Playing Music with a Microwave

A lot of people come to me for music lessons and what I have learned is that I must first ask of them this question: “Do you want to learn to play music, or do you want to be able to just heat something up in the microwave?”

Now that I’ve possibly confused you with this horrible mixed metaphor – allow me to explain: If one were to take a cooking class, it’s doubtful that a good teacher would spend much time, if any, on how to take a package out of the freezer, place it in the microwave, and serve it. Instead, the student would learn a variety of basics: how to use measuring utensils, proper knife techniques, doubling portions, etc.; beginning with simple recipes, moving on to more sophisticated ones, and eventually learning to create sumptuous meals from scratch.

So when a student comes to me with the goal of learning how to play their favorite song or play along with their weekend community sing-along, I start them off with the basics: how to count in time, basic chords, simple charts/songsheets; incorporating little bits of theory and knowledge along the way – all towards the goal of teaching them to play “from scratch” – that is, being able to play along with others with or without music to follow.

But they often lose interest and are discouraged because they thought that, somehow, there were shortcuts they could use to avoid having to learn; that there were the equivalents of “microwave-ready” music skills they could master in a few minutes that would require little or no effort that they could use in all situations forever.

Playing music doesn’t really work that way.

Take conversing, for instance: you can’t really learn a few stock sentences and simply place them into a conversation and expect them to make sense every time. As children beginning to talk, we learn how to substitute words and to change from past to future tense as needed. Each conversation is unique and we must be able to keep up with what’s being said.

And so it is with playing music. You simply can’t learn a trick of two and expect to use it in all situations. Tempos change, arrangements vary, and unexpected hiccups occur, even in a well rehearsed number.

But these are not difficult challenges. If you learn the basics, adjusting your tempo mid song is as easy as adding a teaspoon of water to thin out a sauce. That difficult sounding chord you’ve been avoiding? You just may find out it’s a simple as adding a little Dijon mustard to a sauce you already know how to make.

There’s nothing wrong with “zapping” a burrito now and then, but when you’ve taken the time to learn to gather a few items from the fridge, add a bit of seasoning, and cook them up into a delicious, satisfying meal – there’s nothing like it.

And when you pick up your favorite instrument, strum a few chords, and make up a song (or figure out an existing one) – you won’t believe the joy and sense of satisfaction you will feel.

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12 Responses to “Playing Music with a Microwave”

  1. Fred Says:

    Nicely put.

  2. Eileen Sundet Says:

    I have really missed your thoughtful writings these past many months. Thanks for starting back up again!

  3. webmasterpluc Says:

    Very true. I’ve started learning Welsh through lockdown and was interested to see how many aspects of learning uke I was using e.g. to assimilate vocabulary and practice speaking in different ways every day instead of just leaving it to a single weekly lesson. (Of course, music is very much a language too!) Hope you’re keeping fine. Jeanette

    • Rhan Wilson Says:

      Jeanette – thank you for your comment.

      Limiting one’s learning to a weekly lesson is a sure way to get nowhere fast. Weekly lessons are for reviewing all the daily/hourly work one has done and to get some new material to work on.

      Learning Welsh sounds wonderful!

  4. Vince Tuzzi Says:

    Rhan, Just read your post. What a great analogy about playing music. I liked the part of cooking a burrito in the microwave now and then. It’s so true. It must be really hard to try and teach someone to play an instrument (even the basics) and keep them interested and wanting to pick it up again and again to make themselves a better player.


    • Rhan Wilson Says:

      Thank you, Vince, for your comment.

      It IS hard to encourage someone to do the very thing they say they want to work on. Here are some examples of motivated learning:
      • The kid next door is learning drums (and guitar) and I can hear the car door slam closed when he comes home from school. Within minutes I hear the drums fire up! He can’t wait to start practicing. And it’s working. Everyday he gets better and better.
      • I have a teenage ukulele student, and every week he has something new to show me that he’s been working on. I can barely keep up with him.
      • I am committed to learning Spanish. Not only do I work on my daily lessons, but also practice saying things in Spanish throughout the day. Little buy little I am unconsciously saying things in Spanish, looking them up to see if I was correct, and then feeling the satisfaction of having been so.

      My job shouldn’t have to be to constantly motivate a student – instead my job is to provide information and skills that the student will eagerly incorporate into their routine. That’s how progress is made!

  5. ClydeOrtego Says:

    Loved your explanation of learning music, I was trying to help an older man learn the ukulele and he wanted to do all the short cuts and I told him you need to learn the basics first. Well, he gave it up.

    Thank you

    • Rhan Wilson Says:

      Thanks, Clyde, for your comment.

      This is a tricky line to walk: on one hand, anyone wanting to play anything at any level is a good thing. If it makes someone happy to just hold a uke and use the shortcuts, then hopefully, we can assist them.

      The key for me, and what I am slowly learning myself, is to know when to let someone just use the shortcuts (microwave) and know that that may be all they ever learn, and when to recognize the person who really wants to learn to play and who will go through all the learning stages.
      Trying to force someone who just wants to heat up some soup to learn to make it from scratch will only frustrate both parties.

  6. Esther B Horst Says:

    Excellent explanation of learning music!

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