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Learning First Instrument

26 May 03 - 12:55 PM (#959332)
Subject: Learning First Instrument
From: GUEST,Mudcatter who would rather remain anonymous!

I have sung for years but am finally getting round to playing an instrument for the first time. I have checked, but there are no teachers for it in the area.

I want to build up my sight-reading in particular as well as being able to play the thing. So what is the best way to go it? Do I concentrate on a few tunes and get the timing right?   Or do I try lots of tunes so I am forcing myself to read the music more, rather than learning the specific fingering for one or two through tunes over and over, but not really knowing the note positions? Or do I forget about that instrument and go with something that I can find a teacher for?

I expected to find this had been discussed to death, but I didn't find a thread with a quick search.

26 May 03 - 12:57 PM (#959333)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: black walnut

What instrument is it?


26 May 03 - 01:10 PM (#959340)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: DMcG

Your position is very like mine, Anon. I've recently started playing the English concertina again after a gap of nearly 30 years and no-one seems to teach that. I've gone for the lots-of-tunes approach, but I'll be interested to hear other people's views.

26 May 03 - 01:54 PM (#959361)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: Geoff the Duck

For sight reading, I would recommend that you find exercises which contain scales and arpeggios (in the keys you are likely to need to play), as these allow you to position in your mind the notes you will wish to play within tunes. Running up and down a scale is always a good warm up anyway!
Also select a handful of straightforward tunes which you actually like - there is nothing more likely to make you give up than wasting time and effort trying to learn tunes you dislike. Also in a similar vein, tryng to learn material which does not interest you does NOTHING to help you keep up an enthusiasm.
As for amount of time spent per day/week/etc. You can sometimes learn more in a "good" 10 minutes than in a week of "poor" half hours of practice.
Some days concentrate on trying to get the right notes (ignore the timing). Other days try to play to correct timing, but don't worry if the notes are not the ones you should have hit. Eventually they will both start to come out right together.
Some times take a small section ( a couple of bars) from a tune and hammer it to death like a terrier with a rat. Other times just play whatever takes your fancy - it breaks the monotony.

In all - there is no ONE WAY to learn an instrument. Some things work better for one person than another. If one strategy isn't working - perhaps you should try a different one. The main thing is to remember that if what you are trying to practice is NOT what you want to play, you are likely to fail at the first hurdle.
I hope this make sense to you.

26 May 03 - 01:59 PM (#959364)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: Geoff the Duck

You could always "Come Clean" and admit what you want to learn. You might find more useful specific advice for your instrument. Many 'catters can give advice about tutorial books for a particular instrument or style of playing.
Just an afterthought!
p.s. I myself am starting to mess around with a fiddle - my agenda is American Old-Timey tunes rather than any other style. I already play mandoline, so DO know the fingerings and just need to turn them a different direction. Any good advice folks!

26 May 03 - 04:03 PM (#959412)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: Willie-O

Geoff, the difference between playing tunes on mandolin and on fiddle is that the mandolin is highly rhythmic, while on the fiddle you need to make that rhythm--with particular bow snaps and emphasis.

Try making a habit of one bow-stroke/one note, to build that rhythm into your fiddle playing. Not that you should never slur, just that it'll help you get the rhythm down if you get into the habit of playing one note per stroke, and know when and why you diverge from that practise.   

as for Rather Remain Anonymous, work on learning to play a relatively small number of tunes well. I know people that can't stay away from the harder ones, even though they're not ready for them, and they are not improving their musicianship that way.

The way to develop your musicianship is like any other apprenticeship: find a source of the essential, basic, fairly easy tunes for your instrument, and play them a lot. A WHOLE LOT. You will know the best tunes, because they are the ones that get more enjoyable to play the more you play them.

Sight-reading, and learning an instrument, are two different things. Learning to sight-read doesn't really have anything to do with learning correct note positions. If you learn some tunes, and can play them so they sound good, you have learned correct fingering. Since you have this separate goal, I'd suggest you set up a routine of spending about 80% of your practice time on developing that small, basic repertoire, and then try sight-reading something new at the end of every practice.

Good luck, there's lots of ways to drag a bow over a catgut...


26 May 03 - 04:11 PM (#959414)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: Grab

If you say there are no teachers for it, I suspect that means it's not a guitar, violin, piano or organ (and probably also not a saxophone or trumpet).

Hell, don't give up playing just bcos there's no teachers! A good tutorial book might be useful in that case though.


