Updated on 08.03.10

Building Skills for Free

Trent Hamm

As I’ve mentioned a few times on here, I’ve been taking piano lessons since early February. When I come home, though, my materials are mostly books I’ve been gifted or printed out from various places and I practice on an old electronic keyboard or by walking to a local church and practicing on the older piano in their basement.

While I’m not at all what I would consider good at this point, I can see that I’ve started to build some skill at piano playing over the past several months. I can read simple sheet music and play it. I can play a handful of simple songs from memory. By simple, of course, I’m referring to songs people know – like “Where the Saints Go Marching In” or “Fur Elise” in fairly simple arrangements without a lot of flourishes or anything.

It feels very good, and it’s particularly fun to set goals for myself, like “I want to play Song X from memory without errors” or “I want to be able to open this music book to a random page and be able to play what’s in there.” I’m looking forward to being good enough and confident enough to play in social situations – I’m not there yet, but I can see it down the road.

What I’ve really learned from this is that it’s really empowering to learn a new skill – and it doesn’t have to be all that expensive, either. There are so many new skills anyone can learn out there that the only thing missing is your motivation. You don’t need money – for many skills, you just need time and a little bit of motivation.

Skills pay off in a lot of ways, too. Yes, sometimes they’ll turn into a career, but sometimes they’ll just help you to assist a friend or work through social awkwardness or help add some spice to a social situation (like piano playing, for example). Those things have great value as well – there are few things more valuable than a strong social network.

Most people, when they think about skill-building, envision a classroom, a teacher, a bunch of expensive supplies, and tuition bills. That’s only true if you’re looking to earn some sort of certificate to write about on your resume, but it’s certainly not needed to build many skills you might wish to have. Instead, here are five free resources anyone can use to start building up many of the skills they might want to learn.

Hit the library. There’s a “how-to” book on virtually anything you would like to learn about at your local library – and if it’s not there, they can probably get that book via interlibrary loan. I glanced at the self-teaching piano books at the library recently and there were dozens of them – in fact, I checked out two of them myself, just to read different angles on the ideas.

Hit Freecycle. If you need equipment, one great place to start looking for it is Freecycle. Basically, Freecycle is a resource for people looking to give away unwanted things – and many of those things are quite nice and useful. Subscribe, pay attention, and you’ve got a good chance at finding the things that you need. I’ve walked away from it with multiple items over the past few years.

Request use of public facilities. Many communities have facilities available for many, many different activities, from basketball and tennis courts to churches with pianos sitting in their basements. If you need equipment to do what you want to do, spend some time studying what’s available to you already.

Participate. If there are groups in your community focused on whatever skill you’re trying to build, whether it’s public speaking or woodworking, make an effort to join that group. Don’t be ashamed of your “new” status or your lack of equipment. Quite often, if a new member joins a group like that and shows some passion and initiative, the other group members are often really happy to help the new person get rolling.

Trade. If someone else has access to the training or equipment that you need to use, work out a trade with that person. Could you swap some of your already-existing skills for access to that training or equipment? A good old-fashioned barter usually leaves both participants in a much better place.

Most of all, just do it. If you’re sitting there dreaming about some skill you want to build, I can only guarantee one thing: continuing to sit there and dream about it won’t build the skill. Get up and start doing it. I can’t tell you how long I dreamed about starting to play the piano, but it wasn’t until I started actually doing it that anything happened.

You’ve got to do it to be able to do it.

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  1. Meetup is a good site to find folks who are interested in meeting others and who are often more than willing to help a newbie learn. I’ve had good luck there. http://www.meetup.com/

  2. A special skill could help form a special identity for an individual too! Everybody know how to play video games, but not many people know how to play the piano! Being able to play the piano well make you unique!

    Plus, if you get decent enough, you could get other people with skills and jam or create your own music.

    I bet in many ways learning a new skill is liberating! Especially when you are learning a musical instrument!

  3. Will Marlow says:

    Love this post. I’ve done the same thing with learning photography (I recommend the Nikon D40 as the cheapest DSLR camera you can buy while getting a camera that let’s you grow tremendously in skill).

    I recently hit a point in my photography where I realized that my photos were good enough to add to my blog posts, and doing so has caused a large jump in my readership.

  4. Crystal says:

    My husband has slowly been teaching himself the piano by using a keyboard and some starter books. He always smiles when he remembers a whole song or can use the book to play a new one…good feelings all around.

