How can I choose what instrument to learn?
Maybe you’re not clearly drawn to any particular instrument. Here are some comments that might be helpful as you think about what instrument to start with.
Voice – The voice is really the starting point of music. Most instruments that are capable of playing melody refer back to the human voice – they are all trying to “sing.” When voice is your instrument, no additional equipment is required. Voices are remarkably able to improve. Just by singing more regularly you can strengthen your voice and gain more control over it. And with sustained practice, even the most out-of-tune singers can see real progress. Working on your voice often leads to increased self-confidence in other areas. And it’s a great social asset to be able to break out in song whenever the need arises.
Guitar – It seems that guitar is the quintessential instrument for accompanying the voice in American popular music. From Woody Guthrie to Tracy Chapman and Beck, from Chuck Berry to the Ramones to Metallica, the guitar is everywhere. Just by learning a few chords, you can bang out literally thousands of songs or write your own.
Ukulele – The “uke” has grown in popularity with artists like Jake Shimabukuro elevating it to a very high level of musicianship. It’s a fun, easy and inexpensive way to start playing music and accompanying yourself singing.
Piano – The piano has a huge repertoire ranging from classical to blues, jazz to pop. It is a fantastic instrument for vocal accompaniment and for solo playing, as well as for ensemble playing. It is the opposite of the acoustic guitar: totally un-portable. It is fine to learn on an electronic keyboard. If you go this route, you should get a keyboard that has at least 5 octaves, has full-sized keys, and is touch-sensitive (the harder you strike a key, the louder the sound it produces). Even better is to get a keyboard with weighted action (similar to that of a real piano), though these are more expensive. Electronic keyboards are great for playing in bands and for situations where sound level is a consideration. You should realize, however, that electronic keyboards do not come close to the living, breathing, hugely dynamic and very individual natures of real pianos. Just as there is a huge palette of sound available to you with synthesizers, there is a huge palette of nuance, dynamic range and expression with an acoustic piano that cannot be replicated with an electronic keyboard. A lot of catchy synthesizer sounds get old after a while. The sound of an acoustic piano is still of interest to our modern ears centuries after the instrument was first developed.
Bass – The bass may be one of the easier instruments to learn – we’ve had students join our band workshops after only 6-9 months of instruction. It is clearly an instrument meant for playing with others. Given the popularity of singing and guitar playing, it seems that people are always looking for a bass player to complete their band! Unlike the guitar and piano on which you are playing chords (groups of several notes played together), the bass plays primarily single notes and usually locks in rhythmically with what the drummer is playing. It’s a whole lot of fun to play, and gratifying to be wanted by others for your musical skills.
Drums – Drums are probably the most physical of all the instruments. You’re playing with all four limbs as you lay down the groove for everyone else. As the drummer, you are the keeper of time, in charge of the feel. Like the bass player, you are in demand. It is possible to start drum lessons without getting a full kit. You can do a lot of work developing good stick control with just drumsticks and a practice pad. But the real fun comes when you get on the full kit, and for this you’ll need a place you can set up and make some real noise.
Saxophone – Sometimes there is just nothing like a wailing sax solo. The emotional tone that comes from someone like Clarence Clemons, Junior Walker or David Sanborn is nothing short of musically hot. And in the world of jazz, the saxophone is perhaps the pre-eminent soloing instrument, like the electric guitar in the world of rock & roll. Need we mention names other than Charlie Parker and John Coltrane? Most students begin on either alto or tenor saxophone; the tenor is bigger and plays a lower range than the alto. Other saxophones include the baritone sax (even bigger and lower than the tenor) and the soprano sax (usually a straight horn, without the curve, that plays higher than the alto). The fingering patterns you learn on any of the saxophones transfer directly to the others. A big deal for all saxophone students is developing a good tone on the instrument. Unlike the piano, where the basic tone of the instrument is set, the saxophone requires the student to do a lot of work before a satisfactory tone is achieved, even on a single note.
