Welcome to our blog about music education

What Music Students Need to Stay Motivated

Over time I have written a great deal about the need for practice and today’s post is not going to contradict that. All students do need to set up a practice routine, to learn to practice effectively and to practice regularly. Students need the guidance of their teachers to determine how to practice and the support of their parents (the younger they are the more support they need) to get it done.

Most students are excited to meet their teacher and to begin lessons. They see the prospect of learning to play their instruments as a fun-filled adventure. That means that in most cases they will start out wanting to do whatever assignments they are given, they will actually want to practice, to learn, to please the teacher and impress their family and friends. What music students need from their parents is encouragement; the kind of positive reinforcement that helps to maintain and sustain that initial excitement over time.

While gently reminding students to practice might be necessary from time to time it is important not to get to the point where you create a power struggle about practicing  which as you know is guaranteed to produce the exact opposite effect from the one you intended.

The ultimate goal is to support and encourage the student while allowing them to own responsibility for their efforts and for their own learning. The desire to practice has to be developed in a holistic and intrinsic manner if the student is ever going to internalize the music lesson experience. Once they do, they are hooked and your job as parents is simply to continue supporting them.

Inherently, children begin by wanting to please their teachers and their parents so the goal is to keep them wanting to behave in a favorable manner over time.Here are some suggestions on ways to keep that initial excitement alive and to keep children practicing without having to nag them. If you would like to share your own suggestions and success stories I would be delighted to pass them on to others, so please feel free to do so.

  1. Offer simple descriptions such as, “If you don’t practice you won’t be prepared for your next lesson”.
  2. Any time you catch the child practicing without parental intervention, express your appreciation, “Thank you for practicing without being asked”.
  3. On occasion take yourself out of the equation and allow the child to make the mistake of not practicing so that they realize the consequences at their next lesson.
  4. Let things slide once in a while. Daily practice is an ideal but not one that can be realized on a consistent basis.
  5. Avoid repetitive catch phrases such as “Good job” when praising, instead describe what you liked, “Your new piece makes me feel happy”, or “I love to hear you playing the piano while I am cooking dinner”.
  6. Focus on the effort once in a while, “Wow, you are really concentrating on those scales”.
  7. Invite your child to describe what they did with a question, “How did you figure out how to play all of those tricky notes?”

Finally, trust the teacher to know how often and how long the student needs to practice and rely on the teacher to provide appropriate feedback relieving you the parent of at least a bit of responsibility.


Suggestions for keeping your child interested and excited about their lessons

The idea of playing a musical instrument can be very enticing – whether it is the allure of strumming among your friends, performing on stage or just unwinding at the end of a busy day while playing your favorite melodies on the piano, most of us have been tempted to learn play an instrument. We see the act of signing up for lessons as the start to fulfilling our musical dreams and aspirations; it is very exciting to take that first step. The disconnect can happen with the realization that learning to play an instrument requires time, practice and dedication; learning to play an instrument involves some hard work.

The question that arises is how to keep that initial interest and excitement alive. There are as many answers to this query as there are students, methodologies and teachers. Students respond as individuals to the many tactics that teachers and parents can and do employ. Perhaps the first thing to look for is a teacher who is focused on the student; one who notices and is responsive to what works for you or your child. A teacher who follows the same lesson plan with each and every student will only connect with a limited number of students. Most teachers have many tricks up their sleeves for keeping students interested during the actual lesson time. They will also offer many enticements for the student to practice but most of that responsibility will fall on the student and in the case of a child, it will fall on the parent or caregiver; in general the younger the student the greater the parental involvement necessary.

First and foremost, I cannot say enough about the importance of keeping lessons consistent. We know you are busy and that conflicts will arise which is why we have a make up policy. If you can’t get to your regularly scheduled lesson try your best to take advantage of any other available lessons that might be offered during that same week. Consistency makes learning easier and helps to keep the student moving forward in their studies, both make lessons and learning less frustrating and therefore more enjoyable.

