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Taking up a Musical Instrument

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A series of musical instruments

Taking up a musical instrument is an exciting and potentially life-changing experience which not only allows you to exorcise a few creative urges, but it might also impress your mates. What better release can there be from the drudgery of everyday life than the pure escapism that music allows?

When deciding to take up an instrument, there are many things to consider, especially for the uninitiated. First you will have to decide what instrument to take up, how much time you will have to dedicate to your practice and, indeed, where you will practise. You should also take advice on what make of instrument to buy and how much you should spend on it. It is for this reason that we asked you, the musically-minded Community, to work in perfect harmony with other Researchers who are about to embark on their musical careers - here is what you had to say.

Some Advice

Picking an instrument is never a permanent thing, and never forget that. You can always switch, you can always add another instrument to your repertoire. The best way to pick one is by the sound, or timbre, of the instrument, and the best way to choose is by having all available instruments played to you by an experienced musician. There are also a few physical restraints on what kind of instrument someone can pick; certain mouth shapes are more well adapted to playing, say, oboe, rather than flute, and some kids just will never have the arm length to play the trombone. But usually you can work around these; this counts more for professional musicians.

Picking a second-hand instrument can be hard. For a young child who's just learning in elementary school and may quit in a few months, what brand/price of instrument they have isn't a really big deal. Just about anything that makes noise is okay, assuming it's decently tuned and there are no major mechanical flaws. For an adult or a student who wants to get a decent, cheaply priced instrument, the best thing is to go to an instrument repair place and ask them who they recommend for used instruments. The likelihood is that they've had to fix many of them, and they know where their patrons get the instrument so they can tell you exactly where to go - and more importantly - where not to go. If you've gotten through all those hoops okay, if you play the instrument already and are buying a new one, you should probably play it to see if it feels comfortable to you and if you like the way it sounds. The musician is a large factor in how a lot of instruments sound, so having someone else play it for you is a bad idea unless you don't already know how to play it (in which case it's your only choice).

The best way to find a teacher is to ask at schools who they recommend, and to ask people who already take private lessons who they know. You can usually pick and choose between different styles of teaching; some teachers are very good and some are just simply mediocre. Never judge the teacher on their performance credentials as there are a lot more excellent musicians than excellent teachers. You simply have to ask around.

On the subject of not making the neighbours hate you while you learn and practise, practise during daylight hours so they can't complain about keeping them awake at night. And try practising in a semi-sound proof room (something with lots of sound squashers, like carpet and wall hangings). In university dorm rooms this is difficult, seeing as walls are thinner than paper, so you basically have to pull the 'well, if you can blare your 'music' at 1am, I can practise Bach at 2pm' thing. If you can, find a place that rents out practice rooms (if you're at a university, that's probably the music building). You're expected to make noise there.

As a last resort, hang a 'Musical Genius in Progress' sign on your door...

Learning to Read Music

For most stringed and keyboard instruments, it can be quite tedious learning to read music. With brass (and probably woodwind) it's easier to learn as you learn to play the instrument - when you start, you can only play a few notes. So, how can you learn to read music?

Simple - buy a book. Many of the recommended books are published by the Associated Board of Music (AB). The 'textbooks' are called The AB Guide to Music Theory - book one is a brilliant pink colour, and book two comes in a stunning blue.

However, it's also good to get a bit of practice. To this effect, the AB also produce a series of workbooks, called Music Theory in Practice, one for each 'grade', (one through to eight). They are very thorough, although you may find it helps to have someone with musical knowledge to go through them with after you've attempted a few questions. All the books should be available from your local music/instrument shop.

When I was at school/college, I was lucky enough to go to 'Saturday Music Centre' run by the local Borough Music Service. Every Saturday morning, they run a selection of bands/orchestras/choirs etc. Among these sessions, you can also do music theory classes - basically working through the books mentioned above, but there is a music teacher available to help. I'm pretty sure it made a difference for me when I did music GCSE/A level! You never know, there might be something like this on offer in your area!

Learning to read music is best done as young as possible. Nobody is saying it's impossible to pick it up as an adult, but it is easier to pick it up as a child. If you have musical children, see if you can get them started on recorder lessons at about six, say. They'll then have the opportunity to start picking up reading music, with the added bonus that if they get bored and don't want to continue, a recorder is not a major investment, like buying an orchestral instrument can be.

The disadvantage of learning to read music as a woodwind player is that you only get one stave - bass clef is an evil mystery to many.

Practise, Practise, Practise!

This is the number one rule of learning any instrument. It is not enough to play the tunes you are supposed to be learning once each. You must go over them again and again. You should start with 15 minutes a day every day. The 'every day' part is very important, because if you miss a day, you will start missing a few days and before you know it you will have forgotten how to play. You can extend the 15 minutes to 30 or even up to an hour if you have the time, but it's better to play a small amount every day than a large amount every so often. And remember those scales...

