It’s been awhile since you last picked up the saxophone or sat down at the piano — maybe it’s been years. It’s not that you stopped enjoying it. Life got busy and you had to make time for other priorities; but you miss the joy of being able to play your favorite tunes.
You may be curious but nervous about the idea of returning to playing music after such a long break. Is it even possible, or have you lost years of valuable skill building?
Actually, it’s very possible and many people have done it; some suggest taking a break can make you love it all the more. After taking music lessons as a child, or playing in the school band as a teenager, it’s common for adults to fall out of the habit of playing an instrument, only to return years later. It might not be quite as easy as riding a bicycle, but it’s probably easier than you think.
If you’re feeling pulled back to your old tunes after an extended break, here are tips to help you ease back into the swing of it, for a lifetime of playing and enjoying music.
Reignite the Spark
What did you love most about music when you started playing an instrument? Did a particular song make you come alive? Did you enjoy the thrill of performing in front of an audience? Did you love jamming with friends?
When you return to music, it’s because you want to — and above all, it should be fun! So, take a moment to remember what you consider fun about playing music, and build that into your music practice.
If you loved a particular composer’s music, buy some of his or her sheet music. If you enjoyed performing in front of others, hold mini-concerts for your partner or children. If you liked playing with others, find friends or colleagues who play instruments. The beauty of returning to music is that it’s something you do for yourself, and you can incorporate whichever aspects you like best. Have fun with it.
Don’t Overdo It
Think of returning to music like returning to a sport — you may be pleased by how quickly some of your technique comes back, but you won’t have the same stamina you once did. The first time you get back on a bicycle, you wouldn’t ride for two hours straight, so don’t expect to play an entire concerto the first time you pick up your instrument.
Take it slow. Your body needs to rebuild strength and regain flexibility. If you work at an office job, long hours at a computer may have had a negative impact on your posture, which could make playing your instrument difficult or even slightly painful.
Start with short, regular practice sessions of 20 minutes. Set a timer and stop when the timer goes off — stretch the parts of your body engaged in playing your instrument. Over time, as you increase your strength and flexibility, you can increase the length of your practice sessions.
While it’s tempting to dive back into your favorite Bach fugues or other difficult pieces you used to love playing, resist the urge. Begin by practicing easier pieces (even if you feel a little silly or impatient) and work your way up to more difficult ones. At all costs, you want to avoid stretching yourself too far too quickly, and ending up frustrated when you pull a muscle.
It is normal to feel some soreness when returning to an instrument after a long break. However, if you feel sharp or strong pain, something could be wrong. Schedule a lesson with an experienced music teacher to correct your technique, or see a physiotherapist if you believe the issue is physical, rather than technical.
Take Care of Your Instrument
Depending on how long it’s been since you last played, your instrument may be in desperate need of tuning or repairs. It may even be time to purchase a new instrument.
Whether you’re playing a brand new or well-loved instrument, make sure to take proper care of it so you can enjoy it for years to come. Review the basics of instrument care and maintenance if you need a refresher.
Structure Your Practice
While it’s fun to mess around on the keys or strings, you’ll likely become bored after a while if you’re not intentionally developing your skills. The activity can quickly lose its sparkle without direction, especially if you don’t feel yourself progressing.
As a starting point, consider devoting:
20% of your practice to scales and arpeggios (4 minutes in a 20-minute practice session)
50% to becoming proficient at a reasonably challenging piece (10 minutes)
30% to playing pieces you love (6 minutes)
Your priorities in your practice may change over time, but the suggested practice regimen above is a great place to start. It strikes a good balance between improving your skills and playing music for the sheer joy of it.
Keep a practice journal to track what you have practiced and how you are progressing. Over time, this will help you see how you are improving and identify areas to continuing working on.
Be Kind to Yourself
It’s important to take it slow physically, but it’s just as essential to be kind to yourself emotionally. Don’t worry if you sound “bad” — it’s part of the process. There’s no one to judge you and you aren’t working under any external deadlines.
Be kind to yourself as you trip over scales or fumble over notes that used to come easily. If you become frustrated, take a deep breath and try it again, more slowly. Take a quick break if you need to. It can be humbling to struggle to do things that used to be so simple — be patient and understanding with yourself. It will come back, it just takes a bit of time (and a lot of elbow grease).
Seek Out Lessons
If you have the time and the means, consider scheduling lessons with a music teacher. An experienced instructor can cater lessons to your own pace and interests, and can provide invaluable tips to home your technique, posture, and even improve the way you practice at home. While you may have felt pressure surrounding recitals, band performances, or talent shows when you were younger, today there are no expectations except those you set for yourself. A good teacher will personalize lessons to your own goals and help you preserve your love for the activity.
If it’s been years since you last played, it may not occur to you to turn to YouTube for help with music. While an online video is no substitute for a teacher witnessing you play, in a pinch you may be able to find a video that will help you overcome an issue you haven’t been able to fix on your own.
Again, the most important thing is that you have fun; otherwise, why are you spending the time to relearn an instrument? Every so often, reward yourself with a practice session devoted only to music you love to play. Buy new sheet music as a treat to yourself. Go to a concert or splurge on a music lesson. It takes motivation and diligence to come back to a music practice after a long time away — reward yourself for taking the plunge back into music.
Enjoy the ride! Just as when you began playing music, you will find returning to it to be challenging, invigorating and exciting. Soak in every moment as you rebuild a skill you can delight in and feel proud of for the rest of your life.