IDEA #75. Learn to play a new musical instrument. You don’t have to be great—you just have to have some fun doing it.
There are so many musical instruments from which to choose: obscure, ethnically specific, loud, soft, heavenly, harsh. Why not give one a try, even if you regard yourself as a complete musical incompetent?
It seems that there is almost nothing so central to what makes us human as our ability to make and enjoy music. The simple kazoo or any sort of drum can satisfy this inner need, but so can bagpipes, a didgeridoo, a gamelan, an Appalachian dulcimer, or a bassoon. Music lessons are everywhere these days, from the Internet (try YouTube!) to a surprising number of expert teachers in nearly every community. One can choose one’s instrument for reasons of cost, portability, family heritage, cool sound, or any other reason.
Although virtuosity may lurk just beneath a heretofore unmusical skin, the development of musical skill might well be described in the words of G. K. Chesterton, who maintained that “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.” In other words, if the activity brings pleasure and satisfaction, it does not matter whether the young musician will ever be ready for Carnegie Hall—the pleasure is in the doing, and half the of that in the struggle to make something that sounds even half-good on a difficult instrument.
Of course, if the mastery of the instrument also involves learning to read some form of musical notation (and along with the familiar Western scale there are many others from other cultural traditions or that respond specifically to the needs of a complex instrument or musical genre) the benefit is multiplied many times. To sight read is to be literate in a whole new language, a language as beautiful and important as one’s native tongue.
The musical urge may be a passing fancy or a lifelong passion; it does not much matter. But for the time in which the child of any age from 3 to 93 gives him or herself over to learning the instrument, the lessons of concentration, mind-body coordination, perseverance, and musical understanding will lay behavioral and neural foundations of lasting value.