I learnt how to play the guitar as a teenager. During the summer holidays I stayed with a friend of mine. For three weeks we did nothing but play the guitar, probably for about eight hours a day. At the end of it we were pretty good! While this sort of fanatical playing is not to everybody's taste, you will need to be dedicated if you want to be a good player. The brilliant cellist Jacqueline du Pré practised for five hours every day on her cello. That's why she was good!


The Clarinet

The clarinet is a good choice as a starter instrument, because it is used in many different types of music, although mainly classical. Clarinet players can very easily switch to saxophone later (see below). It is generally recommended that if a child wants to learn saxophone, they should start by learning clarinet and not switch to sax until they are big enough to hold it, at around age 13 or 14.

The clarinet is easy to get a tune out of and is a good introduction to woodwinds generally. But to play the clarinet well, you need to strengthen the muscles around your lips. This can only be done by practice, so a clarinet player needs to practise every day for at least 15 minutes. 30 would be better. Every day that you don't practise is a step backward as your lips will get flabby.

It is best to start with a plastic clarinet. The normal clarinet is called a B flat soprano. These can be bought new for about £350 in the UK. In the US, there is a huge market in second-hand clarinets. It should be possible to pick up one much cheaper. The general rule is to pick a clarinet made by one of the 'Big Four' manufacturers: Buffet, Leblanc, Selmer or Yamaha.

Almost all clarinets these days are made with a fingering system called the 'Boehm System'. It is essential that you buy one of these and not an Albert System or Simple System clarinet. Such systems are extremely rare in new clarinets but reasonably common in old second-hand ones in the US, so beware!

While it is possible to learn the clarinet from a book, it is recommended that you get a few lessons with a teacher, particularly at the start. If you get into bad habits, they can be difficult to correct later.

Bad clarinet habits include 'puffing' (using the throat or air to separate notes instead of the tongue), and 'double-lipping' (upper lip covers upper teeth instead of upper teeth being on the mouthpiece - this is frowned upon by many teachers of beginning and intermediate students, but to be completely fair, this is a technique used by very advanced players to get a special tone colour and more embouchure control.

Reeds are extremely important for the clarinetist (or any reed player). Beginners are usually instructed to buy Rico or Rico Royal #2 reeds because they are soft and cheap. Most professionals vouch by Vandoren brand reeds, which are rather expensive. Vandoren reeds are generally a half size harder than their Rico or other brand competitors. If you play a 3.5 and want to switch to Vandoren, buy a Vandoren 3, or you'll find yourself with reeds too hard to play. (Knowing when to change the reed strength is something for a private teacher to help with, as is deciding if you should switch brands.)

Switching from Clarinet to Saxophone

Many beginning students who want to play saxophone are instructed to begin on clarinet, because clarinet was thought a better all-around instrument than sax: it was more intellectual (that is, classical) and offered more of a 'challenge'. The saxophone was originally reserved just for people who couldn't succeed on clarinet (which is more difficult to learn the fingerings for). Today, some children are still dissuaded from beginning on saxophone; the excuse being that the saxophone is too big for children to get a good grasp on, while the clarinet is deemd by some to be a better size.

On clarinetists changing to saxophone: beware your embouchure! The clarinet embouchure (face muscles used in producing a nice tone) is very 'set'. It changes very little from low E to high G (or even higher). There is difference there, but not much.

When switching from clarinet to saxophone (any saxophone - soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, etc), this set embouchure makes a difference. Saxophone embouchures are much more loose and changeable. It is impossible to get low notes out immediately coming from a clarinet background, because the embouchure is too tight. High notes usually go very sharp. In fact, most of the notes are sharp right off the bat. It takes time and practice to relearn an embouchure.

The fingerings are easy enough to transfer, because the middle register clarinet fingers are exceedingly similar to the entire saxophone fingerings (and in turn, saxophone and flute fingerings are nearly interchangeable).

Saxophones have an octave key that breaks the fingerings into octaves. Playing just the index finger is a B. When the octave key is pressed, that B sounds an octave higher. Clarinets, on the other hand, have a register key that breaks the range into registers. On clarinet, playing first finger and thumb is a first-line E. When the register key is pressed, that same fingering sounds a B, above the staff. To get a second register E, the register key, the entire left hand, and the first two fingers of the right hand need to cover their respective holes. The clarinet fingering system is more complicated.

I did exactly that in my junior year in high school. I never could perfect my embouchure on the clarinet. Although I didn't have a problem with speed or accuracy, my tone just sucked. So I began to play saxophone instead, and picked it up pretty quickly. The upper register on a clarinet is the lower register on a saxophone, which makes it easier to transpose the notes mentally. (I picked up the sax because I was bored with the clarinet - plus they wouldn't let me in the jazz band with a clarinet - even though I mentioned klesmer music to them, they weren't interested.)

The embouchure on the sax is dependent upon the lower jaw. When learning to perfect your tone, concentrate on the tightness and angle of the lower jaw. You can actually change the tone by raising and lowering the jaw to produce a vibrato. Different notes require different angles, because like all wind instruments, not every note will be in tune at the same time. Certain notes are consistently sharp when the sax is in tune, so the player knows to drop their jaw. When trying to hit those lowest notes, relax the jaw as much as possible - the reed has to vibrate at a slower frequency, and if the jaw's too tight, it'll choke the sound and stop the vibration.

