“How long have you been playing?”

“How long have you been playing?”

I get asked this question a lot, always by people a fair bit older than me, and I always feel like it’s a little bit patronizing but maybe that’s just me being insecure and reading stuff into it that isn’t there.

That being said, I wonder how often other players get this question and what demographics they fall into. Male, female, age, etc. I am merely curious.

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

This one has been tried at least once before…

https://thesession.org/discussions/8388

No harm in revisiting the topic though.

I wouldn’t always read too much into it and it really depends on who is asking the question. It may be you think they are implying that you are a beginner or still "improving", thus the feelings of insecurity. Or they may be actually complimenting you on your playing…. either thinking you must have been playing for many years to be so good or that you’ve learned a lot in a short time. You can’t always tell what their motive for asking is. It might just be them trying to "make conversation".

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s a fairly meaningless question and I usually have to qualify my response along the lines of…"I’ve been playing for "such and such" but….. "I don’t practise as much as I should", "I’ve been busy/ill/or whatever and so I’m a bit rusty", "I play other instruments as well or I would be more focused", "I started in 19** but I had a few breaks in between" and so on.

Re demographics, I’m male and now retired.
I started playing guitar at 16 but was distracted in my late teens and early twenties. Started again in late twenties and purchased my first mandolin when I was 30 and a fiddle a few years afterwards. However, it wasn’t until my late thirties/early forties when I actually started to learn tunes properly. It was mostly accompaniment before then. So, how many of these early years really count? I daresay they all do up to a point but I’m reluctant to include them when considering the "How long have you been playing?" question.

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I get this a lot - as an American living in Ireland - mostly from drinkers and randomers rather than from the other musicians at this stage. About 6 months ago I finally got the ‘How long have you been playing? Probably since you were little huh?’ Chuffed and delighted with myself! I must be progressing if they assume I’m a long time player, I told myself. Then disappointment on the poor guys face when he learned that I only took it up in my early 20s and it wasn’t a result of family roots directly in Ireland.

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Years ago I foolishly asked this of Paddy Hayes.
"Oh that must be nearly two years now"
- was his reply. I deserved it. :-)

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There is a time-honoured answer to a rude question like that!

If someone at a session asks you how long you’ve been playing, and it’s (say) 10:00 pm - assuming you got there at (say) 8:00 pm, you glance at your watch and say: "Oh, about two hours"

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I think Mix’s answer wins.

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About three feet six.

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It could be a compliment or an insult, depending the context in which it’s asked.

A more accurate question would be ‘how much time have you spent practising?". I’ve been playing guitar for 27 years, but most of my technical ability has come from some relatively short but serious periods of practice, and there are some months/years where I didn’t pick up the guitar so often.

10,000 hours is required to be really good, so they say. Seems about right to me.

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I don’t get asked that often, but when I do it’s always people (here in the U.S.) that have never seen uilleann pipes before, and are curious or genuinely interested in the instrument and the music.

My demographic: male, 60’s, American.

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Picking up on An Draighean’s answer, perhaps some questioners might simply be trying to decide whether taking up the pipes might be a feasible prospect for them. If you say x years, they might think, wow! I could be as good as her and impress people after only x years! Or, wow, I’d love to be able to impress people by playing like that, but I’m not prepared to spend x years of my life slaving away at it. Maybe a bodhran…

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The only problem with Mix O’Lydian’s retort if the inquisitor wants to be rude is it invites the reply, " It sounds like it too! " :)

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I find the question is usually an ice breaker for people who want to speak with a musician and don’t know what else to open with. That’s all.

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I’ve never found it anything to be insulted by, it seems to be a very innocent and common question along with several others…

"Do you play any other instruments?"
"Is piano hard?"
"What kind of music do you like to play?"
"Do you teach?"
"Are you in a band?"
"Do you have a Youtube or Instagram?"
"Do you have a card?"

These are all commonly asked questions. So for me, "how long have you been playing", doesn’t seem too bad. It always comes with other questions, and sometimes it’s not even the first question. I don’t have a specific demographic because I play all genres that I know.

