Playing an instrument has many health, brain, and mood benefits. For all ages, probably most notable in young children and older adults – playing music improves math, memory, cognition, and literacy skills. It is a method of combining relaxation with learning.
My primary motivation for learning the guitar, is because I like to sing, and cannot sing very well without an instrument. It does teach patience, as well as the recognition of musical strengths. Some musicians are naturals, and can learn very quickly, tying it all together without too much effort. Others have more strengths in certain areas, like rhythm and timing, as opposed to singing. One thing for certain, all great musicians spend a lot of time playing music. You don’t get good at anything without having a passion for it and putting in the practice time.
If you look at lists of the world famous guitar players, more men than women make it into the top percentile. But when it comes to singing, women do not lag behind. There are many different components to self teaching – such as finger placement, ease of changing chords, timing, memory, pitch, projection, confidence, patience, and practice. It takes time to improve, and at first advancements seem almost imperceptible.
For those who study musical theory and take umpteen lessons, they are already well ahead of the weekend warriors and back porch musicians. Nowadays, you can learn to play just by watching tutorials on youtube. It’s great because you can pause it and replay it, which is more difficult to do in person! Or you can get the chords and lyrics of your favourite songs off the Internet and just start playing them. You might not impress anyone, but it’s a start. If you have listened to certain songs often, you can emulate the timing, emphasis, and pitch from memory.
Learning an instrument teaches patience, and after awhile improves your confidence. A lack of patience is probably the number one reason many people who want to learn, simply give up. To begin with, you can only play until your fingers hurt, which is probably another reason people quit. Some guitars are much easier to play than others. If the action is too high (distance of strings to frets) it is more difficult to press and hold the strings down. If the guitar does not hold a tune or sound good, it is another deterrent to learning to play. I like to play a small acoustic parlour guitar (Martin). They have great sound, and are easy to handle and play. These well made small guitars are ideal for children, songwriters, small spaces, and traveling with.
Like exercise, unless you are training for a marathon or the Olympics – you don’t have to play several hours a day, but you have to commit to playing or practicing on a regular basis. You will notice that on some days you can play and sing well, and on other days, not so well. Fatigue, medication, alcohol, colds, phlegm, dry throat – all impede the voice, the energy levels, and/or hand eye coordination.
As it is in all athletic endeavours, technique is the key to doing it well. Professionals will take many years of voice lessons, learning to master the muscles involved in singing. But how many recreational musicians want to learn how to regulate sub-glottal air pressure, or about the multitude of tiny muscles in the larynx and throat? There are many theoretical aspects of music that seem to take the fun right out of it. How many lay musicians throughout history actually studied the anatomy and physiology of the voice?
We tend to think piano players need strong fingers – but what they probably need more, is good posture and strength in their chest and back muscles. Natural musicians have the ability to let the music flow right through them. You will notice that the most accomplished players of almost any instrument, demonstrate a fluidity in their entire bodies as they play. I tend to think playing an instrument involves all muscles of the body, including the feet and legs.
The simpler points to know about the athleticism involved, is to stay in shape to maintain strong muscles in the diaphragm, chest, back and arms. Paying attention to posture, stretching, and learning to regulate the breathing – all contribute to improved singing.
A couple years ago I watched an interview with Linda Ronstadt, whose powerful voice and musicality left an incredible legacy of her talent. Unfortunately, she developed Parkinson’s disease, and described changes in her voice that made her realize something was wrong, long before she got the diagnosis. It must have been a devastating loss for her, since singing was part of her entire life, up until she developed the disease.
Since there are so many muscles involved in singing and playing an instrument, a change or loss in the ability to sing or play, would probably be one of the earliest indicators of something else going on in the body. It can easily become something you love to do – so it is a blessing to even be able to do it.
I remember a friend from school whose mother wanted her to play piano. She had to take piano lessons religiously. She was made to practice every single day, and when she got in trouble, she had to practice more. One time she said, “Oh no, I’m going to get grounded for this – and my mother will probably tie me to the piano for a week!” This is where the whole concept and purpose of music can get derailed. Many parents want their children to excel in music, sports and academics. All of them require discipline and dedication. In reality, none of them can be controlled by someone else.
Of all things, music should not be pressured. Encouraging patience, and developing an intrinsic love for the instrument, lyrics and genre of music is the foundation for developing a lifelong musical habit. It may not turn everyone into a shooting star, but it makes for a very positive and interactive activity that you are likely to continue. Music is innate to all of us in some way or another. It is never too early or too late to begin learning.
Since I am no guitar whiz and play only for relaxation, it took me the longest time to learn an F chord. Not that I couldn’t learn the finger placement, but I found it very difficult to barre all six strings and then reach and press down the other strings at the same time. Never mind trying to go from a C major to a convoluted F chord and back, in just a couple of seconds. It was too difficult to persevere, so I abandoned it. Plus, I found countless songs to play that could be transposed to eliminate the F chord.
But, come on! I finally told myself – how can you be a real (or even a semi-real) guitar player, and not even know how to play an F chord? Try it again…one more time! Another lesson embodied in this lowly experience – is to go back to what you could not master, and see if the practice has helped your abilities, or if there is an easier way to do it!
Lo and behold, while casually looking at the chord bank not long ago, I realized I had only tried a couple of different ways to play an F chord (the hard ways). I was quite amazed to realize there is a much easier way to do it, requiring you to barre just two strings instead of six (whew)! It actually only took only a couple minutes to learn. Years of procrastination and believing it was too difficult, was a waste of a perfectly good chord, and learning some great songs.
It just goes to show you – as it is with many things, there are other ways to achieve the same results. The doo-ability dawned on me rather slowly – but now I know, you don’t have to be a long fingered contortionist, simply to play an F chord!