#75. Learn to play a new musical instrument—fun matters more than virtuosity

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.

#68. Go to an arts or music camp for a week; fine-tune some skills and make some new friends

IDEA #68. Go to an arts or music camp for a week; fine-tune some skills and make some new friends

This is one of the suggestions that sounds as though it might cost some real money, but many communities and non-profit organizations sponsor arts programs for young people at little or no cost, and even the more expensive may offer some form of financial aid.

Here is an opportunity for the young person to immerse him or herself in the creative process for a period of time, and to do so in the uninhibited presence of others. Local museums, art schools, and even colleges often run these programs, either as summer programs as implied in the suggestion or as Saturday morning classes; many programs will accept older children or teenagers into adult sessions. It makes little difference who runs the program or what the focus is, as long as the student is interested and excited about being a part of it.

“Music camp” often presupposes some knowledge of an instrument, but this is not always the case. In any event, most human beings are possessed of at least one natural instrument, the voice, and skilled teachers can turn even the froggiest of children into passable singers in a surprisingly short period of time; the will to sing can conquer all but total tone-deafness. The drum can also be picked up by aspiring musicians on the spot, although not every family will welcome their young drummer home again.

Programs in the visual arts usually focus on a particular medium, with courses leveled based on experience. Of these, courses involving technology—photography, film-making—may have associated expense, and a developed interest in ceramics may involve access to a potter’s wheel and a kiln. But cross such bridges as you come to them.

#10. Go to a concert or performance of music from a tradition you’ve never listened to before

IDEA #10. Go to a concert or performance of music from a tradition you’ve never listened to before

It should not be terribly hard to find music from unfamiliar traditions, if only because even Western “Classical” is so little heard and appreciated by young Americans in the age of American Idol; in many of the cities and suburbs of “blue states” country-and-western music is equally rare. But while even an afternoon or evening of Mozart or Hank Williams might fit the bill here, I’d urge readers to push the envelope further still. In many communities with either significant immigrant populations or universities with many international students musical performances from many cultures are very easy to find. Even in the absence of these resources, world music concerts abound; some religious institutions regularly welcome musicians from around the world, sometimes but not always playing tunes relating to their faith.

What should the listener be alert for? New instruments, new voices, new languages, and some times even music whose entire structure and tonal properties are significantly different from the familiar. What activities or concerns generated this music? Are the familiar themes and anxieties of the listener’s culture present in the “new” music?

If live performance is just too hard to find, a trip to the recorded music section of the public library might turn up a few surprises. It’s also been my experience that many restaurants play culturally appropriate music; perhaps a friendly restaurateur would be willing to lend a tape(!) or a disc or two. Some specialized food stores actually rent music to members of their community.

And if the internationally exotic is just not accessible, consider the multitude of musical traditions that have arisen and thrive in our own culture but few of us fully know or appreciate: gospel, Delta blues, Big Band, traditional folk, Old Timey, bluegrass, Gullah, and dozens of distinct Native American musical forms. All of these are available in recorded form, and some can be streamed from the Internet or even found on the radio.

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