October 4, 2018
Violin teacher teaching violin to a girl

Do You Really Need a Music Teacher to Play an Instrument?

The answer is simple: whether you need a music teacher or not depends on your goals
by Sofia Ferrari, junior editor

Learning a musical instrument is not only enjoyable, but it is also very inspiring and stimulating for your brain. But where do you find such motivation? And how do you learn an instrument in the first place? Many may turn to music classes or a private instructor for at least the beginning of their musical career while others may want to learn on their own. This decision depends on multiple factors, such as the difficulty level of the instrument you want to learn to play, how far you want to go with your instrument, your character and habits, and the motivation necessary for you to achieve your goals.

What instrument do I choose?

The difficulty level varies from instrument to instrument. For beginners, it is easier to "[s]tart with an instrument where you can get a decent sound for a single note (any note) quickly...If you do want to learn one of the trickier ones, you might do better to get someone [to] show you how to make enough of a sound that you can let experimentation and play take over"[1]. Instruments like the piano and guitar are more straightforward to approach as a beginner than instruments like the violin or flute. This is because sound production is easier to achieve on the former two than the latter. Keep in mind that this is only true at the beginning of your musical career with these instruments; of course, this difference in difficulty changes as your level of playing advances. Still, you can reach a relatively higher level in piano or guitar once you learn basic techniques and chords because these two instruments are less complex technically. In contrast, to achieve a high level with violin, there are many more techniques to learn at a much more complex level. Learning a more challenging instrument is harder as a beginner, so a music instructor can be beneficial by teaching you the correct techniques for producing a beautiful sound on the instrument. Teaching yourself and possibly using the wrong method will make it harder down the road since more advanced pieces will be much harder to play with the incorrect technique. On the other hand, if you have previous experience in the field of music, learning any new instrument is much easier since you know at least the basics of music.

Set up your goals and find the right process.

How you want to organize your musical studies also depends on your goals; specifically, if you wish to play the instrument as a hobby or reach a semi-professional or professional level. If you just want to learn for fun or as a hobby, there are many resources, such as online courses, that you can opt for (see below). If you plan to play at a more professional level, a music teacher may be crucial in correctly learning the necessary skills[2].

Ask yourself whether you want to learn to read music or just play by ear. There are two main ways to learn music: some people are able to learn by ear while others prefer to read music. Playing by ear is more approachable for many people since reading music is more complicated and possibly more tedious. Nevertheless, to reach a more advanced level, reading music is necessary while learning by ear is acceptable for a more amateur level.

There are several elements to consider. Playing as a hobby, such as for yourself or with a group of friends for fun, does not necessarily require perfect technique as would playing professionally. Online courses are a viable alternative to music teachers because they still teach you the basics but often at a much lower price. For example, VSM Music Experts section, sites like lessons.com, artistworks.com, or YouTube channels like ProfessorV do an excellent job to teach music at a basic/intermediate level. The difference in cost is both monetary and temporal since real-life music lessons are usually on a rather tight schedule while online courses tend to be more adjustable to your needs. However, a professional career in music does require the correct technique as far as sound, rhythm, and the nuances of style that vary from instrument to instrument. A music teacher often does a better job at teaching you these essential elements as it is more interactive and personal than an online course. Music lessons are often tailored to your own abilities since your teacher is there with you and knows your strengths and weaknesses.

Time management is another crucial part of the process of learning an instrument. If you want to teach yourself an instrument, "then you have to be ready to set a routine and goals for yourself"[2]. Learning an instrument requires dedication, organization, and time management skills. For many people, this may be challenging, so you have to ask yourself whether you would be able to keep up with a schedule. If not, you may need a music teacher to help keep you on track. If you don't want a fixed schedule and instead want to learn by yourself to play for fun, you may still be able to learn the instrument, except at a possibly slower pace and in a more sporadic fashion. Learning with a music teacher revolves around effective time management and a schedule, but "if practicing is somewhere between boring and unpleasant, you give up or grudgingly force yourself to do a small amount. Replace 'practicing' with 'playing around with the instrument' and get to the point where you're enjoying yourself, however, and time available increases dramatically"[1]. The approach to your instrument depends on how inclined you are to focus on your practice effectively. For most people, especially beginners who may experience more difficulty, practicing an instrument is usually a tedious task, but if you approach it as a fun pastime, you are more likely to enjoy your instrument as well. This all depends on how you see your musical career and how you are willing to carry it out.

The methods of learning an instrument depend significantly on the character of the musician and how he/she approaches his/her studies. When you first start to play, "you're going to make a lot of mistakes and it can be very tempting to simply drop your instrument and walk away"[2]. Learning an instrument is much harder than many people may realize, and this can be very demotivating for new learners. However, if you are optimistic and determined, you will most likely be able to push past these potential barriers and still succeed in your musical career on your own.

Motivation is an immensely important factor in your musical journey, as well. Music teachers have the power to "inspire their students through a wide variety [of] experiences that transform them into 'talented' musicians"[3]. Learning a new instrument, especially as a beginner, can be very difficult and frustrating. This can make it difficult to find the motivation to persist to achieve your goals. If you have a good music teacher, he/she should inspire you to be a better musician and not to give up even when your musical prospects seem distant. External opinions and motivation truly transform an educational experience, and a music teacher who does this correctly makes your musical goals feasible. Constructive criticism is also a large part of this idea. It is not always easy to accept the fact that you have made a mistake and that it may be hard to fix it. However, if an expert tells you how you can improve and fix your mistakes in the right way, it is easier for you to do so. Pushing past frustrations and hardships is all part of the process of becoming a good musician, and learning from our mistakes is what makes us better. A good music teacher also tracks his/her "student's progress in a multitude of areas including learning new pieces and new skills, reviewing old favorites, preparing for performances and becoming a well-rounded musician"[3]. Many of these aspects of music are difficult to achieve by yourself. Often, expert advice is helpful in refining your abilities. You may hear yourself playing well, but professional, external ears may think otherwise, so a music teacher is useful for this purpose. Music teachers also have experience in creating a lesson plan that will maximize the effectiveness of each of your lessons. Usually, such method is not present when teaching yourself.

Ask yourself these four questions, then take your decision:

  1. What instrument do you want to learn?
  2. What level do you want to reach?
  3. How organized are you as an individual?
  4. How motivated are you?

Finally, here are some videos from music expert Robert Estrin that can help you even further:

Can you Start Playing Piano Without a Teacher?

A common question with a very interesting answer.

Released on October 16, 2013

Can you Learn to Play Piano on YouTube?

Can video lessons on YouTube replace a live teacher?

Released on April 8, 2015

Conclusion: Do You Really Need a Music Teacher to Play an Instrument?

Hopefully, you have found your answer already. Again, deciding whether or not you need a music teacher largely depends on what instrument you want to learn to play, what your goals are, how organized you are as an individual, and how motivated you are to accomplish them. All of these factors must be taken into account when considering your approach to a musical instrument.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you have any personal experience in this?
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!

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[1] Kaufman, Jeff. "Teach yourself any instrument." 29 March 2012. [link]

[2] "Can I Really Learn To Play An Instrument On My Own?" Joytunes Blog, 11 April 2016. [link]

[3] "Five Things Every Parent Should Know About Music Lessons." Orpheus Academy of Music.

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