Why you’re never too old to learn a musical instrument

After early discouragement in school, Debra-Jane Appelby wrote off her chances of ever playing a musical instrument. But it turns out all she needed was a ukulele, the internet and a bit (but really not a lot) of time.

ukuleleI can remember it as clear as yesterday. The first music lesson in big school. I was 11. After years of shrill, awful, recorder-based, follow-along nursery rhymes with no actual musical tuition, I was going to learn MUSIC.

The teacher came in, plugged in his electric guitar and proceeded to shred an awesome guitar solo for what seemed like hours. The class exploded into applause. This was it. We were all going to leave school sounding like Hendrix, Clapton, Richards or Young.

The teacher unplugged, gently laid his guitar in its stand and said: “That is NOT music. All that running about and showboating. Rubbish. We only learn music in here.” After six months of learning scales back on the recorder with zero enthusiasm I was told that I was “just not musical” and never picked up a musical instrument again.

The guy wasn’t a bad teacher; he was just a biased one. Like the language teacher who sticks to verb forms and tenses from the time Latin was regularly taught without ever teaching you how to actually say anything in the language a native would understand.

“Practise a tune while sitting on the loo. That’s multitasking anyone can do.”

Fast-forward 30-odd years and, having chucked in the rat race for the relative glamour of the standup circuit, I decided I would write a song to go in my show. After all, I had a Mac, I had an iPad, all I had to do was download GarageBand. You’ve seen the ads, right? The music would write itself, right?

Er, no. Whatever I tried it sucked. It sounded worse than my juvenile recorder playing. It was even worse than One Direction. Because I didn’t understand how the music part worked because I had never played music properly. Me and a loop library was like having a jigsaw with no picture.

Google to the rescue. I figured if I could learn a little it would help a lot. 80/20. Pareto principle. Whatever. So, I searched videos for “What is the easiest musical instrument to learn?” Lo and behold, the answer wasn’t the bloody recorder, woo-hoo, it was this…

Like everyone else I associated the ukulele with George Formby and Elvis in Hawaii and well, a joke. Until I started Googling further and watched this…

So I bought one off Amazon for £18 (down from RRP of £35), a set of the most-recommended strings (for about £7), a neat electronic clip-on tuner (for £3) and a secondhand copy of Ukulele for Dummies for pennies plus P&P. YouTube taught me how to restring it with the better ‘pro’ strings and tune it with the clip-on. YouTube to learn the first few chords and the book to explain what a chord was, etc. Within an hour of the first strum I was playing a recognisable song, albeit Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

Once you get going it’s hard to stop. Learn three chords and you can play hundreds of pop and rock songs. Learn a fourth and you can play thousands. The thrill of hearing The Beatles, The Stones and The Who flowing from your fingers, however haltingly, is intoxicating.

But, you say, I can’t read music; how do I learn a song like Love Me Do or My Generation? Oh, well, you’re screwed then aren’t you? Didn’t you spend years of miserable music lessons learning what all those incomprehensible scribbles mean? If only there was a shortcut that anyone could pick up in a minute and not even have to LEARN but just do!

Like this, you mean?

[G] Love, love me do [C] You [G] know I love you [C] I’ll [G] always be true [C]

So pleee[C/G]eeease… [Stop] Love me [G] do [C] [G] [C]

It’s called ‘tab’ (short for tablature) . There are different types of tab. There’s one where it shows you where to put your fingers for each note but for absolute beginners this is the best. The letters in [ ] are the chords. Change chord when you get to one. So to play Love Me Do you just need to listen to it until you are familiar with the beat and the rhythm, sing it along to yourself a bit and then play and sing along to the tab until it sounds near enough, at which point you are playing frickin’ Love Me Do.

You can buy dozens of books with these tabs or you can just Google them. There are literally thousands of tabbed songs online, specifically for the uke.

“Just how many simple pop, rock and punk songs do you have already permanently etched into your head from your teenage years?”

OK. But why should you bother? Especially if you’re pushing 50 like me. You don’t have the time, right? Too stressed, right? Too busy with everything. Except do you remember the first video? FIVE MINUTES, then practise three chords and play a Beatles song which is THREE MINUTES. Cripes, practise a tune while sitting on the loo. That’s multitasking anyone can do.

Seriously though, apart from being fun and confidence-building, playing a musical instrument is good for you. I mean, look at Keith Richards! Sorry, couldn’t resist. Seriously though, playing an instrument is the best brain training you can get at any age. And imagine how much fun it will be to teach your grandkids.

More links? OK, you got it…

We don't know what Debra-Jane's playing here, but it's probably not Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Photo by Cat Harrison.

We don’t know what Debra-Jane’s playing here, but it’s probably not Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Photo by Cat Harrison.

It’s great for stress relief, exercising memory and motor skills. According to educator Anita Collins, it even builds up the communications between the hemispheres of the brain. It has all the benefits of solo exercises, team sports and the added bonus of firing all the brain’s creative centres.

Ignore sayings like ‘You can’t teach an old dog…’ because you can. And just how many simple pop, rock and punk songs do you have already permanently etched into your head from your teenage years? Cripes, Anarchy in the UK is four basic chords and you barely move your fingers.

I’ve been playing for 18 months now and have even written a couple of songs and recorded them in GarageBand. Because I get how it works now. I don’t know the science of harmonics or much music theory but I can feel it when I play it. And it’s such fun it never feels like work. I’m sure it’s the same for any instrument. Doesn’t just have to be the uke. Think of the uke as a gateway drug. I recently bought a bass guitar because it also has four strings, so how hard can that be? Right?


  • googleplus
  • linkedin
  • rss
  • pinterest

Written by Debra-Jane Appelby

Loud, Yorkshire, opinionated, techno-geek, trans-woman comedian with a fondness for excessive culinary pleasures and too little exercise.