I’d like to use my blog to not only tell you about myself and what I do, but also to educate other musicians. I’ve been a music mentor for about seven years, working with singers and instrumentalists of all ages and levels of experience. And I’ve been a performing musician for over twenty years, believe it or not. I can simplify the skills needed to be a musician down into four categories: listening skills, effective practice skills, learning general music terms, and self-promotion.
To be a musician, you’ll need to first develop good listening skills. A significant part of learning to play music is by listening to performances of other musicians, whether it be live or recorded, and replicating what they did. In fact, I would say there’s a lot of musicians performing in venues and events that don’t know how to read traditional noted music. A lot of students come to me with the worry that they can’t sing because they can’t read music. It’s not necessary in most scenarios, until you start working in large group ensembles like musical theatre productions, or with an orchestra.
Learning songs aurally, through listening, is a skill you can develop. Let’s say you have chosen a song you want to learn to sing at karaoke next week. Before trying to sing along with the recording, I would suggest listening to the song on repeat many times. Throughout the day, put it on as you’re driving, as you’re doing the dishes, when you go to the gym. Your mind will remember the melody and lyrics better when you have listened to it multiple times. As you listen, pay attention to the movement of the melody, as it goes up and down in pitch, and the rhythm, or timing, of the melody. My trumpet teacher and friend, John Hoffman, once told me that when learning a melody, first get the rhythm placement right, then learning the pitch of the melody will follow a lot easier. And always have a copy of the lyrics in front of you when learning the song. I find it helps when you hand write the lyrics, the mind seems to remember better when you have written it yourself.
Once you are feeling more confident with the melody and lyrics of the song, I’d suggest listening to the dynamics and emotional connection of the performance you have chosen. There is a huge difference in singing a song technically correct, and when you are emotionally connected. Listen to the performer putting emphasis on particular words, or when he or she expresses an emotion like sadness, longing, anger, or love. Also pay attention to the lyric content, and how the performer has expressed the lyrical ideas through emotional connection. When you go back to practicing the song, you can really be in touch with the emotional ideas the song is communicating. The singer has the unique responsibility to not only sing the melody, but also use words to communicate emotions and lyrical ideas. No other instrument has the potential to do this.
Effective Practice Skills
You’ve probably heard it said, “practice makes perfect”. I don’t know about being perfect, but it definitely does improve your performance skills a lot more when you practice effectively. What is the difference between practicing and practicing effectively you ask. Well, I think it comes down to three things: 1. Repetition 2. Implement change 3. Not doing too much. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
Sarah is learning to sing a new song for her next gig. She’s listened to the song multiple times, written down the lyrics, and has a pretty good understanding of the melody and emotional ideas. When she practices the song, she sings it from start to finish with the recording twice each day for a few days. She notices a few improvements each day, but after a week, still isn’t confident it’s good enough for her gig.
Luke is learning a new song for an audition he has next week. He has listened to the song many times, written down the lyrics, and understands the lyrical and emotional content of the song. When practicing the song, he breaks it into four sections: verse 1, chorus, verse 2, bridge. He works on each section individually, repeating that section until he has made improvements. He even sings each section unaccompanied at times, so he can really hear how he sounds. For certain phrases that are proving difficult, Luke slows the song down using audio technology, and focuses his attention on the difficult phrases until he feels they have improved. After doing this process for a few days, he sings the song from start to finish with the recording and goes back to focus on spots that didn’t work well. After a week of this, he feels confident his audition will go well.
In these examples, I would say Sarah was doing too much work, not implementing change, and not enough repetition. She wouldn’t make many improvements this way because she is not changing the way she performs the song, basically teaching herself to sing the song poorly each time she sings it. Whereas Luke’s method of practice involved repetition of small sections, so he wasn’t doing too much work, and making changes as he went. He was teaching himself how to improve his performance through repetition and focused manipulation of trouble spots.
To be a musician, you’ll need to learn some basic music terms to be able to communicate with other musicians and collaborators. It’s kind of like a language of its own, but it’s not too hard to learn with a bit of research. Music terms will definitely come in handy when you are at the stage of jamming with other musicians, at open mic nights, and song writing with other songwriters. It’s much better to be able to say, “This song is in 4/4, at a moderate tempo, in the key of A” than “It kinda sounds like AC/DC but a bit slower.”
Some basic music terms you should know:
- Time Signature
- Key Signature
- Chords: major, minor, added 7th
- Chord Progression
No matter what role you play as a musician – singer, bass player, drummer, accordion – you are going to need to promote yourself in some way. To get gigs, be invited to play with bands, whatever it is you hope to do, you need some way to promote yourself. It’s not as easy as you’d think. You need to describe what you do as a musician in a short paragraph, in a way that is unique and attention-grabbing, so you stand out from all the other musicians playing the same instrument (unless you play accordion, not too many of those around!). You need some good images, ‘cause let’s be honest, we are all visually driven these days. Your image needs to match the music style that you are playing. Maybe take notice of what clothes other bands in that genre are wearing, but still try to be unique. And you are going to need some audio and videos of you performing. Audio is good because you can usually record good quality audio relatively inexpensively these days, even garageband recordings come up well if recorded right. But most venues and booking agents will ask for live videos of you performing. I guess they’re not too concerned about the audio quality, and more interested in how you present yourself at a gig. My advice when making a live music video is to shoot it in landscape view, and make sure the lighting is on you from behind the camera, not behind you. Find a place with an uncluttered background, and maybe add in a plant or an interesting prop for visual interest.
Once you have all your promotional materials together, you’ll need to post them onto as many social media pages and musician network websites as possible. YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, bandcamp, all of these are essential to promote yourself as a musician. When you have your content up online, then you can send your links to venues, bookers, and other bands.
You know when you watch a movie about an ambitious young artist who desperately wants to make in the music industry in LA or New York or wherever. They do whatever it takes to get to the taste-maker person who can change their lives, but they get rejected with a “Sorry kid, it’s just not the right time”, or “It’s just not what we’re looking for right now.” Well, forget that, that doesn’t happen. You will most likely never get face-to-face with the industry taste-makers, they are like mythical beasts, we know they exist but they’re never seen by human eyes. And you will most likely never be told directly “Sorry, you’re not what we’re looking for.” You will be treated to a healthy dose of silence. Your emails will not be returned. Your phone calls will go unanswered. You will feel as if you don’t exist. And that is the reality of the music industry today, not what you see in the movies.
But failure to try is trying to fail. You need to get yourself out there, make connections with people in the real-world. Meet people at gigs, introduce yourself to bar managers, play at open mic nights, offer to play opening spots for bands you like. Make yourself known to people, give them a chance to get to know who you are, so you can build trust and real relationships. Because you are more likely get gigs from people that know you than from an email sent to a complete stranger. For what it’s worth, that is my advice.
The final thing I’ll say about the skills needed to be a musician is, be a better person. Be better than those people who don’t return emails, be better than the people who write scathing reviews, be better than musicians who don’t practice effectively, be better than people who say they’ll do something and don’t do it. And do it all with a smile.