  5. Craigo says:

    One word: Volunteer!

    My two favorite areas to volunteer in are local, community-based and Free/Open Source software (F/OSS) projects. Both provide the opportunity to build new skills /and/ strengthen our real & virtual communities.

  6. @Crystal
    Plus that skill your husband learned would be great at the holidays. You can create new family traditions around the skill your husband is learning!

    I always though it would be cool to have a 30’s party where some of the party members could play a little jazz diddy at the party… And of course dress the role too.

    The important point is, learning skills, like play the piano can make your life much better and enjoyable!

  7. Victoria says:

    Another great free resource is youtube. I needed to top up the freon on my car’s a/c unit and had NO idea how to do it, but a video on youtube explained how and walked me through the process. Lots of money saved!

  8. Frugal Ella says:

    As a piano teacher I can vouch that self-motivated adult students are some of the most fun students to teach. I would guess that would go for any subject/skill.

    Sometimes there are more experienced folks out there that would love to take on a mentor. Plus there are also tons of hobby or skill specific blogs that are great free resources :)

  9. Brendan says:

    I was considering building new skills in wood- or metalworking recently, but I found that the initial investment costs of buying even simple tools was really high.

    I looked into local workshops where I could use the tools, but I found they had complex and expensive membership fees (monthly with 3 month minimum, as well as safety class fees for each piece of equipment you wanted to use).

    Eventually, I applied the “gym membership” argument I’ve heard on this site: don’t pay lots of money upfront for a something you may not take advantage of. This left me without a way to pursue these skills, so I had to turn my attention to something else.

    Does anyone have a suggestion for what to do in this situation? Where the tools are rare (my neighbors generally don’t have a metal lathe in their backyard), and all the easy access methods are expensive?

  10. one word – YouTube! (or maybe it’s two words, not sure). Anyway, any song I want to learn on guitar can be found on YouTube. If you like the human interaction to learning, and don’t have the time, or know anyone that knows Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love by VanHalen, then YouTube can definitely help with learning a new instrument…

  11. valleycat1 says:

    also hit the internet! I’ve found basic free DIY guitar and harmonica lessons, and some great comments/tips in related boards/blogs.

  12. Michelle says:

    I like this! I always wanted to learn how to knit, but always whined because “no one will teach me!”. So one day, I checked a book from the library, got some yarn and needles, and taught myself! Since then, I’ve taught myself how to crochet, and play the piano moderately well! I realized, no one will ever come up to me and say, “do you want to learn X?” I have to go out and find a way to learn. It changed to entire way I looked at the world. I went from someone acted upon, to someone who acts.

  13. Pete says:

    YouTube is great for this – there’s a great series of piano lesson tutorials by YouTube user Lypur at http://www.youtube.com/user/Lypur who seems to be doing it just because he thinks music should be free. Really good for the self-motivated learner.

  14. christine a says:

    @ valleycat1 please do you have any particular sites to recommend? (We have a “Ms C Blues harp” still in its wrapper!)

  15. Linda says:

    Like Michelle, I also taught myself how to knit. There are so many video tutorials online these days. Right now, I’m knitting my first sweater by taking an online class; the class is provided for free by a yarn supplier. (They don’t even require that you buy anything from them.)

    I also joined a local knitting group for the social aspect and knitting support. Many members had bought a specific book on knitting socks so that they could learn together. I wanted to try this, too, but didn’t want to buy the book. I checked the library–it wasn’t in the library system and was not available via inter-library loan. So, I asked the library if they would purchase the book. The answer was yes! (It never hurts to ask.)

  16. Terry says:

    Hitting the library has a value far beyond books. Many library systems offer classes which are either free or at minimal cost. For example, the our county library system offers free yoga classes the first two Saturdays of every month. (I’m planning to go next week.)

  17. Systemizer says:

    My gut tells me the piano you plan on buying is going to collect dust.

    And I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way.

  18. Johanna says:

    Out of curiosity, what does a fairly simple arrangement of Für Elise sound like? The piece was written for solo piano to begin with, and it’s hard for me to imagine how you’d simplfy it while keeping the melody recognizable.

