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More People Are Playing Instruments During The Pandemic. Here’s How To Get Started Yourself

Milwaukee Music Teacher Erica Breitbarth Offers Tips On Where To Begin

Conchita, 90 years old, a resident of the San Jeronimo nursing home, plays a piano during New Year's Eve celebrations
Conchita, 90 years old, a resident of the San Jeronimo nursing home, plays a piano during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Estella, northern Spain, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. Alvaro Barrientos/AP Photo

To music teacher and choir director Erica Breitbarth, teaching her students at Ronald Reagan High School in Milwaukee remotely is a lot like a bunch of people trying to sing “Happy Birthday” over Zoom.

Because of technical delays, students in the school’s band, choir and orchestra can’t practice in real time. But they find ways to share the music they’re making at home, particularly through a “virtual coffeehouse,” where they can sign up to share original songs, covers, spoken word or other performances with their classmates.

Like these students who have found ways to hone skills during the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are using the time spent at home to learn or play an instrument. Breitbarth said playing music helps especially with relaxation, but it’s also a useful way to process emotions and work on fine motor skills.

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Breitbarth has a few tips on how to get started with an instrument this season:

Getting Motivated

Some people haven’t ever played an instrument. Others may not have played in years. And the idea of dusting off an instrument or starting from scratch can be intimidating.

Breitbarth said it helps to have an end-game, for example scheduling a performance even if it’s just for your family or your friends on Zoom.

It also helps to set aside a consistent amount of time each day to practice, which will help warm up and shape those muscles that may not have been used in some time.

“Also, just have a goal in mind,” Breitbarth said. “Pick out a piece that maybe you’ve played before but want to get out again and then start on some new music.”

Staying Motivated

Focusing solely on technique can wear out quickly. Instead, Breitbarth recommends that amateur musicians spend some practice time on technique and some on tunes.

You might try to focus part of your practice on expanding your range, or playing faster as ways to hone your technique.

“But then don’t spend too much time on that,” she said.

Commit part of your practice to watching performances that motivate you, or find a song you love online and play along with it. You could also try playing instruments with another member of your family.

“I think that collaborative aspect is really important, even if it is just playing along with recordings,” she said.

Tam Tam (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Pick Your Instrument

Maybe you’ve always had an interest in playing guitar. Or the piano. Or the cello. Your best bet is to pick one to start with, Breitbarth said.

If you’re interested in playing guitar, you might consider starting with the ukulele. With four nylon strings, it’s easier on your fingers and it’s good for people with small hands or children.

“You can really just sit down and within an hour or so can usually strum at least a basic tune,” she said.

Find A Teacher

After you decide on the instrument, connect with a teacher who can help you continue to grow your skills. Oftentimes, instructors will offer a free or reduced-price lesson just to make sure you both will work well together.

“And just having that person to kind of cheer you on, even if you’re interacting with them virtually, is a great thing to do,” she said.

Despite being quarantined, try to find someone local who’s teaching virtually. Then, when the time comes, you’ll be able to connect in person.

If you’re unsure of where to look, reach out to a nearby university’s music department and ask for a list of teachers, or contact your kids’ music teachers.