26 May 03 - 08:44 PM (#959502)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: GUEST,sorefingers

Gee what a mess; you don't know yet which instrument to learn. For a singer I would select Fiddle, most like the voice and very demanding of good pitch judgement.

If so get both a Metronome and Bk 1 Suzuki.

You will never regret it and also have a happy time learning.

26 May 03 - 09:22 PM (#959516)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: GUEST,Johnny in OKC

Picture this scene. Customer enters music store,
makes polite conversation with shopkeeper. Then:

Customer (leaning forward): Say, you wouldn't have
anybody here who teaches (whisper).
Shopkeeper: Teaches what?
Customer: (whisper)
Shopkeeper: You're kidding! (gales of laughter)
Hey, Ernie! (to back room) There's a guy out here
who wants to learn XXXXXXX!
Back Room: (uproarious laughter)
Customer: (edging toward door) Ah -- never mind.

Okay, forget the guitar store creeps. What did you
expect? Their business is selling electric guitars and
drum kits to teen agers. What do they know about music?

MUDCAT on the other hand has experts in every
musical instrument on earth, plus a few from outer
space a lot weirder than whatever it is you want.
You came to the right place, so ask.

Having started with singing, you are on the best track.
Singing is the real music, the original music. You
already know most of what you need.

Let's assume you want an instrumental accompaniment
for your singing. Start with the songs you already
sing, and you'll have a ready made repertoire. Use
your instrument for rhythm & chords, and sing the

Refer to Geoff the Duck and Willie-O, good advice.

How is your sight-singing? If it needs work, most
community colleges have "musicianship" classes to
work up your sight-singing. Use what you learn to
sight-read the melodies on your instrument. You are
going to be fine!

Johnny in OKC

26 May 03 - 10:06 PM (#959525)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: Ely

My mother used to read sheet music in her spare time (in her case, on the bus on the way to work); I always thought it didn't sound helpful but she swears it helped her play the piece later. I never tried it but I probably should have--I've always been an abysmal sight-reader.

Figure out what you want to play (not only what instrument, but what style of music). I took piano and guitar lessons and both were largely wasted because I had no idea what I wanted to do with them. Piano lessons did teach me to read music (sort of), but I spent a lot of time complaining about the *awful* music in my lesson books and I never got to be that good. Likewise, 95% of what I know about the guitar I learned from books or from other players. It wasn't that I didn't have a good teacher, I just didn't know what to ask of him.

26 May 03 - 11:03 PM (#959541)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: JohnInKansas

If you're a true beginner on an instrument, it probably won't do you much good to try to "play a lot of tunes," since as long as you're making mistakes you'd just be practicing the mistakes.

You need to concentrate, at first, on playing a few tunes carefully, and on getting them right. (Your first few "tunes" should include at least a few scales, chords, flamdiddles, or whatever musical structures are appropriate to the secret instrument.)

When you're comfortable playing a few tunes, you will naturally want to try a few more tunes. Before you start worrying about "playing a lot of tunes," you need to be familiar enough with the instrument to be "comfortably able" to play a new tune similar to ones you've practiced - at first sight - without a lot of mistakes; and you should be able to recognize and correct the mistakes without a great deal of agonizing over them.

Ideally, you would have a "teacher" who plays and knows your secret instrument, but any good music teacher should be able to help you with anything but the most arcane and bizarre instruments. (Note that not all good players are good teachers, and I've known a rare few good teachers - for beginners, at least - who could hardly play at all.) The requirements for learning most instruments are pretty much the same, and you are the one learning the instrument, so the teacher doesn't really have to.

There are a few instruments that rely on "un-obvious" techniques; and if yours is one of them, you will eventually need someone who knows your particular instrument. You should be able, though, to get past "fighting with your instrument" and to the point of "playing with it" for most instruments without too much need for such esoterica.

The only real concern with "going it alone" is that many instruments can hurt you - especially if you're really "doing it the hard way," i.e. wrong. Short, and frequent, engagements with the beast are usually more productive - and less likely to injure you - than long encounters. If you feel pain that doesn't have an obvious cause, get someone knowledgeable about your instrument to help you find what you've done wrong.

And have fun.


27 May 03 - 02:23 AM (#959588)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: GUEST,Rather Remain Anon

I didn't really want to sound so mysterious. The anon part is because I don't want to be 'encouraged' to sessions before I feel ready by other catters who know me. The instrument is an Anglo-concertina. It looks like (see above) concertina teachers are scarce.

27 May 03 - 04:24 AM (#959615)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: JohnInKansas

They may be scarce - or they may be hiding...

