Thursday, October 23, 2014

Life As A Musician||Learning, Practicing, & Mastering an Instrument

It really isn't as hard as you might think.
All you need is an instrument and a whole lot of determination + good work ethic.

All this hype about "you can play well because you just have music in your genes" is exactly that: HYPE. It's just not true. Now, you can get a LOVE for music from your genes. That's what I got. My mom's family loved singing together-her four older siblings even had their own quartet and produced records together. My dad tells us stories about how his family went and heard almost every single group that ever came to their town.

So the love of music was something that definitely was passed down from the previous generations.
But the actual ability to play an instrument well? That's something that comes with practice, my friends, and LOTS of it. Hours and hours and HOURS.

Now, there is such a thing as a musical genius. They are few and rare, but they are out there. But even they have to practice to truly be accomplished with their instrument! Back when I had my piano studio, I used to joke to my family that there were four kinds of students:
1) the ones that don't have much talent, but work hard
2) the ones that have tons of talent, but don't work hard
3) the ones that don't have much talent, and don't work hard
4) the ones that have tons of talent, and work hard

Number four? That kind of student was a GEM, obviously. But so was number one. It really always boiled down to how hard they were willing to work to progress. Even if they didn't have much "natural ability", or a natural "ear for music",  a good work ethic and willingness to practice was what really mattered, and what helped them progress in the long run. In music, skill is 99% practice.

For our family, the ages we started with learning different instruments has varied depending on the person. My parents required us all to take at least several years of piano lessons. (and I would DEFINITELY recommend this! Piano is the best instrument to have as a foundation and it is super helpful later on when you are adding other instruments because you are already familiar with chords, note names, etc)

For violin, we started younger, mostly. All five of my siblings who play the violin started when they were either five or six, except for one brother who was seven. The Suzuki Method (which we used) really encourages students to start young, as the first few years in particular are focused on hearing + then playing what you hear, not so much on note reading. This is great for little people who aren't even reading yet. Find an exceptionally amazing and classically trained violinist, and there is a very good chance that they started lessons when they were 3-5yrs of age.

As we went on, we added other instruments. Mostly they were instruments we wanted to do, although there was one sibling (I won't say who =)) that did not want to play a certain instrument, so my father asked this person to try it for one year and then if they wanted to quit, they could. That was...a long time ago, and the instrument stuck! =)

Often it just takes a little time to get your feet wet, and get into it. The first few years ARE rough though, especially if you are starting at a very young age. All of my siblings and I would credit any musical success we may have to our faithful mother, who pushed and pushed and PUSHED us. Those first few years, practicing 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, was as paramount as eating three times a day. It just wasn't optional. We did it. My mom always said "we pay a lot of money for your lessons, and so as long as you take lessons, you are going to practice!"

We were blessed with great options for violin and piano teachers right here in our community. Over the past fifteen years, we have had various teachers at various times. Overall we had two piano teachers and four violin teachers. There was also a gentleman who taught banjo & bass guitar to two of my brothers for several years. With dobro and mandolin, those of us who play have mostly learned on our own. Like I said, once you have one instrument down, the second (and third and fourth!) are much easier.

For years now Allison and I have taught our five youngest siblings piano + violin. We used to each have our own studios and taught other children as well, but since our touring with our family ministry + other things have picked up, we decided to quit our studios since it was hard to keep up with all the students, as much as we were coming and going!

Some of us are more into music than others. And that is okay! My parents were always super supportive of an musical instrument we choose to try, but they never insisted that we all play 10 instruments, or anything like that. So as a result, there are some of us who play one or two instruments, and some that have almost mastered every instrument we have. =)

People ask a lot if we play by ear or if we read music. The answer is both. Overall, our strength is playing by ear, since that is mostly what we do with our family music ministry. Almost 100% of our music we arrange on our own, without sheet music. Those of us who took classical violin & piano all the way from little through high-school, read music and spent our high-school years playing pieces by Beethoven, Bach, & Mozart.

