I'm Bad at This: What I've Learned From Learning 8 Instruments


I've been able to get my hands on quite a few instruments. This was a privilege of my education, no doubt, but the catch was that I had to learn them. So the excitement of opening up a shiny flute or sitting down at that ever-so-majestic piano bench was quickly dampened by the headache of trying to learn. Most instruments are not easy to master but when you're a child, you don't mind that you stink. If you're an adult beginner, you are keenly aware of how bad you are and MOST adults (myself notwithstanding) cant stomach the pain.

Here is what I've learned from learning 8 instruments in order from best to worst.

Violin: You can be excellent and still struggle

At parties when I tell people I play violin I usually say "I'm good" or "I went to school for music" to express that I don't just play violin, I PLAY VIOLIN. I have committed significant time and effort to be halfway decent at it and here's what I know:

It took me 4 years as a child to be good at the violin; it took me 7 - 8 to become advanced and maintaining that excellence today is my biggest challenge. Practice was the key to all that success, however I didn't enjoy practicing until the ripe old age of 22. Nowadays I find that with dedicated time I can progress 4x faster than when I was a kid! But finding the energy in an already full workday can be difficult. I struggle with a lot of the same things that I did when I was a kid like intonation, dexterity, tone color, and bow placement. The difference is that after all of the years of experience, I have a resound faith in my ability to work through something that feels impossible. I know that the struggle will disappear after a few hours or a few days and a new struggle will replace it.

Ukulele: Its just play

It is very easy to judge someone with a ukulele. But before you roll your eyes at some teenagers lounging outside strumming away, hear me out.

You should really try it!

If you've always wanted to serenade a party of people or chill out by a campfire. GET A UKE. If you have trouble unwinding at night and find yourself endlessly scrolling. GET A UKE. If you want to try to write music but you feel intimidated by software or discouraged by guitar. GET A UKE. Wanna play your favorite song? GET A UKE. Wanna play somewhere over the rainbow? GET A UKE. It's an accessible instrument that takes no knowledge to pick up and play! it will give you entertainment and joy if you let it!

Ukulele is one of those instruments I just fool around with to rediscover how music learning really should be: playful, explorative, and on your own time. These are the motivators of intrinsic learning and without them all joy is lost.

SO GET A UKE ALREADY!

Guitar: Your musical skills are translatable

My parents got me an acoustic guitar for Christmas when I was 16. I REALLY wanted an electric guitar but that's besides the point. I would play now and then. I never truly took to it because by that point I was committed to violin and was so used to having a teacher there to tell me what to learn and what to do that I didn't have that "teenage-boy-locked-in-his-room-jamming-all-day" determination.

Still, guitar came to me very easily. I enrolled in a high school guitar class taught by my school's orchestra teacher and I was the best in the class. I never had to spend too much time trying to figure out where my fingers were supposed to be. I understood the concept of moving one finger and keeping others in place, remembering patterns, and keeping time. I also knew how to practice. The skills I had honed playing the violin had set me up to be successful at the guitar and although I don't play more than a few times a year, I know that I'm never far from having a handle on it.

Piano: You're going to have to try harder

I have taken many piano classes. In fact, I started playing the piano when I was about 6 but quickly quit. My piano teacher was a family friend and I know that it has always irked her that I stuck with the violin. Who knows why, but I've never been keen on learning the piano. Its always been a bit of a chore. It definitely doesn't come naturally to me like I've seen it come to so many of my colleagues. It's just something I have to try harder at.

Clarinet: Great passion wears off on you

Clarinet is the violin of the band world. Literally, baroque composers wrote for choruses of clarinets before there even were modern violins! Nowadays it seems to have been knocked down a few pegs by flute but it still remains a core treble instrument.

I picked up the clarinet in a college methods course and instantly recognized how nerdy my graduate assistant teacher was. She begun the lesson with a history of the instrument and I was incredibly impressed with her depth of knowledge. It was inspiring! She used her knowledge to give superb instruction and I never felt that the bar was set too high. I learned how to play clarinet and I gained a new love for the instrument.

Trombone: Trying is a start

Trombone is a tricky beast. It takes great ears, muscle memory, and a whole lot of breath. In the class I took, the trombone professor of my university actually taught half of the classes! A lot of other professors didn't stoop so low as to teach the education methods courses but here this man was, one of the best trombone professors in the country, taking time out of his day to teach a mismatched bunch of instrumentalists. We all had different skills; I had the intonation skills, the band kids had some of the breathing down, but because of the slide all of us struggled. The professor I'm sure had seen this before and he took a very nonchalant approach. He treated us like true trombone beginners and at that level, trying is good enough.

Can you make a correct embouchure? Good. Can you buzz a scale? Good. Can you remember the correct slide positions? Good. Can you put all of those thing together to play? No? Thats ok! Trying is enough!

Flute: A mean teacher can ruin everything

I learned flute around the same time as when I learned clarinet and the difference in instruction was stark. My flute teacher was bad at hiding her distaste for the bad flute playing that was coming out of everyone's instruments. She also did a lot of in-class solo assessment, making it doubly nerve wracking and difficult to do. I hated the class and kinda hated the flute.

Flute is also a very hard instrument to learn and I didn't have any pre-learned skills in breath support, embouchure, or how to cover the holes. I did miserably in that class but the experience was made doubly worse by a teacher who wasn't patient. It's very hard to be vulnerable and learn when you know you already haven't met someone's expectations.

Tuba: Sometimes you really stink

Tuba is a hard instrument. I happen to be friends with quite a few tubist and they are all rockstars in my eyes. I had to play tuba for 2 months in college and I almost passed out in a practice room eight times. EIGHT TIMES is the amount of times I practiced outside of class. I am very bad at the tuba and I have actual recorded evidence because thats how we had to do our tests and homework. For my final I played Canadas national anthem. Let's just say it was not so much "Oh Canada" as it was "Oh NO. Canada".