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did he mention bass? … and Conner? … got my attention

Learning to play: Music instructors say

picking up an instrument good for the mind

Let’s say that, in a moment of confidence and hope, you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to learn to play a musical instrument. Now, three days into 2014, you’re paralyzed by the audacity of your goal, and in need of some motivation.

“There’s no downside to learning a new skill, especially a musical instrument,” advised Julie Ludington, a Stevensville piano teacher.

Of course, starting at age six or seven is optimal, she said, but adults can still learn, and even benefit in unexpected ways from the effort.

“Once you’re past your mid-20’s, you begin to lose brain cells. Learning any musical instrument – but piano and violin specifically – makes you use your brain, your eyes, and your hands, and forces you to think and process information in a different way. It creates new pathways in your brain when you learn a new instrument, any instrument.”

That’s the good news. Now, the bad:

“It’s hard,” she admitted.

Sam Downing, at The Music Box in Hamilton, backed her up. He’s planning to teach himself to play the guitar in 2014, but he’s realistic about how quickly he’ll pick it up.

“In 20 years I’ll be a competent three chord guitarist,” he mused. “I want to play punk music, they’re easy three-chord songs, but classical guitar sounds pretty nice, too. I like blues, jazz, anything as long as there’s something fun going on.”

Bluegrass musician Mike Conroy, of Conner, teaches students to play guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and bass, and he thinks Downing may be underestimating himself.

“Once you learn three chords, it’s time to start a band,” suggested Conroy.

Joking aside, all three agreed that to make progress, you need to devote at least 30 minutes a day to practice.

“For anybody, I think you’ll get measurable progress with 30 steady minutes; 45 minutes or an hour is better, and it doesn’t matter if it’s all at once,” Ludington advised.

Conroy and Downing concurred. “Really, it’s about muscle memory, getting your fingers to remember,” Conroy said. “Leave the instrument on your couch, so every time you go by you’re thinking about it. Pick it up and play it when you can, but even just thinking about it helps.”

Downing agreed that it all comes down to finding those elusive 30 minutes a day. He suggested that even three, 10-minute sessions will help, especially for first-time guitarists. “Your fingers get sore and tired, doing something you’re not used to. Thirty minutes teaches your fingers, there’s muscle memory involved. You’re teaching your mind to relax and to let your fingers take over.

“Less than that, and you’re just barely getting going,” Downing counselled, but for those who have the time he had better news.

“Four hours a day, and you’ll be miles ahead of the rest of the world.”

What instrument should you learn?

“Play what you want to play,” advised Downing. You don’t have to suffer for six months or a year, learning on a “starter” instrument, he said. “Get the instrument you want, and then play it.”

For someone looking for quick results, Conroy suggests that mandolin is one of the easier instruments to learn.

“I can teach anybody to play a song in their first lesson on mandolin or fiddle,” he said. “Anybody can figure it out.”

With just one finger formation, you can play the mandolin in the key of C, he explained, and with that you can start playing along with others. Other pluses, according to Conroy, are that “it’s small, and it’s cute.”

Guitar is harder, he said, but the banjo is the hardest. “You’re playing with three fingers, in an 8-note world. Three doesn’t go into eight so well.”

Piano is particularly difficult for adults to learn, if they’re starting from scratch, Ludington said.

The difficulty is that you’re playing more than one note at a time, on both hands, she explained. “If you really applied yourself, after one year you’d have some skills,” she said, but real proficiency takes something more like four to five years.

“You do have be in it for the long haul,” she admitted.

Conroy holds classes in Stevensville, Hamilton, and Conner, and teaches music mostly by ear, while Ludington’s students learn to read music, a skill that she says is like learning a language that can then be transferred to any other instrument, or to singing.

The Music Box offers group lessons through their Bitterroot School of Music, but can also refer would-be students to local teachers. The store’s group classes feature an affordable, sliding scale; private lessons are more focused. Classes are ongoing, with guitar “all the time,” Downing said, along with ukulele, violin, banjo, accordion, and harmonica. Check their website,, for more information, or call them at 363-5491. For those ready to commit, they have plenty of instruments available for purchase.

The rewards, all agreed, are worth the price.

“Absolutely, the beauty of music is it’s so intense it takes your mind off everything else,” said Conroy, who calls it “the ultimate relaxation.”

“Whenever you learn something new, you’re unlocking your potential,” advised Downing, who said that students do better in school if they’ve studied music, according to studies.

Ludington started playing at age 10, which she suggested was “a little old.” Now, she not only teaches piano, but accompanies the choirs in the Stevensville schools, and plays for Stevensville Playhouse productions.

“There’s so much joy in being able to play at the piano,” she said. “I love it. I’m very lucky to be able to do all that playing.”