WHY WE GIVE UP SO EASILY…
The top seven reasons people stop taking lessons or playing an instrument
There are a million reasons why people start something and don’t follow through, whether that something is following a diet, getting a degree, or accumulating wealth.
When it comes to learning how to play a musical instrument, we wanted to know what made people give up so easily. What were the deal-breakers?
As we expected, the reasons were many, with a handful rising to the top. Here, in no particular order, we present the top seven reasons why people quit playing.
REASON #1: THEY HAD UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Get rich quick. Lose ten pounds in ten days. Look years younger, faster. Chop, mop, make your way to the top with this quick and easy, fast and furious, trouble-free, lotion, potion, gizmo or gadget. People have been wooed by the idea of getting something for nothing or somewhere from nowhere since time immemorial.
Back in the 1940s and 50s, magazines were filled with advertisements playing to that idea. Headlines like this one caught many a would-be piano, banjo, percussion or accordion player’s attention:
“Young Lady Starts Playing for Dances Three Months After Taking This Course – who never knew a note of music before!”
Or this one, alluding to graduates of their particular program:
“Many now on the stage and radio.”
Even those who took private lessons were often frustrated by their lack of progress.
“I took piano lessons for several years,” says Elissa Hirschhorn, “and didn’t get very far, so I gave up. It’s hard to maintain interest when you’re working hard at it, and not being rewarded by being able to sit down and play for your own pleasure.”
Yet and still, Mrs Hirschhorn managed to learn enough to help her granddaughter with her piano lessons on the same family piano, decades later.
But, all too often, it is the expectation that you’ll be able to play your favorite songs, win friends, influence people, and even go on to fame and fortune without putting in the work.
And work is the key word here. Who wants to work at something that’s supposed to be fun? The answer: No one. And yet, as is the case with so many instruments, before you can play anything resembling a tune, you have to learn how to read music, which can be a long and agonizing process.
That’s one of the reasons people are drawn to the harmonica, where learning to read music is optional.
REASON #2: THEY WANTED TO PLAY ONE TYPE OF MUSIC WHILE THEIR TEACHER WANTED THEM TO PLAY ANOTHER
Rick Daam, who has spent much of his professional life teaching people to play a variety of instruments, finds that, when someone gives up, it’s often because the teacher isn’t teaching what the learner wants to learn.
“I had a student just last night who had started with another teacher,” he told us, “but switched because her older brother was learning pop songs, and her piano teacher was doing rather boring things out of a method book. She wanted to be able to play some of the songs her brother was learning.”
It’s a common scenario.
As a young boy, blues icon Charlie Musselwhite took piano lessons from a neighbor lady who had definite ideas about what he should or could not play. “What I wanted to play, she wouldn’t teach me” he recalled. “I wanted to play boogie woogie ─ I even got some music somewhere, but she insisted that I wasn’t ready, and I believed her.”
Thankfully for the harmonica world, Musselwhite followed his heart, and became one of the best harp players on the planet. Unfortunately, many placed in the same position, just fold their tents and move on.
REASON #3: THEY HATED TO PRACTICE
Rene Koopman grew up in the small town of Apeldoorn, Holland, where he started taking piano lessons at the tender age of six. Over the course of the next seven or eight years, his teacher would come by every Friday afternoon after school for a one-hour lesson, after which the youngster was expected to practice what he had learned.
Like most boys his age, Koopman would have much rather spent his afternoons palling around with his friends, but his mother didn’t give him a choice. “She’d lock the door where the big upright piano was so that I couldn’t play with the kids,” he says, adding, “If I practiced or not, I didn’t get out of the room, so I figured I might as well practice, as the door didn’t open until 5 p.m.”
But that didn’t mean he enjoyed it. “Scales were boring,” he says, “and I didn’t want to play all of those exercises. So, I told my teacher ‘I want to play jazz’ –standard jazz songs that I heard on the radio, and maybe a pop song. And so he gave me a little bit of that.”
It was enough of a compromise to keep Koopman from quitting, though he admits that the ‘scales’ weren’t always balanced. “As soon as the teacher was out the door, I would tinker around with songs like Tea for Two, and practice a little – but if I didn’t know the assignment the next week , he wouldn’t help me with the music I wanted to play.” And so he kept at it.
Rick Daam believes that the teacher’s willingness to give a little in order to get a little made all the difference, and Koopman agrees. “I stayed with it because the teacher made it interesting. I didn’t mind doing the exercises when I got to do the jazz piece.”
By the time Rene Koopman was in his teens he was being paid to play. And the more he played, the better he got, gaining a well-earned reputation in the studio, and in clubs, either as a solo performer or as part of an ensemble.
Of course, not everyone has the desire, ability or motivation to become a professional musician. Most of us just want to play for the love of playing, whether it be on stage, jamming with friends, or just sitting on the front porch and playing for our own enjoyment. The beauty of the harmonica is that it is literally and figuratively easy to pick up, ready whenever and wherever life takes you. Other instruments? Not so much. When was the last time you saw someone bring their upright bass or baby grand to a jam session?
REASON #4: THEY CHOSE THE WRONG INSTRUMENT
Portability is just one of many things people consider when choosing a musical instrument, many of which have nothing to do with their natural ability or affinity for one or the other.