While on the subject of the actual lesson, if you don’t sit in on your child’s lesson while it is in progress (and that doesn’t imply that you should on a constant basis), do make an effort to check in with the teacher at the end of the lesson. For young beginners, this should be a weekly occurrence. For those who are older and more experienced at lessons, checking in with the teacher can be done less frequently but should still not be ignored. While talking with the teacher you will want to discuss progress, the current assignment and helpful tips for keeping the student on track, and if the thrill of that first lesson is waning, what to do to keep the fun and excitement in the learning process. Don’t be afraid to make suggestions either. You know your child best. While learning the fundamentals are necessary, there are certainly plenty of very elementary collections of simple and familiar melodies available for young beginners to play and enjoy. These collections can be used to supplement lessons and reward young students for their efforts.

This seems like a perfect time to mention that participating in recitals and other periodic community events gives students something to work toward. Performance is an excellent way to keep lessons both exciting and relevant. Working toward a short term foreseeable goal offers something to look forward to. Recitals are a special event and an opportunity for students to shine and to receive reinforcement, encouragement and positive feedback from family and friends.   In addition, recitals are very motivational as they allow the younger students to hear what the more experienced students are playing.

Effective practice is truly the key element in learning to play an instrument and the most difficult to keep consistent. Here are some suggestions for making daily practice at home more pleasant. Begin by creating a consistent time, of an appropriate duration for a daily practice to occur. Keep the practice environment pleasant and free of distractions. For young beginners it is often best to spend the practice session together. If you were present at the lesson you might want to follow the teacher’s lead in terms of encouragement, or you can ask the teacher for suggestions. Singing, clapping rhythms and counting along can be fun as is listening to recordings of the piece that is being worked on. In some situations, where the parent is able, it can be enjoyable to play together, to echo one another or to create a challenge (I can play that three times in a row, can you?). Time spent with the student will evolve as the student progresses and certainly at some point your participation will no longer be necessary but helping to set the foundation is essential for creating good practice habits which serve to keep the learning process satisfying. As an added bonus, one of the very valuable benefits of learning those good practice habits is that the concept transfers to all other aspects of education by virtue of introducing the discipline of spending consistent time on one subject while working toward a long term goal.

After a couple of lessons and then as frequently as practical, create a block of this for a little family concert. What better way to satisfy the age old, “Mommy/Daddy, look what I can do!”. That sets the stage to have the young music students in your family perform at larger gatherings as well, birthday parties, barbecues and holiday events are always made more festive by the addition a little live music. Planning for this kind of event adds it’s own excitement to the preparatory practice sessions.

Music is everywhere but often it is simply background sound. Becoming cognizant of that music and bringing it to the attention of a young music student can help them to focus on all of the listening opportunities that exist and help them to identify what they like to listen to and what they’d like to play. The simple act of familiarizing ourselves with the wide range of musical styles that we are surrounded with and recognizing the genres that we identify with can go a long way toward motivating us to set goals and to keep learning. Whether we are moved by classical, rock, pop, hip hop, jazz, musical theater, background movie or video game music, it is reasonable to patiently and determinedly work toward the day when we can play what we love.






How long does it take to learn to play the…?

One of the most difficult questions that we are asked at the music school is, “How long does it take to learn to play the  ______ (fill in the blank) ?” Difficult because the correct answer is not the one you were hoping for and in fact there is no correct answer. There are simply too many variables. What instrument are you interested in? What do you think your goal is? Will that change over time? Will your expectations change over time? How much time and focus will you dedicate to practice? I can go on but I think you’ve gotten the point.

One valid answer is that the study of music is a life long endeavor; it is about the journey not the destination. We are of course a very goal oriented society. We tend to think in terms of fixed formulas where measurable actions lead to definitive results, most of which are not based on reality. No two students will finish their identical 45 minute homework assignments in the same amount of time because we are each programmed differently. No two trips to identical destinations using the same route and means of transportation, will take the same amount of time  on two consecutive days due to a plethora of variable, uncontrollable factors including traffic, weather, mechanical and personal issues. The time to cook the same recipe on different occasions by the same chef, in the same kitchen will vary based on things such as freshness of ingredients, heat convection, human error and in baking, variations in air temperature, humidity and air pressure. No two students studying music will progress at the same rate even if they are learning the same instrument with the same teacher and following identical practice methods. We each bring our own strengths and challenges to everything we undertake. Those differences should be honored, accepted and embraced as part of who we are and the process we have chosen to engage in.

Because the study of music is a life long journey it is far more important to find joy in that journey and in each milestone reached. Every step of the journey leads to small accomplishments which accumulate and then change our expectations, nourishing and motivating us to greater goals; but all in small increments which can but should not be measured in hours, days or weeks. It is far more reasonable and enriching to stay focused on the tasks prescribed by your teacher and on very short term goals.

