becoming a great musician

Five mistakes keeping you from becoming a great musician

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.

1. Failure to 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. Failure to take lessons

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. Failure to learn to read music

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. Failure to accept criticism

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. Failure to understand the realities of the 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.


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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34 thoughts on “Five mistakes keeping you from becoming a great musician

  1. All good advice from Bobby, and some pretty good comments by readers. I have a few years of playing and a fair number of gigs under my belt and feel qualified to make a couple of comments of my own. No rule or even good advice is 100%. All competitors and listeners have an opinion and will consider your work somewhere between great and terrible. Sorting out what you should take to heart and what you should ignore is often very difficult. Remember all the positive things that have happened to you, when something bad occurs. Finally, take note that there are a lot of very successful musical acts, both performers and songwriters, that aren’t very good at either, but they have managed to strike a chord (pun intended) with an audience who likes what they hear. Sometimes that’s all success is. Pardon my grammar.

  2. Wow – lots of solid advice from the author and from all the readers. I’ve had successes in life and I’m still a young guy (50) with the chance to have plenti more. The music business is new for me (under 8yrs) but I’m seeing the same elements apply in this field as other occupations and businesses. The comment by Ed (not me) on March 10th,2015 summed up everything nicely…. “There are no shortcuts.”

    Here is my 2 cents: when you read or hear advice from a person trying to help, then figure out how to pull something from the advice that does apply to you. If the advice was passed on with ill-will, then use it as an example of what not to do.

    Thanks Bobby for the advice and positive responses you gave everyone.

  3. ONE MORE POINT BY THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR: Thanks for all the kind words guys. Obviously you get it. But for all the rest you don’t, perhaps the next tip is of note……

    6. ALWAYS FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE and STRIVE TO TAKE-away the good from every situation. Life is too short to spend it looking for THE FLAW IN THE FLOWER. And If that’s too a difficult a concept for you to grasp, I suggest you Write your own articleS just the way you want them and submit them to Disc Makers. Seriously! I encourage you. If you don’t like the way things are being done, then roll up your sleeves and change the world my brothers. Peace and chill….LOL…..

  4. ONE MORE POINT BY THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR: Thanks for all the kind words guys. Obviously you get it. But for all the test, perhaps the next tip is of note……

    6. ALWAYS FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE and STRIVE TO TAKE-away the good from every situation. Life is too short to spend it looking for THE FLAW IN THE FLOWER. And If that’s too a difficult a concept for you to grasp, I suggest you Write your own articleS just the way you want them and submit them to Disc Makers. Seriously! I encourage you. If you don’t like the way things are being done, then roll up your sleeves and change the world my brothers. Peace and chill….LOL…..

  5. Ps..after going back to check..really its about 40/60 negative to positive cats out there. I wish I ran into more of the positive cats that commented than the many negative ones here in NY who I’ve played with over the years. I did play with some positive great musicians who I’m still friends with and some who are nowhere to be found…usually the negative ones. Keep your heads up those that are still going for it and doing all it takes. Stay persistent and hopefully you’ll keep that fire burning.

  6. I’m not gonna comment on the article as I think Bobby stated everything well and well meaning. I don’t know if anyone will ever see this as this was published quite awhile ago but either way, after reading all the comments, I think it’s pretty sad how quick supposed musicians are so quick to jump down another musicians throat and only point out the negative aspects of a well meaning successful musicians’ advice. Holy crap some of you guys…your heads are filled with so much self righteous egotistical bullshit. How about just taking to heart some good advice instead of running to point out every supposed flaw in the authors advice. You negative guys who had nothing meaningful to add..you’re the ones with the egos who refuse to listen to anyone but yourselves. I know you never will but damn, learn how to take some constructive criticism. Learn how to take some thoughtful advice. And especially learn how to listen to other musicians. This is towards all the negative reviewers which are plenty. You are all the guys that no one wants to play with cause no one can tell you anything. Unfortunately, I ran into and played with so many guys just like you all who are so quick to judge without truly putting your heart and soul into your craft along with truly contributing anything of value to a bandmates ideas, songs, and goals. NYC is ripe with great musicians but unfortunately so many as talented as they are, just have no clue what it takes to really go for it and make a successful music career. And that includes not just being a great musician but also being a great person who will do all it takes to make their band a success. Nowadays, you must be your own PR agent, manager, marketer, and do all thats possible on the business side of things if you wanna get anywhere. So few really understand that or are willing to selflessly do that. Its all out there for the taking but how many musicians will truly do all it takes and especially…stay humble!!! Very very few! I could keep going but I don’t wanna keep harping on the negative. Just learn to listen and stay humble. Be positive and not some all knowing egotistical jerk. And learn to work With people not against them. Take all available advice and use what works for you and don’t dismiss a well intentioned person who just wants to help. Good luck. Peace

    1. Pretty much all us musicians come from dysfunctional families of origin. That explains ” I think it’s pretty sad how quick supposed musicians are so quick to jump down another musicians throat and only point out the negative aspects of a well meaning successful musicians’ advice. Holy crap some of you guys…your heads are filled with so much self righteous egotistical bullshit.” Unhappy people with low self=respect are pretty miserable to be around. Most of them, including me, could benefit greatly from one or more 12-step recovery programs.

