There are three basic ways to learn how to play an instrument: Teach yourself, go to music school, or get private instruction. There are pros and cons to each choice, so let's discuss them!
If you are just starting out on your first ever musical instrument, this is probably not the way to go. When you pick up your first instrument, it's very important to have a structured learning environment. This is because music theory is highly cumulative; meaning that if you are misunderstanding a concept and aren't even aware of it, you're entire learning curve is automatically inhibited. It's extremely important to have a trusted resource to explain concepts and how to use them properly, which sets you up to properly understand the next concept.
If you already play an instrument, teaching yourself another is a much less daunting task. Of course, this varies depending on the instruments you know and are trying to learn; but even so, you're existing knowledge and discipline with one instrument will greatly aid you in learning another.
The institutional method of music education is an extremely valuable tool. In a few years, you can go from knowing next to nothing about music, to understanding the highest levels of music theory, composition, and ear training. Such value comes at a real cost: the cost of a college education. And given our current economy–on top of decades-long trends in colleges and universities–the cost of a higher education is only going to rise, at least in the USA. If you're more into the technology side of music and audio, music programs also include audio engineering or sonic arts degrees as well. This is really a brand new area in academia which didn't really exist even just 20 years ago.
One of the best parts about a music program is being surrounded by other musicians who are also learning; discussing concepts, getting their take on music theory, and having different professors to ask questions of. This all builds up into a powerful network in the musical community, and can help lead to career opportunities, even just by having it on your resume. For this reason, it will continue to be as relevant as ever and continue to provide the standard by which music education is measured. So go for it, if you can afford it.
At the end of the day, it comes down to your goals. If you want to play in an orchestra, then making the investing in a college degree might be a good idea. If you want to start a band and rock out, getting a music degree certainly won't hurt; but it might not be necessary. Discover your goals, and your path will form around them.
This is by far the oldest and most traditional method of learning musical concepts or a musical instrument. In times of old, if you wanted to learn to play an instrument, you go to someone who knows how to play it and ask them to teach you. Better yet, go to someone who's famous for playing it! That's it. It's the time-tested, tried and true method of mastering both an instrument and the concepts of music theory. This method is so in-grained in music education, that many of us received some kind of private instruction for an instrument as a child (most likely piano or violin) in addition to general music education in public school, whether we were musically inclined or not. And that's a great thing! Let's keep it going.
Another benefit to private instruction is that it directly supports working musicians and artists. Especially in the United States, making a livable income as a musician is a heady task. In reality, these people do not have one full-time job called "Musician." Chances are, they are doing a great deal of things, trying to set up multiple income streams that fall in-line with their commitment to music (whatever that means to them), just to make ends meet. One of the most popular of these income streams is private instruction. It pays the bills while they work on that masterpiece.
In the last few decades, music schools are having somewhat of a revolution. A popular secondary option has emerged that, in a way, bridges the gap between the traditional music classroom and private instruction. These are programs like Bach To Rock. While traditionally, one could obtain private instruction at your town's music store, companies like Back to Rock offer private and group instruction for specific instruments and ensembles. There is some blowback, as private instructors complain that their wage per hour is sometimes less than half than what it would be with their own students. Defenders of these programs claim that the increase in number of students balances this out. What they might fail to see, however, is that if you even make 50% of your standard rate, your have to work twice as many hours, and take on twice as many students to make the same amount of money. Ultimately, that equates to less real energy you can put towards each student as a teacher and mentor, which negatively impacts the quality of the education in each lesson.
Whatever Is Right For You
These days, there are more options than ever to someone who wants to learn an instrument or music theory. Take your time, do your research, and see what feels right for you. Oh, and make sure you can afford it. You can take a Music 101 Class at your local community college, find a private instructor, or give teaching yourself a shot. In the end, you might find yourself trying all of these in an effort to see what kind of musical environment you thrive in, and that's just fine! Follow your heart, and you'll never regret a single moment.
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