The real key to learning an instrument - especially a "first" instrument - is to "live with it" until you get acquainted. Keep it where it's handy, pick it up often, and get to know it.

There's lots of good sites with info on the Anglo on the web, and if you can't find an Anglo teacher, make friends with a harmonica teacher. You may have to explain the similarities - or just assure him/her that they are a lot alike; but there is enough there that tunes that are "easy" on one are usually good ones for the other.

You may find some real empathy there too, since I've always suspected that some of my harmonicat friends took up the instrument because it's easy to hide...

And if friends pressure you, you can always claim you've got sore thumbs from too much practice - it's built in with the instrument.

The main thing is to stick with it and have fun with it.


27 May 03 - 04:38 AM (#959618)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: DMcG

Having read other people's posts, perhaps I'd better qualify what I meant when I said I was taking the lots-of-tunes approach. I've been playing the English concertina for about seven weeks now (an old hand!) and I'm using about nine tunes, all either C, F or G major. (Zero, 1 sharp or 1 flat if you are unfamiliar with the names - apologies if you are!). Four came from Roger Watson's book, which show the fingering for concertina rows as Left-1, Right-2 etc; the rest are from elsewhere and don't show fingering.

I don't know much about Anglos, but I know Roger Watson has done a book for them and I would guess he does something similar on fingering. I'm a bit ambivalent about the 'L1' notation. It was really useful at the absolute beginning but I quickly felt I was following the 'L1' rather than the musical notation, so I picked the other tunes mainly because they don't have the hints.

Guest,Johnny in OKC: That is EXACTLY what happened when I asked about concertina teachers in my local music shop! I was more surprised that EDFSS couldn't find one either.

27 May 03 - 08:07 AM (#959664)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: Crane Driver

Well, I never did find a tutor for my instrument (duet concertina) but what I learnt was this - the only way to be a good musician is to be a bad musician. If you're not playing, you're not getting better. If you are playing, it won't be obvious at first that you are getting better, but give it time. If you can't play well yet, it means you haven't played badly for long enough. Go play badly some more. There is a limit to what a teacher can give you, only you can learn. If you're not enjoying it, you're doing it wrong.

There are books and probably instruction videos for the Anglo - try The Music Room or Hobgoblin websites - but mostly it's down to what works for you.

Go for it, at your own pace, and enjoy it.


27 May 03 - 08:15 AM (#959670)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: curmudgeon

Also check out There you can get a wealth of information and maybe also find a teacher near you, all the while hiding your identity from Mudcat -- Tom

27 May 03 - 08:22 AM (#959676)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: treewind

Compared with fiddles, guitars, keyboards and anything you'd find in an orchestra, concertinas are pretty rare. There aren't many players, so there aren't many teachers. Also, since there doesn't seem to be much of a tradition of teaching, most players (like myself) are self-taught.

I have been approached about teaching (melodeon too) but I hate teaching - not perhaps so much with someone who really wants to learn, but evne so, being self taught always gives me the feeling that I still don't really know what I'm doing (even after 25 years) and might be passing on bad habits.

I have to say, though, that I heartily commend Geoff the Duck's advice. I couldn't have put it better myself.

And, original poster, if you want any specific help with the Anglo PM me or email and I'll try - or follow up in this thread so any other anglo players can join in and maybe we'll all learn something.

What sort of Anglo is it - how many rows, how many buttons, what keys?
Are you interested in Irish style (single line melody, using the left hand a lot) or what might be called 'morris style' - tune on the right, chords on the left, or song accompaniment, which can and should be done lots of different ways?


27 May 03 - 08:28 AM (#959683)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: Dave the Gnome

There are some good tutor books about. I have one by Bertram Levy called 'The Ango Concertina demystified'. I got it from the Music Box in Cleckeheaton when it was still Mally's Melodeons. Comes complete with 2 cassette tapes and seems to be pretty good. You do need a 30 button C/G though to get the best out of it though.



27 May 03 - 08:36 AM (#959688)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: Dave the Gnome

Just seen that the tutor mentioned is available, amongst many others, at Hobgoblins site

Good luck.


27 May 03 - 09:33 AM (#959716)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: Les from Hull

Anglo playing does relate somewhat to melodeon and harmonica, so talking to players of those instruments may help you. It's perfectly fine to learn tunes by using fingering charts but it's most helpful if you can play the tune through at a constant (if very slow) speed, rather than going faster on the bits you can do and slower on the bits you can't. Like Geoff says, if there's a bit that won't work then take the bit on its own for a while.

