Things I find important to know about music
Health: physical and mental. Always take care of yourself. If you’re not good…the music isn’t going to be good. Sure, we all know about the tormented artist but let’s allow that to be a thing of the past. Let’s be physically healthy so that we have the ability to play music our entire lives. Let’s be mentally healthy for the same reason. Music is a form of therapy for so many people; musicians and listeners. At my best and worst, music has always been there. However, if the song isn’t doing it for you, get the help you need.
Quality Gear: Get the best instrument you can afford but more importantly get the best mouthpiece, drum sticks, strings, etc. The object that creates the sound is the most important part of your instrument. This is why you want to study with a great teacher; they know what works and they can help you select the best for you. Also have a tuner, metronome, and something to record yourself on; you need these to keep yourself honest. If you can play in-tune, in-time, and you know what you sound like, you’re going to grow as a musician.
Money: be smart with it. Don’t spend all of your money on gear; you’ll need it to eat and travel. You’ll need it to avoid stress. Maybe you need to reevaluate what’s important? Maybe there’s a better way to save and spend money? Take the time to figure it out. Having or not having money can ruin you. Be smart about it.
Tone. It’s all about tone. It’s directly connected to being in-tune. It’s also connected with style, dynamics and articulation. If you don’t sound good, why would someone listen to you? Think about the music you enjoy listening to…does it sound good? Really…ask yourself that question? Tone can mean many different things depending on the style of music but in every style of music, the celebrated artists have had one thing in common: great tone.
Listening. If you don’t know what you can sound like, how will you know? Listening should include professionals playing your instrument, songs that inspire you, and music you’re working on. The best way to listen: a live performance. Yes, recordings are great…live-streams are convenient but being in a room with the musicians playing the music is still the best way to experience it. With the pandemic the past two years, it hasn’t been safe to be out in public. When it’s safe in your community, go out and hear some music.
Playing melodies: The melody is how we identify a song, therefore; it’s important. Regardless of your instrument, play a lot of melodies. Read them, play them by ear, but most importantly, play them. If you’re wanting to be a better composer or improviser; learn the melodies to great songs. They’ll teach you what a melody is and isn’t. Like all great design and storytelling, a melody has a shape, a form, a beginning and end, a high point and low point. Scales and chords are your hardware store, a melody is your house.
Rhythmic Accuracy: Rhythms organize sound and silence. Know how to play them and read them. This could also be called Rhythmic Independence. My students will sometimes say to me: “but I can play it when the band is playing…”. That’s how I know they’re not accurate yet or that they haven’t gained the independence to play it alone. Sometimes what makes a song challenging is the uniqueness of the individual parts. Here’s another way to say it: the right note at the wrong time is still wrong. Rhythm is also directly connected to style; so add that to your list. And the best way to learn it: listen to the style of music you’re trying to learn.
Memorize and internalize. The music that I’ve committed to memory, I play the best. I don’t really know why but I don’t need to either. My heroes play from memory. Plus it’s nice to play a song without having to go find the sheet music…or a music stand.
Have fun. If you’re not having fun, ask yourself why you’re doing it. It’s always good to reevaluate yourself and your goals. Are you playing music for yourself or someone else? Are you playing music that you enjoy playing? Learning isn’t always fun but the feeling of accomplishment is. I was given some advice once by Chas Baker, my college jazz professor. Chas said: “There’s three reasons to take a gig: good music, good money, or good friends. If you have two, take it.” I’ve broken that rule twice since 1996. I didn’t learn my lesson the first time, so I had to do it again; lesson learned. Here’s the other thing to keep in mind: we use the word “play” to describe what we do. Do you have fun when you play?
Play music with your friends…or make friends playing music. Music naturally brings people together. It’s where ideas come to life. Interacting with other people helps you learn where you are in your development. Start a band. Play music you like. Write songs. Learn songs. Laugh. Travel. Enjoy each other’s company.
Allow yourself to learn. You’ll always make mistakes but that’s part of the process. Have patience. As we learn, we compare ourselves to others; that’s normal. But realize that you don’t always have to. Stay in your lane and remind yourself why you started.