5 Tips to Become a Better Musician

After finishing my music studies in College and University, I realized the most valuable skills that I have learned didn’t necessarily have to do with how much I’ve become technically skilled on my instrument.

That sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but I don’t believe being a good musician has only little to do with how fast you can play this or that, or how well you can perform a difficult section, and more to do with how much you can speak the language of music.  Let me share what I’ve learned throughout the years, and hopefully this can help you grow faster as a musician.

1) The quality of your practices is more important than the quantity

I was once listening to the radio, and I heard a piece of music performed by Alain Lefebve.  He’s one of the best pianist here in Quebec, and his title is well deserved as I was completely blown away by his “Arabesque no1” by Debussy.  It is not a secret that he spends countless hours everyday behind his piano, and I remember having that thought:

“I’ll never be as good as him as I’ll never be able to put as much time as he does into practicing…”

But there’s something absolutely unfair about this statement, and let me tell you what it is:  The more you do music, the easier it becomes to play new and harder music faster.  That’s plain logic that you eventually become better at what you do with practice, but the point here is there’s an important distinction to make between you and Alain Lefebve.

There’s a limited amount of information your brain can absorb in a single day, and that’s true for everyone.  There is a point where you maybe would like to pursue, but it seems like you’ve started doing worse than you were 20 minutes ago (Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt).  The more music is new to you, the faster your brain will overload as it might be quite a challenge to get passed this couple of mesures you think are hard.  You might have to stop after an hour or two because you’ve reached that point where your brain just cannot function anymore.

The case of Alain Lefebve is significantly different as he probably does go through these passages 10 times faster than you (and he very likely sight reads them…).  So, if it’s that easy for him to go through music, why is it that he practices that much?  Well, as he is a such famous and talented pianist, he must be solicited A LOT for different concerts.   The amount of music he has to go through is just enormous to the point he has to spend that 12 hours a day playing, but it’s easy enough for him to go through that that he does not tire as fast as you probably do.  I don’t think he ever really spends a lot of working on individual measures, which would require an enormous amount of mental energy.  It doesn’t mean it’s not hard, but it the amount of energy it need for him to go through a lot of music very fast makes it a lot easier for him to play for 12 hours a day without straining and loosing efficiency.

I would never recommend a beginner, or even an intermediate level player to practice 12 hours a day: there’s absolutely nothing to gain from doing that unless you are at a point you need it to get things done in time, and you have enough material to play to cover that amount of time.

Now that you know you don’t need to spend 40 hours per week practicing to become a better musician, how can you make the best out of the maybe… 10 minutes you are ready to spend per day?

I have realized that my own practices were never efficient if I didn’t use certain ingredients:

~ A sheet music to work with

This one is often argued about as not all musicians rely on sheet music to play.  The reason why I recommend using sheets is because you can take notes directly on them as to know how you want to play that part, and  with what fingers you want to use.  There are things you cannot just decide on the spot everytime you pick up your instrument.  There’s always something to write down, something that you might not remember tomorrow and things you wanna have visual cues for.  Always.

~ A pencil & eraser

It’s simple: if my sheet stays blank, I’m not efficient.  I need notes so things make sense to me, so I feel I can play it, so I feel I’ve gone through it.  If I don’t have a pen and an eraser, I might just sight read the entire thing and never actually work the details of the piece.

~ A metronome

I always tell my students that the metronome is the teacher when I’m not there.  It is your best friend in noticing where are the parts you struggle the more with.  It might be rough to get used to working with it, but it sure is worth it as it is the best tool you have to make an honest quality checkup over your work.  One of it’s cool features is also the it makes you slow the heck down, and that’s 90% of the time necessary when you practice seriously.

So, to close the topic, what I would like you to remember is: stop bashing yourself for not practicing enough and start making the best out of the time you actually allow to music instead.  You have much more to gain from being efficient.

2) Learning Music Theory

As a child, you probably remember how an effort it was to start learning letters and eventually combine them to make words and sentences.  It was a difficult exercise, but as the time went by and as you practiced, it became easier and easier, faster and faster.  You began to realize how complex, but yet logical language was.

Music is also a language with its own way of functioning, its own grammar, its own rules.  It makes absolutely no exception to speech, but many musicians tend to neglect the links that exist between notes.  The same way it is possible to read words by decoding single letters, it is also possible to read and understand music by reading individual notes, but would that be logic?

One of my young students recently realized how important it was to know chords, scales, and all the theory-related stuff that I taught him in the past three years.  Every time we would do exercises together, without necessarily protesting, I could see in his eyes that he didn’t quite get the reason why I would ask that.  Recently, this knowledge that made no sense to him at first allowed him to learn and play songs he didn’t think he could learn that fast.

Many musicians believe they can get passed the music theory for various reasons, but the truth is music theory is the actual BEST way of becoming a good musician, faster.  Even if you didn’t study music in college or University, it doesn’t mean you cannot highly benefit from that knowledge too.  It requires effort and consistency, but I assure you that you will highly benefit from it.

PS:  When I started learning music theory, that’s the book that I used:

Elementary Rudiments of Music by Barbara Wharram

There’s also a french version:

Notions Élémentaires de Musique par Barbara Wharram

3) Be creative

Music school is often criticized for working on making you a better performer rather than a better artist, but I’m going to give them a point here: giving place for creativity is not their role.  YOU are the one who has to make place for it.  Being creative and inventive is a responsibility you’re the only one to own as an artist, and no one is going to do it for you.

