Singers: How to Learn an Instrument Later in Life

Posted by Jesse Sterling Harrison on Sep 1, 2016 08:00 AM

shutterstock_299254712.jpgPhoto by Restuccia Giancarlo via Shutterstock

There’s a bond between bandmates that can’t be duplicated. People love writing books and screenplays about that relationship, but rarely capture the special dialogue and silly inside jokes that make up a band’s conversation. But if this collective is special, the links between members of a rhythm section must be stronger still. Guitarists, bassists, and drummers have a powerful interplay onstage and share a lot of that telepathy in conversation.

As a singer who doesn’t play, do you ever feel left out? Do you want a stronger role in your band’s songwriting? Maybe you’ve wanted to learn an instrument for years, you’ve just never gotten around to it. Well, the time is now. Here are some tips that might help.

Don't worry about teaching an old dog new tricks

You might be worried that, as an adult, learning a new instrument will be too hard. There’s plenty of junk science out there that suggest that only kids can be quick learners, making adults feel like their ship has sailed. The only real advantage that children have in learning instruments is that they don’t have to work for a living, freeing motivated kids up to practice constantly.

The truth is that the brain is plastic. Take on any new skill and your mind will happily make the adjustments needed, even changing its own physical structure to accommodate what you’re asking it to do. Of course, your hands will not get more dexterous, nor will your lungs increase their capacity, in just two weeks. But your mind will get noticeably better at using the body’s resources in that same period. You just have to clue your mind into its new task by practicing several times a week.

Take time to just fool around with the instrument

There’s one way in which you probably should emulate child musicians: take time as often as possible to simply play around with the instrument and learn what it can do. You’ll quickly discover your instrument’s sweet spots and figure out what sounds and feels right.

Many of the best players spent countless hours jamming alone in the bedroom before they ever joined a band. When they reached that point, they were already pretty good, and full of ideas they’d been testing in the lab for months.

Play briefly and often rather than long and rarely

Don't let days and days go by between practice sessions. Your mind won’t get the message that this is going to be a required, regular activity. Keep the mind properly tuned to the task by rehearsing regularly – at least three times per week, but more is better.

Can’t fit a lengthy practice into your daily routine? No problem. It’s better to play for 20 minutes to preserve your chops than to play once a week and have to start from scratch.

[8 Easy Tweaks to Make Your Practice Time Way More Productive]

Get other musicians involved

Already playing with some good musicians? Get them involved as soon as you can keep time and get through a simple part without screwing it up. You'll learn much faster playing with a good group rather than with a group of beginners.

With a practiced band, you won’t need to carry anything more than your own part, and you’ll be able to keep it simple. Plus, your band can gently advise you when you’re out of tune or your tempo gets a little slack.

Don't have a band? Play with anybody who can keep time and is willing. Having that push and pull between players is what makes "groove."  

New Call-to-action

If you're interested in songwriting, start now

Writing your own material on an instrument (and having your band play it) is one of the biggest psychological boosts a new instrumentalist can get. Even if you're mostly interested in covers, try writing some of your own stuff, too.

Whether your ideas are great or not, they’ll be fresh, and will stimulate new ideas and new directions in your band. And writing something you’ll later record or play live will motivate you to keep playing and keep getting better.

Use a balanced approach

You have so many avenues available to learn to play! There are private and group lessons, YouTube videos, tablature and sheet music, and songbooks with chord charts. You can play along with recorded music, play with a group, or improvise on your own. Use a balanced approach involving other players, a dose of music theory, and at least a couple of lessons.

Get pointers from a professional teacher. Lots of people can play well, but a dedicated instructor has spent time thinking about how to explain things and knows how to teach correct technique. Starting with an ergonomic approach to your instrument will prevent bad habits, pain, and repetitive stress injuries.  

Day job taking up too much of your time? See if you can practice on your lunch hour. Jimi Hendrix pretty much got kicked out of the Air Force for playing guitar in the barracks, but your employer is liable to be more accepting. Find a loading dock, stairwell, or break room and get good! There’s no time like now.

[How to Balance Your Day Job With Your Music Career]


Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.

Topics: Performing, Honing Your Craft


Get weekly updates on articles, gigs, and much more!

Posts by Topic

see all