Rather than asking how long it will take to learn to “play” your instrument, begin by asking yourself how much time you will set aside each week to  work on your instrument. Remember it is not reasonable to take lessons if you don’t have at least some time to dedicate to practice each week. Ideally you might aim to practice about 30 minutes a day, seven days a week. However, practically speaking the minimum time you will need to dedicate to your instrument is 30 minutes, four days a week. Anything less than that will not bear the desired results. Obviously the more time you spend practicing the faster you will learn. Another consideration is that it is far more effective to practice in several small increments than one longer session – in other words as a beginner, it is better to practice 30 minutes on four separate occasions than on one day for two hours. Of course, the more you practice and play the quicker you will learn. As you accumulate more knowledge that understanding will help inform your continued learning, so forth and so on.

Once you have determined how much time you have to practice, discuss that with your teacher and work it into your lesson plan. With that information you can set your first mini goal; learning to read music or learning to create a sound on your instrument or learning to find individual notes on your instrument, etc. Give yourself time to achieve that first goal before setting the second goal and time to achieve the second before the third. In this fashion you will learn how to gauge additional reasonable goals each of which should be enjoyed and appreciated for the accomplishment that it is.

In defining what we mean when we talk about learning to play is another ambiguity. Each person has their own idea of what it is that will bring them to that place of feeling as though they know how to play their instrument. I think a reasonable goal for any student is to strive to become competent and confident in their playing. Competence will follow you in all stages of your playing and confidence will help to get you there. Effective practicing and patience builds both. Don’t set unrealistic goals which will only serve to frustrate you and don’t compare yourself to others; everyone learns differently. Expect to make mistakes and to struggle a bit. If you keep at it, you will learn to play your instrument in your own time and to your own liking.

Finally, remember that NO ONE can play everything.  What I am referring to is not only the fact that most great artists specialize in one instrument but that even then they don’t necessarily cross over into “all” genres or styles of music. They spend so much time perfecting their craft that at some point they have needed to quite purposefully hone in on certain aspects of the instrument and chosen or been forced to ignore others. The famous musician you follow, the pianist/guitarist/violinist/vocalist, etc. you so admired at that party, and your teacher have one thing in common, they have all spent many years learning to play their instruments and most if asked, will say they are still learning.






Passively vs. Actively Listening to Music

Listening and hearing are two very different things. Hearing is actually an involuntary reflex performed by the auditory function of the brain. Passive listening is very similar to hearing; sound is encountered and is initially or even sporadically heard but  your mind drifts, the sounds become background noise and you may think you are listening but actually the sounds are simply going past you though not on a meaningful level. While listening passively you can be thinking about everything but what you are hearing so it does not require much effort. Listening actively is listening with a purpose; you are engaged with what you are hearing, paying attention to sounds, expressions, intonation and questioning what you don’t understand. You listen actively to gain information and solve problems. When you listen actively you are emotionally effected by what you are hearing. Active listening uses more energy than speaking as you must receive and interpret sound. Active listening can be seen as a two-way communication. Passive listening is a one-way communication. Basically, it’s all about relationships.

How does this information apply to music? Passive music listening is selectively listening to music while you are actively doing something else. The listening is secondary to your primary activity. Many people listen to music passively most of the time. The business that began as Muzak created an industry that has taken over the retail environment to “enhance the customer experience”. Background music is everywhere; at malls, in restaurants, at the dentist office, it’s part of the movies you watch and it’s even part of the video games you play. It is so pervasive that we have conditioned ourselves to specifically not listen to it. We tune it out like noise pollution or the other sounds that are part of our environment. People who live in cities don’t hear the traffic sounds around them, people who live near airports are oblivious to the sound of flights going by, etc. Though we are not listening to any of those sounds we would become very aware of their absence if they stopped.

Active listening implies closeness, intimacy, a deep understanding. You are fully present in the music one hundred percent of the time. You are immersed, preoccupied with it and therefore interacting with it. The more time you spend actively engaged  in the music, the closer your relationship with it will be. The closeness of the relationship built will be determined by both the quantity and quality of time spent actively listening. It is important to realize that active listening is a skill and if we want to become better listeners, we have to practice listening. It takes dedicated time, focus and critical thinking to get to the level of intimacy that leads to understanding and appreciation. Learning active listening skills can enrich and improve your life and your relationship with music.