  19. kathryn says:

    Every time someone tells me they are not creative or “can’t draw a straight line,” I want to get on my soapbox and sound off. Creativity is not a special gift that only certain people have. True, some people learn quicker and at an earlier age, and might be considered gifted. But, most of us can learn a creative skill, given enough time and strong desire. From my own experience, I have learned many visual arts skills over the years and what it took was motivation and time spent on practice. I learned to draw figures quite well in my twenties, have learned sculpture and am currently a collage/mixed media artist. In addition to the skill building, being able to let go of 1)excessive self criticism, 2)comparing oneself to those more skilled and 3)believing every piece has to be a masterpiece are invaluable parts of being successfully creative. Danny Gregory and many others have written eloquently about developing onself creatively.

  20. Stephan F- says:

    Pianos are another one of those things you shouldn’t buy new. There are so many used ones collecting dust in houses everywhere. I’ve seen pianos passed around families for free as they try to get a child into music.

  21. steve says:

    Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! I can’t think of a better, more efficient method of building new skills or enhancing already-learned ones.

  22. Adam says:

    MIT and other universities allow you to watch courses for free online. You dont get credit but it is a great way to learn about a topic that interests you as long as you are motivated to do the work on your own.

  23. Mike says:

    I’m a big believer that you should never stop challenging yourself and learning something new. Keep the brain active and growing.

    Having specific goals and a timeframe in mind are important too. Saying, “I want to learn to speak Italian someday” is nice but if you don’t set a deadline you may always be saying “someday”.

  24. Claudia says:

    In re: used pianos. While there can be excellent deals out there; sometimes if a piano has not been kept in tune for years and years, it can no longer be tuned and will need to be restrung which is very costly. Be very cautious in spending money on a used piano.

    I used to play piano as a child and am now again working on my skills on an electronic keyboard. I’ve been amazed at how much I’ve retained after not playing for many years. However, I wish I had listened to my mother and never stopped taking lessons. Keep at it Trent, you will not disappointed.

  25. Diane says:

    Your Community Education department is a wonderful resource for many classes at little & sometimes no cost (other than materials). Ours offers evening classes in photography, dance, music, languages, computer skills, money management, jewelry making, cooking, art, knitting, crocheting, dog training, gardening, cake decorating & exercise – just to name a few. There is a new set of classes each spring & fall – not always the same, depending on the teachers available.

    Some classes are for kids, others for adults. Some are 1 night classes, some are a 6 week series. My son has taken classes in ballroom dancing, keyboarding & guitar. I’m now looking at photography & jewelry making classes for the fall. Definitely worth looking into!

  26. Sandy L says:

    I so agree with Kathryn.

    I used to work with an incredibly gifted engineer. I called him “inspector gadget”. He would always be concocting really innovative things in the lab I worked.

    I told him one day that I wished I was as creative and innovative as him. He then said that you can learn to be creative just like anything else. I think just like athletes, some people have a natural aptitude but others can get just as good with passion and hard work.

  27. Debbie M says:

    Like Kathryn says about creativity, physical skills can be learned, too. I was short as a kid, picked last for teams, and am still scrawny and clumsy. (Yes, in the olden days when a volleyball came to me, I would have to judge which other player it was slightly closer to so I could get out of their way. And somehow it would never be my turn at bat.) However, I am now adequate at volleyball and ultimate Frisbee and above average at ballroom dance.

    Participating is best in person, but there are also online communities and resources. It’s a lot easier, for example, to learn knitting now that there are YouTube demonstration videos. Also, even if there isn’t a group in your community, you could always start one yourself.

    Another fun thing I’ve seen is people teaching their friends (or kids) how to do things as they are learning it themselves. Knowing you’re going to teach really helps you pay attention. Similarly, if the skill is something you can compete in, preparing for a competition (such as a 10K run or ballroom dance competition) can also help you focus.

    Re: volunteering. If you’re wondering how that could apply to piano playing, I know one way. I have friends who volunteer at an old folks’ home, singing and playing the piano for them. Technically, this doesn’t help them learn, but knowing they’ll be facing those expectant faces every week has got to motivate them to keep learning throughout the week.

  28. I would probably also see if there is a free how-to class at the local hardware store for these types of skills.

    The classes are great, and also free

  29. Gayle says:

    I’ve learned new skills and expanded existing ones by watching videos on YouTube. Skills as diverse as Photoshop tips, using ChalkInk markers, playing scales on the saxophone (for my son) and the proper feeding of a guinea pig. Yes, sometimes you need to sift through the useless offerings, but there are plenty of value and sometimes having information presented in various ways by different people is very enlightening.

