How Difficult is it to Learn the Harmonica? – Part 2
Musical instruments are hard to play well. This applies to almost any instrument beyond the most basic percussive devices. Whilst this may not be a particularly motivational sentiment for an article on the difficulty of learning the harmonica, please bear with me – I promise things will get more encouraging further on!
One of the initial issues when starting to play any instrument is that the learning curve is usually much steeper than expected. This is, I think, partly a consequence of seeing the apparent ease with which a competent musician will play their instrument; replicating this as a beginner appears simple until you actually try to do it, which can become demotivating. As a result, many beginners struggle on for a few weeks, find that they aren’t progressing as rapidly as they expect to, then consign the instrument to the drawer/garage/bin, assuming that they don’t have the natural skill ever to reach the level that they desire.
The fact is, though, that every musician has been through this stage. No one has ever sat down at the piano and been able to play Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 in E♭ major after a few weeks’ practice. Similarly, I don’t believe that anyone has picked up a 10 hole diatonic harmonica and been able to bend notes perfectly straight away. Unlike simpler skills, like learning to play a new video game, musical instruments require a more disciplined and rigorous approach if you are to progress beyond the basics.
Let’s look, then, at how we acquire new skills, and investigate the best ways to approach learning an instrument.
Learning to Fail
There are thousands of free resources out there for harmonica players – YouTube, websites, blogs, etc, and these can all be very useful, especially in the early days of learning an instrument. However, guides and tutorials neglect an important aspect of skills development: problem solving. Learning to play a piece of music by working it out for yourself will teach you useful information, through trial and error, about the structure of music and your own playing technique; information that you wouldn’t have learnt had you just followed a tab or watched a video tutorial. You might fail to play the music accurately, but this failure can open up new ideas and lead you to better solutions to similar problems in the future. Psychologists call this productive failure.
Little and Often
Cramming will be familiar to most people who’ve sat exams. The notion that a large quantity of information can be memorised and digested in a single sitting has long been seen from a pedagogical viewpoint as fundamentally flawed, yet many people still apply this learning style to their instrument playing.
As an alternative, consider using distributed practice, where you break down your playing time into small chunks of, say, 15 minutes, and spread them out over a time period. So, instead of an hour of focused practice in a day, try doing four 15 minute sessions. Your attention focus will be much higher for a longer period overall than trying to maintain that level constantly for one hour.
Be Aware of the Plateaus
It is tempting to visualise the acquisition of new skills as a fairly linear graph, with time on one axis and ability level on the other. Unfortunately, this isn’t a very accurate representation of reality: the actual graph would appear more as a series of steps, where sudden leaps in skill level are achieved, followed by corresponding plateaus where little progress appears to be made.
A large proportion of people who take up an instrument – especially those who are learning to play an instrument for the first time – will give up at the first or second plateau. This is where nothing seems to be working, and their playing is either extremely rudimentary, or they are unable to play anything remotely musical. It is critical to understand that these plateaus exist, and the only way to progress is to persist. Do this and you will find that your playing will make sudden leaps forward that you thought were unlikely or impossible just a few days or weeks before.
Practise, Practise, Practise
In his 2009 book, Outliers – The Story of Success, US writer and intellectual, Malcolm Gladwell, investigates natural ability and its role in success in a variety of disciplines. Whilst he doesn’t discount natural talent as having an influence on outcomes in skills-based activities, he does question the extent to which we give it primacy. Mozart is a perfect example of this: whilst he was undoubtedly a child prodigy, his remarkable skills didn’t appear overnight – it is estimated that he’d racked up around 10,000 hours of focused practice by the time he was 8 years old. His natural aptitude initially gave him probably only a small advantage over other similar aged children when he started playing, but this was amplified enormously by the sheer amount of practice that he committed to.
I often receive phone calls and emails from people who want help with choosing harmonicas, and who preface their email with the phrase ‘I’m not very musical, but I’d like to buy a harmonica…’. It seems that we’re ingrained to think of ourselves as either naturally gifted with playing or not. The truth, though, is that this is just not the case. Some people will start with an advantage – maybe better fine motor skills, or general coordination – but the ultimate differentiator will be focused practice. Of course, if your natural aptitude makes the initial stages easier, it is more likely that you are going to enjoy playing and, consequently, practise more, thereby creating a virtuous cycle.
I hope that this has given you some things to think about with your playing. As ever, we’re always interested to hear your comments. Keep Playing!