If you are interested in learning to actively listen to music here are some suggestions. There is the cerebral approach and/or the meditative approach.  If you are so inclined you might like to do a bit of research before beginning to listen. You can determine what genre best fits the music, who composed it, what time period and country it comes from and historically, what was going on at that time, in that place and for that composer? Then set a goal to listen without distractions for about ten minutes. In addition or instead you can take a more meditative approach to learning to actively listen. Begin by sitting comfortably, turning off your phone and other distractions; let go of the stresses of the day and perhaps even turn off the lights. Next relax, close your eyes and slow your breathing. Closing your eyes helps keep you focused and heightens your auditory senses. Take the music in with your breath and note where it resonates in your body. You can try placing one hand on your heart and another on your diaphragm. Engage other senses. How does the music move you emotionally? Tune into those feelings. Do any images or colors come to mind? Let the music engage your imagination. Pay attention to details in the music like melodic contour, musical form, harmonies, instrumentation and dynamics. This is called critical listening and can be a good exercise for the brain and for helping you to stay focused. It is important however, not to become judgmental or let your critical mind take away from the joy of listening. Finally, take a few moments at the end of the music, before opening your eyes, to let your system fully process the experience.

There are many other aspects that can be explored as well. If you are studying an instrument with a teacher you can delve deeper into the music by discussing such things as key signatures, rhythm, harmony, pitch, consonance and dissonance and dynamics. Once you dedicate yourself to sitting down with a piece of music and becoming actively involved with it you will realize the rewards of focused listening and there are many rewards. I am sure you have heard about all of the health and educational benefits of listening to music, the Mozart Effect for instance which claims that music has a cognitive effect on the brain of listeners. Unfortunately passive listening does not convey all of those benefits in the same way that active listening does. Active music listening, taking formal lessons, learning and practicing an instrument produces substantive positive changes in the brains of both children and adults. Much has been written about this subject in prior posts to this blog. Active listening will improve brain function and it will also improve your overall musical enjoyment. The more closely you listen, the more you engage the different areas of our brain. The more you engage and the more senses you activate, the more strength a piece of music will have in positively affecting your physical, emotional and mental states, especially when you return to that same piece of music later.

Of course, different people want different things from their music and different artists appeal to different types of listeners. Some listeners want something deep out of their music and others are just looking for background sound as they go through their busy days. There’s nothing wrong with passive listening but much to be gained by active listening.


What to Expect When Beginning Lessons on Different Instruments – Focus on Brass, Woodwind and Vocal

It has been said that saxophone is the easiest instrument to play…. badly. This, the final post in this series will discuss what to expect when beginning lessons on brass and woodwind instruments and voice. This follows posts discussing; piano and drums; guitar and bass; violin, viola and cello. As always, there are many rewards and some challenges involved in learning to play any musical instrument. The instruments being discussed today all add a dimension that has not yet been discussed which is the control of facial muscles and breath, requiring you to become conscious of what is normally an unconscious process. Like all of the other instruments brass, woodwind and voice also involve learning proper postures and positions for the rest of the body as well.

Let’s focus first on brass and woodwind instruments. Woodwind instruments include the saxophones, clarinet, flute and bassoon among others.  All but the flute are reed instruments.  For reed instruments, sound is produced by blowing through the reed which is a thin strip of material attached to the mouthpiece with a ligature. To produce a sound on the flute you blow over the hole in the mouthpiece in the same way you would blow over the mouth of a bottle. Brass instruments include trumpet, trombone, tuba and French horn to name a few.  Brass instruments produce sound through a metal mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is similar on most brass instruments, usually varying only in size. Sound is produced by placing your lips on the mouthpiece and blowing while vibrating your lips. The larger the mouthpiece, the lower the sound of the instrument. The pitch of the vibration in woodwind and brass instruments is determined by the length of the tube and by manual modifications of the length of the vibrating column of air which is changed by depressing keys, covering holes or in the case of a trombone moving the slide in and out. 

