This year I started to play the viola. am naturally a trombonist. I have been amazed at how my brain works or actually doesn’t work while trying to learn this completely new instrument. Luckily I have a very patient teacher because I think it is safe to say I am not gifted. I think string playing is best left to 5 year olds who don’t worry so much about trivial things like tone, tuning and well, general musicianship. I started because I needed to learn bowing and alto clef so learning viola seemed logical.

Things that I have learnt:

  • I suddenly have no ability to play in tune.
  • I don’t even seem to even see accidentals when playing
  • I know where to find the notes
  • I know what notes look like but I don’t know what they are called. (And this doesn’t seem to worry me when I am playing)
  • Rhythm is optional and certainly secondary.
  • The sound that comes out of higher stringed instruments is located far too close to the ear.
  • Strings teachers deserve sainthoods
  • Regular practice is hard to maintain and I turn up to lessons full of excuses (just like my kids). I find this especially embarrassing as a music teacher – I have heard them all before and now I am saying them myself!
  • If I have to think of doing something new like a new fingering, my tone goes to pot!

This experience has had many implications for my own teaching. The things that I think are easy or hard have changed. For example, I always thought that accidentals were perfectly logical. Sharp – half step up, Flat – half step down. Not complicated. Now I take a lot of time and let kids think about that half step – what it means, why it is there, experiment with where to find it and what it sounds like. I don’t just assume that they can translate that concept quickly onto the instrument.

I am also much more patient and explain things differently – I don’t worry about rhythm the 1st time through while sight reading (beginners only). It is amazing the stress this removes. I now spend some time just naming notes and showing them on the instrument with no sound. If kids are too busy worrying about playing the right notes and haven’t connected a letter name there is no hope.

Having said that – I don’t want to tar my students with my brush! They learn faster (thank goodness). Just because my brain turns to mush when holding a different instrument doesn’t mean that everybody’s does.

I also take my hat off to people who play stringed instruments. I made a nice sound on my instrument after about 2 weeks on the trombone – I’m not sure when that is ever going to happen on my viola!

Every music teacher should go back and learn a totally (and I mean entirely different family) instrument from scratch – not re-learning something you learnt at school. Through this process you will rediscover what it is to make your brain twist into new directions and where everything you thought you knew and that you did instinctively (like playing in tune and being able to read notes) has to be learnt again.

Be brave – take a risk – it’s good for your brain and your teaching – if not your ears!

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