It's also useful to be able to play by ear. You can get a great deal of enjoyment of joining in with others, for example adding another instrument to an accompanied song, if the key is suitable. Or playing an accompaniment to your own singing.

The advice I give to people is to play little and often. Don't hide the instrument away. Keep it handy in the living room. You can pick it up and tootle away for five or ten minutes while you're waiting for a taxi or a TV programme or Godot.

At folk festivals there should be anglo workshops. Don't worry that you're just starting out. You'll always learn something useful to your playing. If you see other anglo players about, ask them to teach you just one thing. Most folkies are happy to do this. So you might learn odds and ends about row-crossing, about ornamentation, about maintenance. If you've both got time, buy them a beer and sit down somewhere quiet where you can play and chat.

Listen to good players (like Chris Sherburn!) and to what they're doing. Don't worry that you're not doing that, but you'll know what the instrument is capable of.

But most of all - have fun. Playing along with other musicians is great fun, and when you reach the stage that you can invent harmony lines as you go along you'll know just what I mean.

Best of luck, and when you're dead famous you can come back and say you owed it all to Mudcat. It would be very useful to come back in a year or so and let us know what worked for you. There'll be somebody else just starting out on Anglo who will find that really useful.


27 May 03 - 07:36 PM (#960098)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: Geoff the Duck

Lots of good advice given so far for you ANON.
I don't play squeezy buttony things myself, so as far as the technicalities are concerned I would have to guess.
One of the best quotes in this thread was John in Kanzas commenting about "playing with it". Can I add - They call it playing because it should be FUN.
With a buttony push-pull thing (with different notes in and out) I would suggest you need to find games(exercises?) which help you to locate a particular note without needing to think about where it is. Playing a sequence of notes from a scale is one good practice, it helps your fingers to locate them without engaging the conscious brain. Select sequences which occur in real tunes, and you are already half way there when the particular run appears in the melody. NOTE WELL - patterning brain and fingers takes time and lots of repetition. You may repeat the same sequence badly for a couple of weeks and feel as if you are making no progress, then SUDDENLY one day you CAN do it - like magic. What actually has happened is that all the attempts have finally "burned" a sequence into your brain. It is like watchig a baby learn to walk. They cannot walk unless they have done all the getting it wrong first.
Most people who try to learn an instrument give up before they reach the point when the brain patterns itself to do things automatically.
Geoff the Duck!

28 May 03 - 05:09 AM (#960328)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: GUEST,Bagpuss

One thing I have found - as someone who has been teaching myself the English Concertina for about a year - is that I get to the stage where I can play a tune ok on my own, but if I try to play it with other people, if I miss just one note, I get completely lost and cant join in again until we get back the the start of a section. Then I get even more flustered, and make more mistakes etc. As I am a shy retiring soul.... this has made me more nervous about taking my instrument to sessions as I am sure I will fluff it all the time. So I have recently decided to buy a set of books from Folkworks which give you the dots for the tunes, as well as a CD with the tune which you can play along to. I think it also has a version of each tune played slowly for you to play along to when you are learning it. I think this might make it easier for me to get used to sticking with the timing and not pausing when I make mistakes, but to find my place in the tune easier when I do make mistakes.

For details, go to this folkworks page and click on the link to Folkworks Session Collection for details of ordering.

Folkworks also do absolute beginners workouts now and again if you can get to NE England. Not sure if they do the anglo concertina though as a rule, but I have been to one on the english concertina and I learnt a lot in just one day.


28 May 03 - 06:01 AM (#960360)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: DMcG

Thanks, Bagpuss. I'll have a look at that site as well.

Since you mention English Concertina, I've looked at and it seems to lean heavily towards Anglo (no criticism intended). Is there a subsection or an alternative site that's better for English?

28 May 03 - 06:29 AM (#960369)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: GUEST,Bagpuss

DMcG - I'm afraid I haven't found anything as comprehensive for the English as is for the anglo either. There are some helpful bits and pieces for english on, but nowhere near as much as there is for the anglo.


28 May 03 - 06:41 AM (#960374)
Subject: RE: Learning First Instrument
From: Ralphie

Personally, When I first took up the McCann Duet, I just played scales....for hours and hours and hours !!!! God, it was dull!!
Even now, when I haven't played for a day or two, I spend a couple of mins just running through various scales, to remind my fingers what they're supposed to be doing !!

That's just my 2 pennorth, but lots of good advice above, and I'm always delighted when someone asks me for advice...I can bore for England when it comes to the McCann!!

Good Luck anonymous one !! Ralphie