And a word about vocals! Sing, sing, and sing some more! (I asked my mom what advice she would give about learning to sing well and this was what she said =)) Practice exercising and developing your voice. Practice singing harmony. USE A HYMNAL and learn to read the notes and different parts. My five younger siblings are miles beyond where us older five were at their age, vocally. Why? Because for the past four years my mother has spent 15+ minutes every weekday morning singing hymns with them. All of them can sing harmony parts effortlessly, on their own. This didn't just happen; it came as a result of hours upon hours of singing hymns and learning to hear the harmony parts.

For teaching theory + basic music facts, I would recommend musical flashcards like these.  You can pick these up at a music store. They are one of the best inventions ever. I use them with my siblings + they are SO HELPFUL for cementing music knowledge such as note names, musical terms, etc. They are great for any/all ages. My youngest sister has been doing them for several years already and on occasion, just for fun, I even let the younger ones do them to me and see how fast I can get through the whole stack. =)

One last thing-this isn't about a formula, or a certain way you have to do it, or certain instruments you have to play, or anything like that! I still have a lot to learn and I'm not a pro at all.
I probably wouldn't even have thought about posting about how we do music, except that a reader commented a while back and asked that I do a post about it. Ultimately, it is all about honoring and glorifying the Lord through our music. Hopefully some of these tips can be an encouragement to some musician out there!

Okay, now off my soapbox, and onto the fun stuff. =)  Here are a few of my favorite music resources!

{Music Resources}

The Piano Adventures Series by Faber & Faber
I was taught using the Alfred Method but when I started my own piano studio, my previous teacher recommended that I use The Piano Adventures, since she had just switched over to them and liked them much better than the Alfred. So I did, and I used them all six years that I taught, and I still use them with my siblings. I think they are much more thorough (especially the theory books). I was also surprised at how many musical terms and different things Alfred hadn't taught me. I'd be teaching with the Piano Adventures and a student would ask me a question about something and I would tell them "Well, I don't know...I never learned this, so we will learn together!" It didn't happen alot, but enough for me to know that there were definitely some things that the Alfred curriculum missed.
When I had my piano studio (and still for my siblings that I teach) I have them each going through a set of four books from the Piano Adventure Series-Lesson, Performance, Theory, & Hymn book.

The Suzuki Method
All of us that have taken violin lessons (Allison, Denver, Elizabeth, Hudson, Rebecca, and myself) were trained using the Suzuki method. When Allison and I first took lessons way back, our teacher used the Suzuki method pretty exclusively and that was our main training. Now that Allison teaches the other four, she has chosen to incorporate quite a bit of other music, although she still uses Suzuki as a base. It is a very foundational classical method, one that focuses on children beginning lessons young and exercising lots of memory skills!

Boruff Music
Eric Boruff (the violinist) performed at our church a few months ago and he was INCREDIBLE. We were super excited when we learned that he + his mother have sheet music + music books for their arrangements! Typically we play most of our sacred music by ear and arrange our own music. But sometimes (especially for instrument parts + variety) it is a treat to just have the music there in front of you + get new ideas from someone else's arrangements! Other than Tracy Ann Collin's music, we have never used sheet music for our gospel instrumentation pieces, so we were excited to get these. We ordered several of the books and have been playing various pieces from them ever since and LOVING it. I HIGHLY recommend this music! The very fun thing is that they have arrangements for all levels. I have one book right now that Hudson (piano) and Liz (violin) are doing a duet from, and then I have another one with duets for Allison and I, and there are lots of books for all the levels in between as well. It has been especially fun for the younger ones since they aren't experienced/able yet to come up with their own arrangements. But they love to play duets together, and now they have "real" music to do it- music for songs they know + love!

Banjo Ben
Some friends of ours told us about Banjo Ben Clark awhile ago. He gives banjo, guitar, and mandolin lessons online! This is a great option if you aren't able to find a teacher of these instruments in your area. (you will find it is easier to locate violin + piano teachers, but once you get into the bluegrass instruments...teachers seem to be few + far between, especially depending on the area you live in)
Obviously I still think one on one lessons, face to face, are the best choice, but if that doesn't work for you, then definitely check into Banjo Ben's lessons. My younger brothers (Carson, Josh, Denver, & Taylor) have taken his lessons, and I have seen HUGE progress in their playing + skill levels since they started. His lessons aren't free, but then the best things in life seldom are, right? =) My family bought a lifetime membership + it has already been so worth it. He is a little on the redneck side, but a great musician + teacher. =)

Sadly this store is only an Iowa chain, although I think they sell online as well. But if you are from Iowa, chances are good that there is one nearby you, as there are six scattered throughout the state. This store is where my sister & I buy most of our music, including the Suzuki Method books & the Piano Adventures.


