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LEARNING AN INSTRUMENT ISN'T FUN...It's a lot better than that!

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

I have heard something like the following many times in the twenty or so years I have been teaching guitar and ukulele:

“He/she just wants to have some fun. We don’t really care about him/her making progress, practising or taking exams...”

I also see music teachers’ adverts that state: “Above all, music should be fun...”

I’m going to make a terrible confession now. I don’t know what this ‘fun’ in learning an instrument can be!

I thought I had understood when I heard it the first few times. I took it to mean that the child didn’t want to learn to read music or even TAB and only wanted to strum chords to songs he or she likes. Fair enough! So I’d show them how to play really easy chords – a ‘cheat G’ chord with just one finger held down and with just a bit of practice, how you can then form a D7 chord, moving smoothly from one to the other. Add a C Major chord and you have the basis for countless songs – the ‘Three Chord Trick’ as it’s known in the business. But even this proved not to be much ‘fun’ more times than not.

Sometimes I have felt like a driving instructor whose student tells him that he doesn’t want to learn clutch, brakes, steering wheel or accelerator because that’s not ‘fun’. Fun is racing around the track really fast, over-taking your friends and being the champ! I try to point out that there's something about that eventuality that he might not have fully understood.

The dictionary defines fun as ‘enjoyment, amusement or light-hearted pleasure’ – something that doesn’t require any effort or practice. I can’t see how this could possibly be associated with learning anything at all. Anything worth learning is certainly rewarding after much effort, never light-hearted or amusing, surely!

Once the hard work has been done, however, there is definitely fun to be had in music – the equivalent of racing around the track once you’ve learned to control the car. When I first heard Roland Dyens’ guitar piece Tango en Skai, I couldn’t help laughing out loud. If you don’t know it, this is a wonderful parody of a Tango – over the top, hilariously silly and mocking. Yes, it’s FUN but learning it is difficult – very difficult.

I met my wife on a guitar course. We had a great deal of fun playing some duets by Carulli and in the style of Les Dawson and his piano, we would randomly put in some wrong notes, playing them deliberately badly. It was hilarious but there would be no fun if we weren’t able to play it correctly first.

Victor Borge was a great pianist and he used his expertise in his comedy sketches which still make me laugh nearly twenty years after his death. They are quite brilliant and very, very funny but they wouldn’t be if he hadn’t been such a great musician.

Music is a long term project. From my first lesson, I had always enjoyed the challenge of getting just a tiny bit better. It was rewarding in itself. I never thought about being a champ – just being better than I was a week ago. I think children in general have been bought up with this relatively new ‘music is fun’ idea and I would argue that they need to let it go. The truth is, learning any instrument isn't easy and can’t give anyone any passive ‘fun’ like you’d get on a Roller Coaster or playing a board game.

The trick is to enjoy your efforts, enjoy practising, enjoy every success and challenge, however small. Don't focus on the long term until you have mastered lots of simple tunes and techniques. You will be rewarded for it with progress. And that is far more meaningful and life-enhancing than fun.

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