Unlike any of the other instruments previously discussed all of the brass and woodwind instruments require assembly. After assembly and before playing the instruments all require tuning which entails adjusting the length of the instrument by manipulating the mouthpiece or other component of the instrument. Shortening the length will raise the pitch and lengthening it will lower the pitch. The basic concept is consistent with the tuning of the string instruments. Music for woodwind and brass instruments is written in standard notation. All of the saxophones, clarinet, flute and trumpet are written in treble clef while trombone, tuba and bassoon are written in bass clef. These instruments can all be found in classical settings such as orchestras as well as jazz, pop and rock bands.

To play the brass and woodwind instruments students must learn breath control and correct embouchure (the proper use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece) as well as all of the other technical aspects of posture and position. In level of difficulty, the easiest to get a sound out of is a brass instrument, followed by the reed instruments and finally the flute. There is of course a distinction between between making a sound and making music. It will take time to learn to coordinate all of the nuances necessary to produce a beautiful tone.  At the first lesson, students may expect to do no more than learn how assemble their instruments, hold them, properly blow air through their mouthpieces, clean, disassemble and store them back in their cases.

The woodwinds and brass are generally appropriate for children who are around eight or nine years old, whose fingers are big enough to cover the holes and whose arms are long enough to reach. With that in mind, the flute is sometimes available with a bent head, which shortens it’s length for young beginners. Most schools have many opportunities for students of all levels to enjoy the fruits of their labor by playing in various bands and ensembles. Adult students can enjoy the playing opportunities afforded by local volunteer bands and orchestras.

Finally, let’s discuss voice lessons. You might have a preconceived notion that the easiest first lesson is a voice lesson. We can all sing on some level at the beginning and at the end of the initial lesson. However, studying voice requires a level of muscular control, training and development that is very difficult for a young student. We have heard over the years that voice lessons can be a bit intimidating as they are very personal in nature. It is generally best to wait for formal vocal training to begin until children who are at least eight or nine years old.

During a voice lesson, you will sing, get feedback on the sounds that you’re making and suggestions on ways to improve those sounds. You will learn techniques to control your breathing and posture, stretch your range, adjust your pitch and project your voice. Voice is the one instrument whose components we can not see. Since your voice is produced by your own anatomy it is important to remember that any constructive criticism is about your singing technique and isn’t directed at you personally.

As you develop your singing voice, your teacher may use images to help you understand how to make the best sounds. The teacher may ask you to notice sensations as you sing, give you something to visualize, or give you something to listen for. All three approaches can work beautifully though you may find that one approach works best for you. If your teacher describes something to you and explains the anatomy of why that worked, you may need to remember what it felt like when you made the best sounds or if you enjoy working with images, you can find a way to visualize the sound. Don’t fret if a teacher wants to explain the technicalities of what is happening physically. You may think that you do not want to know about that in the beginning, but later on, you may come to appreciate having the information.

You will need time to really grasp the concepts taught in voice lessons and hear profound changes in your voice. You will hear some change within the first month, but the big concepts and tough technical exercises may take a while to gel.  As with all instruments, enjoy each lesson with the understanding that you are on a journey that simply can’t be made in one day.


What to Expect When Beginning Lessons on Different Instruments – Focus of String Instruments – Part B

Welcome back. In this Part B, Focus on Stringed Instruments, I will discuss what to expect when beginning lessons on non fretted stringed instruments such as violin, viola and cello. Previous posts in this series have discussed beginning lessons on piano and drums; and guitar and bass. As previously stated, guitar and bass are a bit more difficult to begin learning than piano and drums. Violin, viola and cello are bit more difficult to begin learning than the guitar and bass. Once again, instrument choice should ideally be determined by your love for the instrument, your being drawn to a particular sound or feel not by the individual instrument’s learning curve. This information is provided so that you can approach any lessons you begin with reasonable expectations.

Violin, viola and cello are examples of non fretted stringed instruments. Unlike the guitar or bass, the fingerboard’s of these instruments are completely unmarked. Another difference is that the strings are drawn over a raised and arched wooden bridge rather than a flat bridge. Like the bass guitar, violin, viola and cello each have four strings tuned as follows: violin E, A, D, G; viola and cello A, D, G, C but in different octaves with the cello sounding lower than the viola and the viola sounding lower than the violin. Most frequently the non fretted stringed instruments are played in a classical setting such as an orchestra, chamber group or quartet. However, it is becoming more common to find all of these instruments in other genres as well, including jazz, rock and pop.

