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Sharon Bill Music Tutor & Author

How Long is a Piece of String?

For the Summer Edition of our little village magazine, in my role as private music tutor, I attempt to answer to question ever present on a new pupil's lips: 'How long will it take?" It's an impossible question but I do my best in my usual article…
When people begin to learn an instrument the usual question is, ‘How long will it take me to learn to play?’ The only answer to that question is, ‘How long is a piece of string?’ Of course this is no answer at all, because it’s an impossible question - you never finish learning. Ever!  My piano and flute teacher, from when I was 18, is now one of my best friends. We’re always setting each other challenges and I often still ask her advice about music and playing.  You don’t necessarily need to take lessons for your whole life, but you do always need to keep practising and learning. Things that you once found difficult you will now find much easier, but there will be the next piece that you are working on that doesn’t come so easily. I’m currently practising some Schumann piano pieces, “Oriental Pictures for four hands” (a piano duet - I haven’t sprouted extra arms and fingers!) and my first job is to sort out the fingering before I start properly practising.  Then it’s all down to informed repetition - practise, practise, practise!
My eldest son is just finishing his degree in Drums and Popular Music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.  As a Conservatoire it is ALL about performance skills. We went to his final year “Technical Skills” performance last week and it’s his final Recital next week.  For the last three years he’s spent each day living and breathing music.  He’s practised for about six hours a day and then even more into the night.  Fortunately he’s been living in Halls of Residence for musicians where practise is allowed until a certain time of night - he has the reputation of being the loudest resident there!  When it comes to a contest between him and his trombonist and violinist neighbours there was no doubt who won!  In the evening after the noise curfew he worked on quieter instruments, but still kept playing.  You’d think that surely now means he can say he’s “got there,” but the fact is that only now does it really begin for him.  Now begins music in the “real world.”
He began playing when he was seven years old. I taught him piano and theory, his dad taught him guitar and a couple of lovely local people from church got him started on the drums.  If he could have looked ahead at where he is now it could have really encouraged him, or it could have really daunted him.  Since then he’s just followed the road and practised (with the odd spell of apathy!)  He (along with his brother and sister) played in numerous wind bands, concert bands, brass bands, orchestras, musical productions and anything else that came his way.  We put thousands of miles on the milometer and wore out several cars as he grew in ability.  We’ll be putting some more miles on the car to go and see him at his final RNCM performance too.
It’s certainly a milestone and something to celebrate, but it’s not the end.  Each piece completed for anybody who plays is another step along the way, but it’s always a journey - not a destination. Each step gives a sense of satisfaction, and each step then leads to another.  It’s when you think that you know it all - then it’s time to worry. Everybody is on their own musical journey and not everybody wants to dive in quite as completely as my son.  Some people come for lessons and after they’ve got to a stage they’re satisfied with they stop coming for lessons each week but then may just pop in for a refresher session every now and then.  Most people come once a week, but some people come every two weeks and some come twice a week. Everybody has different goals and commitments.  Nothing is set in stone.  The only thing that is certain is that you never finish learning!