Starting to learn music is no problem. Here at JamAlong we’ve see literally hundreds of people begin their musical journey, full of enthusiasm and confidence.
Armed with a new banjo, or perhaps a free lesson offer, they are the picture-perfect student. They take copious notes, schedule regular practice hours, and usually come back to the next session with an impressive array of accomplishments.
And then, maybe three months down the line, maybe even a year, suddenly they drop out. All of that ardent devotion they displayed, all of the inspiration and discipline…gone, like the hollow streets of a ghost town.
Yes, Starting music lessons is no problem at all, anyone can do it. But continuing them, for the long amounts of time necessary to become good, well that is a different story altogether.
So if you have begun the journey yourself, or are considering it, please take this article to heart. It may save your musical life! We would hate to see you join the legions who have begun and then fallen away, all of those who could be happily jamming today, if they had not fallen prey to barriers that stop progress.
And there are four or them. You can think of them as four monsters, who stand at the gates of your musical future, and unless you can find a way to overcome them you are likely to join the ranks of the quitters.
So let’s get familiar with the enemies, the Four Barriers. They are Time, Money, Life Issues and Equipment…
The First Barrier: Time
This is the big one, the scariest of all the monsters. Here at JamAlong we probably lose more students to “I just don’t have enough time” than for any other reason. Well, the first solution to this one is actually good news: there is a common misconception on how much time you need to practice. The truth is, you actually need way less practice time than you think. This myth is partly the fault of old fashioned music teachers, waving rulers and glowering through horn rimmed spectacles as they exhort you to practice more. And it is also due to bad practice habits, because if you are practicing ineffectively of course you will need more time to achieve the same results.
So, assuming you are practicing correctly (for more on this read our blog on Proper Practicing), then all you really need to have is one session per week, even as little as 20 minutes! This is actually scientifically true, we have tracked the progress or students who practiced (effectively) for 20 minutes a week, and they were noticeably better at each lesson! So this brings up the awkward question: is your life so busy that you really cant afford 20 minutes a week? Truthfully, you spend more time in the bathroom than this, or on Facebook, or any number of frivolous things you could think of. The moral here is this: you already do a ton of silly things that take up your time, certainly your music is important enough to be included, right?
The next weapon you have against the Time Monster is scheduling. Yes, this is because time is not “found”, it is made, and to do this you really need to “get it on paper”. So, click HERE and print out our handy weekly scheduler, and put that thing up on your fridge! However, filling in some practice times and posting it up is only half the battle, the hard part is making sure you actually follow through. This is where you want to use a reminder of some sort. As we discuss in items 4 and 5 in our Proper Practicing blog, there are all sorts of ways you can remind yourself that practice time is approaching, whether Google Calendars or a cell phone alarm. It is also very effective to employ what we call an “enforcer”, someone in your life who reminds you to practice. It can be a spouse, roommate, or even your kids, but this needs to be someone in your household who is on board with helping you to learn to play. Most folks are happy to do this, and may even take some perverse pleasure out of telling you what to do 🙂
Finally, it will be much easier to find time if you actually enjoy your practicing! And if you’re wondering “how on earth do I make practice enjoyable?” we have a one word answer: Jamming! Yes, that’s right, when you play your tunes at a jam session you are actually getting a ton of practice in, and, it’s FUN! Even if you are practicing something less enticing, like scales or chord shapes, you can always find a “practice buddy” and make a date. Or, become a JamAlong subscriber and use our library of Backing Tracks to play along with. Trust us on this and give it a try, you will be amazed by how much more time you suddenly have.
The Second Barrier: Money
Although we lose less students from this barrier than the time issue, this one is definitely more ugly. Money brings up all sorts of uncomfortable issues, in particular “not having enough”. Now, to be clear, there is no way any solution we could offer would replace basic life skills such as earning an income and budgeting properly. There are places to learn those things but we aren’t one of them! But we can advise you on money strategies as it applies to music lessons, so here we go…
First, make sure you are getting a good value for what you are spending. If you are paying for lessons, whether online or in person, here are some of the things you should be getting:
Personal attention: you should be able to talk to your teacher and ask to learn the things you want. If you are paying money and all you get to do is look at videos and never actually get to talk to anyone, then quit.
Actual improvement: If you aren’t getting better as the months go by, then you need to find somewhere else to learn. Your teacher should be providing you with a precise plan of action, and giving you opportunity to play for him/her regularly.
Enjoyment: You should be looking forward to your lessons, if you’re not, then even one dollar is too much.
Now, if you’re confidant that you are getting good value for our lessons (for example of you are with JamAlong, wink wink), then the next trick to be “able to afford it” is simply to get rid of something frivolous that you are paying for, and replace it with your music lessons. Now, be honest, is there nothing that you make regular payments on that you could live without? OK fine, we won’t tackle your Netflix addiction, but seriously, think about this. What do you pay for every month that is just for entertainment? Cable TV? World of Warcraft? Your weekly Pho habit?
