Wednesday, December 23, 2015

6 Months Report: Learning the Flute

I had a couple of goals when learning to play the flute. The first was to see how hard it really was to learn an instrument. The conventional wisdom is that you should learn when you're a kid because it's much easier to learn motor skills as a kid. This is of course bollocks. For instance, there aren't any examples of anyone under 5 being able to even try to play a flute, simply because the lung power and muscles required to form an embouchure aren't there.

Now stories abound about how it takes weeks to even be able to make a sound on the flute. To my surprise, I was able to play "Mary had a Little Lamb" in under a week. It turns out that like any new motor skill, flute playing is dependent on repeated extended practice. If you put in a half an hour a day for a month, you'll get there. If you want to accelerate it, you'll need an instructor who can grade your pieces and provide you gradually more and more challenging pieces.

As an instrument, the flute is far far better than the piano. I never understood slurs because the piano doesn't really lend itself to them. A flute, however, has a clear difference between a slur and a separated note. A piano has to be played sitting down. There are clear studies showing now that sitting down is very bad for you. A flute, however, can be played standing up, walking around, or moving from sitting to standing as you see fit. I can't see forcing a little boy to play the piano as anything but sheer torture. (My perspective is that forcing anybody to do anything is a bad idea: read Producing Excellence if you want to really find out what it costs to really make it into the top leagues in classical music)

My secondary goal was to see if I could get good enough at a new instrument in half a year to be able to achieve a decent amount of fluency: I needed to be able to play any song I knew that fit within the octave range of the instrument. The flute has great range, so it turns out that I can pretty much play anything I've heard and memorized. (It's no big deal: you've probably memorized a ton of songs, from TV themes to movie soundtracks --- anything you've heard about 10-20 times is probably something you've memorized, whether you know it or not)

It turned out that this wasn't that hard. On the flute, it's a matter of being able to hit the high notes consistently (or for some people, the low notes --- turns out that for me, low notes were easy but high notes were tough). To be able to play any song well requires practice, but I can actually now compose reasonable melodies on the flute spontaneously, which indicates for me that I've reached a comfortable level with it.

So all in all, I think the only reason the meme "it's easier to learn as a child" is even mildly realistic is that while your spouse might tolerate crappy lousy playing from the child that came out of her womb, she might take offense to you butchering an song within ear reach. But for a determined adult, it's probably far easier to learn a new instrument than for the equivalent child. With that, I have even less incentive to "tiger-parent" my kid into piano.

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