I think the most offensive question I’ve been asked is, "Why are you playing a white man’s instrument?", in reference to the fiddle, by a black gentleman who was over twice my age. Unfortunately, it’s been asked again since, in other wordings though. So my perspective may be a little skewed.

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With boot on the other foot, you meet someone who has only been playing the same instrument as yours for a relatively short length of time, and is already so much better than you were after the same length of time. You compliment her and try your hardest not to sound patronising! (And remind yourself to do a bit more practice or she’ll soon be catching up with you!)

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

I remember in another discussion that someone asked of a player "how long have you been playing, roughly?"

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

Dr. Spear:

It’s usually just an icebreaker in my experience. Just a genuinely curious, non-musician person trying to strike up a conversation 99 times out of 100.

Every so often you’ll come across a tool that waits for your reply and has a critical, sarc-y follow up to your response. Treat them like the insecure, arrested adolescents that they are.

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My favorite question from those who have never seen a vintage instrument: "Is that like a flute?" Sigh… well, yes.

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Policeman (to busker, playing an accordian) : "Do you know you can’t do that here?"

Busker: "If you can sing it, I can play it!"

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

I think "Did you teach yourself?" is probably more humiliating than "How long have you been playing?"

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Or alternatively,
‘Policeman (to busker, playing an accordian) : "Do you know you can’t do that here?" ’
(Not very skilled) Busker: "It’s OK. I can’t do it anywhere!"

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When playing mandolin, I get "what is that instrument?" far more often than any questions about my history with music. Apparently, the mandolin is not easily recognized by civilians.

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I’ve never experienced a sarky or rude "How long have you been playing?" inquiry - generally I’ve been asked it either in conversation with someone in a non musical setting (meaning they haven’t heard me play) or I’ve been asked it by someone who has complimented my playing. The thing I get asked the most is "What made you (always with a little extra emphasis on the "you" which translates into "you, a mixed race tattooed person….") want to play Irish music of all things?" The payoff is watching them flinch as I respond and they hear me accent!

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

In my experience I’ve felt it similar to what Ailin mentioned: "I find the question is usually an ice breaker for people who want to speak with a musician and don’t know what else to open with. That’s all."

These days I don’t play much in sessions but I do perform a lot, on the pipes. I’m also not a singer in song-based band, so I come across as the "quiet" member. People come up to me to ask about the pipes and how they work, and I’ve been asked the question about how long I’ve played. It didn’t come across as rude, and the person seemed genuinely interested in what I was playing.

In regards to the demographics question, I’m a reasonably young dude. I’ve only gotten the question a couple times, and people often rather ask questions about the weird instrument I’m strapped into.

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Since accordions have been mentioned: (and I play a 2-row B/C) -
"That looks a nice simple instrument?"
Me - "Well no!" - Thinks "You are totally deluded".

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

I’ve been asked “How long have you been playing” a few times by non-players and beginners. I’ve always figured it was just people trying to gauge for themselves how long it would take them to get to my skill level—not that it’s a particularly high skill level, they were just looking for a yardstick. Then, I’ve been asked the same question by accomplished players and I feel way more defensive. When I was younger, I sometimes went so far as to shave some time off how long I’d actually been playing, so that it wouldn’t seem like I should be more advanced than I was! I’m a little more confident now, or at least more resigned to reality, and answer truthfully. They can take the information for whatever purposes they want. I’m a middle-aged white guy.

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No need to ask me as the answer is not long enough. Female, middle aged,middle class, white.

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I agree - in most cases, it’s just an innocent ice-breaker of a question, along with "how did you come to play Irish music?" and certainly far nicer than "you could have picked any instrument, what possessed you to choose the banjo?"

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

My favourite answers:

"Long enough to know better"
&
"Since I was eight…so about 20 years" ( it’s actually closer to 50 now !!! )

I agree that it’s not a rude question - people who don’t play just want to know how long it takes to get to your standard - wherever that may be.

