How can you Get Playing?

ABRSM examiner Russell Hepplewhite gives some advice for budding musicians.

ABRSM teacher Russell Hepplewhite
Published: August 9, 2016 at 2:01 pm

Do you have an instrument gathering dust in a cupboard? Or perhaps you've always wanted to play an instrument but never quite got round to taking it up. Now's your chance. This summer, the BBC is asking people around the UK to Get Playing and take part in a virtual orchestra. The orchestra, led by conductor Marin Alsop, will perform the Toreador Song from Bizet's Carmen at the Last Night of the Proms.


We asked ABRSM examiner Russell Hepplewhite for his top tips to Get Playing. If you are taking part in the challenge, or have any more questions for Russell, please comment below!

I’m starting completely from scratch – how should I choose an instrument?

First, think about which instruments you particularly enjoy the sound of. Are you drawn to one in particular? A bit of research into the sounds of all the different instruments will be useful at this stage, and don't necessarily discount those instruments that fewer people play – bassoons, double basses and tubas, for example, are all wonderful and can give you just as much satisfaction as playing the piano or violin. Essentially, the more you enjoy the sound of your instrument the more motivated you will be to learn.

Having said all this, you will probably also need to think practically - if you plan on having lessons then you might find you have to travel much further to get to a tuba teacher for example, whereas there are likely to be several piano teachers close by. Finding the right teacher is as important as choosing the right instrument - you need to find someone you get along with and who inspires and encourages you so ask around and try and meet a few teachers.

I’m thinking of getting my old instrument out of the attic, what are some of the pitfalls I should try to avoid?

It's tempting to think you will just be able to pick up where you left off but, in reality, you need to be patient with yourself to avoid frustration. You have the advantage of already being able to get around your instrument, and there are plenty of things that will come back to you straight away, but don't start with the hardest repertoire you used to tackle. Practise scales and other exercises to rebuild your technical facility, and relearn easier pieces to begin with. Work methodically and practise regularly (even if just for a few minutes each day) and you will soon find your stamina returns and you begin to discover new joys in your instrument.

What is the best way for me to find music at an appropriate level for my ability?

There are numerous music method books available for players of all abilities. These books will contain pieces at different levels and will help you focus on overcoming specific technical difficulties, so spend some time in a music shop browsing. Graded music exams provide a wide range of carefully selected repertoire for each level. You don't necessarily have to take the exam (although many people find them rewarding and motivating) but you can certainly use it as a framework for learning. If you are having lessons a teacher will recommend certain pieces, but if there are certain composers you particularly enjoy listening to then let your teacher know and they will hopefully help you find a piece by one of them at an appropriate level for you.

What if I don’t read music?

This shouldn't put you off. Indeed there are certain teaching approaches such as the Suzuki method which initially emphasise learning music by ear rather than with musical notation. That said, if you have individual lessons your teacher will be teaching you to read music as you learn to play your instrument - the two go hand in hand. In the end, I would always advocate learning to read music - it will expand your musical horizons no end, and it puts you in the driving seat of your own learning.

How often do I need to practise?

There is no set amount anybody must practise in order to achieve certain goals, but the best answer I can give here is that regular practice is always the best approach. Build up your practice time gradually - more demanding repertoire at an advanced level will need more time, but even if your time is limited spending it well is the key to success. Working for just ten minutes each day at your instrument will be far more effective than doing nothing all week and then cramming all your practice into an hour or two on a Sunday morning.

What is the best way to structure a practice sesssion?

In general never try to cover too much in each practice session - set yourself manageable and realistic goals. Perfecting just a few bars after a few days of practice is better than only being able to struggle through two pages of music. Always begin with a warm-up to get the brain and body engaged, then allow some time to think about the difficulties contained within a piece you are learning. Once you know where the challenges lie you can begin to work out a strategy for tackling them. Practise the difficult bits slowly and methodically, and then put them back into the piece as a whole.

Vary the skills you are studying, and set aside time in every session to develop them - don't just limit yourself to learning pieces, but leave time to practise technical exercises and sight-reading as well. Away from your instrument the more music you can listen to (and think about), the more your aural ability will improve and the better connected your learning will become. Lastly, try and keep your practice sessions creative - trying some improvisation or getting a friend round to play duets will help keep you motivated and thinking about music in different ways.

How do I choose the right level of music for the Toreador Song?

There are three different levels available to download and learn. Take a look at the music and work out the challenges within it. If in doubt begin with an easier version to build confidence and then move up.

How should I go about learning that music?

I have made three videos for the BBC website to help you with just this point. In each video I cover some of the difficulties to watch out for, and give you advice on how to learn the music.

To find out more about Get Playing, and to find out how you can take part, click here.

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