Who Needs Instrumental Lessons? by Melissa Baden

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© Redbaron | Dreamstime.com

© Redbaron | Dreamstime.com

We’ve already told you why voice lessons are important, so what about instrumental lessons? You won’t get by without these either! I won’t say that instrumental lessons are more important than vocal lessons, but I will say that it is much easier to open your mouth and sing than to put your mouth (or hands) on an instrument and create a sound that doesn’t send your mom (or your cat!) running for cover!

Music theory is still the foundation of all performance, and maybe more so for instrumentalists. A vocalist, depending on the type of work she does, may not necessarily need to differentiate between a German sixth chord and a diminished fifth chord. Instrumentalists, and especially pianists and other percussionists, however, have a much greater need to understand the nuances of theory. Sitting down to read your own personal part in an orchestral piece is easy, but when you look at the entire score, it is essential to understand how your part fits in, and a strong foundation in music theory will help you determine that. Also of note, and possibly even more important than understanding a symphonic score, is rhythm! A popular song by the Duke says “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!” The truth of the matter is: if you have no rhythm, you have no sound. Be it swing, jazz, blues, classical, contemporary or otherwise, rhythm is an essential building block of the composition. I can say definitively that, for the most part, instrumentalists have much more varied and difficult rhythms than vocalists, so it’s important that you understand how to break down a measure to perfect its rhythm and cadence. Precision of rhythm makes or breaks instrumental pieces, and for most people, great rhythm takes great practice!

Theory notwithstanding, there are many aspect of instrumental music that are difficult to ascertain alone. Many instruments need to be tuned to a certain frequency, and unless you have perfect pitch, it usually takes some instruction and practice to understand how to tune your instrument. If your instrument is out of tune, even by a couple hertz, it affects the sound of the entire orchestra or band! Even if you are performing solo, the intonation of your instrument is essential; if you’re slightly out of tune, the piece doesn’t sound right. Once your instrument is correctly tuned, it needs to be held in a certain way, or if you are a pianist/percussionist it needs to be played with a certain prescribed technique. This allows for the best sound possible, as it provides for the most fluid movement of the hands and breath.

There are other things to consider as well, pertinent to your particular instrument. Woodwinds have reeds, and most wind players make their own. This requires education, time, and dedication, as the construction of the reed affects the sound of the instrument. For brass players, there are different mouthpieces to consider, spit valves to empty, and different additions that can be used to change the tone (such as a mute for a trumpet). Then, whether you are a brass or wind player, you will need to learn embouchure (the proper way to use your face and mouth to create sound). Percussionists, as I have mentioned before, have to learn the technique specific to their instrument (how to hold mallets/drumsticks, finger placement on the keyboard, etc.). They also have different choices of mallets, mutes, pedals, etc. that can be used to change their sound. String players need to know how to properly string and care for their instrument, proper bowing/strumming techniques, and most definitely tuning, as I have mentioned before!

Then, similar to vocalists, instrumentalists have phrasing and performance aspects to consider. It is important to understand where the specific instrument’s piece fits into the ensemble, and what its function is. Should it skip or flow? Is it the melody, counterpoint, or harmony? These are just a few phrasing considerations. This is where your theory training comes in; you will need to be able to read and understand the orchestral score in order to understand how your part should sound. Solo instrumentalists have an even harder job, in my opinion, because they have to present not only phrasing, tone and technique, but a bodily performance as well!

Instructors are an integral part in the life of an instrumentalist, and for good reason. Many of the things I have mentioned simply can’t be learned from a book (or even from Youtube)! An instructor will teach you all of this, as well as the background of the pieces you were performing. When were they written, and what was happening musically in that time period? What statement was the composer trying to make? What did he want the audience to feel? The performer? A good instructor will even teach you to figure some of these things out on your own, and encourage you to explore your own personal feelings in relation to the music. Sure, you can sit down and play a piece of music, but it is only once you understand the background and the purpose of the piece that you can add your own personal touch while still doing the piece justice. Self-learning is great and well-encouraged, but there are some things you just can’t learn alone. So, if you want to be a great instrumentalist, I would recommend finding yourself a great instructor!

Written by Melissa Baden for The Talent Notes

Melissa Baden


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