Being great at anything requires a lot of time and practice. If you follow these five steps, you just might increase your odds of becoming a great musician.
Oftentimes, musicians find their skills plateau and ask, “How do I become a better musician?” If you’ve reached some level of competence on your instrument, it may seem OK to become complacent and not actively seek growth. But focusing and improving on known weaknesses is what elevates someone from being a good musician to being 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, and even land you better-paying gigs. Becoming a better musician can seem like a daunting task, but understanding common mistakes made by musicians can help you reach your goals.
1. To become a great musician, you need to practice — a lot
As Malcolm Gladwell famously states in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, 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. No matter if my family was on vacation or if it was Christmas day, I never missed a practice day, and it made me improve as a musician and get to the level of playing I had achieved.
2. Take lessons to increase your music skills
While there are plenty of examples of musicians who are exceptional at playing their instruments and never took lessons, these are the exceptions and there are infinitely more examples of self-taught musicians who never reached their full potential. A skilled music teacher can teach proper technique, prevent 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 your music literacy
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. I’ll admit, while I was rarely given a chart for the various gigs and auditions I participated in — including country legend Barbra Mandrel, 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 another. Second, reading music helped me to transcribe and learn parts faster — I literally charted out entire drum parts note-for-note for different songs. 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, I submit that learning how to read music is fundamental to becoming a great musician.
4. Accept criticism
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes a musician can make is to reject constructive, professional criticism. They avoid people who offer helpful advice and embrace those who kiss ass. Wake up! If you want to reach your full potential and improve as a musician, you have to be completely open to getting critical feedback and acting upon it. Of course, feedback is not always 100 percent accurate, and you have to consider the source, but if you have a dozen people commenting that your vocals are flat and you need singing lessons, there’s a good chance they’re right!
5. Understand 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. You won’t land an audition, tours get canceled, labels will drop you, and promoters will rip you off. It’s all par for the course. If you want to reach your true potential, you’d better find a way to overcome the inevitable obstacles that lie ahead.
The path to becoming a better musician is unpredictable, but understanding the pitfalls and developing good habits (and healthy coping mechanisms) is a great way to progress towards your goal.
Bobby Borg is the author of Music Marketing For The DIY Musician (Second Edition), Business Basics For Musicians (Second Edition), and The Five Star Music Makeover (published by Hal Leonard Books). Get these books at any fine online store in physical or digital format. Learn more at www.bobbyborg.com.
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