Does anyone have any music-related questions you'd like to ask? Or for the musical ones out there, are there any resources that have been especially helpful to you that you would recommend? I'm always looking for new ideas! Please leave a comment and share!



  1. Great post! I really enjoyed it. I love music. I'm a big fan of classical music.:) I took piano lessons for four years till my teacher moved this Spring. I really enjoyed learning but wished that I could have learned more. I thought it was so funny that your mom said "we pay a lot of money for your lessons, and so as long as you take lessons, you are going to practice!". My parents would tell my brother the same thing!
    I've tried teaching myself the Guitar and Violin but have really struggled with it and at this point in my life I don't really have the time to practice much. Maybe someday though.

  2. Hi Chelsy!

    Thanks for this post! Your mom sounds a lot like mine in regards to practicing. :) I have taken piano lessons for 12 years, beginning when I was 4. My oldest brother and I began violin lessons when he was 5 and I was 7. We don't have a classical violin teacher anymore, but we have 2 amazing fiddle teachers!

    Now that we've branched into bluegrass music, we have picked up many other instruments, but the one we've had the most trouble with is banjo. I've actually been meaning to ask you what books/videos your brothers used to learn banjo. :)

    Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to post. I so enjoy your blog!

    In Christ,
    Hailey D.

  3. Wow; as a piano teacher myself, I too am finding Piano Adventures to be an awesome fit! I grew up on Bastien, and thought I could work with anything; it's the same stuff, right? I too am learning more all the time. And the video DVDs REALLY help!
    Thanks for sharing. I now work in a music store and get questions about guitar stuff too, so this info might help me with that too

  4. Enjoyed your post and I agree with the phrase on vocals, "Sing, sing, and sing some more!" I took some voice lessons while in school and that was one thing they stressed, practice, practice! But I loved it! My husband plays guitar and is one of those you would call a natural, but even he has had to work hard! Didn't know if this would interest you, but he enjoys the finger picking guitar books by Hal Leonard. Its beautiful music and they have almost every stripe of selection, including a good selection of Christmas ones. I'm working on mandolin but as a mother of 3, 5 yrs. and under, well it gets kind of pushed back. Your posts are interesting!

    1. Thanks for suggesting those guitar books by Hal Leonard; I will have to check them out sometime!

  5. This is a great post, and I love the part about practicing! People tell me that they could never play like I can but I know they could if they practiced as much as I have! :)
    This is good stuff!

  6. Hi! I was just curious to know- where do you get your fiddles and how much does one for an adult cost?

  7. I learned to play by ear, my mom and her siblings had a gospel group when I was growing up. She started me on piano but I never really got into it. Guitar was what caught my ear. I've always played by ear but have used a tab from time to time, played in 4 rock and blues bands before hanging it up.

  8. Well written and full of good information, backed by experience. Thanks!

  9. I haven't been able to find a good mandolin teacher around my area, but is awesome. They use 'groundbreaking new technology' - Video exchange. It's great. There is a pre-recorded curriculum, but you are not forced to use it. When you feel ready, you video tape yourself, and send it in, and then you will get your response, usually in about 10 days. Pretty much all of the teachers are world-class mucisians, and several of them live in different countries even. It isn't free, and it can seem a little spendy, but it's worth it, I think. and when you compare it with one on one lessons, it is really VERY reasonable. some people even argue that it is better than one on one lessons, because when you video yourself, and then watch it before you send it in and think, man, I'm sure I can do better than that! So it really pushes you in that way! and they have pretty much a full range of instruments - classical strings, horns, bluegrass, many different styles of guitar, etc. I'm lovin' it!
    Ruth Watson

    1. That's neat, Ruth. Are you able to select your teacher, or are you assigned one? Are the rates different for each teacher?