Learning the saxophone isn't really that hard, especially if you do have a strong clarinet background. It requires the same skills and the fingerings aren't that different. There are good books out there too, to help you develop a strong technique. Style, on the other hand, is something you'll have to learn from a teacher, or from recordings of Charlie Parker and the like.

The Bassoon

If you are looking for a new instrument to learn, then there is one that is the best of all of them. It is fun to operate, has a great sound, and is relatively uncommon, so you can be better than much of the rest of the world without being very good at all! So what are you waiting for? Go get started on a bassoon!

The bassoon is a wonderful instrument but somewhat tricky to play. Anything that has nine separate keys operated by the left thumb must be complicated! The tricky part is not the number of keys - that's just memorisation. The trickier part is keeping the double reed playing in tune.

The Recorder

The recorder is an unusual instrument to take up as a serious hobby. Many children, particularly in America, learn the soprano recorder in school and come away with dreadful memories. In fact the recorder can be a very pleasant instrument when played well. It is available in a number of different sizes, and the bigger ones are deeper in pitch so it doesn't have to be as piercing as you might remember from your school days! The best way to play recorder is in a group, so if you can find some like-minded friends who already play or are willing to learn, you will have some great fun.

Children should learn on a soprano recorder (also known as a descant). Adults should learn on an alto recorder (also known as a treble). There are plenty of tutors (and teaching books) for soprano, but it is not quite so easy to find ones for the treble. It is best to buy a plastic recorder at the start. Models by Dolmetsch, Yamaha and Aulos are all very respectable.

But if you're going to be learning in a group, check with the teacher what make of recorder to buy - I got £5 for my fifth birthday and bought a descant with it. I started learning recorder at school... only to be told I couldn't perform with everyone else in the concerts because I'd got a different make and it didn't sound right. I had to use a crappy school one until my mum bought me another.

A good wood recorder is better than a plastic one, but a bad wooden recorder can be much worse than a good plastic one, even though it costs more. Some of the East German recorder making companies had (by necessity) very low standards during the Communist regime. Second-hand recorders from these companies are woefully awful. The modern Moeck School recorder is one of the cheapest wood recorders from a reputable manufacturer.

One point which hasn't been made yet concerns the style of model. If you are thinking of rushing out to buy one, please make sure it comes in three detachable pieces! Everyone has different fingers and it is essential that you can adjust the positioning of the lowest holes if you are ever going to play successfully.

Steer well clear of instruments from toy shops as they invariably are in one piece - difficult to keep clean and inflexible. I sympathise with the earlier poster who related about having the 'wrong' recorder, but those 'toy' recorders really do make for pretty poor tone and facility of playing!

Stringed Instruments

If you decide to play a stringed instrument, be sure to pick the instrument with care. Playing stringed instruments is very taxing on the fingers, and when you begin can frequently cause your fingertips to blister and even, in the more extreme instruments (such as the harp), to bleed.

The violin, mandolin, and banjo are all relatively easy on the fingers, and are highly suggested by many Researchers as a first stringed instrument. The electric guitar is also finger-friendly, but be forewarned: to actually become a good guitarist, one must learn to play acoustic guitar.

A classical guitar, with nylon strings, is far more finger-friendly than an electric guitar or steel-stringed acoustic, and a good way to toughen up the fingertips before slicing them on steel strings. Cheap classical guitars are generally cheaper than cheap 'acoustic' or electric guitars as well.


Why the guitar? Well why not? If you're aiming to play a number of ditties from the last half century the chances are that the songs you wish to play used a guitar somewhere, be it strumming the odd chord or launching into a heavily complicated and often pointless solo. The guitar is quite a versatile instrument. You have the Baroque melodies of Spanish and classical guitar, the strumming chords of buskers and the chugging power of the electric. Other than a keyboard, the advantage of the electric is that the sound can be processed to create sounds that are far from the tinny notes you pick.

Another advantage is that a little can go a long way. Half of the pop hits of the 1950s and '60s seemed to be based around the 12-bar blues scale and variations. You can recognise the 12-bar blues everywhere even if you don't know what it is. Chuck Berry's 'Johnnie B Goode' is a good example. The list is endless. Also learning a few basic chords works wonders. Especially for the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and so on. You may come across chords that are difficult to play with standard tuning but the invention of the capodastra, or capo, makes things a lot easier. The capo acts as a false nut across the frets so you can play chords in different keys but still use the same shapes.

When starting you will probably come across two problems. For those not endowed with perfect pitch you probably want a reference of some sort such as a tuning fork or a tuning guide, the latter of which can be found on monthly guitar magazines or guitar tuition books. The second problem is that it hurts. A number of people are led to believe that they should begin with a nylon string guitar as this will be kinder on their fingers. But if you want to play electric you're probably wasting time. Go straight for the steel strings and get the blisters and the agony over and done with. In a couple of weeks the skin on your fingertips will have hardened and you'll wonder what all the fuss was about. Another problem is getting used to chord shapes but this is overcome with practice and is no different from learning other instruments.