  7. Commenting late (just read the article).. I agree will all the points of the original poster. 10,000 hours, 40,000, 5,000 it depends on what the musician seeks to achieve. Clearly the more you practice and master the instrument, the more you listen and dissect all genres of music – the better prepared for whatever opportunity comes your way. Lessons – it is too easy to learn bad habits that compromise your ability to reach a higher level and too easy to accept our limitation – the right teacher can identify weak technique and challenge – something a self-made musician may not be able to achieve. Reading – while I’ve only encountered 2 occasions where I had to read (one “big band” doing “society gigs” and one recording session for a low budget film) and I’ll admit to being a weak reader – I have to agree, as a freelance drummer – being able to read charts, etc. helped many times when I had to learn 50 songs in a couple of days for a fill in tour, etc. After gigging for close to 50 years, I encountered musicians every skill level – and a whole range of mental and/or chemical imbalance – but the people I most respected and most enjoyed working with had a combination of skill (form hours of practice and gigs) and technique (from hours of lessons/study.

  8. I’ve been a musician for nearly 20 years and have practiced my butt off. I’ve seen less experienced or musicians at my level surpass my speed/accuracy. Sometimes I think that they’re on some kind musician drug or something. I’m starting to believe that some people naturally have very good coordination ability while some of us have to deal with having average abilities. I should just quit this musician thing. Feels like crap when you’ve been playing for years, and still struggling.

  9. The points made on some comments here fail to notice the phrase or keywords – better, faster… I could add proficient.

    Parts of this article is not meant to be taken too literally, but it have. I think any aspiring musicians should at least make an attempt to practice and learn other skills as much as possible.

  10. Bobby! Thanks for an encouraging and well-rounded article. The value of practice, improvement, improvisation and the ability to follow are all incredible and it sounds like you’ve got a grip on each of those things.
    Soli Deo Gloria!
    aj

  11. I think I agree with most commenters here that the article is spot on but fails to make one very important point. Follow all five points if you plan to be a professional session musician. If you want to be an original singer- songwriter or popular genre band/musician, it’s much less straight forward.

    The amount of practice and study that is right for you will be a mysterious brew. There is no process you can follow.
    Take criticism, absolutely! Honesty is your best ally. Do your best to understand the business but GET HELP!
    And I would add one major thing…LISTEN. If you want to apply the 10,000 hours thing, apply it to listening. Fill your head with music, as much as you can, and it will work its way into what you do as a musician, in a good and “uniquely you” way.

      1. Not only listen to music in general (as in live and recorded) but listen to the musicians you are playing with. I have known any number of people who could play blistering solos, rock your world, and otherwise display virtuosity who absolutely failed to listen to the song and the other people playing it. And thus ot only came off looking like arrogant arses, but also ruined that particular moment for everyone else in hearing distance. This is not only guitarists- the bass player who “needs” a 5 or 6 string bass, the trumpet or sax player who believes that the singer is only getting in the way of their solo time (and blows accordingy), the drummer who has more fills than Philly Joe Jones (on an acoustic down tempo number) the piano player who decides that s/he is an avant garde genius… I could go on, but have not played with so many oboe players, for example (and am thus not aware of their particular vices).

        As for the original article, I do at least somewhat agree, albeit with reservations.

        Oh yes, and maybe another caveat: be careful with the substances. You don’t always sound as good to other people who are not on your particular “cocktail” as you sound within to yourself within your own skin…

        Yes, there are many musicians who could play with a headful of pills, powders and booze. But perhaps not as well as they might have without. My rule is generally to have a SMALL drink (or toke or whatever) before but save the heavy hitting for after the instruments are safely packed away.

  12. At 15 I was playing drums in a group, then Jazz, didn’t read music. At twenty I took music lessons to learn song construction. None of the groups I then played with read music, the guitarists said we just use block chord symbols. Anyone can hit a drum but it was my obsession to learn ALL about drums that made me practise and get good, eventually becoming a teacher. No body taught me, I listened to the greats and found out how to do what they were doing. Practise Practise Practise
    We all do things wrong at sometime so do listen to criticism. Especially from your enemies. Jealousy mixed with truth. That you can build on.

    Roger Bourne Songstream Music Publishing.

  13. these are all super-biased opinions,and coming from a drummer no less!(the last person in a band you’dexpect to read music or perform using a chart)

    failure to practice:just keeping in contact with your instrument is fine,no need to melt your skin off practising rudiments or guitar licks,simple warmups should keep you in shape,no need to become antisocial so you’ll be the best of the best

    failure to take lessons:ever considered the poor families that can’t afford to send their children to a music teacher?youtube is the way to go,combined with some critical evaluation if the videos you are practising to really serve your musical needs or is bloated science

    failure to learn to read musicthere have been jazz greats that couldn;t write their name down if you asked them to,let alone compose music and write a chart,so again,it’s irrelevant

    failure to take criticism:another understatement,the budding musician can cope with both kiss ass AND kick ass reviews and opinions about his/her playing,the experienceed player knows which is which

    failure to understand the realities of the business:this is so biased that bias saw it and started to run!nowadays with social networks and selfpromotion,you can achieve in a matter of months 300% more than a record label would in 4 years

    alternative name for the article:how to be an irrelevant musician on today’s music business

    1. COME ON THANO, BOO HOO DUDE. LOL. This article is supposed to get you fired up and motivated to the point where you’re leaving us that link to your music so we can all check it out and congratulate you. Please man, tell us your name and leave us a link to your music. I’ll shout it out to all my music industry peeps and maybe we can get your career moving ahead a little more than where it is right now. Try to see the good side of things bro.