It’s sometimes easy to loose track of ourselves as we are working toward a goal and there’s still so much we feel are missing before we’re there.  What I think we should always remind ourselves is there’s never a point we’ll ever feel ready enough to be creative, and yet, it’s not a sacred thing reserved only to the best of us.  Creativity is not something that’s ever going to look down on you because you might not be good enough for it.

Being creative will maybe not make you a better player, but it will make you a better musician.   A good musician is not someone that can play something without any mistakes; it is someone who can deal the best with the mistakes they make, and that’s what being creative will teach you.

So don’t ever fear to write your own music, your own melodies and songs and arrangements, it’s just as important as the rest.

4) Record Yourself

In this era of technology, it has now become so simple to record with a good quality for such a small budget.  It’s a great advantage for us musicians to be able to hear ourselves from an outsider’s perspective as it gives us so much insights on our own playing.   For singers specifically, it is such a useful tool as we don’t get to hear ourselves the same way others perceive us.

Here’s a couple of inexpensive setup and tools to help you know a bit more about your options.

PS: In-before, I’m not paid to go about these products, they’re just the ones that I know have been working for me.  I’m not trying to sell anything 😉

~ Your phone

Your phone is probably the cheapest and the most available option at your hands.  The fact that you can also film yourself with it is indeed a great addition as you might notice things you never thought you were doing while playing or singing.  Filming yourself is a great way to bring your performance to the next level.

Despite it’s practicality, your phone does not give you much control over what’ coming in the microphone and it might saturate quite easily.  That means if you’re playing at least at a decent volume, you might find yourself clipping all the time, which isn’t super great.  More than that, as far as I know, phones are not made for sound editing, and microphones not being ears, you might get a sound that isn’t very flattering…

~ Zoom H1

That’s the first microphone I ever bought for myself.  I was in University at the time and I needed something that I could bring almost anywhere with me.  I wanted to be able to record my singing lessons as well as my project.  I loved this microphone so much, and I would use it again even now. (I addressed the case of that microphone slightly in my last article “How to Record a Harp – General Considerations” if you’re interested in knowing more.)

The Zoom H1 is a USB microphone so it also acts as a soundcard.  It’s super easy to record either on an SD card or directly in your DAW -Digital Audio Worksation.  If you’re recording on the SD card directly, there are a couple of options on the back to make sure you get the most possible quality out of a sound that’s not going to be editied (Aka basic compression, level, format and EQ).  It’s absolutely amazing if you’re going to be recording one track at a time, but if you’re planning on needing more inputs (to record more than one single track at a time), it might not be the best choice for your needs.  Although, it is a great starter and stays relatively cheap for it’s quality.

Zoom H1 on Amazon.ca

Zoom H1 accessory pack on Amazon.ca

~ Scarlet 2i2 + NT1A microphone

The scarlet 2i2 is a two inputs audio interface that has pretty decent pre-amps.  I’ve been using that one for a while now along with two NT1A condenser microphones and it has done me quite well.  I don’t want to get much into the technical specifications of these particular pieces of material that I’m using because that’s not the point of this article, but there are couple of very great positives about them, and I rather speak from experience as I know this material.

The Scarlet interface is definitely not the only great interface on the market, but what makes if great on a design perpective is that it’s made of metal rather than plastic.  I feel like I have something that’s gonna last in my hands when I use it.  It has never failed me either, I love it.   As for the NT1A microphones, I just love their clarity and versatility.  They’re just as much of a standard as the famous SM58 for live performance, so you can’t make a wrong decision.

This kind of setup (XLR condenser microphone + external audio interface) will give you all the recording options that you need to even record an entire album on your own.  The downside of it is that it might require a bit more efforts to record yourself than just picking your phone and press play.  It’s also much harder to carry around as you’ll need your laptop, interface and microphone to be able to make it work.

Scarlet 2i2 Audio Interface

Rode NT1A Microphone

5)  Do what scares you, accept challenges & perform on stage

Of course, that sounds like the scariest of all, but it’s also one of the most important.  To become a better musician, you need to get passed that fear of failure, go on a stage, and perform your music.  If you don’t you might just look up to the people who dared to take the risk.  Failing is never as bad as it first seems, and there’s so much to learn about yourself in the process.

As a rapidly made music a profession, I’ve been stuck with a huge pressure for performance, but I always tried to not let it ruin my dream.  Of course, I was not always confident that I could make it, and sometimes, I failed so hard that I thought I would never ever put a foot on stage again (I seriously dare you to do worst than I did).  But these experiences made me stronger, and eventually maybe more confident: did I die from failure?  Absolutely not.  Neither will you.

Playing on stage is an exercise in humility as it rarely happens like we expected it, but as experience sinks in, you learn how to deal with yourself.  I love to tell my students with humor that if they perform badly, it’s not their problem: it’s their audience’s problem, and if they’re not happy, they can always the the heck out of the concert room.  As it is first meant to be a joke, there is some kind of truth behind it.  You don’t perform on stage for anyone else but yourself.  Let it it become the ego-trip that you allow yourself no matter what other might think.

Chances are you’re probably not paid for what you’re doing, therefore you don’t owe your music to anyone but yourself.  Enjoy the experience to it’s fullest and let yourself the right to fail or succeed because you will learn either way, and it’s fine.

Musicians of all level and ages, I would like to know what’s the most precious thing you’ve learned throughout your journey.  Let me know in the comment section down below.

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