7 Ways to be a Better Musician

How to be a better musician? This is the question we are asking ourselves daily if we are truly passionate about our art. I have been working (with varying degrees of success) on my own musicianship for over forty years and what follows is a roundup of some of the things that I have learned. You may have others that you think are equally important (please post them!) but, well, we have to start somewhere.

1. Confidence

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How do we become confident musicians? This was a question I asked myself for most of the 80s. I was generally a mind-numbingly shy person anyway and music wasn’t really the ‘release’ for me that we read about sometimes. “Oh yes, Johnny is painfully shy but when he picks up his instrument something transforms him in to a masterful blond Norse-god.” That wasn’t me. Like most of us, my neuroses were transmitted directly from my brain to my hands.

I was working as a professional musician and was fighting my lack of confidence with excessive bravado but every time I made a mistake on stage, no matter how small, my confidence would fall away and expose the gibbering wreck that I was.

Then, towards the end of the 80s, with me in my mid-twenties, I came across a book that changed the way I approached playing piano and keyboards and that book was
The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green with Tim Gallwey.
The content of the book is far more wide-ranging than just being about confidence and I can heartily recommend it, however, the thing that stayed with me was the idea that you could imagine being someone else while you were performing, imbuing yourself with their confidence rather than your own like an actor acting the part of a great musician. I became variously Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson and Vangelis and sometimes an amalgam of all three. It’s not a magic cure and I still had my ‘moments’ but it became a lot more fun!

2. Practise and Review

When people tell me they practise a lot I always ask them, “Yes but what’s the quality like?” That’s why I rarely get invited to parties. There has been much talk over recent years (well, actually it was 1993!) about Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that to be world class at something takes ten thousand hours of practise. However, this idea has been challenged from many quarters despite seemingly accounting for the Beatles’ success and Mozart’s prodigious output (the former had easy access to instruments coupled with a drive to succeed and the latter had a pushy dad.)

Image curtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image curtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But no. It’s perfectly possible to practise for years and achieve very little as I did in my early teens. I started learning the piano at the age of nine and, when I started university nine years later, I had made about four year’s-worth of progress (mainly due to excessive noodling) and my friend, who started playing at the age of 14, quickly became much more accomplished that me. The key, as I found, is a) to have clear goals (seemingly a no-brainer) and b) to review what you have done. No review, no progress.

Review can take the form of recording or even videoing your practises. I have watched many a practise session back with horror. Did I really speed up in the middle section? Why did I sit like Quasimodo when playing? Why did notes played with my thumbs sound strangely louder than those played with my other fingers? (‘Thumping thumbs’ my piano teacher called them.) None of these things would I have noticed because, in struggling with my practise, I didn’t have the ability to analyse at the same time.

You will possibly have come across that famous video where you the viewer are asked to count the number of passes that a group of basketball players make in one minute. Meanwhile a person in a gorilla costume walks front and centre, beats his chest and walks off. Many people don’t even register that he was there because they are so busy counting.

That’s what I’m talking about.

3. Imagine your musical hero is listening

Sometimes we work and work and finally just say, “what the hell.” In our practise we might struggle with a phrase and finally settle for fudging it (been there, done that.)
Particularly when I’m mixing one of my band’s tracks I’ll get to a point where I think maybe it’s good enough but then a little voice says, “Yeah but what would Tuomas say about it” (Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish, you understand.) And then I think, “What would he say about that bit at 2min:45sec where the vocals momentarily dip behind the guitars? Will he notice?” And in my mind’s eye I see him tutting in Finnish. And I go back to the drawing board because I really don’t want to let Tuomas down or have him laugh at me behind my back with Emppu (oh come on, Emppu Vuorinen obviously!)

Imagining that someone whom you really respect as a musician (or an imaginary reviewer or discerning punter) is listening can really encourage you to up your game.

I should say that this strategy is great for really pushing you in your practise or otherwise non-realtime sessions but probably shouldn’t be used for actual performances unless you thrive on pressure (which, to be clear, I don’t.)

4. Socialize with other musicians

No, I don’t mean go out on the razz and get completely rat-arsed although I’m told it does work for some.

