Why is it that some people seem to thrive when learning an instrument whereas others struggle? Is it really that some people are simply more talented than others? Do some people just have a “knack” for learning an instrument? Are some folks just doomed to fail?

I think success at learning an instrument has a lot to do with our expectations for learning and the learning process itself. When we’re in school, and in any given class, we’re mostly learning concepts. Once we grasp and understand a given concept, we move on to another, and another, all the while learning how all these concepts fit together and relate to one another. At the point when we truly comprehend these concepts, through classroom instruction along with outside study, we are assumed to have mastered that particular set of concepts and we move on to something else. In college, a semester class is usually sufficient to achieve these sorts of goals.

This process, which is pervasive throughout much of our learning, instills in us an expectation of learning. That is, when we want to learn a new concept or set of concepts, we take a class or succession of classes, and/or read a lot.

The process of learning music doesn’t really differ from this generally accepted process. Learning how to play an instrument, however, requires another process that isn’t as straight forward.

I suspect that many people who pick up an instrument are motivated by the expectation of quick results. The conceptual learning process, as discussed above, is so deeply rooted in the way we learn, that we tend to apply it to most anything we want to learn how to do. The difference here, however, is that learning an instrument doesn’t just require a conceptual (brain) understanding of the task at hand…our bodies (especially our hands) also need to become involved in the learning process.

I’ve seen many students start out with a sincere desire to learn guitar, or any instrument for that matter, only to be rife with conflict between the head and the hands. What I mean by this is learning an instrument not only requires a conceptual understanding of the instrument in particular, and music in general, but it also requires something else that, say, learning about US history or the elements of the periodic table does not. What I’m referring to is muscle memory.

Muscle memory is a type of learning that refers to teaching a particular muscle in your body to successfully perform a task without needing to think about it. (Yes, I know the brain is a muscle, but for purposes of this article, I’m referring to the other muscles in the body.) Typing on a keyboard is a great example of muscle memory. Many of us may not remember when or how we learned to type, but, I’d bet most of you can type fairly well without having to look at the keyboard. How can this be? We’ve taught our fingers where each lettered key is placed and our fingers do the rest.

There’s only one sure-fire way to achieve proficiency in anything that requires muscle memory: REPETITION.

That’s right, you gotta do it over and over and over and over and over again until the action you want to learn becomes automatic. When you decide to learn to play an instrument, this concept of muscle memory should be front and center. It may get boring. It will get frustrating (at times). You may even want to give up and quit, thinking you’re just not good enough. When the going gets tough, just remember, your favorite musicians didn’t magically become amazing musicians without work. When you see them doing their thing on stage, what you don’t see are the years and years and years of repetitious practice behind closed doors. They make it look easy now because it is easy…to them! They don’t have to think about what they’re doing in the same way that you might not have to think too much, or at all, about typing, or riding a bike, or walking!

How do you maximize your practice through repetition?

  1. Frequency: It’s better to practice a little each day rather than a lot every few days.
  2. Focused and efficient: Break down whatever it is that you want to learn into very small pieces and practice that small piece over and over and over again until you get it. You know you‘ve got it NOT when you don’t make a mistake when you play it, but rather when you NEVER (or rarely) make a mistake each and every time you play it!

So, what’s holding you back from achieving your musical goals?


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