Make Your Own Kind of Music

Quite often, I’ve mentioned that learning your own musical instrument is an incredibly frugal hobby. Almost every time I mention it, someone asks some follow up questions along the lines of: “How can that be frugal? Instruments are expensive!”

Recently, I wanted to put that to the test and show how inexpensively a person can start learning a musical instrument in their spare time. I decided that I would learn how to play a pop song on a keyboard and finally settled on the song “Clocks” by Coldplay. Here’s the video for it (you’ll be able to hear it quite well if your speakers are on):

I chose it because, well, I like the song, it had a very obvious piano component, and also (in my not-very-musically-inclined mind) it seemed like it would be fairly easy to learn. Here’s how I did it – for free.

Acquiring the Instrument
The first step, of course, is figuring out what instrument to play. I settled on the keyboard fairly quickly, but there are a lot of instruments out there that can potentially be had. I’d recommend that, if you’re learning an instrument by yourself at home, pick up one that has a lot of tutorial material available – guitar, banjo, keyboard, and harmonica are all good places to start.

Once you know what you want to play, start looking for instruments on the cheap. If you’re just learning, a low quality instrument is a great place to start. You don’t need a $3,000 Fender Stratocaster to learn to play guitar – a low-end acoustic guitar will do the trick. You can move on to the Fender if you start becoming deeply passionate and deeply know the difference between it and the low-end acoustic that you learned on.

Here are some ways to find an instrument for free (or nearly so).

Freecycle is a great place to put out a request. State that you’re a beginner and are looking for a used version of the instrument of interest. I had success finding a keyboard this way in my county’s group – an elderly lady was thrilled to give hers to someone who genuinely wanted to learn.

Charity Music is another place to look. For the most part, they target younger people and people with low incomes, but if you find yourself in both groups, this is definitely a place to look.

Local Goodwill and second-hand shops I often see used instruments like harmonicas and old acoustic guitars at places like these for just a pittance. On occasion, I also spot instruments at yard sales, though not too frequently.

Family and friends You’d be surprised how many people around you have an old instrument stashed in the closet that they haven’t touched in ten years that they’d be happy to share. Just ask around a little bit – you might be surprised.

Learning by Yourself
The next challenge is to find ways to learn for free. There are several routes you can take to do this.

Use the internet There are a lot of tutorials and other assistance available online for free. Lifehacker has a great guide discussing how to learn an instrument online and most of that material is free. I’ve found the most success, incidentally, from looking at YouTube. I found tons of videos on basic keyboard and piano skills as well as guides on how to begin reading sheet music. I even found some guides on how to specifically play “Clocks” on the piano – incredibly useful.

Use free book resources, like the library or PaperBackSwap On PaperBackSwap (or a similar used book service), my wife acquired a pair of books on beginning piano for older students which has been immensely helpful for me, as it provided guided exercises to help with various techniques as I poked around. Look at services for free learning materials, like the library, and see what you can find.

Trade skills with an instructor. If you know someone skilled with that instrument, offer to barter with them in exchange for some lessons. Perhaps you have a skill you can share with them – “I’ll fix your computer in exchange for a few piano lessons” or something like that.

My experience learning “Clocks”
I had hoped to show you some stunning YouTube video with me busting through “Clocks” like there’s no tomorrow, but frankly, it’s hard to do. It’s one of those things that’s very fun for me to practice and I can hear myself getting better each time, but whenever I record it and play it back, I still cringe. Perhaps cringe a bit less than before, but still a pretty big cringe. I’ll spare your ears.

Nevertheless, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve hit all kinds of useful online resources for learning how to play. I’m now branching out from just learning “Clocks” and am attempting to learn from an old book that my wife has had on learning piano for older students, playing stuff like “Hot Cross Buns” and “My Darling Clementine.”

The best part? None of this cost anything at all. You can do this for free – a fun hobby and a learned skill that can impress others all wrapped up together. That’s the best kind of frugality.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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