The instrument you play when nobody’s looking

During the last hours of 2011, I sat cross-legged in my friend Lyndsay Stone’s family room with 30 other people, each holding an instrument: guitars, violins, bongos, shakers, ukuleles — you name it, it was there. 

Her parents had performed at Woodstock and had come to believe music can bring people together in harmony, so we rang in the new year singing Beatles songs. Mrs. Stone asked one of Lyndsay’s friends what instrument she played. The girl raised an eyebrow- perched in the nape of her neck lay a violin, which she tilted as she responded “Uh, violin?”

Mrs. Stone shifted her weight. “Yes, but what else do you play?”

“Oh,” the girl laughed. “No, that’s it. Just violin.”

Mrs. Stone smiled and leaned in close, lowering her voice “Ah, but what do you play when no one else is around?”

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It’s one of the most creative questions I’ve ever heard. What’s the instrument you fool around with when you know no one is listening?

We all have the ability to play instruments, but many of us shy away from it. There’s this overwhelming expectation that when someone wraps their hand around the neck of a guitar, they can play a speedy solo or take any request tossed at them. They don’t know everything about it. No one does.

Truly learning how to play an instrument never ends — it’s a constant growth of understanding what works and how to create different sounds. If tossing out a disclaimer before striking a chord makes you feel a bit better, then do it. “I’m really not that good” never hurt anyone. But don’t hold yourself back from playing piano, bass guitar, or didgeridoo simply because you think there’s a standard you need to meet.

It’s similar to taking photographs. We don’t hesitate to take a friend’s camera and snap away. Why should borrowing an instrument be any different? No one expects you to have this remarkable photography talent and they shouldn’t when you pick up a guitar either.

Sitting in the Stone’s room that night were adults, cousins, and college friends, most of whom had never taken a music lesson. But one by one, each person broke out of their shell and sang along. It was OK if you had never held a shaker before. It was OK if you had never hit your palm to the rim of a drum. It was OK because the more you experimented and just relaxed, you realized no note was wrong.

That’s what makes playing music so fun. It’s this celebration of the moment, of improvising notes and rhythms to create something lively. After all, that’s what we’re doing — living. When you play an instrument, your ears become sharper and listening takes on a whole new meaning. Hearing musicians perform has a new flavor. This whole world of layers and sounds opens itself up to you just because you took the time to play one out of a thousand instruments.

Recently I began learning how to play banjo. Since none of my friends play one, it’s up to me to figure out the answer to any questions I may have. It works as this huge learning experience where it’s just you and this instrument; the more you practice, the better you two understand each other. You learn to be patient. You learn to experiment. It’s like being two years old again and figuring out how things work by interacting with them.

There’s no better time to be childish than now. Stop in Guitar Center or a hole-in-the-wall music store and sit down with the instrument you’d love to play when no one’s looking. Ten minutes with an accordion or djembe and you’ll realize you really can play it. Either you’ll leave the store refreshed and happy or beaming with an instrument in hand, both of which sound good to me.