Provocative thought of the day:
If you always knew with 100% accuracy what to expect when you were first starting something (exercising, a hobby, a new job, etc.) before you ever started it, would you ever quit anything you started?
Now, I know I'm totally on the hyperbole train right now; it's just to get you thinking... Did it work? Here's the point: The learning curve of a beginner music student is generally different from one instrument to the next. So, if you and your student have a good idea about what to expect when starting out on each instrument, then you will be able to make a better, more informed decision on which instrument to play, and you'll be more prepared for the hills and valleys as you develop.
Let's take a look at the learning curves of four typical musical instruments that students start out on: piano, voice, guitar, and drums. There are four broad phases to an instrument's learning curve that nearly everyone experiences.
- The Initial Phase - Students start out only with whatever natural ability they have (physical, artistic, etc.) as well as whatever perception of the instrument they've absorbed when they've seen the instrument performed. Certain instruments are easier initially than others.
- The Honeymoon Phase - This phase can be described as having the feeling of "this is easy." Different instruments lend themselves to different types of honeymoon phases.
- The Fight-through Phase - This is the point where the rubber meets the road. The inevitable reality of "it's hard to learn a musical instrument" sets in. When students quit playing music, this is typically the phase they are in.
- The Second Nature Phase - After a few major victories in the Fight-through Phase, students start to think "I've got this." Playing their instrument starts to become second nature, and the progress isn't so difficult anymore. That's not to say that they are now professionals, nor that there won't be another Fight-through Phase later, but by this point they've seen the benefit of working through challenges.
I also want to be clear that every student does not experience these phases to the same degree as other students. Factors such as natural ability, teaching method, motivation, and work ethic all play huge roles in shaping a student's journey to becoming a musician. But, these are some common learning curves that students experience when learning these instruments...
Typically students have a slight familiarity with the instrument, and it is a very visual layout. But the difficulty of finger dexterity and the intimidation of 88 notes makes it tricky at the start.
It's not hard to get going once you develop some basic fundamentals. There's a decent amount of progress to be had early on.
The difficulty of playing with two hands and reading two staves can sometimes make students feel like they're almost back to square-one. Typically students don't lose ground though, especially if they are diligent in prevailing through challenges.
Once hand coordination, keyboard familiarity, and reading proficiency all develop, the sky is the limit for piano students! They've now entered the Second Nature phase.
The voice is the most natural of all instruments, and students have already spent their whole lives familiarizing themselves to some of the nuances of their voices.
The initial familiarity of singing - which usually starts students off at a higher natural proficiency than other instruments - coupled with having to change the way you think about the way they use their voices makes for a less dramatic Honeymoon Phase.
Once again, the fact that students have used their voices all their lives means they've already developed physical habits. This means that learning the correct way to use their voices can initally cause them to actually sound worse than when they started. The key is understanding that this is part of the process; sometimes you have to take a step backward to take two steps forward.
The Second Nature phase for singers is extremely satisfying partly because of the seemingly-backward progress of the Fight-through phase.
There are some fine-tuned motor skill requirements to even make a pure sound on a guitar, so this one tends to be pretty initially tricky. Some students experience a small Fight-through Phase right off the bat.
Once you struggle through in the Initial Phase, there's typically a pretty significant honeymoon phase. Additionally, being a dominant pop-instrument, students can find success in a large pool of popular repertoire with minimal skills, adding to the enjoyment of the Honeymoon Phase.
This typically occurs when students start advancing beyond basic fundamentals, which can sometimes be a bit down the road. So the Honeymoon Phase lasts awhile, and the Fight-through is a bit later than other instruments.
Guitarists who have worked hard through the nuance-oriented fundamental phases enjoy an intimate familiarity with the instrument that can translate in to tons of progress.
Both the concepts of rhythm and of striking something to produce a sound are instinctive to every human. Plus, it doesn't take a ton of finesse to get a decent sound out of a drum. Compared to other instruments, the drums have a pretty friendly initial learning curve.
There's a slight amount of growth that happens initially as students are picking up fundamentals and rhythmic concepts, but the difficulty of limb-coordination can often cause this honeymoon phase to be less fruitful musically. For most students, though, it's still fun just to be able to play some simple drum beats.
This is usually a slower-developing Fight-through phase. What happens is students try to move past the simple beats by increasing complexity, but the high difficulty of coordination simply takes time before the "eureka" moment sets in.
Amazingly, there always seems to be a certain point in time where it's almost like the student's brain says, "Four limbs? I got this," and from there they start picking up drum grooves at a much quicker pace without all the struggle and frustration. This breakthrough comes at a different time for everyone and can sometimes seem to come out of left field.
Once again, many factors affect the actual learning curve a student experiences. But if you or your student are considering any of these four common instruments, hopefully this post will help in your consideration as well as set you up with accurate expectations on your journey to becoming a musical wizard. Enjoy!
- John Gotsis, Owner and Music Instructor at Vibe Music Academy, Fishers, Indiana.