"Why don’t you play something I’d like to listen to?" - now that’s rude…
My reply would be…
"You hum it and I’ll smash your face in!!!"

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

I will sometimes ask, "Did you start to play as a child?" I did not, and it shows.

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

There’s nothing inherently rude about the question, though it could conceivably be asked in a tone or context that makes it so. You have to remember: non-musicians often have a very different sense of things musical than we do. If you can get through the simplest of tunes, they may think you’re a virtuoso, and be impressed by however long or short you’ve been playing: "Wow, you’ve been playing fifty years - no wonder you can play Jingle Bells so fast!" or "Wow, you’ve only been playing for six months - and you can already play Jingle Bells that fast!"

It may be a little disconcerting, though, if you’re asked by another musician who has allowed no indication of how they feel about your playing. If some stranger in a session had been ignoring me for an hour, and then turned and asked, "How long have you been playing?", I’m sure I’d be kind of wondering what’s going on in his head.

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62 years of playing piano (on and s’times off for a long time). Not much classical music these days, but a lot more by ear and putting in chords and trying to vary these as best I can.

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

I think the correct answer is "Just long enough to let me get as good as I am now". ;-)

I haven’t been asked that in a while, other than when I’m teaching and people want to know my history with the music, which I usually lead off with anyway…

If someone is using the question as a passive-aggressive insult, screw em! But I tend to think most of the posts here are correct. It’s usually an ice breaker or plain curiosity, nothing more.

It might actually be a more common question with pipers - with the whole "21 years" thing… ;-)

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For a different take:

I think here is a difference if it’s from a punter or from a fellow musician- and then it is different from either a beginner or someone who is well experienced!

If it’s coming from a good quality player, I’d wonder if maybe there’s a tip they might want to impart and ask them: “why?”

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Haha ‘Conical bore’ you’re right. Whenever I get the mandolin out at gigs I get asked several times “What is that instrument?” Or “Is that a ukelele?”. Then I tell them what it is and they go and confer with their friends “See. I told you it wasn’t a banjo” etc.
People also comment that it must be really hard to play because there are eight strings, so I have to explain that there are effectively only four.

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

Hmm. It had never occurred to me to take it in that way, but it also occurs to me that I would only ask someone who was clearly a beginner or early, developing musician that question. I don’t even ask my students, as it’s not an especially useful piece of information.

It is a question I do get asked a lot by the general public as a middle-aged bloke - kind of inevitable for a jobbing GHBer. Though I am at the point now where I can just say "oh, a quarter century or so".

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I’m 4 years ahead of you on piano, Susan, but then learning to play "the vamp"and other styles for ceilidh dancing music is much more recent! New can o’ worms! (and showing my age again!)

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The particular query which inspired me to write this post was from a musician (and not a beginner; he was pretty good) hence me trying to figure out how I felt about it. My initial gut reaction was to be a little bit defensive. It was a question I got a lot when I had not been playing long (and it showed) and assumed the underlying meaning is "oh, that’s why your timing is rough." Now when I get it from musicians, I wonder if it’s (a) small talk in a socially awkward way or (b) people being weirdly patronizing because I am 30s and female; I simply can’t see a 50-year old guy who plays well being asked that, or (c) maybe I still do suck and can’t hear it.

I don’t care when punters ask — they are usually befuddled by the pipes and asking lots of questions about them.

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

Speaking as an older guy - let’s see: … older guy … younger woman … Occam’s razor …………..

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I answer honestly, "I don’t know. A while." You can get away with that when your hair turns grey.

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Be straight with him, Emily. Ask him why he wants to know. That is what I would do if I was in your situation. Granted it would be awkward after it’s past. But hypothetically if a similar situation presents itself
again that is probably what I would do. I understand why in the moment you might feel defensive.
But (if his intentions are good) he will respect your straightforward approach (or he might freakout, momentarily). On the otherhand if he’s being passive-aggressive at least you’ll let him know you’re on to
his game. Which, if I was him, I’d appreciate your directness; though I doubt he will see things the way I do.

