Productivity is, in the long term, very important to your development as a musician. Obvious as this may seem, many musicians eschew a long term view for today’s problems.

Don’t misinterpret my meaning, the only time you can practice is right now. But what you choose to do right now will have significant effects on whether or not you’re productive in the future.

To put it as clearly as I can: If you’re doing anything right now that makes you less likely to do the work in the future, then you need to stop doing that thing.

Here are some examples of “hard work” that isn’t helping you:

-If you practice for 2 hours straight in an effort to “work hard” and be “diligent,” but then you don’t practice again for a week because you’re so mentally drained, then you aren’t being productive.

-If your self-critique makes you want to stop practicing, then you’re not critiquing yourself, you’re shaming yourself. That’s not productive.

-If watching videos of “better” musicians makes you want to stop practicing then you aren’t being productive.

If you want to get better you have to do whatever it takes. This is usually interpreted as doing more. But haven’t we all tried to do more, and then some more, and then more after that, only to burn out or be dissatisfied with the results?

Yes, we need to work hard. But it’s hard work to be kind to ourselves. It’s hard work to use some restraint. It’s hard work to say “That’s all for today, I’ll get back to it tomorrow.”

So if you’re going to work hard, do the hard work that brings you back tomorrow.





You’re not going to be able to play everything. At some point you’re going to have to choose what you want to be good at.

There exists among serious students of music the desire to be proficient in many styles on many instruments, inspired by some of the heroes of our craft. The reality is that almost none of these people are truly professionals in more than one or two areas of music. That’s okay, it takes a really long time to become this type of musician, and there are a lot of musicians who will always be able to do something you can’t. It’s not our job to do everything well, it’s our job to do well at whatever we do.

It is within reach for every musicians to learn many different instruments and learn the basic language of many different styles. In fact, that’s really not hard at all. But I don’t think our goal should be to speak 10% of 10 different languages. I’m not even interested in speaking 50% of 2 different languages.

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from exploring music, because there’s a lot to explore. But I am encouraging people to explore music deeply. Give a new instrument or style the attention it really deserves. If you can’t do that right now you might be setting yourself up for disappointment down the road.



If you are going to make progress as a musician and stay sane at the same time, you’re going to have to learn to be honest with yourself.

Many musicians are not honest with themselves about their musicianship, their practice habits, and especially what the process of improvement and development looks like.

Some people will take this to mean that they aren’t hard enough on themselves. That they aren’t holding themselves accountable for their mistakes or laziness. I’m talking about the opposite phenomenon.

Here are a few things that I think are true.

You can’t radically change your musical habits or abilities in one day.

You can’t change the amount of work you did yesterday.

If you want to be really good you have to pass through every stage of ability along the way, there are no shortcuts. 

I don’t feel like these are controversial statements, but I personally have had a hard time letting them inform my process of practicing and performing.

We want to punish ourselves for not working hard enough, or not being good enough, but this isn’t working.

So be honest instead.

Do today’s work today, and tomorrow’s work tomorrow. Your mistakes in the past can inform today’s work or tomorrow’s work but that is their only value. You can insult yourself about those mistakes all you want, or you can spend that time and energy planning for the future and getting better.

Look for mistakes. If you’re making a lot of mistakes then you know where to go for practice, which is a blessing. And then when you work on those mistakes be honest about how many you can fix in a day. It wont be very many. It might not be any. That’s okay. But if you get discouraged and give up, then you aren’t being honest about the process.

All you can ever do is show up and do the work, and be honest with yourself about how it’s going. Because if you’re showing up and doing the work then it’s going great, which means you’re going to show up again tomorrow. I think that’s a better story to tell yourself, and it happens to be a true story.




I’m going to guess that you aren’t practicing slowly enough. Almost no one does. But professionals do. Strangely enough it’s the most efficient and often fastest way to learn new material.

Generally “slowly” is the only speed at which we can play something unfamiliar. How slow? Slow enough to play it without mistakes. If you’re making mistakes then it’s not slow enough. When should you play it faster? When you can do so without making mistakes.

It’s an incredibly simple formula but it requires that we be painfully honest with ourselves. It doesn’t require judgement or critique, all you need is awareness to notice a mistake. And if you aren’t finding mistakes then you aren’t practicing, so go find some mistakes and slow down.




If you are working on your timing,  then you should be working on your listening. It is a valuable to skill to be able to play with even and consistent timing, but that is only one of the things we are called to do when sharing rhythm with another person or a group of people.

Your “perfect timing” is worth nothing if you aren’t aware of the fact that everyone perceives musical time and rhythm differently. There are as many time-feels as there are people and your timing will sound best when you are able to share a common understanding of time with someone else.

So listen deeply to the record you play along with, the metronome you practice with, and the musicians you jam with. It may requires some compromise to find a groove that suits everyone but it will be worth the extra attention.



This weekend I’m teaching the Kids Academy at an indoor Bluegrass festival in the northeast, and there’s teaching and learning happening all over the place.

Yesterday, backstage in the green room, two of the Main Stage performers started talking, which led to jamming. These are both extremely high level players and within a few minutes had amassed a small audience of other performers, festival staff, and people like myself teaching in the Kids Academy. There’s a sense in these circles that when something like this happens you should probably be listening.

Though the impromptu performance started as a jam between two friends it quickly became clear that this was really elders passing on the culture to the younger generation. Within 20 or so minutes there had been demonstrations, stories told, instruments passed around, and a few high level but less experienced musicians had a chance to jump in and hold their own. None of this was explicitly planned and there was no clear beginning or end to the education but this sort of thing happens all the time.

Whether intentional or not we have an opportunity to learn from the most experienced among us if we’re willing to really listen. We don’t have to ask them what strings or picks they use in order to learn what it is that makes them a great musician and ambassador to the culture. It’s what they did when they were younger and they learned from earlier masters how to pass it on to us. As always our task is to be ever present and really show up to the moments when mastery is happening in front of us.



When you learn something new, where do you start? Do you start at the beginning? And how long do you spend on the beginning? Where does the beginning start and end? How do you know if you’re ready to move on?

Do you learn the first note? How many times do you play the first note before you play the second note? Do you move on to the second note before you’ve mastered the first note? Are you playing the fifth and sixth notes before you even know why the first and second notes are there?

Do you play the first note before you listen to what it is that you’re learning? If you listen first, how many times do you listen before starting to play? One time? Ten times? One Hundred times? How do you know when you’re ready to start playing?

How do you feel when you make a mistake? Are you thinking about the music? Are you thinking about yourself? Do mistakes make you want to make less mistakes? Do mistakes make you want to stop playing? How many times do you make the same mistake before you go back to the beginning?

How do you know when you’ve learned something new? When are you ready to move on to something else?