Back in 1956, a teenage Harry Boonin took up the clarinet after seeing The Benny Goodman Story on the big screen. But by his own admission, he wasn’t physically up to the challenge. “I took lessons for about six months, but I didn’t have the lung capacity to properly operate the clarinet, and my teacher finally said, ‘I don’t think the clarinet’s for you.’ And so I gave it up.” It wasn’t until decades later that Boonin decided to pick up a different gauntlet and try again.
Inspired by a cousin’s way around a keyboard, he decided he’d like to see what he could do. And so when his wife asked him what he wanted for Chanukah that year, he didn’t hesitate. Said Mr. B., “I want a piano.”
This time around, the seventy-eight-year-old was determined to persevere, despite having a bit of arthritis in his fingers. Luckily, he found a teacher with a positive outlook, and the patience to go with it. Says Boonin of the aforementioned Mr. Daam, “He always finds something good to say about my playing, no matter what.” And while he knows that he’ll never be a great player, he says he finds joy in learning something new, and being able to play a tune or two or three.
But often, hooking up with an instrument is less about choice than chance, need or availability. The school marching band needs a glockenspiel player. Grandpa’s fiddle is languishing in the attic, or the piano your folks bought for your older brother is just sitting in the living room collecting dust. So why not take it out for a test drive? Give it a whirl. Give it a try.
And so you do, or did. But, like an uncomfortable pair of shoes, when the pain exceeded the pleasure, you set the instrument aside and moved on to something that didn’t rub you the wrong way. All of which is to say that, whether you’re talking flutes or flip-flops, fit is everything. And when it comes to musical instruments, one size definitely does not fit all.
“I used to think everybody could play piano” says Robin Davis, who has been teaching people how to play the instrument for well over fifty years. “But they can’t. And the violin is a difficult instrument. The Japanese have perfected it – but it’s harder for an older student. Rene was quick with his fingers, and he was born that way. His athleticism gave him an edge.
Les Stroud, says that, despite his ability do the things he does as an adventurer, he never felt he had the dexterity for finger work on strings or the piano, or what he called “the drummer’s rub-your-belly-pat your head thing.” Conversely, he says he always felt an attraction to mouth and reed instruments. His story-book love affair with the harp is a lot like the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl scenario, in that he found, lost and made his way back to the harmonica and that perfect fit.
Lee Oskar recalled that when he picked up the harp for the first time he felt the connection instantly: Said Oskar: “It was an incredible feeling─breathing in and out effortlessly.”
Unfortunately, many people never find that perfect fit, or, if they do, they may lose their footing without someone or something to help them in between lessons. Which brings us to yet another reason why people quit while they’re behind.
REASON #5: THEY DIDN’T HAVE A COACH
Call it a coach, mentor, family member or friend – someone to step in and help out when you’re not sure what to do or how to do it. While a coach is an ever-present source of help and inspiration on the basketball court or soccer field, when it comes to music, it’s a whole different ballgame.
Says Rick Daam, “Unlike a lot of other activities, the music teacher isn’t directing most of the practice time. Think about it: If a child is involved with soccer, the coach is there directing the practice, whereas we see children for half-an-hour to an hour, and everything else is on them only, unless they have a parent [or someone else at home] who can assist.”
Left to their own devices, students often get distracted, discouraged, confused or bored. They may not remember how to do something the teacher demonstrated, and, without someone there to go over things with them, their patience gives out and they give up.
Finding the time when they’re not having a good time, is another reason people stop playing an instrument.
REASON #6: THEY WERE OVER-EXTENDED AND UNDERWHELMED
Read a book? Learn to cook? Join a team? Text or stream? Hike or bike? Whatever you like, from playing cards to playing the harmonica, there is an abundance of options out there, all vying for the same slice of our free-time pie.
“People have way more to choose from than we did,” says Daam, “and there comes a time when they decide that music isn’t what they want to pursue. And I understand that, and can probably sense that before it happens.”
In retrospect, many people come to regret that decision and, as they go over the whys and wherefores that led them to stop playing, more often than not, they will tell you that in the end, it all came down to this:
REASON #7: THEY WEREN’T HAVING FUN
Practicing wasn’t fun. Being forced to play music from their great grandparent’s era wasn’t fun. Learning to read music wasn’t fun. And hitting the wrong note over and over again was definitely not fun.
In an effort to ramp up the fun quotient, more and more music teachers are incorporating “off the bench” activities into their lesson plans, where, says Daam, “students are having fun while learning. So, it’s not just, ‘Here’s the bench, sit down and play.’”
And for those who enjoy the freedom of taking harmonica lessons online or through DVD courses like those offered on our website, there is the ability to learn at their own pace, doing as little or as much as they like, whenever they like. They can play and replay the lessons, and hone in on whatever it is they want to work on. Practicing ─ in the traditional sense ─ is replaced by performing, as students play along with their instructor and/or other students, learning from their mistakes, and making music, lots and lots of music.
And while, as Robin Davis points out, “Everyone stops taking lessons sometime,” those who keep on playing keep on learning. Ask anyone who plays an instrument and they will tell you that there’s nothing quite like figuring out how to do something you couldn’t do before, incorporating new licks into your bag of tricks, and trying new things on for size.
In short, learning how to play an instrument and all that goes with it is one of the most satisfying presents you can give yourself. As Harry Boonin will tell you, it’s never too late.