Another advantage of the guitar is that within a few months should be able to beat out the chords to a recognisable popular song - assuming your singing's any good otherwise a lot of chord changes sound the same. You shouldn't have months of sounding like you're torturing a cat like you would with a violin or splitting notes with wind instruments. Also, learning the guitar is relatively straight forward due to its popularity. There are about 50 million guitar players worldwide so you should be able to find someone who plays a little and is willing to help you along. A number of books and magazines are available to help you along and you shouldn't have trouble finding strings, picks etc. Specialist tuition is not essential as it is with a number of other instruments unless, of course, you're hoping to be the next John Williams or Julian Bream. A number of rock stars are self-taught. A certain aptitude may help but in the end all you need to do is practise.

Guitar is a great place to start, it's easy, you can sound great really quickly, and chicks dig them That's where I started, I now play just about any instrument you can throw at me. And I found that the worst way to learn any instrument is to get a teacher. I learned by watching TV of all things. You can pick up most tricks by watching people's fingers, whether on piano or guitar or whatever.

Guitar Tablature

A great selling point for the guitar is tablature. Tablature is a simplified way of writing down music using six lines representing the strings of the guitar, and numbers representing finger placement on the fret board. For those interested in a casual approach to learning an instrument, tablature offers a simplified alternative to learning standard musical notation.

Acoustic Guitars and Neil Young

If you're interested in teaching yourself to play the acoustic guitar - nothing virtuoso - just being able to strum along a few chords and sing a tune, then listen to the rather excellent songs of Neil Young. If you then find yourself liking his stuff, go and buy any one of the many Neil Young guitar books available that contain the words of his songs and the chords that go with them. They're easy to play, and you can learn loads too. Neil Young often uses a plectrum and picks the individual notes of the simple chord shapes he makes, making it all sound really fancy. Don't worry - you'll get the hang of it. To whet your appetite there's a great Neil Young entry, too.

The Double Bass

Any orchestra will be crying out for double bassists. This means that no matter how terrible you are, they will be willing to have you, if only for the look of the thing. Which means that not only will you (if you are at school) gain free and easy entry into all the youth orchestras you feel like applying for, you will be hounded by all the others within any kind of reasonable distance to come and guest on all expenses paid tours to all sorts of interesting places.

And it's easy to get paid for your hobby too. Aside from youth orchestras, there are all sorts of amateur orchestras around who need basses for their bi-annual concerts, amateur dramatic societies who hire people for their productions, etc. They will not take no for an answer and will follow you around begging to give you money for a few hours work, even if you stopped playing regularly four years ago, and have not, in fact, picked up your instrument at all in two years.


It is often said that unless you start playing the violin as a child you can give up learning it. This is simply not true - you might not end up as a professional violinist but if you enjoy playing then there is no reason for giving it up.

If you want to play the violin and do not have an instrument, the best thing you can do is to get in touch with a violin teacher. The teacher can help you choose the right size and can tell you about the local opportunities for buying new as well as second-hand instruments.

One Researcher strongly advises against trying to prepare small children for learning the violin by trying to make them understand how to read music. Always talk to the teacher first! There are many different ways of starting the process. Many violin schools begin with melodies in D major or A major. Another point is that it often takes a while before the child learns all the notes of the first scale. Different teachers will approach the subject of reading music in different ways. To avoid confusion it is best to ask the teacher what methods he or she uses and what you can do at home.

Older violins tend to be better than brand new ones as the sound becomes mellower and more matured (a bit like cheese). Don't fork out a load of money for a Stradivarius... a nice 50-100 year one is good, but each person has their own favourite. The best strings to get are real gut strings, but Dominant strings are the best artificial gut to get, even though they are a bit expensive (£20 for a set).

When holding the violin in the correct position, never rest your elbow on the side of your body. It is bad practice, looks like you're a bit of a slacker and hurts your wrist and lower arm as time goes by. It will be tempting to put your arm in this position, but with a lot of practice, your playing will be better with your elbow away from your body.

Also, your wrist must not hug the underside of the violin neck. It will hurt, reduces flexibility and is again, extremely tempting to do. The only way you can get those high notes is by sliding your hand up the neck, and without a free, supple and flexible wrist, it will be impossible and painful. It is the same with your thumb - it must make a circle with the neck.

When bowing, bow in the middle of the strings, between the fingerboard and the bridge. Don't bow the strings on the fingerboard as you get resin there and it looks hideous. If you bow between the bridge and the tailpiece, you make a hideous sound.

Bow with the horsehair, not the wood. Rarely even do violinists bow col legno ('with the wood'), and only for short periods. Horsehair is the general rule. Also, put resin on the bow by rubbing a solid piece up and down the horsehair. Do not tighten the horsehair so it bends the wood of the bow.

