Music FAQ

Commonly Asked Questions About Learning To Play An Instrument

By Ryan Rhodes - Guitarist At Large

February 12, 2011


Have questions? Please send them in!


Q: Do I need a piano at home to take piano lessons?

A: A keyboard with full size keys is sufficient for beginners. It should be at least 60 keys (a full keyboard has 88 keys). Touch sensitive keys are preferred, as are weighted-action keys. For serious students of piano there is nothing quite like the sound and feel of a real acoustic piano. Try to match instrument to musical style. If you don’t know, ask a friend or (egads!) a sales person. Spend time at the local music store to get a basic feel for what you want. If you can’t decide what sounds good or if even the cheapest instruments sound good, then bring a friend to help you discern (Don't worry, your ears will develop with time). It is also worth noting that incredible deals can be found for used pianos, especially uprights.

Q: How long does it take to learn an instrument?

A: There are a few facets to this question. The first answer is, “that is up to you!” With regular practice, a basic level of playing can be achieved within a few months. The second answer is that it takes a lifetime to master an instrument. Before you start sweating, understand that spending a lifetime mastering an instrument is a tremendously enjoyable and rewarding endeavor. There are many well known pianists (and guitarists, and drummers, etc) that are regarded as masters of their instrument whom have an insatiable appetite for learning more about their instrument. The real question is, “when will I get to a level of proficiency at which playing piano is enjoyable for me?” The answer to this question partially depends on what kind of music you enjoy listening to (and playing). Obviously it will take longer to play complex pieces of classical piano than relatively simpler modern pop/rock. If learning to play an instrument ever seems devoid of enjoyment, it is likely to be in those first few months, where the chasm between where a student is and where they want to be seems almost insurmountable.

Q: Do I need talent to play an instrument?

A: Part of me wants to answer, “What a stupid question!!!” I can say that because this was one of the questions I asked when I was first starting out. The answer is that virtually everyone has enough talent to learn to play an instrument. Becoming a lifelong player of any instrument requires first and foremost a passion and desire for creating music. Yes, there are people with incredible natural musical abilities, for which learning to play seems almost effortless. But for the vast majority of people, learning to play requires dedication and effort. As mentioned in the answer to the previous question, learning an instrument ultimately becomes fun. The first challenge to becoming a lifelong musician is to get through the initial “hump.” If you’re reading this as a parent, then understand that letting your student give up before 6 months could be equivalent to dooming them to a life of musical silence.

Q: How do I get on the fast track to learning an instrument?

A: New language acquisition (including the musical language) comes extremely easy for kids under 13. But there is a faster-track no matter how old you are. For those that are new to an instrument (all the way up to intermediate students), good private instructions will make a huge difference. The fast-track involves taking a concerted effort to acquire new skills on a daily basis. This means identifying areas of weakness, perhaps asking more advanced players if the student isn’t sure, and then applying targeted, conscientious practice and/or study for at least 20 or 30 minutes every day. While there is clearly a correlation between hours spent practicing and rate of improvement, taking the “just jam” approach for many hours each day is very hit-or-miss, with an overwhelming bias towards “miss.” Jamming is part of a balanced approach where timing, ear training, and improvisation are just three areas of many being conscientious targeted.

Q: How much practice should I do each week?

A: There is no substitute for regular, daily practice. Younger students find repetitions easier than a set time amount. For example, do this scale X times a day, this song Y times a day, etc. A beginning student practicing 20 to 30 minutes a day will see good results. Parent should supervise children to make sure that practice remains conscientious and targeted, as mentioned in the answer to the previous question.

As always, thanks for reading. Until next time, remember to keep learing, stay inspired, and make music that is true to your heart.