Learning to Play an Instrument


Clay Riness

Guitar Student, Ezra, with Teacher Gregg “Cheech” Hall. Photo: Lee Neves
Guitar Student, Ezra, with Teacher Gregg “Cheech” Hall. Photo: Lee Neves

Will this be the year you finally pick up that musical instrument you’ve always wanted to learn? In this digital age, resources abound online. There are also method books available to help students self-study. But for many, enlisting a private instructor offers the best chance for success.

I’ve been teaching guitar, fiddle and mandolin since 1985. Like all teachers, I’ve developed my own style over those years, but something life-changing happened years back when I discovered pianist Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery. Werner suggests that the definition of “mastery” is “the ability to do something you’re capable of without thinking about it.” The very word conjures thoughts of something big, a seventh degree black belt, or a degree in culinary arts. But in fact, we’ve all mastered and are capable of mastering countless skills. (Do you think about putting one foot ahead of the other when you walk?) This concept shifted my approach in teaching. I realized that helping and encouraging students to focus on mastering small skills, which eventually become a larger skill set, was a better path.

I also believe there is a difference between practicing and playing. When a student takes home assigned exercises in a book, that’s called homework. That’s for practicing. Many school students already have copious amounts of homework. For this reason, while I do encourage students to work through a book, as it is a wonderful tool for learning, I focus on these exercises only briefly during lessons. Then it’s on to skills, techniques, exercises and even songs that will be enjoyable, rewarding and fun.

Playing, on the other hand, is the voyage of discovery. Whether it’s merely discovering what each note sounds like by itself, what two or more notes sound like together, or noodling one’s way through a familiar song—when you’re making noise for the pleasure of it, you’re playing. I say, practice a little each day, but noodle away as much as you want. You don’t have to be accomplished to enjoy playing. 

Teaching is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Each student is different. You will be different. A method book simply doesn’t motivate everyone. Find an instructor who will work well for you, especially if that means thinking outside the box. A question I often ask my students is, “Are you having fun?” Because if not, what’s the point? And that very idea is the impetus for me to keep things fun.

And finally, a good teacher knows that he or she will not be a perfect fit for every student. For instance, in my case, if someone reaches out to me looking for classical violin instruction, I refer them to someone best qualified, as I teach traditional fiddle music and technique, dance music, mostly.

I reached out to few other area teachers to get their take. Gregg “Cheech” Hall is a fixture in the area’s music scene and also teaches guitar at Instrument Repair of La Crosse. His advice to aspiring students: “I find the hands-on experience to be very beneficial. It’s easier to ask questions to an actual person over a video,” he says. “Get a decent instrument that will stay in tune. I recommend Instrument Repair of La Crosse and Dave’s Guitar Shop. They have a wide variety of used guitars that will give you a decent instrument without draining your bank account.” 

Jessie McDonald and 6th Grade Orchestra students on the bus to the La Crosse School District’s All City String Festival. Photo: Contributed
Jessie McDonald and 6th Grade Orchestra students on the bus to the La Crosse School District’s All City String Festival. Photo: Contributed

Jessie McDonald, a member of the string band Pigtown Fling, teaches violin, viola, cello, and bass at Old Towne Strings, Longfellow Middle School and the La Crosse Youth Symphony Orchestra. She says, “Schedule a time for regular practice for 20 minutes, at least 3 times per week to begin. Go slowly as you practice, focusing on consistency, awareness, and accuracy. Be patient with yourself and your body as you learn. Some skills and concepts will be easier, and some will require more effort. Spend time working on your lesson assignments, but don't forget to also spend time experimenting or jamming with other musicians and playing for your own enjoyment. Have fun!”

Ted Parrish with banjo student Jeri Eisermann. Photo: Clay Riness
Ted Parrish with banjo student Jeri Eisermann. Photo: Clay Riness

Ted and Catherine Parrish own and teach at Parrish Music in Viroqua and are transplants from the famed Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. Collectively, they teach guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, and flute, and they offer both group and individual instruction. When asked of the benefits of an instructor, Ted was clear. “Two things,” he says, “feedback and consistency. 

Feedback is incredibly important when you are learning. It helps correct issues that the student might not be aware of, such as hand posture or technique. Consistency is quite simply the act of showing up for your lesson. If you have an off week and don’t practice much, at least during your lesson time you will be refocusing and working on your musical self.” Well said, Ted.

Happy New Year, everyone. Now go and make music.

Clay Riness teaches at his office suite at the AVS Group, 3120 Mormon Coulee Rd., La Crosse, and out of his home in Coon Valley. He can be reached by email at cmriness@mwt.net. 

Here are the top 10 benefits of learning an instrument from Samir Becic, founder of Health Fitness Revolution and author of the book ReSYNC Your Life

  • Keeps the mind sharp
  • Enhances coordination
  • Regulates mood
  • Sharpens reading skills
  • Improves respiratory system
  • Increases listening skills
  • Promotes sense of achievement
  • Boosts concentration
  • Reforms time management skills
  • Helps treat Alzheimer’s disease  

Source: healthfitnessrevolution.com

North to South: Where to Find Lessons  

  • Hardt’s Music: 115 E. Third St. Winona, MN 507-452-2712 / 800-657-4977  
  • Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts: 1164 W. Howard (10th) St. Winona, MN 507-453-5500  
  • Reed Music Studios: 2845 Midwest Dr., Suite 104 Onalaska, WI 608-783-6382 
  • Onalaska Music Academy: 1288 Rudy St. Onalaska, WI 608-779-5377  
  • SSE Music: 2609 George St. La Crosse, WI 608-781-2850 / 800-795-2850  
  • Old Towne Strings: 1218 Caledonia St. La Crosse, WI 608-782-1222                         
  • Dana’s Music: 211 S. Water St. Sparta, WI 608-269-0113  
  • Cathy’s Piano Studio: 1540 Old Hickory Dr. La Crescent, MN 608-385-1470  
  • Leithold’s Music: 116 4th St. South La Crosse, WI 608-784-7555  
  • Dave’s Guitar Shop: 1227 3rd St. South La Crosse, WI 608-785-7704  
  • Instrument Repair of La Crosse: 1216 3rd St. South La Crosse, WI 608-784-2400  
  • Parrish Music: 111 S. Main St. Viroqua, WI  608-637-7730
Jessie McDonald conducting the Longfellow Middle School 8th grade Orchestra. Photo: Contributed
Jessie McDonald conducting the Longfellow Middle School 8th grade Orchestra. Photo: Contributed

Clay Riness  author

Clay Riness is a freelance writer and photographer from Coon Valley. His photography can be found at clayrinessphoto.smugmug.com.