Being great at anything requires a lot of time and practice. But if you address these five common mistakes musicians make, you just might increase your odds for becoming a great musician.
Updated February 2019.
Oftentimes, musicians find their skills plateau and ask “How do I become a better musician?” It may seem ok to become complacent and not actively seek growth, but focusing and improving on known weaknesses often separates someone becoming a good from a great musician. It’s easy to look at something that may be challenging and write it off as a passé skill, such as improving sheet music literacy; however, learning something you’re uncomfortable with can bolster songwriting, open up the ability to play with a wider breadth of musicians, or even land you better paying gigs. Becoming a better musician can definitely seem like a daunting task, but understanding common mistakes made by musicians can help you reach your goals.
1. Every great musician started somewhere: practice
As Malcolm Gladwell eloquently states in his book The Outliers, anyone wanting to be good at their craft must put in their 10,000 hours of practice. While this is a no-brainer for most people, you’d be surprised at the number of musicians who do not adhere to a regular practice schedule each day as if their life depended on it. No matter if my family was on vacation or if it was Christmas day, I never missed a practice day. I literally practiced up to 18 hours a day at one point, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why I was able to improve as a musician and get to the level of playing that I had achieved.
2. Take lessons if your music skills aren’t up to snuff
While there are many examples of musicians who are exceptional at playing their instruments who never had a teacher, these are the exceptions and there are infinitely more examples of musicians who are self-taught and never reached their full potential. A skilled music teacher can teach proper technique, prevent young musicians from forming bad habits, train a player to perform well in real-world situations, and so much more. Drummer Kenwood Dennard, who played with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sting, helped me to identify my musical strengths and excel at them. Kenwood even served as a mentor and inspired me to push forward when I was feeling low. Even better, he took me to jam sessions and introduced me to a variety of different pro musicians in New York City. Needless to say, studying with him was priceless.
3. Improve music literacy. Read. Read. Read.
One of the things I often hear musicians question is whether or not reading music is a valuable skill to have in today’s music marketplace. While I’ll admit that I was rarely given a chart for the various gigs and auditions I participated in — including country legend Barbra Mandrel, pop icon Cher, and The Storm (which featured members of Journey) — knowing how to read music was a huge asset for me.
First, by understanding what I was playing, I played everything better — I understood where each note fell in relation to each other. Second, reading music helped me to transcribe and learn parts faster, I lierally charted out entire drum parts note for note to each song. And finally, it gave me the ability to communicate as a musician, I understood what a musical director meant when he said “follow the quarter note triplet kick with the bass.” In short, learning how to read music is fundamental to becoming a great musician.
4. Accept criticism as a growing musician
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes a musician can make is to reject constructive, professional criticism. They curse out those who offer helpful advice and embrace those who basically kiss ass. They roam the face of the earth as if they’ve already conquered music while at the same time they have next to zero skills and credentials. Wake up! If you want to reach your full potential and improve as a musician, you have to be completely open to getting feedback and acting upon it. Surely feedback is not always one hundred percent accurate, but if you have 99 people commenting that your vocals are flat and you need singing lessons, then there is a good chance they’re right!
5. Understand the climate of the music business
A huge mistake that keeps musicians from becoming great is their failure to understand what the life of a musician is really all about. Thus, at the first sign of rejection, at the first sign of struggle, or at the first sign of not getting precisely what they want, they bail ship and another one bites the dust. Make no mistake, the music business is not for the thin skinned. Tours get canceled, labels will drop you, and promoters will rip you off. It’s all par for the course. If you really want to reach your true potential as a musician, you’d better find a way to overcome the inevitable obstacles that lie ahead.
The path to becoming a better musician is an unpredictable journey, but understanding both pitfalls and good habits is a great way to navigate towards your goal. If you found these five tips to become a better musician helpful, check out this article that expands on the necessity of deliberate practice.
Bobby Borg is the author of Music Marketing For The DIY Musician, Business Basics For Musicians, and The Five Star Music Makeover (all published by Hal Leonard Books). Get these books at any fine online store in both physical or digital format. Contact Bobby at www.bobbyborg.com.
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