Learning by ear is a simple task. You listen to something and write down or memorize what you hear. Simple, but sometimes difficult. Sometimes frustrating. Sometimes impossible.

Go one note at a time. Listen to the first note. Listen to it as many times as you need to to figure out what it is. Listen to the note, play a note, listen to the note, play a note. Repeat until you find the correct note. There are a limited number of options, so eventually you will find the correct note. Then move on to the next note.

At first this may be a painfully difficult process. It may take you what you perceive to be an unreasonably long period of time to figure out just one note. It’s not. It’s exactly the amount of time it takes. And it’s going to take less time next time.

You can’t skip any part of this process. Your ear will gradually develop whether you like it or not. If you focus and work hard it will develop a little faster, but you’re not going to skip to the front of the line.



You’re not always going to see the results of your work. You’re going to get results, but it might not look like what you thought it might.

Trust that your work is meaningful. If you are sincere and do the work then it is having an impact. If you need clear evidence of your efforts every single time you do something then you’ll burn out quickly.

Is your work something you can do without constant positive reinforcement?

The work benefits you, the results benefit the people you serve.



One of the most productive things you can do while practicing is to record yourself. Giving your full attention to listening to yourself will instantly show you areas that you’re going to want to work on.

But there’s a risk when you record yourself. There’s a risk that you’ll record yourself, and then listen back to find out if it was good or bad. Or to find out if you are, in the larger picture, a good or bad musician. This is not going to help you. Your job is not to decide if you sound good or bad. Your job is to play when it’s time to play, and practice when it’s time to practice. That job doesn’t change if you started playing today or if you’ve been playing your entire life.

So record yourself, and then find something to work on. Maybe your timing could use some attention. Maybe you aren’t getting the tone you’d like. There’s always something that you can devote some time to, but if you aren’t going to do the work to fix it then don’t bother identifying it.

Walk away from the practice room saying “I was honest about my weaknesses and put in some work on them.”



I, and many other people, have a habit of not meeting my own expectations when I’m playing at a gig or at a jam session.

I feel like I practice well, I learn the language and the material. In many ways I’m adequately prepared to do my job as a banjo or guitar player in a band.

And then I get on stage and I clam up. I forget parts of the music, I can’t remember all the chords or maybe I forget to come in for “the big solo.” Sometimes it feels like this music stuff just isn’t for me.

Except that’s not how it always goes. Sometimes it’s easy. I remember all the tunes, I feel comfortable, I might even use the excitement of the audience or the band to elevate my playing beyond what’s possible in my living room at home.

So what gives? It turns out everything matters. The location, the band, the amount you’ve practiced, what you ate that day, how focused you are, how much you’re getting paid, who’s in the audience, how many times you’ve played with these people.

If you have a bad gig I would bet that you can trace it back to a lot of variables that were out of your control. But there are a lot of variables that you can almost always control, and which will give you a shot at a comfortable experience every time.

Before you play a gig, do you eat food that gives you energy? Do you wear something that makes you feel confident? Do you really learn the material? Do you show up early enough to get set up and take in the atmosphere of the venue?

You don’t have to do anything to prepare if you don’t want to. But you’re going to eat that day, you’re going to wear clothes, you’re going to show up to the gig. So why not do all of those things in a way that’s going to put you in a position to succeed? And not only that, but imagine the psychological benefit of doing all of those things because you value your own success. You have to believe that your success is worth prioritizing, which in turn will enable you to confidently perform for the audience that you have an opportunity to serve.

You are going to have bad gigs. Don’t let them be bad because you decided not to really show up.



Do you ever just listen to music? I mean listen to music, and do nothing else. I don’t do it often. Some people never do it. These days there isn’t much in our culture that is going to encourage you to sit down, put on some music, and just listen.

If you do this two things will happen:

1.You will notice a lot more about the music you listen to.

2. You will learn how easy it is to get distracted and stop paying attention.

So give this a try. Put on some music and just listen to it. Notice everything you can about it.

Also notice where your mind goes. Do you stay focused on the music, or do you think about everything else you have to do today? Does it feel like a waste of your time?

You aren’t going to do this every time you listen to music. But if you do it once in a while you might find you do more listening when there’s music on.