When played acoustically sound is produced by string vibrations that are  transmitted through the bridge and sound post (small dowel set between the top and bottom pieces of the instrument) to the body of the instrument, which allows the sound to effectively radiate into the surrounding air. In a traditional setting the instruments are played in their natural acoustic forms. However, the violin, viola and cello can be fitted with electronic pick ups which are often needed when the instruments are played in non classical  settings.   Essentially, a pickup is a small device that attaches to the bridge of the instrument and converts physical vibrations into a digital signal. You simply plug the pickup into an amp to create the louder sound necessary to be heard in rock, pop or jazz setting.

Like a guitar sound can be produced by plucking the strings, which is called pizzicato; but it is most commonly produced by moving a bow over the strings which as known as playing arco. A bow is a specially crafted stick traditionally made of wood and strung with a hank of horse-hair. Like guitar the instruments will each have to be tuned each time they are played. Once again, pitch is determined by the gauge and tension of the strings. Tuning will involve tightening or loosening the strings to create the right pitch for each string, a process that can be aided by the use of an instrument tuner or tuning app. For more on the basics of tuning  please refer to Part A of this discussion.

Now that we have covered all of the basics it is time to talk about the challenges and rewards of learning to play the non fretted instruments. Anyone who has ever fallen in love with the complex beauty of an orchestral performance or the moving magnificence of a stringed soloist knows what draws students to the violin, viola or cello. Now would be a good time to gently remind you that it takes many years to master any instrument. As a beginner you can not hold yourself to the standards of the performers you admire. But, dedicated practice can produce dramatic results enabling students of all ages to enjoy their playing and even eventually performing with one of the amateur orchestras in our community.

As a life long cello student, I would say that the two greatest challenges of playing a non fretted stringed instrument are learning correct finger placement technique and bow control – basically learning all of the different techniques required for both the right hand and the left hand.Without frets to guide left hand placement on the fingerboard, students must rely on their ears to find the proper notes. With practice you will train your ears to recognize correct tones and your muscles to memorize exactly where to place your fingers to create any given note. Bowing technique too will become natural in time but at first it can be quite difficult to get the hang of holding the bow correctly while applying the correct pressure and controlling the rate of motion required in various situations. In the beginning it is most important to be patient, practice diligently and allow yourself the time you need to develop the rudimentary skills required.

Violin music is written in treble clef, viola music is written in alto clef which is unique to the viola, and the cello music is usually written in bass clef. All three use standard music notation. Each instrument is commonly played one note at a time though two or more notes can be sounded simultaneously. In it’s most basic setting the violin plays the melody in an orchestra, viola and cello play harmony though in reality both harmony and melody can be shared and passed around.

Most teachers will go no further at the first lesson than identifying parts of the instrument, teaching the proper instrument  hold and perhaps naming and plucking the open strings (pizzicato). In the lessons that follow note reading and bow use will be introduced. As previously mentioned there is a bit less instant gratification when pursuing lessons on the non fretted stringed instruments than piano and drums for instance, but don’t despair, the reward for your perseverance will be worth your efforts! Violin lessons are appropriate for some children as young as three and a half years old, using a properly fitted fractional sized instrument. Viola and cello are larger and even in their fractionally reduced sizes are best to start once children are at least seven or so. For the purpose of learning to play, method books will provide students of all three instruments with familiar melodies so that they can enjoy creating music they can identify well before they can take on all of the magnificent repertoire that we hear the professionals perform.

Coming next, What to Expect When Beginning Lessons on Different Instruments – Focus on Woodwind and Brass Instruments.






What to Expect When Beginning Lessons on Different Instruments – Focus on Stringed Instruments – Part A

As stated in the first post in this series of three, starting lessons on different instruments will present a vastly different first lesson experience which will be very instrument specific. This is part of a series of posts dealing with the subject of what to expect when beginning lessons on each instrument. Today I will talk about what to expect when beginning lessons on fretted stringed instruments. The previous post discussed piano and drums. One of the first things to be mentioned is that there is less instant gratification when beginning lessons on the stringed instruments than there is on piano and drums. However, that should not be a deterrent.  Instrument choice is best made not by ease of learning but by love of the instrument you are drawn to. Like anything else that requires effort, the progress made will ultimately be very satisfying.