Flute – While flute has a minor role in Rock, Blues, Jazz and other Pop styles, it is a wonderful instrument, very satisfying and rewarding to play. It obviously has a major role in classical music, as well as in many folk traditions from around the world. And unlike most other instruments, it is easy to take just about anywhere you might want to go.
Is piano the best instrument to learn first?
Piano is a foundational instrument. For most musicians, having some piano skills is very useful. Also, music theory is most easily visualized on a piano. But we believe there is no reason to begin your music lessons on the piano if that is not the instrument you are most attracted to. What makes for successful music study is long-term practice. What makes for successful long-term practice is an abiding interest in and attraction to the instrument. On this issue we are on the side of immediate gratification: start with the instrument you most want to play!
Should I learn guitar on an acoustic or an electric?
You may have heard that it’s best to start with acoustic guitar before switching over to electric. We do not subscribe to this advice, since we believe it is trumped by the “immediate gratification” principle. If you really want to play electric guitar, then go for it! Square-one electric players may join our Beginning Guitar group class even though mostly acoustic players will be in it. Following are some things you should know.
For beginners, playing an electric guitar is easier than playing an acoustic guitar. Electric guitar strings are smaller in gauge and strung with less tension than acoustic guitar strings, so it takes less pressure to play the notes. If you do learn on an acoustic, you’ll find many things suddenly easier when you play them on an electric. The acoustic guitar forces you to develop strength in your hands and calluses on your fingers more quickly than an electric does. All the chords, scales and strums, and much of the technique are completely transferable between electric and acoustic guitar. However, the kinds of tone you get out of an electric are very different from the tones you get out of an acoustic. There are a lot of techniques very specific to the electric guitar/amp combination that cannot be learned and explored on an acoustic guitar. When all is said and done, we think you should learn to play what turns you on. Of course, the great advantage of an acoustic guitar is that it can be played anywhere, regardless of the availability of an electrical outlet. It’s a great party or campfire instrument, and a great solo or accompaniment instrument. With an electric guitar, you’ll want to get an amp, and you’ll most likely want to be playing with others.
What if I want to write songs?
The first thing you should do is to learn either piano or guitar. You need to be able to come up with chord progressions that will accompany your melodies and lyrics.
Should I learn music theory first?
No, it’s really best to learn an instrument before learning music theory. While you might think that learning some theory will facilitate learning an instrument, it’s actually the other way around. Knowing at least some basics on an instrument will make music theory much more understandable and meaningful.
What if I want to make music on a computer?
The better your understanding of the basic elements of music – melody, chords, and rhythms – the better will be your ability to use computers to create music. Gaining some piano skills is highly recommended!
I’m a square-one beginner; how long before I can play anything?
It’s difficult to answer this question because there is such a wide range of natural ability and amount of time spent practicing. By the end of our beginning group guitar classes, for example, most people can play some simple songs. You’ll probably still feel like a beginner, but you’ll definitely be playing.
How much should I practice?
If you’re studying an instrument, you’ll make decent progress if you can average 30 minutes a day of practice. The more time spent, the more quickly you’ll become proficient. Regular daily practice is most important, so even on your busy days try to spend at least five minutes. Then, if you can, add more time on other days to average 30 minutes. Binge practicing the day before your lesson after three or four days off is much less effective. For students in elementary school, even 15-20 minutes of consistent, daily practice can be effective.
How long does it take to get good?
Learning music is not something that promises immediate success. The physical skills involved can take quite a while to develop to a high level. The mental understanding of music theory and the language of music is likewise a long-term undertaking. However, if you enjoy the process of hanging out with an instrument (voice included) and learning how to make it sing, you’ll be well rewarded at every stage of your progress. There’s no better way of finding out if you’re well-suited to playing an instrument than beginning instruction now!
What’s the best age to start?
Exposure to music can begin at almost any age. Blue Bear’s Little Bears classes introduce young ones from 6 months to 5 years of age to the wonderful world of music through listening, musical games, movement and singing. Some children aged 5 or 6 are ready to begin private lessons on an instrument.