The Cello

A difficult one - those who want to play a musical instrument just to put it on their CVs1 tend to take up unobtrusive little things like the flute or the violin - hence the major discrepancy in school orchestras where there may be 25 violinists/flautists and very little of everything else.

The cello doesn't fall into this category, as it is a bit bigger - certainly enough to take up another seat on the train. So to take this one up, you really have to be sure. As with any string instrument - don't splash out on a really expensive one! Good second-hand student cellos start out at £300, although some leeway must be given for the power of negotiation. £600 cellos sound a lot nicer, and for the really experienced, upwards of £1400 are what you should consider. Cellos made in the former West Germany are generally held to be the best, but again, it depends on the experienced player.

Cellos come in many categories of sizes - from smallest to largest:

  • Quarter size
  • Half size
  • 3/4 size
  • Full size

As you grow, so does the cello, so there may be many cellos to pass through your hands. Try to choose a cello with a relatively low bridge (the bit which keeps the strings off the body of the cello), and then you won't wreck your fingers when playing.

As you get into playing, and start taking the cello around with you, you might want to invest in a protective hard case, to prevent knocks and blows damaging the instrument. Despite its size, it is quite delicate, and there have been cases of malicious damage to cellos, whereby someone may stamp on the neck. A lock may come in handy too.

In terms of practice, something like 20-30 minutes a day will be sufficient - and practise those scales! They are boring, but like lifting weights at the gym, they will build up strength in your fingers, making it much easier for you to play in the future.

Cello Technique

Good posture is essential - keep your back straight and perch on the edge of your seat, left elbow out, and fingers nice and curved with the tips pressing down on the fingerboard. For keeping down the noise, then a mute similar to the one described in the violin thread can be bought for the cello. However, the size of the cello being what it is, these start at £10. Again, taking up a musical instrument of this size either means that you are really into music, or you like carrying lots of stuff around...

The cello is a good instrument to start on if you don't mind lugging it around. The sitting position for the cello is very natural and doesn't put any strain on your body, unlike the playing positions for flute, clarinet and violin.

You need a good sense of pitch to play the cello. This can be developed, but it helps if you are the sort of person who can already sing in tune. If you don't sing at all, you may not be musical enough to play the cello. The instrument itself is quite forgiving compared with the violin: a finger misplaced by a millimeter will have far more effect on the note on a violin. And the sound of the cello is in general much pleasanter, being more in the range of the human voice. So the cello is the ideal choice as a string instrument.

The Viola

Most people don't tend to start on the viola - certainly not at school anyway. If you are a violinist, and want to add this marvelously mellow instrument to your repertoire, or simply don't want to follow the crowd into the violins, this is the one for you.

It's probably not the best idea to start your musical career on the viola if you need to learn music as well, as the viola is one of the oldest members of the string family (it's older than the violin, believe it or not) and is a bit like an eccentric old uncle in that it uses a clef that no-one else uses much any more. Keep to the standard treble and/or bass clefs at first.

If you're a violinist who wants to switch (either permanently or to be able to play both instruments), you will probably find the change-over much easier (and faster) if you work exclusively on the viola until you are secure with the clef and the new configuration of strings. You will certainly find upon going back to the violin that you will be mis-reading the music and playing on the wrong strings for a time.

Playing a viola is very much the same as playing a violin. Many violin teachers will teach viola too, and you may be able to find a specific viola teacher in your area, particularly if you live in a city with a resident professional orchestra. Many advertise in local telephone directories. Alternatively have a look in your local music shop, as many advertise there too.

Selecting a viola is probably far harder that selecting a violin as there is no accepted 'standard' size. There is a persistent argument that rumbles back and forth in the viola world about whether a small or large instrument is best for making a good sound.

The best advice is, try lots of them. Go and visit a good string instrument dealer (it really is worth making a trip to another town if necessary) and try every single one in the shop that is in your price range - most dealers have rooms set aside for trying out instruments which will need to be booked in advance. You should ring them up to check what they've got as well, so you can decide whether they've got anything worth trying before you go, and book a room at the shop if they have.

Comfort is important as the viola is really a bit on the large side for playing under the chin, so make sure that you are not having to stretch your arm too far to be able to play. You will only be storing up back problems for the future if you pick one that is too big. You should also try out different shoulder supports, partly to see which suits you best and partly to see if you need one at all.

Try lots of bows as well to find one with a weight and feel that you like. While you can buy viola 'kits' which incorporate the instrument, a bow and case, a good viola will not have these additional extras. The bow and case will also have to be bought, unless you are lucky enough to find the dealer is acting as an agent for a private seller who is throwing the case in for free.

You should also bear in mind that you will need to fork out for strings (more expensive than violin strings - get your teacher's recommendation for good ones) and rosin (cheap makes are a false economy - invest in a good quality make) for starters. You will also need to have your bow re-haired every six months to a year or so (a dealer will be able to arrange this - or may even do it himself).

