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?
There’s no rush. You can’t do it faster than you can do it. You can’t skip anything along the way.
You can’t go faster than you can go, and if you try to go faster then you’re guaranteed to go slower.
This means you have to be honest and you have to pay attention. When you try something, ask yourself how it feels. Does this sound right? Is it close enough to perfect for me to move on? Do I need to do this a few more times to really get it?
No one is asking you to become a great musician. There’s no timeline, and you can’t plan it all out. So what can you do today?
Playing with other people is a huge part of developing as a musician. Higher stakes situations like jams or gigs put your experience and practice to the test.
It’s easy to be discouraged after trying a new jam session or playing a gig with new people. All of the sudden all your hours of practice seem to amount to nothing. Your instrument doesn’t sound right, you can’t think of your usual licks and songs, your rhythm seems stiff and unmusical. It happens all the time. To everyone.
And it makes sense that it happens. Usually a new jam or gig means a few things. It’s probably in a place you’ve never been before, which means it feels and sounds different from what you’re used to. You’re probably playing with different people, who play different and react differently to your playing. And you’re probably a little nervous, which accounts for a large portion of any of the physical discomfort.
As it turns out, this is something you can practice. If you have enough experience playing in new places with new people it will start to feel like a normal occurrence. Eventually you’ll start to feel like you do at home, practicing in the most ideal conditions.
But that means you have to get out there! You’re going to have to be a little uncomfortable before you get used to the uncertainty of live performance. Don’t shy away from the things that make it uncomfortable. Those are defining characteristics of playing music publicly! If you get out of your comfort zone and put yourself in tough situations you’ll be amazed at what you can get used to.
Some people are able to stick to strict schedules and practice diligently at the same time every day for the same amount of time. Some people prefer to carve out time where they can, practicing at different times of day for different amounts of time.
Either approach is valid, but both have some inherent risks.
If you practice regularly, for the same amount of time, how often do you push yourself to do just a little bit more? And are you really engaged for the time you’ve set aside?
If you practice irregularly, are you practicing enough to make the progress you want to make? Do you find yourself going days or weeks without practicing because of a lack of motivation or discipline?
You might feel comfortable as a scheduled or unscheduled person, but your musicianship might depend on actively becoming the opposite.
What are you paying your teacher for? Are they giving you something that you can’t get somewhere else more easily or for less money?
Some teachers are paid to hand out sheet music, or to give information that is easily found online or in books. Some teachers are just a person to hang out and jam with.
Students are usually able to find information on their own. It’s the teacher’s job to put this information in context in a way that the student cannot. A teacher can also help a student understand why it’s worth the time to seek out information independently.
Students can also usually find a musician to play music with. A teacher is someone a student can play music with that is generally a higher caliber and more experienced musician. That’s worth the money.
Is your teacher giving you real value for your money? If not, what are the questions you can ask to tease out that knowledge and experience?
If you’re a teacher, are you giving value to your students? Are you doing something for them that they can’t already do themselves? Are you trying to pass the torch and help them understand how to start to do this work on their own?
This isn’t really about money, it’s about time.
Learn the first note first, then the next note. Don’t skip any notes. If you miss a note, go back to it and try it again. If you play the wrong note, go back and try again. Go as slow as you have to.
If we practiced like that all the time we’d make fast, consistent progress over the long term. It’s also the fastest way to completely learn something.
So why don’t we just do that? Do we forget? Is it less fun?
If you need a reminder, here it is. Learn the first note first.