar in their lap, wiggles the fingers of (usually) the left hand and strikes the strings with (usually) their right hand . . . and produces a sound to which one cannot legally expose prisoners of war. As it turns out, it matters greatly where your fingers are positioned when they wiggle and which strings you strike with the picking hand. Everything in this paragraph roughly describes technique; where to place your fingers and how to wiggle them in an orderly manner and how to strike the proper strings with the picking hand.

If you master technique and can read music you will be able to play music and you may be able to play quite well; but there is a potential problem. Let me rewrite that first sentence but give it a different ending. If you master technique and can read music you will be able to play music and you may be able to play quite well but you are entirely dependent upon someone else to tell you what notes to play. Years ago I saw a machine that could play a violin. There were electo-mechanical “fingers” that stopped the strings to create the pitches and a bow that added energy to the appropriate string and, as long as the violin inside the machine was in proper tune, the sound would be delightful. But the machine didn’t “know” how to play the violin, it simply operated from a complex set of electrical instructions, not unlike a computer program. Like a player piano or a music box, it was essentially an elaborate playback device, but useless without a set of coded instructions.

How Do Computer Programs Resemble A Musical Score

When we hear the word program we ted to think in terms of computer programs, but the concept of programming goes back to the days when electronic computers were still undreamt of. For example:

The School Pageant As An Example Of Programming

7:00 PM The kindergarteners sing Itsy Bitsy Spiders and soften the crowd up with the sheer volume of their cuteness.

7:05 PM The first graders sing a slightly more challenging song and the mix shifts slightly away from cuteness in favor of technical prowess.

7:10 PM The second graders come out and sing their song and once again the mix shifts slightly farther from cuteness and closer to musical excellence.

This continues until 7:25 PM, when the sixth graders perform their tour de force and knock everyone’s socks into the next county.

This is an example of a program, a series of events and a timeline. Ultimately, every program from an elementary school pageant to a computer operating system comes down to this definition. Operating systems are much, much, much more complex than a song, but they still involve a timeline and controlling a sequence of events.

The Song As A Program

In the very earliest days if computers, it was not uncommon for music majors to be hired as programmers because a musical score is by definition a program. The timing element of the notes sets the timeline while the pitches specified in the arrangement determine which went should take place at that point on the timeline. Be it Mary Had A Little Lamb or Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, a score boils down to a timeline and events that happen at certain points. So, if you read sheet music accurately you can follow the instructions in the score and create the sounds at the right time in order to produce the song.

So, if performing music from a score can be equated to a device following a set of programmed instructions. Writing a song could be equated to writing a computer program, albeit a very artful program. Now it is entirely possible to write a song with very little interest in music theory and the song can even be very good. But the more complex the song, the more depth to the theory behind it.

Tying It All Together

. . . is something that will happen in part two Why Do So Many People Give Up On Playing Musical Instruments? The Sequel.

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