I have a strange habit. Or I used to, anyway.

I would find Youtube videos of musicians around my age, and compare my playing to theirs. I didn’t do this to make sure I was better than them. I wanted to see if I could do what they could do.

In some ways this makes sense. You can learn a lot by trying to replicate things other musicians have played. The act of imitating things you like can give you a dimension of control over your playing that you can use to make creative choices later on.

But that’s not really what I was doing. I found people that I thought were “good enough” and compared myself to them, hoping that I too was “good enough.”

Eventually this became the place I would go to tell myself that I was, in fact, definitely not “good enough.”

I would practice for hours a day, making progress in my technical ability and overall musicianship, and then sooner or later I would pull up a video of someone who was very good, but not quite one of the masters, and see how I measured up. And if I didn’t measure up, and I rarely did, then all my hard work was clearly in vain. I would often end this process extremely discouraged and with very little motivation to pick up the instrument again.

I don’t do things like this anymore, and neither should you.

Watch the masters, and imitate the masters. Watch and imitate anyone that makes you excited about picking up the instrument. Anything else is just an elaborate way for you to convince yourself that you aren’t “good enough.”

We should all learn to accept that there’s always someone doing something we wish we could do. We can’t do it all. But if we want to do more then we have to do the things that really help. The comparison game does not help.



There is incredible therapeutic value in doing the work today. It will certainly benefit you in the future to do the work today, but the act of doing the work is valuable in itself.

In difficult times we might feel like we’re not destined to master our chosen path. That maybe we’re just not meant to be the kind of person that can really play. If if that’s the case, then why are we trying so hard? All this work for what?

But that’s not what’s happening right now. That’s a story we tell ourselves about an imaginary future. And it’s a pretty compelling story, because it’s one we tell ourselves all the time.

What if instead of wondering what kind of musicians we’ll be in the future we decide what kind of musicians we’re going to be today? Instead of asking ourselves to be good musicians, let’s ask ourselves to be musicians that try. Musicians that show up to the practice room and get to work. We can fulfill that desire today, right now.

I can tell you from experience that arriving at “better” is not going to make you feel better. Being the best wont save you either. If it did then we would have had Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Parker around a little longer.

What can you do to show up right now? Can you think of one thing you want to practice? That’s showing up. Can you pick up your instrument and play something that challenges you very slowly? That’s showing up too. That’s all you have to do and all you can do. Do that today. Do it for one minute if you have to.

Anyone, including yourself, that expects more than that is playing a different game, one with mostly losers.





It’s not that hard to be the kind of person that does something every day. The kind of person that wakes up and follows the routine. We all do it every day. Unfortunately, most of these routines are unintentional and not particularly helpful.

What is difficult, is starting a new routine for the second time. We’ve all had moments of inspiration that caused us to take up a new diet, practice regimen, workout schedule, or something we think will benefit us if we can only stick with it. And we do stick with it, for a week. Or a month. Or a year. But sooner or later we miss a few days. Then a week. Then a month. Then a year. After a long enough period of shame and disappointment we might finally say “Hey I should start running again.” and maybe that’s what we do.

So what can we do to close that gap? To start over the day after we fail to meet our goal?

We can start by acknowledging that we have no chance of meeting our goal every single day. It’s not going to happen. So don’t be disappointed when the inevitable happens.

Then acknowledge that it’s going to be really hard sometimes. Maybe those are the times when we fail to show up. That’s definitely going to happen.

Then take pride in the act of starting again. There is nothing more admirable than someone who is able to leave the past behind, all the shame and guilt, and start from square one with passion and intensity.




Being an active participant in your own musical life is not a chore. It can sometimes feel like a chore because we often frame things as obligations or responsibilities rather than opportunities.

Showing up right now, paying attention right now, listening right now, being honest with yourself right now. These are things that will benefit you right now. Yes, there will also be long term benefits, but we can only do the work right now.

And if you do decide to practice right now, but also decide not to be fully present and attentive to your work, then the relative benefits of your efforts will be disappointing.

You can’t skip the work, and no one else can do it for you. You can’t do it on autopilot. But why wouldn’t you want to? Show up to your life and your music right now. If not your own life, then whose life are you paying attention to?