Why not take one (or two) of these out of your budget, and replace it with music? After all, the rewards of learning an instrument will be far greater than any of these other things could ever offer, and that’s a fact. Imagine five years down the road, if you stick with your music lessons you’ll be going to jam sessions, playing music with your friends, jamming at festivals, playing open mics and having an amazing time. Those other things? All you’ll get from them in five years is a lot less money.
So if you understand the value that music brings to your life, it suddenly becomes not so expensive anymore.
Finally, find a teacher that will work with you, and make deals. That’s why here at JamAlong we make sure we have an affordable entry level program, where for only $30 a month you can study as much as you like. With our Basic Jammer membership you get access to all of our online video lessons, as well as tons of “backing tracks” to play along with, so you can learn at your own pace, at home! And when you’re ready to step it up, we offer programs where you can meet with your teacher over video calls and get face to face instruction, as well as custom made assignments on whatever you want. Click HERE to find out more.
The Third Barrier: Life Issues
As John Lennon said, “life is what happens while you are making other plans”, and this is certainly true sooner or later. You can find the perfect music teacher, carve out time and schedule it effectively, and then WHAM. Life happens! Suddenly you become ill, or you have to move, or your car gouges you for $3000, or your dog has to go to the vet, or…or…the list is endless.
Now of course there are life issues that are simply too cataclysmic to conquer, and music has to take a back seat. We recently had a student cancel lessons because his house was blowing away in a hurricane, for example. Yes, in cases like this, time to shift priorities! Or you break your hand playing sports or some other rough hobby, well, not much you can do but take a break. (By the way, in that case we have to say you had it coming, you shouldn’t have any other hobbies that can hurt your hands, silly!).
So the first line of defense against the Third Barrier is rather Zen: learn to accept temporary defeat, bow out gracefully, but always come back! Yes, if we accept that there is no such thing as “constant, uninterrupted progress”, and that there will always be times when life forces us to take a break, then we won’t see this as the end. We will understand that this is the up-and-down nature of the learning curve, and have faith that we WILL be back, sooner or later.
To be honest the learning curve is more like a jagged line, with plenty of back and forth, up and down, and the only way we’re going to survive it is by always coming back. So your takeaway here should be that breaks and backsliding will happen, but it’s not “the end”, just temporary setbacks. NEVER GIVE UP!
The next gem of wisdom that will help you maintain your music through hard times is seeing it as more than just a hobby…it’s therapy! It’s your happy place, it’s that the time when you don’t think about anything else, it’s just you and your instrument. Whether you use it for escape, for distraction, or as a form of meditation, the results are the same: playing music is good for your mental health.
So when you see your music this way, you’ll be a lot more likely to fight for it, to keep it in your life no matter what. You can be laying in a hospital bed, and ask your family to bring in your ukulele…you might have just lost your job, and moved in with your grandmother in her double-wide, but when you pick up your guitar your happy comes back….maybe you are going through a divorce or a dreadful breakup, well then pick up that banjo and the strum away your blues!
Bob Marley said “when music hits you, you feel no pain”, and we agree. So instead of letting life’s troubles take you away from this wonderful medicine, play even more, and let music turn your frown upside down 🙂
If you fight to keep your music in your life, and always come back to it, you will have conquered the biggest barrier of all.
The Fourth Barrier: Equipment
Some of it comes down to real simple stuff, like “I don’t play much anymore cuz my guitar won’t stay in tune and sounds all buzzy”. The bottom line is, if you have a crappy instrument, you won’t play as much. An instrument that is hard to play and sounds bad is the last thing you need when you’re starting out, because it’s going to be tough enough as it is!
There are two issues here, one is the quality of the instrument itself, and the other is how it is set up. So if you got your ukulele from Walmart for $29.95, unfortunately there is little we can do for you. What you need to do is step up and invest in yourself, and get something that will last you for a long while. Now, you don’t have to go and spend thousands of dollars or anything crazy, in fact you can get the instrument of a lifetime for under a grand if you shop around correctly. And once you make this investment, you have no idea how happy it will make you. A good instrument is easier to play, sounds amazing, and will inspire you to practice more. And there is also the “guilt factor”: you paid good money for this thing, you had better be practicing!
(We did a ton of research and found the best instruments for the best value, visit our online store HERE. And if you buy one from us, we’ll throw in a Live Video lesson for FREE!)
If you are lucky enough to have a decent axe already (or just acquired one from our online store), the here is a checklist of things to be aware of:
- “Action” – This means how high the strings are from the fingerboard. Make sure your action is not too high, or it will make you miserable. Generally, your strings shouldn’t be much higher at the end of the neck then the thickness of a nickel, and if you are having a hard time pressing down and getting clear notes, then your action is probably too high. Depending on what instrument you have, there are various fixes for this, but it is best to take it in to a music store and have a pro do it.
