Connecting the dots: Learning to read music is worth the effort

Sheet music for Mozart piano sonata
It's like musical HTML/CSS

Matt Stevens, the excellent loopist and guitarist, posed a question on Twitter recently, “Is it important for musicians to be able to read music?

This is a perennial discussion point amongst musicians and often seems to divide down the lines of those who already can and those who can’t favouring their own state. I’m in the can read and think it’s a good thing and here are a few reasons why. Continue reading Connecting the dots: Learning to read music is worth the effort

Become a better musician: No substitute for practice

Keep going, remember to think about your grip and by the time you're five you'll be cooking

Practice is a means to an end, playing well, and it is a vital component to reach that end. I don’t think I have ever met a musician who I thought was a great player who didn’t practice and practice effectively.

When I first went to conservatory I would stumble around in awe of all the amazingly talented people I was surrounded by. They seemed like a different species to me. After a while I was able to hear some stratification of ability between these brilliant musicians and I noticed that the better ones (in relative terms they were all amazing players) practiced a lot and practiced effectively.

Regular practice is the key to the door. If you don’t do that you can’t even gain entry to the temple of Euterpe but to really become good, Manuel Barrueco good, you’ve got to practice effectively. It’s not enough to just punch the clock and lather, rinse, repeat. Getting better demands that you pay attention to what and how you practice too.

Identifying specific element that you want to improve is important whether it’s a technical element or a piece. If you keep practicing that thing you can do well you’re not getting much return on your effort. There’s less room to get better there than there is working on things you can’t yet do so well.

This happened at conservatory too. I would hear the halls echoing with someone banging out a Rachmaninov Prelude and sounding great, but after a while you could notice the same musician playing the same piece over and over. Sometimes a few doors away you could hear another musician trudging through arpeggios or working on a technique like their trill. It didn’t sound so impressive but it served them better in the long run. Being great at playing one thing is no bad thing but it’s not the same as being a good musician.

Practicing is not the same thing as playing. Cranking through your repertoire of pieces isn’t effective practice. It won’t do you any harm, but to build a strong foundation of facility and technique requires thought about who you are and where you are as a musician. Try to identify where you are now as a player and where you want to get to. What can’t you do yet as well as the players you admire? That’s where to put the effort in. Continue reading Become a better musician: No substitute for practice

Two Fundamentals to Becoming the Guy Everyone Wants in Their Band

Image courtesy of Scragz via Flickr
Image courtesy of Scragz via Flickr

There is a tendency among musicians to value technical facility when discussing favourite players. Outrageous, difficult and esoteric passages often played at stupidly fast tempos and sometimes in unusual time signatures are fun to discuss, but it’s largely an intellectual exercise. The folks who are the most fun and the most valuable to have in your band have a good ear and a great sense of time.

There’s an old joke about bass players (my tribe) that goes,

A father bought his son a bass, an amp and four weekly bass lessons to get him started. On the day of the first lesson the son comes home and his dad asks him, “How was the lesson?”
“Not bad dad. I learnt to play the first five frets on the E string.”
Next week the son comes home and the dad asks, “How was the lesson?”
“Not bad dad. I learnt to play the first five frets on the A string.”
The next week the son doesn’t come back until the early hours of the morning and he smells of beer and cigarettes. Dad doesn’t want to make too much of a fuss so he simply asks, “How was the lesson?”
The son replies, “Sorry dad, I couldn’t make it. I had a gig.”

Bassists are often derided for simple technique and an easy life in the context of a rock band, but the truth of the joke is that if you can play a single octave range well you can be a bass player. OK, not quite, but if you can play in time and with sensitivity to the rest of the group you can be a useful player. Continue reading Two Fundamentals to Becoming the Guy Everyone Wants in Their Band