The most important thing to consider is that, like all stringed instruments, getting a viola can be expensive - but it doesn't have to be. Get the best you can afford, and enjoy it. You're doing it for fun after all, and that's the whole point of making music.

Brass Instruments

Brass instruments can be incredibly difficult to learn to play! But don't let that put you off. Once you've mastered making a sound, it's all about refining the tone, extending the range of notes you can play, and strengthening your lips. Practically every brass player will come across a few good books to learn with.

The 'basic' book is called A Tune a Day, and is available in versions for most instruments. It is split into lessons for each day, which should take no more than half an hour. It's an ideal book for absolute beginners, as it teaches you to read music at the same time as you learn to play the notes. After a couple of weeks, you should be able to play a few simple tunes.

Next we come to How Brass Players Do It. No, it's not that kind of book... It contains many exercises, which when used properly will help to increase your playing stamina, and the ease at which you move from note to note. It's also very good for more advanced players to use as warm-up exercises.

Now for the 'bible' of brass players books - JB Arban's Cornet Method. It has hundreds of exercises, each designed to test a different aspect of your playing. Some test/build your flexibility, some your tongueing (very important for any wind instrument!), some your finger speed, and so on. At the end of the book, there is also a small section of studies and solos - these are great fun, but the later ones should only be attempted by the more advanced player. The solos section includes The Carnival of Venice - a tune that Wynton Marsalis is renowned for playing.

You will also need to practise those dreaded scales. They're dull, they're boring, but they're worthwhile. Many pieces will include passages of 'runs', which are basically sections of scales. The faster and more accurately you can play them, the better. Plus you'll be learning about key signatures.

The Trombone

When starting out, rent a trombone rather than buy one. Then if you give up, it's not such a pain, and if you carry on, you can buy one later. During the first couple of years, stick to buying a second hand trombone. These things can be quite expensive, but a second-hand student model can cost £150, as opposed to £400 or more for a brand-new one!

If you're under school-leaving age (in the UK), get your county music service to find you a teacher. If you are at school, you probably already know who is your local brass teacher. Don't splash out on mutes and other expensive equipment until you start playing in groups that don't have the words 'Beginner' or 'Intermediate' in the name.

Don't buy a gig bag unless you are 100% sure you can keep it safe. A hard case is heavier, but miles stronger. Most insurance for instruments won't cover it if it is in a gig bag, even if you insure it separately. I have mine insured with a specialist musical instrument insurers, and even they won't insure it in a gig bag.

Another trombone/brass type peripheral that can come in very handy is a practice mute. This is especially true if you live in a flat or in shared housing or don't have a sound-proofed room at your disposal , and want to stay friends with your neighbours. Other mutes though, like Lifson says, aren't really worth it.

Two Contrasting views on oral obstacles to playing the trombone:

Unfortunately playing the trombone or other brass instruments is not an easy option if you have to wear braces. I tried this when I was younger but was unable to blow a good enough raspberry to get any note out of a brass instrument and as such I never learnt a second instrument at school.


As a trombone player of almost eight years and a former brace wearer I have to say that it is possible to play the trombone (or any brass instrument) with a brace . Admittedly, it can be a bit more difficult, and occasionally painful, but like with learning any instrument if you stick at it, it gets easier. There are also mouth-guards available (a sort of miniature version of the thing that boxers wear) which, in addition to being extremely trendy and attractive, stops the brace from cutting your mouth while playing an instrument. There is also apparently a sort of wax that you can put on the brace for the same purpose.

The Trumpet

You should be able to find a decent beginner's trumpet (or cornet) for around £125 - £150. Make sure that there are no leaks anywhere - even the smallest leak will make any trumpet incredibly difficult to play well. Check the valves - they should have a smooth up-and-down action, and spring straight back up (without sticking) when released. Also, make sure the slides work - the main tuning slide (the biggest one, next to the bell of the trumpet) and the third valve slide (which comes out of the valve furthest away from the player) should definitely work smoothly. A first valve slide is useful, but not essential for a beginner. A few minor dents/scratches may be acceptable (you could try and knock the price down a little). Bigger dents can make it harder to play. Make sure you will get a mouthpiece with the trumpet - they can be pretty expensive!

When purchasing a trumpet, you should also buy a bottle of valve oil. Applied regularly to the valves of your trumpet it will keep them working smoothly. It is also advisable to buy a cleaning kit - this is basically a set of different sized brushes, which will enable you to clean the inside of your instrument.

For a more advanced player, you will need a higher quality instrument. Different people will have different ideas as to what is good. You will probably want to buy an instrument of this quality first hand, so the valves will need 'wearing in'. When they are produced, the valves are made slightly too big to move smoothly. Over a period of time, they wear down a little, so they work smoothly for you - different players hold the trumpet ever-so-slightly differently, so consequently the valves receive pressure in different places.

It's worth trying a few different makes of instrument, so that you can choose something that is right for you. You will be spending a lot of money on it, so make sure it's the right one! You may have the option of a silvered instrument, rather than the more usual brass finish. Silver looks good, but it can be harder to keep clean. It's up to your taste really!