- Buzzes – Any rattle or buzzing noise will make it hard to know if you are practicing correctly, and means you need to have your instrument looked at pronto. This can be caused by a lot of things, including having too low of an action, but once again this is a matter for the professionals.
- Tuning – Knowing how to tune is a critical skill for any aspiring musician. You should tune up before any practice session, and if you’re having trouble with this book a Live Video Lesson and we’ll show you how! Or you can practice tuning by ear with our cool Tuning Tracks.
- Strings – If your strings are too old, you will have a hard time staying in tune. We recommend replacing them every four to six months, and you can get strings HERE.
Another common equipment issue we hear a lot about is internet and computer problems. And what does this have to do with music? Well for one, you’re using one right now to read this. Secondly, a lot of folks nowadays learn music online, and it is imperative that you have fast internet to do this. When you think of all the music-learning resources there are online, from YouTube to Facebook groups to music apps, it is definitely worth spending a few extra bucks to have fast internet. For example if you take a Live Online Lesson with us here at JamAlong (click HERE to learn more), we can actually strum and play together just as if we were in the same room! We can also watch YouTube concerts together, type out music on your screen, and record the lesson and send it to you. But if you have second rate internet, sorry, none of this will work.
And having a decent laptop can be your best friend for learning music. You can read up on music blogs and watch tutorials over a cup of coffee at your favorite cafe, and then practice along later in the comfort of your living room. The beauty of the laptop is its mobility, and if you have a pair of headphones and a decent mic, you’ll have a full fledged music studio! We highly recommend investing in this if you don’t already have one (we carry them in our online music store), and we are also available to help you learn all of the music software and apps.
There is one more barrier to learning music, but we wanted to leave it for last because it’s kind of mean. That’s because this is where we have to deliver some “tough love”, and talk about discipline. Yeah yeah, nobody likes this word, and it conjures up all sorts of unpleasant feelings for many, but the truth is you need to have some if you’re going to learn to play. Because after all, we can have plenty of time and money, a calm life and a really nice guitar, but if we can’t persuade ourselves to do the work it’s all for naught.
And as much as we focus on having fun and jamming, the fact is there will be some hard work to learn to get better on your instrument. So having the will power to force yourself to practice challenging material is a must-have, and something that you can’t fake. Sure, a lot of the time you will be playing stuff that’s enjoyable and easy, and that’s great. Go with it! But there will also be times when you simply need good old fashioned discipline, and nobody else can do this for you.
The good news is, if you can use our strategies to combat these barriers, you will learn how to play beautifully and enjoy a lifetime of music making. And there’s one consistent fact we’ve seen over and over in the thirty plus years we’ve been teaching music: Everyone who sticks with it, eventually gets it. In other words, the only people that don’t learn how to play, are the ones that quit. This is proven truth.
We’ll leave you with some musings from our instructor Brae Lewis, and wish you the best in sticking with it!
“Hello all, I wanted to share my experience with learning something difficult. I have another hobby besides banjo, one that involves physical activity… some would call it martial arts. I call it “desperately trying to survive”! The reason I want to share this is because, regardless of the pursuit, all new endeavors share a lot of the same challenges. And part of my philosophy as a teacher is to “always be a beginner at something”. That way we have intimate knowledge of what our new students are going through, and never forget how difficult it can be.
I can say for a fact that one of my biggest hurdles is just getting myself to my lessons. There seems to be this force, like a gravity of resistance, that wells up about an hour before, and my shoulder-devil starts to chatter: “It’s no big deal if you miss just this one class…you can make up for it later…you’ve got too much other stuff to do, this is just getting in the way…maybe you’re just not meant to do this…” and on it goes.
Then then somehow I force myself to go, gritting my teeth and shutting out all the voices, and afterword I always feel amazing.
But then there’s the actual work. When you’re in the thick of practicing, and things just aren’t going well, it can be really hard to keep going. There are times when my face is squished against the mat and everything I do is laughably ineffective, and I think “why the hell am I even trying? I’m never going to get this!” But then over time, when I look back, I can see tiny little improvements. Sometimes it’s hard to notice them, but my workout partners will point them out. This is why it’s important to have others tell us these things, because it’s hard to see our own growth (and a good music teacher should be doing this for you!).
And then there are the “dry spells”, those dreaded times when we fall away and months or even years go by without practicing. At first I used to get super traumatized about this, and each time I would fall off I would think “this is it, I’m done, guess it just didn’t work out”. But then over time I noticed that I always came crawling back. And once I realized this, that everyone goes through cycles and that the learning curve is fraught with ups and downs, it became easier for me to accept these temporary failures. The antidote was knowing that, sooner or later, I would always come back!
So, please keep your upper lip stiff, your ego in check, and whatever you do, never EVER give up. And I promise you that the joy will increase.”
(To read more about Brae’s struggles check out his blog Punch, Kick, Carry Water)
1 lack of time, 2 lack of $, 3 life problems/changes, 4 equipment (instrument, internet/computer)