The Student News Site of Middle College High School @ Santa Ana College

The Spellbinder

The Student News Site of Middle College High School @ Santa Ana College

The Spellbinder

The Student News Site of Middle College High School @ Santa Ana College

The Spellbinder

Stories of self-taught student musicians at MCHS

Abigail Vu
Bethany Vu finds inspiration in unconventional rhythms and the freedom to explore individual creativity.

In a world where musical education often follows a structured path, there is a group of individuals who are charting their own course. Meet the self-taught student musicians who’ve taken it upon themselves to master an instrument and the art of music.

In a quiet corner of Middle College High School, there are two extraordinary students whose musical journeys are far from conventional. Bethany Vu, a junior and a member of the Musicians Unite club and Belen Estrada, a sophomore, are self-taught musicians whose stories are as unique as the melodies they play.

Bethany’s Journey: Finding comfort in music

Junior Bethany Vu is a self-taught guitarist who embarked on her musical journey during the challenging days of the COVID-19 pandemic. She is inspired by the band Polyphia and their song “GOAT,”which introduced her to a genre of music that diverged from the mainstream. Vu has been playing the guitar for three years; it is the only instrument she’s taught herself to play. Her path into music initially followed a more traditional trajectory, with piano and violin lessons that resonate with the “typically Asian-American experience with music,” she said.

However, it was the guitar that sparked her passion and her decision to teach herself to play.

“I just felt like picking up my Dad’s old guitar one day,” Vu said.

Vu’s approach to learning is characterized by tablature—a form of musical notation that provides a straightforward way to learn how to play songs—and her go-to resource, which provides a treasure trove of chords and tabs.

Her self-teaching journey, while fulfilling, has not been without its challenges. She acknowledges learning gaps in her playing.

“I had to relearn the fretboard and chords because I never mastered the fundamental basics. I only fixed minor issues like finger placement and position, but there are so many other things I just ignore,” Vu said.

Timing has been another hurdle, one she has adapted to by switching to faster-paced songs and focusing on improvising.

“I struggle with timing a lot, and I get absolutely bashed for that. I was not really into developing it, so I just switched genres to more fast-paced songs. Over time, I just kind of correct myself and prefer to improvise things,” Vu said.

Her journey also included a personal milestone when as a child, she felt fearful towards guitars but eventually developed a profound comfort in holding one. This newfound comfort signaled a significant breakthrough, allowing her to connect with her instrument on a soul-deep level.

Vu’s self-taught approach to music has afforded her the freedom to explore her own style and creativity. She can improvise songs when she hears them and feels a deep sense of focus when immersed in music, describing it as “the zone” where nothing matters except the moment. It has provided her with a unique perspective, mental well-being and the opportunity to discover innovative bands that inspire her.

When asked about any advice she had to offer, she advised aspiring musicians to just do it and emphasizes that it’s never too late to pick up an instrument. She encourages students to prioritize happiness, practice diligently, avoid comparison and find their own musical genre.

Her message is clear: “Do what makes you happy; your journey is something that’s special to you,” Vu said.

Belen’s Journey: From choir to self-taught multi-instrumentalist

Belen Estrada serenades her friends in the school lounge with a song,”La Llorona,” which she recently learned on the guitar. (Fatima Carrera)

Sophomore Belen Estrada embarked on her musical journey at a young age. She started singing in a choir at the age of seven and began learning her first instrument, the violin, at nine-years-old. Her pursuit of music has led her to learn four instruments, with two of them being self-taught.

Her inspiration for teaching herself came from a desire to challenge herself and learn something new independently. One of her most beloved self-taught instruments is the piano, a journey she undertook using her knowledge of music theory—the study of how music works and the principles that guide the creation and performance of music—and online resources such as YouTube.

Teaching herself was not without its obstacles; Vu would at times get stuck on certain chords. She navigated these challenges by seeking guidance from her music teacher or conducting online research.

A memorable breakthrough came when she was learning to play the double bass, and she was able to grasp the notes on a music sheet quickly.

“When I was learning how to play the double bass my music teacher gave me a sheet of music, and I was able to get the notes fairly quickly. This made me feel great because all that hard work was paying off,” Estrada said.

Estrada’s initiative approach has given her the freedom to explore her musical style and creativity. A song that has greatly influenced her style is a bolero—a genre of slow-tempo Latin music characterized by romantic lyrics and a distinct rhythm—from 1959, “Sabor a Mí.” She aspires to one day engage in musical improvisation, a skill she considers highly appealing.

Her advice for other students interested in playing, much like Vu’s, is quite straightforward.

“Do it! It is really fun because it lets your creativity run free. Jamming to your favorite songs is also a bonus, really have fun with it. Start by doing some research about your instrument and looking at what you will need,” Estrada said.

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About the Contributor
Fatima Carrera
Fatima Carrera, Feature Editor
I love reading, baking for my friends, and scented candles.