As part of our Education in Music Feature, West Cork musician Justin Grounds says it’s never too early or too late to pick up an instrument.
When to start?
When people find out I am a professional violinist one of the first questions that is often asked is “So how long have you been playing?” and people are often shocked when my answer is that I started at the age of four! Is that not too young an age to start? I believe it is a great age to start learning to make music. In this formative time, a child is beginning to explore their physical world with independence, and learning to communicate with their voice and body. Adding an instrument to this equation brings an amazing new element, which can empower them in so many ways. A good music teacher will know how to encourage and nurture this sense of playfulness and exploration in the early years of learning music. As soon as my young students learn how to play a note, and read and write it on paper, we immediately decide to compose our own piece using just that note!
However the other most common response I hear from adults is “I wish I’d learned an instrument as a child, but it is too late now!’ It’s not too late! I have several adult violin students who have started from scratch and are finding great enjoyment. The dynamic is of course different — as an adult one has a lot more self-criticism! However, again, a good teacher will work with this dynamic and nurture that sense of play and experimentation that is so essential to creativity.
Finding your instrument
If making a start is the most important thing, finding your instrument comes next. Each instrument has a different sound, energy and way of being played. And in my experience everyone has a natural inclination towards certain instruments. Ask yourself now: If you could play any instrument, which would you most love to play? As a child I was a very frustrated and angry boy, and my mother found she could only stop me screaming and raging by wheeling me in the buggy to the window of the music shop where I would gaze lovingly at all the violins. So they quickly made me a cardboard cut-out violin and a stick for a bow, and I would ‘play’ away on it until they eventually bought me my first violin. The violin is a very intense instrument itself, with strings tuned to high tension played with a tensed bow! As I learned to grapple with this instrument and coax from it a sweetness and grace, I believe I was doing the same in my own self.
I meet many parents who tell me of the different energies their children display. Each instrument has an energy of its own and I often tell people to take their child into a music shop and see what excites them. Benjamin Britten’s work ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ makes for fabulous listening together too, and can reveal each person’s desire for an instrument.
Of course, there is no avoiding this one! Practice really is the key to learning, as with anything in life. However for many people, practice can quickly develop into a chore, and then into a feeling of guilt when not done. This can be one of the most damaging things to nurturing the joy, playfulness and excitement of music making, and is one of the main reasons that many people give up entirely.
To prevent this happening, there are some really handy little tricks one can use. The first thing that I tell people is don’t put your instrument away in its case! Keep it out and nearby so that any time you feel bored, idle or just wanting to do something with your hands, you can gravitate towards picking up your instrument and playing. (My violins all hang on the walls of my house!) This creates a positive habit, and takes the effort out of having to set up. Small amounts of playing regularly will show massive rewards!
The second tip is to connect your playing with other people – show friends and family what you’re playing, what you’re trying to master, even the hard bits you can’t do. Give a little after-dinner concert. Everyone you meet will be impressed! And it will take away the niggling solitary self-criticism that we all sometimes let take over.
This leads me onto my last point. Music is so enjoyable to play on one’s own, and indeed I spend a good amount of time each day playing in my study. But the greatest joy, and the one that awoke me to the magic of it all at a young age, was when I started to play with others and perform in concerts. Music is a communication and opens itself up to us when we do it together. I learned French in school and found it intensely boring, until I eventually went to France and started communicating with people! Suddenly it all made sense!
For this reason I started the Clonakilty Youth Orchestra in February this year. We meet on Saturday mornings at 10am in O’Donovans Hotel (starting back in September) and all are welcome with their instruments. It is great fun making music together with all these fantastic young people, and I have noticed that they are all making great progress as players since getting together in the orchestra. Not only this but they are learning to connect, to listen to each other, to bring their own sounds into the harmony, and have taken great pride in performing in the town, to large applause!
If you would like to learn an instrument, why not pop into Hunky Dory music shop, Spiller’s Lane in Clonakilty. Mark has a good range of affordable instruments and a list of all the music teachers in town.
Justin Grounds, 085 192 4189