Learning to play the piano (with a teacher and with real written music) will teach you how to read music in the two predominant clefs. You will develop independence of both hands. The piano still is the standard instrument for many composers. The biggest problem, however, is space. A piano is a really big instrument. Those more or less little digital pianos might be a solution, but not a really good one.

I agree the piano is a great instrument, with a lot of music available is all styles. I have a console Kawai that sounds great. But I think some of the small portable options are also pretty good. With advances in computer and sampling technology, they can sound pretty convincing.

Technology is that excellent today that in most cases it's easier and more predictable to use a digital piano (or a master keyboard/sampler configuration) than trying to do it with the real thing. Especially if you have to amplify it anyhow. You'll get a 80% to 90% perfect sound without the hassle of hauling, tuning, microphoning a grand or upright piano. It's really hard to beat the sound of a digital piano with a real one.

Some Piano Pointers

  • Don't worry if you have small fingers... Mozart had tiny fingers and look at him! Your muscles will be trained as you practise and aiming for those octaves will be much easier!

  • Don't thump the pedal. It damages the piano. A nice up-and-down fluid motion is good.

  • Try and aim for a fluid motion of your fingers and wrists, and make sure your wrists don't drop or rise as you play. It damages your style, and is frowned upon.

  • Have lots of feeling in your playing. Work out what the piece means, how it feels emotionally. It's great that you can play it technically, but without feeling, it sounds drab, boring and mechanical.

  • If you mess up... just carry on. Don't try and do it again - if you make the same mistake it becomes hideously more obvious.

Buying a Piano

Don't buy a Chinese one. They look great but produce very little sound and occasionally fall apart. When trying a piano out, be sure to play really loud as well as soft. Don't be afraid to make a noise. It should play both types of music well. If it's a second-hand piano, have a look inside and check it all looks OK, that the strings are not rusty and that there are none missing. In an upright piano, make sure the soft pedal (the left one) moves the hammers closer to the strings. Some pianos use a crummy substitute for this, putting a sheet of felt across the strings - this should be avoided.


The Voice

At a party where musicians, friends of the cast, directors, newspaper people and so on were gathered, one man was patently puzzled by the presence of a woman on the very shady side of 60. 'What's that woman doing here?' he whispered. He was given the reply, 'Oh, she's so-and-so's singing teacher.' The man was utterly astonished. 'What, there are people who actually teach singing?' he exclaimed.

To Sing Badly you Don't Need a Teacher

This exemplifies a view of singing that seems entrenched in our society, ie, that you do not need a singing teacher to teach you how to sing. 'My two-year-old knows how to sing!' smugly say fond parents. Yes, that's probably true... to sing (that is, to make noises approximately in pitch and of a more-or-less listenable quality depending upon the natural ability of the child/individual) requires no training at all.

But to sing (to produce vocal melody with steadiness of tone, being equal to the demands of the music, singing on pitch and with a pleasing timbre, not limited by the technical demands so that a combination of technique and emotional validity for the words and music can be achieved) is something that needs to be taught.

'Naturally Good' Voices

We've all heard them - they sing in karaoke bars, they sing at parties when their friends persuade them to get up and sing. They're the amateur singers with a naturally good voice. A naturally 'good' voice is a nice place to start - but it is only the start. It's the rough gem that will be polished into a stone of beauty.

But - even if you do not think you have a naturally good voice - do not despair! Good vocal technique can actually mould your voice, so that qualities you never knew you had may become apparent.

Life's a Pitch and then You Sing

The most obvious aspect in learning how to sing correctly is to ensure that you learn to control your pitch (exactly where the note is - or, in scientific terms, exactly what rate of vibration is produced by you for a particular note). To this end, scales and other vocal exercises will be given to you - but it's not just a matter of singing through them, eager to get them out of the way. Practise vocal exercises with care, the major concern should be to increasingly ensure your pitch is certain and steady.

Just Breathe

However, the most important thing you'll ever learn in singing is how to breathe. 'What?' you say. 'I've been breathing since I was born!'.

No doubt, but you've not been using your breath to support your singing voice to its best advantage, unless you were an infant Farinelli! The thing to remember: using the breath correctly takes years! Not because it's overwhelmingly difficult, with convoluted twistings and too many steps, but because the body and mind need to become accustomed to using the muscles of the body in the 'right way', and need to become accustomed to deliberately relaxing the body, removing unnecessary tension, except where the tension is needed. (Most humans instinctively try to produce vocal melody by bunching up muscles that don't need to be bunched up - and it makes singing look incredibly difficult!)

Imitation - the Most Sincere Form of Flattery?

A word of warning: don't try to sound like your favourite singer! Everyone has their own individual sound, and your entire body is going to be used like an instrument to make your own sound. If you try to force a particular sound, you'll be unfair to your own individuality, besides limiting yourself (and probably doing a thousand things wrong, technically speaking, in order to imitate someone who would be more flattered if you used their example to be the best 'you' that you can be, musically speaking).

