There’s a noticeable difference in skill level between the average amateur musician and the average professional. That’s obvious to even the casual listener. But if you’re an aspiring musician, the trouble is getting from here to there – and I’ve seen a lot of musicians waste a great deal of time heading down a path that seems correct: focusing only on technical skills.
Technical skills are important. The average professional musician will make fewer mistakes than the average amateur. The pro will be able to handle more difficult fingerings, play faster, and so on. The pro puts a lot more time into practice and performance rehearsal. These differences are obvious.
This leads the average aspiring musician to focus exclusively on their practice time. Putting in more time (and putting more into your time in terms of focus, practice organization, etc.) will probably make you a better technician. You might even become so good that you can make a living at playing. But that won’t necessarily make you a better musician.
Musicianship is the big picture – the total package, the creation of the entire musical experience. Technical ability is the toolbox we use for creating our big picture. The brush strokes of a sign painter might be just as precise as those of Rembrandt… but that technical ability won’t help the sign painter become a great artist without adding a few extra ingredients. Someone who has the big picture can be a great artist without having extreme technical ability – in the art world, a parallel might be Grandma Moses or Jackson Pollack. Their works don’t show the technical ability of many others, but that didn’t keep their art from rising above the pack.
I’m going to look at three and a half of the non-technical skills that great musical artists develop. Maybe you can use these musings as a road map for your own advancement.
1. Great musicians listen deeply.
There’s a lot going on in music. There’s the timing, the choice of notes, the relationship of pitches in a melody to each other, the interaction of pitches to create harmony, and the distribution of that harmony across instruments. There are variations in dynamics and phrasing that make each interpretation of a song slightly different from all the others – even if they’re played by the same group. The result is many layers of complexity, even in simple music.
When you’re listening to music, strive to get the most out of it that you can. When you’re practicing, keep those ears working: listen closely to the sounds you’re making, and how they relate to the techniques you’re using. When you’re playing with others, listen to what they’re doing, and how you’re relating to them. Eventually, you want to develop what pros call “big ears”, the ability to take in and process the big picture as it happens.
2. Great musicians categorize sounds in their minds.
Every rhythm, every scale, every interval, chord voicing, arrangement etc. is different. But they’re made up of the same stuff: sounds happening in time. Great musicians define sound in terms they can use.
For some that means understanding traditional music theory. For others it might be focusing on the “˜color’ they get when tones are distributed in a different way. But no matter how they go about it, great musicians organize their mental toolbox of sounds.
When you hear something that you like, listen to it over and over. Break it down: what makes it different from other things you’ve heard? What makes it similar? Can you apply the difference to another melody, or chord progression?
Great music and great performances break down into the combination of small things that aren’t remarkable in themselves. Becoming a musician isn’t just about adding more tools to your technical toolbox – it’s about taking the tools you already own and understanding exactly what you can do with them.
3. Great musicians use time.
Music is sound occurring as time unfolds. Time is the scaffolding on which we hang everything musical. We can organize everything neatly on that scaffold – with every sound happening in precise, regular time – or we can move those sounds forward or back against the beat.
The beat is the pulse of music. But the beat is not the music. We can divide up beats in different ways, we can play ahead of (or behind) the pulse of a tune. Great musicians “˜feel the beat’ and exploit the relationship between the pulse and what they do over it.
Any rhythm you can play on a guitar has three basic parts: the attack (when the sound begins), the duration (how long it lasts), and what happens in between. Silence is a huge part of rhythm. Listen deeply to the rhythms you hear, both in music and in everyday life, and categorize them in a way that works for you. Sharpen your sense of musical pulse at every opportunity – there is no substitute for an internal sense of rhythm.
3.5. Many great musicians know where they came from musically.
You’ll hear most musicians talk about their “influences.” For some, it’s just a laundry list of artists they like to listen to. And yes, those artists will influence your playing – because they shape the sound you hear inside your head… and great musicians take that sound in their head and put it out through their instrument, duplicating their vision as closely as possible.
But most of the great musicians I’ve known listen widely as well as deeply. I know a brilliant sax player who spends a lot of time listening to Hendrix. I know a punk guitarist who listens to a lot of Stravinsky. And I know classical musicians who spend time with bluegrass – and vice versa.
Listening widely as well as deeply, and categorizing the sounds they hear, allows these musicians to be deliberately influenced by other sources. A great example would be Paul Simon being influenced by African music (especially Mbaqanga) on the album “Graceland.” These musicians continually seek out and experiment with the unfamiliar, keeping what works for them and discarding the rest.
I hope you’ll find these observations useful in your own development as a musician.
Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academyin Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 13 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.