They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but is that true? Many of us want to learn how to play an instrument but end up intimidated by the steep learning curve. Personally, despite picking up a violin when I was just six years old (about ten years ago), I am both allured and daunted by the idea of picking up a guitar and strumming along to my favorite songs. For those without any background in music except perhaps a Spotify subscription, instruments feel like a luxury exclusive to the musically inclined.
If you feel daunted by the prospect of learning how to play an instrument, know that you’re not alone. According to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, nine in ten children want to learn a musical instrument. While younger kids come from a place of wanting to learn a new skill or to gain the ability to make pretty sounds, older students might understand the mental benefits of picking up an instrument. Research finds that learning an instrument enhances your brain, making it perform—to be frank—just better. There are benefits to memory, attentiveness, reaction speed, and the list goes on and on.
However, all of this research is aimed towards older generations, those that are 65+. They most likely started playing years ago and now get to access the benefits of a lifetime of playing, right? Wrong. Learning an instrument can be picked up by anyone at any age. In fact, from what I’ve personally seen from my violin teacher’s other students, is that those that start older learn an instrument faster. Even though starting at a young age is most definitely a head start, a six-year-old will progress at a much slower rate than a sixteen-year-old.
My best hypothesis for this theory is that older students are simply much more motivated (this is certainly true for me, as I hated practicing when I was younger). The older you get, the better you get at studying. A high-schooler most definitely has less time to spare than an elementary schooler, but conversely, the high-schooler is hopefully better at managing their time.
If you want to learn an instrument, either because you’re interested in the health benefits or the creative outlet it provides, then absolutely go for it. The beginning is always the toughest as you commit all the actions to muscle memory, but once you start playing your first scales and jamming to some folk songs, you’ll be hooked immediately. That being said, however, if you are a high-schooler reading this and want another thing to add to your college application, it’s honestly a little bit too late. To do anything worthwhile by application season, you had to have begun in middle school at the latest.
As for those that want to learn violin-like me, because everyone knows it is the “superior instrument,” my best advice would be to find a good teacher that’s close by. Word of mouth is surprisingly effective, and if you ask around, the recommendations will come flooding in.
While every teacher has their unique teaching style, one polarizing method is the Suzuki method. A Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki noticed that children seem to pick up their first language relatively easily and created a method to teach music like how one would teach a language. He saw music as just another language and stressed the importance of memorization, learning by ear, and parental involvement. Although, in my opinion, it is very effective when teaching young children, it may or may not be the right fit for you. Before deciding on a teacher, you should research the Suzuki method and confirm what style they teach in. Moreover, remember that as a beginner there is nothing to be ashamed of.
One technique that is essential when you start learning is placing stickers on the black part of the violin to show you visually where your fingers go. A younger me looked up to the solo violinists with their hands flying across a shiny, sticker-less fingerboard and rushed to get the stickers off my violin as fast as possible. Even now, I suffer from intonation problems as I hesitate a little before placing my fingers down. Everyone learns at their own pace, and it is so important that you feel ready to move on before truly doing so.
At the end of the day, you know yourself best. Do you want to learn an instrument? Why? Do you have enough time? These are all questions that you need to know the answer to before picking up a new instrument for the first time. With that being said, it’s important to not be intimidated and recognize that failure is always just a part of the process.