Learning a Musical Instrument as an Adult

My wife has recently become seriously interested in learning to play music after not really having any musical education prior. While she’s dabbled a bit in the past, she needed to find an instrument and genre of music she was particularly excited about to get to the point of where she decided to take the plunge. For her, it’s Celtic harp.

She enjoys being able to ask me for help. Even though I don’t have a background in either Celtic music or harp, I’m still able to answer basic questions and even more complex ones involving music theory or ear training. I’ve been on the lookout lately for things that she might find useful and came across 7 tips for adults taking up a musical instrument. Honestly, the advice that’s in there is good for anyone, regardless of how old you are or even whether you’re just starting out with music or have been playing for decades.

  1. Dedicate a small amount of time every day to practice.
  2. Find some new music to play.
  3. Get your instrument serviced.
  4. Give yourself something to work for.
  5. Remember why you’re doing it.
  6. Persevere.
  7. Don’t be afraid.

Frankly, the above suggestions (and you should read through the short article for extra thoughts on each piece of advice) are solid for learning anything new. OK, maybe “get your instrument serviced” won’t apply to something like creative writing, for example, but the gist of the article does an excellent job of getting started on creative projects.

Trumpet on a String Legend Part 2 – Rafael Méndez

There is a brass musician urban legend where a famous musician, usually a trumpet player, is said to have the instrument hanging from the ceiling on wires of some sort and then proceeds to demonstrate playing loud and high notes with “no pressure.” A while back I tried to duplicate this for fun.

 

Recently I got an email from Jackson, who was doing some research on the great Mexican trumpet player Rafael Méndez. Jackson came across the following, which may be a letter written as part of Méndez’s 1981 obituary. It was written by Ronald E. Dishon and he reminisces on when he met Méndez in 1953.

As I sat there in awe, watching and listening , he suddenly stopped and asked me to approach where he was standing. In the middle of this room, suspended from the ceiling, was a trumpet on wires. He detached it and asked me to hold it and play a single note–any note–for him. I was so taken by his presence that I was reluctant to play and sheepishly declined his offer. However, he immediately assured me that it’s okay and he just wanted to see how I held and played the horn. Little did I know, he was about to teach me some things I have never forgotten and lacked the ability to perform well then and now.

What he was about to demonstrate was non-pressure blowing. Most student trumpet players press the mouth piece somewhat hard against the lips to make the sound come out of the horn. What he demonstrated to me was that this method was not necessary to make a solid tone emanate from the trumpet. So he asked me to now try his method. Of course, I had lots of difficulty making a strong sound, but got the idea that he was trying to show me. He then placed the trumpet once again in the wire hooks suspended from the ceiling and asked me to try to play a note not touching the horn with my hands, but only with my lips.The trumpet went swing back and forth, every which way, for I lacked the ability to smoothly control my embouchure. After my attempt, he then told me to go practice all that he had taught me. Before leaving, I thanked him many times during that short stay for his kind and gentle instructions. After we were through, he went back to blowing low notes, some loudly, some quietly, from this trumpet suspended in air, never touching it with his hands

For the record, I doubt that “no pressure” is a desirable thing for brass players. Research has been done on the amount of mouthpiece pressure brass players use and even seasoned professional players use quite a lot. We also know that experienced brass teachers can’t accurately judge the amount of mouthpiece pressure a player may be using.  “No pressure” approaches are based more on a philosophy or playing ideology, rather than any sort of objective description of how functioning brass embouchures actually work.

That’s not to say that excessive mouthpiece pressure is OK to ignore, or that reducing the mouthpiece pressure might be good for some folks, but it’s entirely depends on what the individual student is doing. Before I try to reduce a student’s mouthpiece pressure I want to make sure that his or her embouchure formation is held firmly enough to accept a typical amount of playing pressure. In my opinion, avoiding technique issues or damage to the lips by mouthpiece pressure is best approached by developing the muscular strength and control in the embouchure to hold the lips firm at all times.