  14. I disagree about learning to read music. If you want to play in an orchestra, then it’s required, but I know of very few rock or metal or especially blues musicians that know how to read notes.

    1. Joblin, I want to be sure you understood the point: It’s not just about the reading, it’s about….

      First, by understanding what I was playing, I played everything better, I understood where each note fell in relation to each other. Second, it helped me to transcribe and learn parts faster, I literally 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.

      Read more: Five Mistakes Keeping You From Becoming a Great Musician https://blog.discmakers.com/2015/02/five-mistakes-to-avoid-in-becoming-a-great-musician/#ixzz3UG5sbulq

    2. Joblin, of course you can become successful without reading music, but reading music has many benefits that you might consider. Check out point 3 carefully. Cheers my friend.

  15. What concerns me as a performing musician is that one can do all of the above and still struggle.
    Personally, I don’t want to be just a great musician. I want to be really exceptional — a truly remarkable performer and entertainer, but what does that mean?

    Normally, I prefer “doing” to reading. Yet, there are some books I have found useful. One of these is Stage Performance by Livingston Taylor. It’s a short book (135 pages), so it can be read in just a couple of sittings. It contains plenty of wisdom from a jobbing musician who, while they may not be a household name (at least not in the United Kingdom), has found personal fulfilment in performing and entertaining to the very best of his ability.

  16. The amount of practice required to master a given skill varies extremely. Even the determination of what constitutes mastery is variable. Does one master the piano when one can improve jazz? Play classical? From memory? From a chart? Of what degree of complexity? With what percentage of errors? With what emotional fluency?

    Thus, the “10,000 hours” number is arbitrary and misleading. It could be far less. It could be far more. One might squander 10,000 hours without progress, rehearing already mastered skills, for example.

    Here’s a debunking of that number:
    http://www.businessinsider.com/new-study-destroys-malcolm-gladwells-10000-rule-2014-7

    Certainly for certain well-defined skill sets a discipline of practice is required for most (if not for the naturally gifted), but the nature and amount of that practice requirement is completely variable.

    1. Serge, I love ya man! 9,000 hours, 11,000, 4,000……the point is that, practice and repetition helps to learn some skills that can help you pay the bills. That’s really the point here my brother. I went to Berklee and saw Dream Theater go from nothing to something——they practiced their asses off (for them, it was probably more like 50,000 hours). Thanks for your comments. I know what you are saying, but get fired up my man!

  17. 10,000 hours – yes! Practice? Yes. Lessons? Depends on the individual. More importantly, it depends on the teacher/student combination. Some people are lousy teachers, some terrific, same goes with students. Reading music? That again depends on the individual. Some people have the natural ability to hear and anticipate chords, notes, progressions, styles, etc., especially within your genre. I play Bluegrass, don’t read music, never learned anything from a teacher until yesterday when I found a good one after being a performer for 48 years. Most of the musicians I know (and most of them are excellent) don’t read music and have no desire to learn. Being adhered to the printed note just holds some people back and prevents improvisation.

    1. Wolf, thanks for your comments. Just trying to get you guys all fired up to be the best that you can be, in whatever way that best is meaningful to you. That’s all! Cheers. www,bobbyborg.com

      1. I’d like to consider myself a fair musician after 50 years, and a pretty good teacher after 10- I have NEVER run into anyone whose musical endeavor was damaged by learning to read (and I’ll be the first to admit my sight-reading chops are terrible, but I work on them), especially NOT in learning and developing improvisation, analysis, or working out parts and complete arrangements. All 5 of your listed failures, Bobby, are (one or more) spot on in any of the poor students I’ve encountered and the number of instances of those who think themselves great by virtue of a little talent versus those who actually are (and some actually DO recognize their ability (and weaknesses) with clarity, mostly after years or decades of hard work) is sickeningly high, but Sturgeon’s Law applies with a vengeance in the performing arts. I’d much rather sit in and try to play with strangers completely out of my comfort zone (talk about a listening exercise!) than be consistent to some genre, although that may pay the bills…and a smattering of being able to read helps immeasurably there.
        Probably the deepest value in learning to read (and hopefully notate a bit), though, is the broadening of skill at the neural level. Kudos on such a clear presentation without being as pedantic as I get.

  18. Great advice; 10,000 hours was about the point for me where I could start to feel really comfortable and can get on with learning music faster and working on fine nuances.
    There really are no shortcuts.

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