Getting a Teacher

There are a lot of singing teachers out there, so how to choose the best one? One Researcher's bias is heavily in favour of the classical techniques as a basis for singing in general. Some teachers will only teach classical voice training, whereas others will only teach modern singing. Choose the style that is right for you, but bear in mind - most aspects of classical training can be carried over to other types of singing, whereas modern singing is of limited use for classical vocal repertoire.

Having decided on the style, now decide on the teacher. Things to take into account: the qualifications of the teacher, the recommendations of other students, and other more logistical and practical considerations (ie, cost, and location.) A lot of really good singing teachers are horrendously expensive - don't set out to pay a fortune unless you want a career in singing and like the teacher enough to pay for their children to go through school.

Feeling Stretched or Unstretched

It may be that the teacher you chose just doesn't suit you. Maybe the teacher is too gentle-paced for you (you want to be stretched, challenged, etc), or the teacher goes too fast for you (you feel as if you're 'passed' on aspects which you still feel you haven't mastered, or rushed from piece to piece), or the teacher's personality is clashing with yours. Whatever the reason, it's wise to give the teaching style a fair chance (the teacher might know better than you!) However, if you feel you have done so, and you're not comfortable or happy, then find another teacher.

Not every good teacher will be right for you.

The Song's the Thing

Having found a good teacher - practise! Don't use the teaching session as your practise session. Take the time to do a little each day - even 20 minutes a day is good. If you don't read music, the teacher will no doubt set you exercises to help you learn how to read those notes.

You might be longing to get those techniques you're learning into use with a song - your teacher probably won't be in any particular hurry to let you. But inevitably there are compromises between what's ideal for your voice, and what will give you the incentive to keep learning. So when you do receive a song to learn, learn it thoroughly. Try to memorise the song, avoid imitation of other singers, think about the words, use those techniques (even if your technical control is only in its infancy), and have fun!

Shakespeare referred to music as the 'food of love'; singing is your invitation to that banquet of sheer delight...

The Harmonica

There are two types of harmonica; one with the little handle you pull for different notes, and the good one. The good harmonica is often known as the blues harp. They're cheap and easy to transport, although you need a different harp for each key. It has ten holes, and each hole produces 2 notes; one when blown, and one when sucked (drawn).

Real blues harp doesn't play tunes very often; you just improvise around the melody and make sure you've got the right harp for the key. There are two tricks to learn and each one only takes a couple of hours to get the hang of:

  • Learn to blow and draw one hole at a time. Just pucker those lips and practise.

  • Learn to 'bend' a draw note by changing the shape of your mouth.

Practise so you can play faster, and that's it. You're a demon harp meister in no time at all. Then you can get fancy by trying to bend blow notes, using your tongue for rhythm and growling into the harp. Other advantages of learning harmonica are:

  • Portability - You can carry it with you much more easily than a piano or guitar.

  • Low maintenance - Apart from knocking the spit out of it when you're done and maybe wiping off the outside now and then, there is no maintenance. No strings to change, no accessories, no rosin. When it goes out of tune (after several years of hard use), buy a new one.

  • Consistency - Even the relatively cheap ones like a Hohner Marine Band perform consistently and stay in tune. Watch professional musicians at work like Neil Young and you'll notice some of them use inexpensive, widely available brands of harmonica.

It is the perfect instrument for multi-tasking. Clamp a harmonica-holder around your neck and suddenly your hands are free to play guitar, play piano or juggle at the same time you're play harmonica! If you are training to become a one-man-band, this is the instrument to begin with.

And they sound cool too.

Tom Tom

A lively, energetic young thing thinking of taking up an instrument can do much worse than buy a drum kit. It's surprisingly easy to learn (if you an aptitude for it), so you should be able to bang out your favourite songs while your guitar-playing mates are but dreaming of drop-D tuning. Drummers also have the advantage of being rare: everyone dreams of being a guitar god, few the wild guy at the back, so you'll get into a band tout de suite and, what's more, will spend half your free time turning down desperate offers of a couple innocent beers from shady friends. Needless to say, the barrage of drummer jokes you will endure will thicken your skin a hundred-fold.

Of course to get that kind of treatment you will need to be at least moderately good at playing the drums (a poor drummer is worth less than an accordionist) and the best way of discovering whether you're a natural or not is to try a kit out. You will suck. Happens every time. Keep playing though and you will soon discover if it will be worthwhile to keep at it. If you can be bothered, buy the cheapest, tattiest second/third/fourth-hand drum you find, set it up as far away from sentient life as possible, and try a few basic beats shown to you by your close drummer buddy.

Alternatively, you could just squat in said friend's garage and 'borrow' his kit whenever you get the chance. If you honestly sense progress after a few weeks, you should start looking into buying a semi-decent kit of your own. If, however, you are struggling it's probably best to put down the sticks.

1A CV stands for 'curriculum vitae'; the American equivalent is a resumé.

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