Are you older than 6? Then it’s certainly time to begin. (And it’s never too late.) Here are some specific guidelines to help parents know when their young children might begin:
Guitar – Our youngest students are around 6. It’s best at the younger ages to use a small-sized guitar, or even an ukulele.
Piano – Piano lessons at Blue Bear can begin at 5 years of age. We have instructors who are experienced working with these younger students.
Voice – Our instructors don’t usually work on technical vocal development with a student younger than 12-14 years of age. However, singing lessons can still be worthwhile for students as young as 6. For the younger students the lessons focus on singing enjoyment, working on the basics of breathing and pronunciation, and developing a stronger sense of musicality.
Bass – Our bass instructors are happy to work with students 6 years old and up. For smaller hands, a smaller bass is definitely required.
Drums – Our drum instructors can work with any student 6 years old and up.
Saxophone – Due to the requirements of breathing and holding a somewhat heavy instrument, it is best to start the saxophone around age 10.
Do you offer trial Little Bears classes?
Yes! Sign up for a drop-in and use the code lbtryme. Or pay in full, and if it isn’t a good fit for any reason we are happy to issue a 100% refund as long as you contact us two days prior to your second class meeting
Can I join a Little Bears class after it has started?
Yes! You can sign-up online (space permitting) for date forward enrollment, or for individual drop-in classes at $30/class or $125 for a 5-pack.
Do you pro-rate?
We are able to pro-rate Little Bears classes after the second week of classes at a rate of $25/class for the remaining classes in the session. Please contact the front desk at 415-673-3600 to enroll, or sign-up online (space permitting).
What if I need to drop a Little Bears class?
If you decide to discontinue a class for any reason, please contact us at 415.673.3600 two days prior to the second class meeting for a full refund. After the second class, no refund shall be given. However, we understand children live on their own schedules and we will do our best to figure out a good solution for you.
I have more than one child; do I need to pay for both?
We always think the more the merrier, but all of our classes are based on occupancy, so all participants do need to pay tuition. We’re happy to offer $40 off of siblings tuition when registered for the same class, so use code: second when enrolling online.
I have a newborn; can I bring him/her with my other child?
Depending on the enrollment of the class, we can usually accommodate that request. Please call the school directly to see about enrollment. Just be aware that some classes can be quite loud for brand new ears, so we may suggest baby ear muffs so no nap is interrupted.
Can I switch to another class?
If you would like to switch to a different class for any reason, please contact us at 415.673.3600. If the class is not full, we should be able to accommodate your request.
I need to run errands; can I drop my child off?
No, no, and no! Not only is the parent/caregiver participation imperative when singing in rounds, but we firmly believe that children learn from watching you engage with the music and instruments (plus, it’s way more fun).
Is it okay to bring guests to a Little Bears class?
We love visitors, but due to limited instruments and room size, we advise that you ask your instructor prior to inviting guests to come. We can usually accommodate. If you’re bringing a new Little Bear along, their first class is always free with our Trial code lbtryme.
What if my child is too young for a camp?
We hold fairly strictly to our age ranges. It’s not so much about skill level – the social aspect of our camps is best when there isn’t too big a gap in the ages of the campers. We sometimes let younger campers in when enrollment is skewed to the young side in a given camp.>
Can I arrange to pick up my child later than 3 pm?
For families that need later pick-up and for kids who just want more music, inquire about the possibility of private lessons following the camp Monday-Thursday for a special camp rate of $50/hour, based on availability.
How many teachers are there per student?
A defining characteristic of Blue Bear’s summer camps that sets our camps apart from others is our high teacher to student ratio, with instructors on each instrument group. While the ratio varies slightly for each camp type, we very effectively provide personalized instruction for all students, beginner to advanced, engaging them in the learning process from square one.
What is your camp drop policy?
If you need to drop a Camp for any reason, we will give refunds based on the following schedule:
- 90% refund with at least three months notice
- 70% refund with two-three months notice
- 50% refund with six-eight weeks notice
No refunds are available if less than six weeks notice is given unless we are able to fill your child’s spot with another full-paying camper, in which case a 50% refund will be given.