  30. collin cox says:

    Finally something I actually know about, having spent the better part of 40 years tuning and rebuilding these beasts. First of all not tuning a piano for many years does not, make a piano untunable, many other things play into that such as loose tuning pins cracks in the tuning pin block, separations in the wooden frame or a crack in the cast iron frame. Second, someone has to buy new pianos or there will soon be no useable used ones.
    Third, have it checked out by a professional before spending money or effort to have it moved or tuned, even if the piano is a gift. This is one time when it pays to spend a little to make sure you are not just getting someone else, problem. also before investing a lot of your own time and money in the thing make sure it is a good playable instrument, and can be tuned. Fourth if it sounds good, can be tuned and the action and keys feel food when playing you, or your kids, are much more likely to continue to play, instead of just dust it. Sorry about the sentence structure and spelling, my brother is the English professor.

  31. J.O. says:

    Inspiring post and also comments. It’s good to hear how others have learned skills on their own.

  32. endlessblink says:

    What a great and inspiring post!Thank you:) I have so many things that i want to teach myself and i discover that i”m too afraid to fail myself so i just do much less. I know it sounds silly but i guess having too high expectations is fearful enemy to someone who wants to learn new things. But i guess it’s always important to fight this feelings towards whatever you choose to do.

  33. Marsha B says:

    I’ve always wanted to learn German. In my city, Milwaukee, we have a group that meets informally once pwemonth at a restaurant for a “stammtisch” –
    a gathering where everyone converses in German, and people at any level of skill are welcome. No fees. You don’t even have to order a meal – have coffee or tea!

    I believe that Milwaukee also has a French conversation group that meets at a local book store.

    I haven’t attended yet – I’ve been focusing learning to play the recorder (think Renaissance Faire!). I’ve found free music and a free online learning course, at http://www.recorderhomepage.net/

  34. Brittany says:

    The trouble is the methods you describe only work for certain types of learners. I’m a quick study if someone shows me how to do something. One demonstration, and I have it down, whether it’s a math problem, a carving technique, a fencing move, a home or car repair, etc. But I just can’t learn any of these things from a book. I’ve spend many frustrating hours trying (including many trying to learn how to learn this way). I can muddle through, but how it is an efficient (frugal) use of my resources to spend five frustrating hours trying to master something from a library book when it would take me five minutes to learn it if I sought someone out who could teach me?

  35. collin cox says:

    On 15
    Oops, meant feels good. Get the food off and keep it away from the piano.

  36. Kate says:

    An alternative application of this principle can be re-tooling your skills for a slightly different application, finding ways of using old skill sets to branch into new areas.

    Someone who no longer has enough energy for square dancing could learn Regency dances in no time. (And there’s a whole new style of costuming!) An artist who’s developed a sensitivity to the chemicals used could translate the skill set and vision to computer art. And so on and so forth.

    In my case, I began piano in second grade, and got my degree in it. However, I got to the point over a decade ago where I couldn’t play regularly. I still sat down occasionally and indulge myself: some Bach inventions, sonatas by Haydn or Mozart, tone poems by Debussy. Beethoven or Chopin if I was feeling ambitious, since my skills had already slipped badly. Each time, I paid for it with several days of wrists useless for typing or picking up a bottle of milk. I had developed carpal tunnel syndrome.

    So I pampered my wrists (I’m wearing a brace as a I type), while mostly turned my back on a part of me I’d had for almost half a century: making music.

    Then I went as a guest to a church that had no organist. I expressed interest in trying to play it, since I’d been told it was far easier on the wrists. (It is, btw; the keys are lighter, and volume is not controlled by the force you use on the keys.)

    I started just by playing simple hymns on the manuals, left hand on the lower one, right on the upper. After a while, that wasn’t enough, and I taught myself the pedals. The organization of them match the keyboards, and since my hands know how to move a certain distance for a note, it didn’t take long for my feet to catch onto the trick.

    I should add that the good folks of St. Raphael’s were perfectly happy to let me just come in and practice for fun, but they gave me the gift of access to the instrument, and such gifts must be shared. I’m now the church organist, and since I’ve progressed to the point where I can play some Bach chorale preludes, WITH pedals, I’m starting to feel like a Real Organist.

    As Trent says, learning a new skill is empowering. And learning a new use for an old skill can re-open doors you long thought closed.

  37. asrai says:

    Don’t use Freecycle as your personal shopping list. If it’s hard to move, high end or rare- chances you aren’t going to find it.

    Don’t ask repeatedly and follow th rules. Members and mods alike will reward you.

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