I’m really talking about meeting, talking with, and playing with other musicians, whether it be at a gig, jam session, website or other muso-centric gathering.

 Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Unless you are a member of a band it can be all too easy to become quite insular and inward-looking. The solo instrumentalist or modern composer stuck in front of a computer can very soon lose touch with objectivity, encouragement and feedback.

Back in the 90s I was working on a gig for the BBC. I was trying to emulate a jazz band, playing all the parts myself using computer software. I thought I had nailed it until the producer called to ask why all the soloists sounded the same.

I have always had more fun and learned more in bands than during my work as a composer. I would do more of it but I hate carrying gear in and out of venues. However, one thing you always hear musicians at gigs talking about is the ‘craic’ (pronounced ‘crack’.) This is a wonderful Gaelic word for fun, gossip, entertainment and enjoyable conversation, eg. ‘What’s the craic?’ or, ‘It was a good craic last night.’ Being with other like-minded musos is always a great craic.

Not for nothing did Paul say to the Corinthians, ‘Do not give up the practise of meeting together.’* He was one smart cookie who knew the power of crowds, particularly ones with a common purpose. They support each other, advise each other and reinforce (or challenge) each other’s beliefs.

So go forth and gather for, yea, when two of three or four musicians shall meet together, then shall they curse the names of Bieber and Cowell (to name but two) and that in itself has to be worth six months of therapy.

5. Don’t forget expression (man)

In my youth, or at least early twenties, a drummer friend of mine used to refer to me as a music technician. He meant that, although I could read music quickly and fluently and play it back using multiple limbs at the same time, I didn’t really bring anything to the table in terms of interpretation or ‘feel.’

But how do we do that? Well, we can start by thinking about the stuff that goes hand in hand with the notes like dynamics and tempo. Leonard Bernstein really stamped his mark on many slow classical works by playing them as slowly as possible, pausing to bring out every note. Barber’s Adagio for Strings really does become an adagio but once you’ve heard it there’s no going back and everyone else’s interpretation sounds too fast (imho.)

Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So what about the inherent meaning in the music? How do we work out what the composer was trying to ‘say’? The question should be, does the composer know what he is trying to say and should we be concerned or just take the music on our own personal interpretation. Ralph Vaughan-Williams said of his own second symphony, ‘I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant.’ But what he did mean, we can only infer, and therein lies the mystery of music and a jolly good thing too.

As best practise, let’s just assume that no one is the definitive authority on what anything means, not even the composer, and go out and play stuff how we like. Now that’s expression.

6. But also understand what’s going on under the bonnet

By which I mean that knowledge is power and being able to understand the dots is an enormous advantage both in terms of enhancing our own understanding and communication musically with others. Yes I know about all the ‘greats’ who couldn’t read or write music but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Learning the theory of music can be a really liberating experience for the budding muso and can really shed some serious light on our art as well as make us much more productive and employable. “But I don\’t have time,” is a common cry when what they really mean is, “All those dots and dashes are really beyond me and I don’t think I’ll get it.” Both arguments are of course nonsense if perfectly understandable. Learning music theory can be a rewarding and diverting activity with the right teacher (and, yes, I’m talking about me here) and can have a remarkable effect on our understanding, musicianship and wallets.

7. Perform!

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I used to have a neighbour who had a vintage car. Every Sunday would find him underneath the old girl tuning the engine or fussing round polishing the fender (whatever a fender is.) He used to get a great deal of satisfaction out of this however not once did I ever see him take to the roads in it. What fun to be flying down those English country lanes on a balmy summer’s day with the wind in your hair and the sun on your back in a stylish motor that you have lovingly and proudly restored. Oh the exhilaration!
But it was not to be. As musicians, we can all get absorbed in our practise and sometimes we see the end as being able to master that tricky fingering or that sudden key change. That’s all very worthy but what about the sheer thrill of sharing our music with others? Is that not the whole point of music? If a musician plays a piece of music in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

And now the test!

Why is there an image of Big Ben in this post? Answers below, please.


* Or it could have been I Timothy, I forget.**
** Or possibly II Timothy***
*** Or possibly I’m not really bothered.

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