    2. Thanks so much for the idea Ruth...that sounds like an awesome resource!! I will have to check into it!
      And randomly...thanks again for all your work in hosting that SUPERB party...such fun and such great memories. =)

  10. Thank you SO MUCH Chelsy for this super encouraging post!!!!!!!!!!!! Out of everyone in my immediate family, I am the only one who so far does any thing with music. I do sing, and have been blessed with voice lessons. I play guitar and have been picking up the piano and mandolin.:) I play by ear (picking my own things out) and by reading music, but mostly be ear. That was neat to hear that you all play by ear; and I've heard of the Suzuki method! I'd eventually like to play the violin, and that would be what we'd probably use!
    Thank you again- that post was SO encouraging!
    Also, did you all have any vocal training? You all are amazingly gifted!!!
    God bless,
    Morgan Psalm 100:1-2

    1. No, we haven't had vocal training really. We used a dvd once for a bit..and we have picked up bits and pieces of ideas on vocal exercising and such here and there. (but we aren't consistent with that and don't do it hardly at all!) We took one family voice lesson once.
      But as far as formal, consistent training, no, we haven't for voice.

  11. After years of interest, I was finally able to begin violin lessons at age 11… I did not have a “Suzuki” teacher, but did progress through a number of the Suzuki method books after studying the basics. I didn’t have a problem with the series at the time, but now as a violin instructor feel that Suzuki is somewhat dry and unappealing in our modern society, where children are accustomed to constant entertainment.

    After graduating from home school high school, I went on to receive degrees in violin performance and music history, and after teaching music at the college level for several years, am now creating my own method book series, Cedric Celery’s Violin Adventures, to introduce young children to violin basics. Each book in the eventual four-book series features colorful all-in-one volumes, incorporating theory, technique and repertoire within a fictional storyline based on the character of Cedric Celery. Book One is now available on, with additional information, sample pages and free resources available on my website

    As the method is new and still in progress, it hasn’t yet had an opportunity for wide-spread use, but has been very successful with my personal students.

    1. Thanks for commenting and letting me know about your curriculum! That's great that you are branching out and writing your own!

      I know Suzuki is tough...and I can see how the typical children of our day and age would think it is dry and unappealing, because most children these days think anything other than video games and TV is dry and unappealing. But in the end, the most dedicated students are willing to work through the rough music that isn't as "fun", and they are better students because of it!
      Suzuki worked awesome for us-my sister uses it as a base but gives variety by incorporating a large amount of fiddle, sacred, and other types of music along with the Suzuki.

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts!

    2. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to share about my book in your comments! I realize that many people already have a method that is great for them, and I definitely am not claiming to be an authority on the violin! :) I had absolutely no problem using Suzuki books in my childhood lessons, but as a teacher have found that many parents do not consider violin lessons important among their child’s busy after-school schedule, and therefore are not willing to continue lessons for any length of time if their child isn’t highly interested – and sadly, sometimes not even then.

      But my main reasoning behind the creation of my own violin method was actually simply to provide a written method book to teach violin basics at a level suitable for young children. As I am not formally trained in the Suzuki method, I don’t have the background to actually “teach” their method from the first lesson on, but simply have access to their method books beginning with “Twinkle.” Therefore, I didn’t have any materials to teach such basics as string names, bow hold, note values or left-hand notes, which actually is what motivated me many years ago…

      Hopefully my method can provide written materials to non-Suzuki trained teachers, like me, that want to give their students a basic foundation that will eventually into the Suzuki method books or the materials of their choice.

      Thank you again for your response!

      Susan Cook

  12. Another thing I have noticed about myself is that learning with out a teacher would sometimes make me excuse my poor playing by saying that "if I had a teacher it would be so different and I would be so much more motivated etc.." but wait people! a teacher won't give you good work ethic! That part is up to you. And it doesn't work to blame others for something that is your own problem. I think back now and I'm like; "wow! how lame was I !?"
    I like this post Chels! :)

  13. I really appreciate you taking the time to type all this out, Chelsy!

  14. Great stuff written by you i can say...I am also a musician..I enjoy the folk music a lot...For the playing of the instruments we need a practicing of playing of the musical instruments....It is really appreciable that you had shared such a nice post....!!!!!!

  15. This is a great post! We are into music and my Dad read some of this to us all. Thank you for sharing!


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