3 Tips to Fast Track Your Music

I’ve been trying to think of the three most important things that every musician needs to get right in order to really jump-start a career in music, or at the very least, be proficient on their instrument. I’m sure others could come up with very different lists that achieve the same goals. There aren’t really any magical paths, paved in gold, that will get you to musical stardom, but here’s three things that can get you started.

LISTEN TO MUSIC- I’ve had several friends throughout the years that love to talk about music. They know who played bass guitar on certain albums from the 70s, or which bands covered certain songs by other bands, or which jazz standards were played by which iconic trumpet players. They can go on and on about their philosophies on what made certain rhythm sections successful, or exactly where a certain drummer places their snare hits within a measure. I’ll be honest. My eyes glaze over when these friends begin to talk. While I believe strongly in understanding music conceptually, and knowing the history of the genres that you play, it always struck me that the guys that talked the most about music were the ones that played the least. They were the ones that only liked one or two bands and everything else was below them. Listen to everything. You have the ability to research your craft at any time. Turn on your radio, pop in a CD, turn on Pandora.com! Imagine Picasso trying to learn how to paint if he never studied how other artists used red or green, shapes or lines. He didn’t try to paint like those artists, but he certainly observed how they used their craft.  Listen to genres you don’t normally like. How is your instrument used differently than in your favorite genre? A guitar is used differently in metal than it is in flamenco. Figure out why!

LEARN GOOD TECHNIQUE- It’s a matter of pride that we self-taught musicians don’t need to take formal lessons to learn our instruments. Please be wary. Musical instruments and singing can all be hazardous to our bodies if we approach them incorrectly. Learn proper posture and technique. If your wrists are positioned wrong, you could end up with tendinitis or carpal tunnel. If your embouchure is off, you could have jaw problems. If you sing improperly, you could develop nodules on your vocal chords.

PRACTICE- You could’ve guessed this one would be here. No one learns a skill without putting the time in. The greatest musicians have slaved away at scales and etudes for thousands of hours. Does this mean that the only progress you can ever make is with your instrument in your hand? Not necessarily. I used to incorporate what one of my teachers used to call “mental practice.” If I was learning a concerto, I would imagine myself playing the concerto on a stage. If I could perform it mentally, I knew I could perform it physically. Sports players use this type of “visualization,” too. This is not an excuse to refrain from physically working at your instrument technique, but when used as a supplement to practice, mental visualization can really boost your musical progress.

How To Read Music

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Posted in Reading Music by David. 25 Comments

Let Me Re-Phrase It

I find myself using similar analogies with almost every student I ever teach. I don’t spend the same amount of time with every student on every concept, but there are just certain concepts that everyone seems to struggle with.

One of those is musical phrasing. I remember struggling with this myself, and it didn’t really “click” for me until I learned that music is communication. You may be thinking, “what does this have to do with reading music? I’m having enough trouble as it is with the notes!” That’s exactly where my point lies. You have to look beyond the notes to get to the phrase.

Say the phrase: “I love to play music.” Think about how many ways you can change the meaning of that phrase simply by emphasizing a different word each time. Emphasis “I” and it sounds like you’re comparing yourself to someone who doesn’t love to play music. Emphasis “play” and you might be saying that you preferring playing music over listening. Stress “music” and you’re probably telling someone that you love to play music, not sports. Melodically, you can sound whimsical, like a girl who just found love: “I’m gonna marry him!!!” Or maybe a little more depressing, like Charlie Brown looking for some significance in his mediocrity.

Now we get to apply that to music. This is much easier for singers, who have words to use, and to who vocal inflection is much more natural than it is for instrumentalists. Take a simple melody that you know well, or even a major scale. Begin thinking through all the ways you can put inflections onto certain notes to change the “meaning” of the melody you are playing. While there are certain obvious choices, there’s not a dictionary of phrases that tells us exactly how to emphasize exactly which note in order to portray an exact emotion. The way I sound when I read that sentence will sound different than when you say it, even though we can communicate the same idea.

Look back at the phrase again. Now say it with a complete stop between each word: I. Love. To. Play. Music. That’s what it sounds like when you play each note as just that: a note. Everything about the way you play each note (how it starts, how it ends, how it connects to the next, how much or little vibrato you use, the articulations) affects the “sentence” you are trying to communicate.

I had a teacher who made me look through the concerto I was working on and write out a narrative for the piece. It was something like: “A man is walking through the forest. OH NO! A dragon! He runs away. Look, there’s a princess…..” It wasn’t earth-shattering literature, but it did give my mind a way to communicate something with my instrument besides notes and rhythms. You can assign a feeling or narrative to a section of music, or if you’re really ambitious, write lyrics to every note. Whatever you do, communicate! Use the vocabulary you possess at this point in your education, and say something!