There are two subcategories of stringed instruments, fretted and non fretted. Non fretted instruments such as violin, viola, cello and double bass will be discussed in Part B, which will be posted very soon. Guitar and bass guitar are fretted stringed instruments.  A fret is a raised element on the neck of a stringed instrument. When a string is depressed, it strikes the fret, which results in a change of pitch. Guitars usually have six strings, tuned as E, A, D, G, B, E. Bass guitars usually have four strings tuned as E, A, D, G.

An acoustic guitar produces sound by transmitting the vibration of the strings through the sound board (top of the instrument). The sound board in turn vibrates the air within the instrument which resonates and amplifies the sound. Electric instruments are equipped with pickups (magnets) and metal strings made of magnetic materials. Using electromagnetism, the pickup senses vibration from the string, converts the vibration into an electrical current, which runs through the instrument cable and into the amplifier. The amplifier then reverses the process, producing sound from the speaker. Though the sound is produced differently there is no difference in the way the two kinds of guitar are learned.

As you probably know guitar is played by either picking or strumming the string(s). It is relatively easy to strum open strings or pick single notes on a guitar. Unlike the piano, stringed instruments require manual tuning each time they are played. Pitch is determined by the gauge of the string and by tension. Tightening the string will raise the pitch and loosening the tension will lower the pitch.  Instrument tuners and phone apps help to simplify the tuning process by identifying the correct pitch.  Once the strings are tuned, pitch is changed by the player’s finger placement on the neck of the instrument. Each string will produce it’s lowest pitch when strummed in an open position (without any fingers on the neck). Shortening the string by placing the fingers of your left hand on the guitar neck, between the frets, will produce a higher pitch or note. Though there are frets to help guide the left hand in finding the correct notes it takes practice to learn the coordination necessary and how much pressure to exert with the left hand while controlling precise and rhythmic strumming of chords (two or more notes sounded simultaneously) and melodies with your right hand. The guitar neck is long, there are many frets and many different combinations of notes to be played. It takes a great deal of practice to master the art of playing the guitar to it’s fullest potential; left hand moving up and down the neck and right hand isolating and strumming, fast notes, slower notes, loud and softer, etc. However, students can realize steady progress in a relatively short period of time and ultimately find a satisfying level of accomplishment with dedicated practice.

Guitar music is written on the treble clef and in standard musical notation or in a format called tablature or chord diagram, a method unique to the guitar and other fretted stringed instruments. Like piano, it is possible for the guitarist to play both melody and harmony on the guitar simultaneously. Students begin by learning the names of the strings, tuning basics, simple note reading skills and proper playing position at the first lesson. They will generally go home reading notes or tablature and picking single strings to produce simple melodies and rhythms. Depressing the strings with the left hand can be just the slightest bit uncomfortable before calluses form. Children younger than six or seven sometimes perceive the sensation as pain and may be put off from continuing their lessons. It is important for parents to have this information so that they can make a realistic assessment of when their child is really ready to begin lessons. Then helping the student develop consistent practice habits and offering a little extra encouragement will get them through this early stage relatively quickly.  Fractional sized instruments are available for  young students.

The electric bass guitar also has a fretted fingerboard, usually with four strings, instead of six. Bass is generally played one note at at time either with a pick or by plucking the strings with your fingers. Bass is considered a rhythm instrument so in a band the bassists will usually not be playing the melody (familiar part of the song). Bass guitar is larger than the guitar. The gauge of the strings are thicker producing a lower pitch than the strings of the guitar. It is usually best to begin bass at around age nine or when the child is big enough to handle the instrument. Bass music is written in bass clef with standard musical notation or in tablature. Though bass is available as an acoustic instrument most students begin with an electric instrument. Mechanically, sound is produced and the instrument is played in the same manner as guitar and first lessons will proceed in a similar fashion as well.

As you can see there are many similarities between the guitar and the bass. They each require some practice and dedication to reach an enjoyable level of proficiency. It has become popular to attempt to learn to play guitar and bass either without any guidance or using youtube tutorial videos. Many times this can lead to a great deal of frustration and then defeat due to the fact that it takes personal one to one attention to learn two essential elements of playing any instrument; proper position and technique. Once students achieve an intermediate level of accomplishment they can enjoy strumming and picking along to their favorite songs. Guitar and bass are often found in rock, blues and jazz settings.

Coming soon, What to Expect When Beginning Lesson on Different Instruments – Focus on Stringed Instruments – Part B. This article will focus on violin, viola and cello, the non fretted stringed instrument.