There has probably never been a music student who didn’t wish they could play their instrument easily and immediately, or any musician who didn’t wish they could play a complex new piece without practicing it. I saw a cartoon recently in which a music student is telling his teacher, “I want to skip ahead to the part where I’m awesome.” Alas, we all must face reality if we are to play well.

When approaching a new musical skill, there are several things to consider:

  1. Developing a new skill requires serious work. It can also be fun at the same time.
  2. It will not sound like you think it should for quite some time; that is normal and necessary.
  3. If you rush or shortcut the process, it will never sound right, because you will never learn it right.
  4. When someone else makes it look or sound easy, that’s because they’ve already had a great deal of practice.
  5. No matter what other skills you already have, or how talented you might be, you might not have a realistic idea of how much patience and focus are required to learn a specific new skill.  Your other skills may not be transferrable.
  6. “Talent” is only a very small part of what makes a good musician. Practice is the much larger part.

Those who are learning a new instrument in addition to one they already play well are at the biggest risk for shortcutting their learning process. Many accomplished musicians have forgotten how hard they had to work to learn skills that now are so habitual that they seem to come naturally. Backing up and being a beginner again requires humility and focus. Whatever your new instrument, it’s important to begin at the beginning, just as you did with the first instrument you ever learned. You can’t build a house without a foundation, no matter how many other houses you’ve built.

If you already read music well, for instance, it may be very tempting to try to play pieces on your new instrument that are far too advanced for your actual skill level on that instrument. Reading music well is not a substitute for technique, and each instrument has a technique that is unique to itself. You can’t, for instance, transfer piano technique to the harp, or vice-versa; they are entirely different instruments requiring very different techniques and new habits of placement and movement.

Even among new musicians, it’s a common assumption that learning to play is going to be a quicker process than it really will be. It can be astonishing that one can expect some skills to take years to master. Some new musicians feel overwhelmed by the work and tell themselves they can be satisfied with half-learning basic skills. But if you “pretend” to learn now, then five or ten years from now your playing won’t be any better than it is now.

There are those who believe that if you have talent, skill will come effortlessly. “You have such talent!” is a phrase we hear often. I want to say, “What I have is practice.” Many people with a “talent” get left in the dust by those with less affinity but more willingness to practice.

If you don’t have a specific skill yet, you can’t know how much time and patience is required. You might assume it should take a week, when it really will take a month or a year. Everyone learns at a different rate. What’s more, someone who learns faster does not necessarily learn better. Let it take as long as it takes, without the “should”.  Additionally, learning more new music may not take less time as your skill improves. When you have some familiarity with the instrument and maybe have some good habits of technique, adding to your repertoire can seem frustrating because a new piece will still take nearly as much time and effort as the first few pieces did. Many musicians get stuck and won’t learn new repertoire because it feels so difficult compared to the now-familiar feel of what they already know.

Singing is not exempt from this phenomenon, by the way. The voice is an instrument, too, and singing really well isn’t something that comes naturally. One might naturally have a good voice  – a “gift” –  but it’s a guarantee that every voice is made better by learning good singing technique. Why not be the best singer you can be?

Instant gratification seems to be a relatively new phenomenon historically. There was a time when most people understood that new skills require time and patience. There’s something about our culture that has conditioned us to think that we don’t have to put much effort into what we create or learn. Many seem to assume that paying for something means that since you’ve bought it, you will absorb it through osmosis. That’s evident in college students who sue their professors for giving them low grades for not doing their work, or certification-program students who think the certificate is what they’ve paid for. On the other hand, we don’t seem to value instruction that we don’t pay for. We really need to look at value in a different way. The pay is for the instruction, but it’s our responsibility to work for the knowledge.

Whatever your instrument or your intention for playing it, don’t put yourself down when your progress isn’t as fast as you thought it should be. Comparing your actual progress to your expectations isn’t helpful, and expecting excellent skill levels to come before the work is done will only make you feel bad rather than enjoying your own music-making. Instead, enjoy the process. Set high standards, but then let yourself do what it takes to get there.