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Yeah, I’ve got the question often enough, and asked it before just to make conversation. It never felt patronising or insulting on either side of the equation, although I can imagine with the wrong tone of voice it might smart a bit.
Now I suppose I’d better think over whether I’ve been inadvertently insulting people. Maybe I’ll stick to other small talk questions in the future.

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

I get asked this question regularily. When I answer 40+ I just get a nod ," that explains that"
But really the years playing means little, it could be 40 yrs of once a week ,or 40 yrs of several hours a day……

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In this context it’s just one of the things people fall back on when they don’t have anything interesting to say and are struggle to make convo isnt it?

Like people always ask ‘what do you do?’

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I get that question rarely.

What I get all the time is "how long did it take you to master the pipes?"

I say something like "I’ve been playing since 1974 and I am nowhere near to mastering them!"

Or "you never master the pipes. Learning the pipes is a process. You never get to the point where you’re satisfied with the level of your playing."

Or "’You never ‘master’ them! Usually they master you!"

Re: “How long have you been playing?”

When I was younger and more sensitive I found sessions very good places in which to thicken my rather thin skin. Every assertiveness course should include a session. They attract tactless people who generally mean no harm and on whom you can try out your repartee. The answer to this particular question is usually: "Obviously not long enough!"

Re: “Not long enough!”

After watching my charge get almost run over today I’m convinced that young and sensitive has less to do
with skin thickness and more to do with resilience. He was in shock for a good half hour, about to jump
out of his skin and as much as I tried to hold and comfort him he was shaking like a leaf. I was worried about how the impact may have hurt him but he was incredible. The shock was real and seemed to last forever.
But he got through it in time. Now he is back to himself ~ full of energy, wanting to play, get hugs, be with people… and he is still young and sensitive. If someone asks him how long has he been playing
his answer would probably be, "I love to play! Don’t you?"

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It might be more to the point to ask how long one thinks they may be able to continue playing.

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That could be taken the wrong way too.

I’ve met lots of older players over the years who had obviously "peaked" but, in my opinion, still had much to offer both in terms or repertoire, experience, advice, and much more. I wouldn’t dream of giving them the impression, however unintentional, that it was time to give up.

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YOU say; "1955"
"And it’s only 2230 now…."…..

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I’m rarely asked that question, but my answer is invariably "I’m still learning how."

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It’s just one of those questions that musicians tend to be asked a lot. I’m fairly young (20) so when people ask me how long I’ve been playing fiddle I assume (or rather hope) it’s because they are impressed. It can be annoying sometimes, but I’ve come to accept it as one of those questions that people will ask, along with such gems as "what’s the difference between the violin and the fiddle?" :)

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Any phrase such as "How long have you been playing?" comes down to context, intent, knowing when to read between the lines & connotations.

I just enjoyed a session recently with a followup email asking if we should reconsider playing in public for the foreseeable future.
Ouch!

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I’ve answered "A lot longer than it sounds like." That went over well.

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May I speak frankly?
Self deprecation seems to be rooted in this culture.
Personally I think now is a good time to hear from anyone who may feel intimidated by our seniors’ questions. If sessions are about listening, isn’t this post a subject worthy of hearing out; from all sides?

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@ Johnny Jay. I was thinking more in terms of when you can’t play at all as opposed to shouldn’t play. Personally, I figure that my damaged hands have about 3-4 years left and then I’ll be forced to move on to something requiring less manual dexterity. Fortunately, listening to sessions doesn’t require any more dexterity than lifting a pint without dropping it.

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A running joke with us. We were setting up to play at a club. We were tuning up - two fiddles, mandolin, banjo, guitar, bodhran, whistle. A youngster came over to us and asked: "Do you do any Abba?"

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Sorry, Callison. I hadn’t realised you had personal reasons for asking the question.

AB, another question we’ve been asked after a session "Well lads(and lasses), did you have a good practice?" :-(

Earlswood Bill, what was your response other than "Ahaaa…" ?
:-)