7 Tips for Learning a Musical Instrument With ADHD

Learning to play a musical instrument can be a highly rewarding endeavor if you have ADHD.

It’s creative, it’s hands-on, and it can help fight boredom, the ADHD enemy! Plus, having a hobby you enjoy can make a real difference in coping with ADHD and lowering stress in general.

Of course, learning a musical instrument with ADHD can also be a challenge. It requires organization, consistency and sometimes a tolerance for frustration.

We all know that people with ADHD have a tendency to start projects and not finish them. So to make sure learning a musical instrument doesn’t become one of those hobbies that falls by the wayside, here are seven tips to help keep your musical aspirations on track!

1. Choose an instrument you’re excited about

For people with ADHD, attention is tied up with motivation: ADHDers focus on activities that motivate them, and activities that motivate them are ones that provide a compelling, immediate reward.

Many people with ADHD find that music is one of those activities. Indeed, music gives an immediate, ongoing reward, as you know if you’ve ever gotten absorbed in a piece of music. Capturing that rewarding, exciting aspect of music is the most effective way to get the ADHD brain to focus on the task of learning a musical instrument.

That’s why you want to learn a musical instrument you’re excited about. Even if it’s not the most practical instrument, even if it’s a “difficult” instrument or one that’s a little more expensive (yes, I’m giving you permission to splurge on that piano!). Finding an instrument you’re truly passionate about will go a long way toward sustaining motivation – and therefore attention.

Parents of children with ADHD take note! You may not want to listen to your kid practice the tuba, but if it’s the tuba that they’re head over heels about, getting them a tuba rather than a guitar might make all the difference.

2. Schedule a practice time

Becoming proficient in a musical instrument is all about practicing, so finding time to consistently practice is key. And of course, people with ADHD sometimes have trouble finding times to do the things they mean to do – it goes back to deficits in planning and time management.

The solution to this problem is to schedule out a practice time in advance. Doing so takes the burden off your time management skills. If you know that a certain time is your “music practice time,” you don’t have to always worry about planning out when you’ll be able to practice.

How often you want that practice time to be depends entirely on your goals. Maybe you practice every Monday and Thursday at 7 PM, or every Sunday morning after you get up, or every day after dinner.

However regularly you want to practice, try creating a schedule in advance so that it actually happens. And if you find you prefer practicing at certain times of day, don’t be afraid to experiment with modifying your schedule!

3. Play music you like

Remember how I said attention is all about motivation and reward for ADHDers?

That applies not only to choosing a musical instrument that gets you excited, but also playing music you’re enthusiastic about.

Don’t settle for playing the type of music you think you “should” be playing if it’s not the type that makes you look forward to picking up your instrument. It doesn’t much matter what style of music you like to play – classical or jazz, rock or bluegrass. The important thing is that it’s music you like.

You certainly don’t need to limit yourself to one style of music either. In fact, one of the funnest parts of playing an instrument can be experimenting with and learning about different types of music!

4. Move on to new music if you start to get bored

When I was younger, I had music teachers who insisted I try to get the piece of music I was working on perfect before moving on to learn a new one. I would sometimes go months slogging through the same piece over and over without starting something new.

It took me a long time to realize that this approach is simply wrong for people with ADHD. It’s not a good way for us to learn.

The ADHD brain seeks out novelty and stimulation. To keep it engaged, you need variety, and often you need something new.

When it comes to learning music, that means having multiple pieces of music you’re learning at a time, and frequently finding new pieces to work on. Since I’ve grown to understand how I learn best, I often go through periods where I introduce a new piece for myself to work on every week, and I love it.

Guess what? You don’t need to perfect a piece to learn something from it. You can practice a piece for a while, then drop it when you get bored, and you’ll still make progress.

Keep the music you’re playing fresh, and you’re more likely to keep your ADHD brain happy!

5. Give scales and your metronome a chance

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of keeping practice interesting and enjoyable. At the same time, I want to respectfully suggest that you should give repetitive technical exercises a chance.

When I first started learning piano as an adult, I have to admit that I didn’t engage with basic technical exercises like scales and arpeggios as much as my teacher would have liked. I wanted to play real music!

Eventually, I had to acknowledge that being flippant about doing technical exercises was holding me back. When I started to get more disciplined about practicing scales, I soon started to notice that my technique was allowing me to play more of the music I wanted to play.

It’s a similar situation with using a metronome. Practicing with a metronome to guide your rhythm, or practicing pieces at a slow tempo for that matter, isn’t glamorous. It doesn’t make you feel like a rock star. But ultimately, it gets you to a point where you can play the music you love better, which is a lot of fun.

When it comes to doing technical exercises that are repetitive, even dull, motivation is a potential issue. But if you give those exercises a chance, you may start to see concretely how they put you in a place to play music you didn’t used to be able to play, and that can give you all the motivation you need!

6. Move with the music

Music can be a natural fit for the ADHD brain because it’s hands-on and active. It keeps you moving and doing something with your hands. After all, music is closely related to dance!

The kinetic element of music is great for ADHDers, who have lots of fidgety energy and who often focus best when they’re able to move.

So embrace that side of music! Stand up while you practice if your instrument allows. Heck, walk back and forth across the room if you feel like it. Move around, tap your foot, and let the music flow through your body!

It may be called “hyperactivity” when you’re sitting in a meeting, but it’s called feeling the music when you’re practicing.

7. Set goals and know what motivates you

Learning a musical instrument is similar to any long-term project in that it helps to know why you’re doing it.

Whatever your motivation, setting goals along the way can sustain it.

Maybe you want to learn a certain song to be able to play it for other people. Maybe you want to work up to recording yourself playing that song. Maybe you want to reach a level where you can play in a band with other musicians. Or maybe you just want to play for yourself and have music as a rewarding activity you can turn to when you want to relax.

Setting goals doesn’t mean you have to aim for perfection. In the early stages of learning the piano, I realized that even if you play a piece of music badly, you’re still playing it yourself – and that can mean enjoying the music in a new, profound way and noticing details in it that you wouldn’t have noticed listening to someone else play it well.

As is so often the case with learning a musical instrument, there’s no one right way of doing things. There’s no correct motivation for wanting to be engaged in music. But do think a little about your individual reasons for learning an instrument so you can practice in a way that supports your goals.

Image: Flickr/Ninac26

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