practical tips for aspiring musicians
these helpful hints are presented here as they were published in the British monthly magazines MK Pulse and NN Pulse from March 2021
Develop Your Own Style
I hope you have enjoyed these Making Music notes. For my last one in this series, I’d like to close with three tips to help aspiring musicians going forward.
Be original. Stay true to yourself and allow your style to develop, unhindered by popular opinion. Think of the many headline artists we all admire and how they carved their own path and became known for their unique style. Whilst there’s a time and place for covers and tribute acts, don’t be afraid to be different. At least you’ll be authentic and sincere.
Be open-minded and curious. All music is good music and has something to teach us. Listening to different genres will not only help you to understand music more and so develop as an artist, but also to relate to other musicians, building your network and potentially creating opportunities.
Just love what you do. There are many injustices in life, especially in the music world and what we think of as ‘success’ isn’t always bestowed on the talented or hard-working. So seek recognition, not fame and play your music primarily for the love of it. At the very least you’ll enjoy the journey.
Many musicians suffer from nervous anxiety and, whilst a little excitement can be helpful, too many nerves can mar a performance. Expectation can be one of the main causes of nerves. By all means strive for excellence but don’t expect your performance to be perfect, as that is obviously unachievable. Also, audiences are generally not unduly worried about mistakes and may not even notice them, so just laugh them off and generally be kind to yourself.
It helps to know your material well and work within your ability. The late, great guitarist Isaac Guillory taught me: ‘no‑one’s going to know that you’ve got limitations until you’ve exceeded them’. So play material which is for you simple. This will help to take the pressure off and you’ll probably relax a little and so play well.
Remind yourself what you love about the music you are playing and focus on that. Live for the moment and try not to look back or think ahead. Immerse yourself in the feeling, the emotion, the meaning of the music. Remember, you are performing to entertain, not to impress, so make a gift of your music and it will be well received.
Enjoy Your Performance
We are holistic beings, so adopting positive body language, as well as looking good, will help us to feel good too. The paradox of performing is that fear holds us back in our discomfort zone, where we punish ourselves with negative thoughts and limiting beliefs. Letting go puts us in a new state, where uncertainty rules. Here our inner creativity takes over and we instinctively know what to do. We focus on the music, emotion & interaction and loose our inhibitions.
Smile, smile, smile! Smiling releases hormones called endorphins, which help us to stay on top of things and be in a positive state of mind. The late, great guitarist Isaac Guillory once told me: “no one’s going to have a good time watching someone who isn’t enjoying themselves”.
We need to play and sing from the heart to move our audiences. We need to be in the right mind-set, not overly tense, nor overly focused on technical matters but in tune with the spirit of the music. Audiences tend to ‘mirror’ the performer’s mood. If we are in the right frame of mind and enjoying our music, the audience will enjoy it too.
Stagecraft – part III: working with foldback
If you perform though a public address (PA) system, the sound that the audience hears comes from the main (font-of-house) speakers. But as these are forward of the stage and facing away from it, you’ll find it hard to hear them. So typically, front of stage and facing backwards, there are wedge-shaped foldback monitors (speakers). Foldback is not to be confused with feedback – see Stagecraft part II. The purpose of foldback is to help musicians keep in time and to help singers stay in tune.
Small PAs in intimate venues may not need foldback and the foldback in simple PAs can be the same as what the audience hears. However, foldback speakers may by different in character from front-of-house speakers. And in many PAs the foldback mix can be different from the font-of-house mix. Furthermore, in a complex PA configuration, each musician may have a different foldback mix, helping them to clearly hear their own contribution.
Working with foldback can be confusing at first. Trust the engineer that the audience are hearing a good sound, regardless of the sound from the foldback monitors. If you can clearly hear what you are doing, then all should be well.
Stagecraft – part II: know your microphones
If you perform, you’ll often need to use microphones (mics) to be heard. In the context of stagecraft, there are generally two types of microphone: the vocal mic and the full-frequency mic.
Vocal mics are for singers of the popular genres of music: pop, rock, folk, jazz etc. They are designed to capture the frequencies of the human voice and, as such, are not especially sensitive to very high or very low frequencies. They tend to be robust, they can be hand-held and are resistant to feedback. Feedback is the unpleasant and undesirable whistling or howling sound that happens when the mic picks up the output of the speakers.
By contrast, full-frequency mics are sensitive to a wider range of frequencies, they are not designed to be hand-held and they can be prone to feedback. Their placement, with respect to the speakers, is therefore key. They are typically used for instruments, especially quieter ones. Full-frequency mics can also used for backing vocals and classical singers, but at a distance to the singer.
The typical singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar would sing into a vocal mic and have a full-frequency mic for their instrument.
Know Your Stagecraft – part I: the PA sound check
If you perform, sooner or later you’ll play through a Public Address (PA) system, managed by a sound engineer and will need to do a sound-check before the show. You will already be well-practiced and can warm up at another time. The purpose of the sound check, is for the engineer to understand your act and to adjust levels, tones and balance such that the voices and instruments can all be heard clearly and well.
To make sure you get a great sound for your show, I recommend you help the engineer by being on time and not over-running, keeping background noise to a minimum and staying focussed, taking direction from the engineer. It will also help to keep things simple and avoid unnecessary instrument changes during your set.
Working effectively with the engineer will get not only get you a good sound, but will also give you the confidence to present a great show. Acting professionally in this way might not go un-noticed, as the engineer is likely to have a relationship with the event or venue. It’s always worth forming a good rapport with the sound engineer.
Learn A little Notation
Music notation, often referred to as manuscript, is the language of music and the means by which musicians communicate. Many musicians today, especially solo performers, learn to play intuitively or by ear – so there is not always a strict need to learn notation. At some point however, you will want to play with others and having notation for your music will greatly help.
Notation will define the tempo or speed of the piece, the time signature or rhythm and which notes are played when, and for how long. It can also show some expression and give an idea of timing variations. Whilst it is not without limitations and cannot capture every nuance, having music notation can ease the work of rehearsals, recording and learning new music. To have your music notated looks professional too.
I was an intuitive player and only came to notation at a time when I started teaching the dulcimer, but I wish I’d learned it earlier on. Having notation for my music not only benefits my classes, but it also helps me to understand my own compositions and arrangements better, which in turn helps me to appreciate music more.
Find A Good Tutor
If you are learning a new instrument or learning to sing, you’ll need a good tutor: someone who can help you over hurdles, explain the difficult concepts and generally help you to progress. They should excel at their instrument, be patient and be a good communicator. Perhaps more importantly, they should have and show empathy.
Even if you are a beginner, your teacher should be a master of their craft, else you risk adopting bad practices, which are very hard to undo afterwards. While you are getting to grips with things you find difficult, your teacher should be patient, encouraging and have skills and techniques to help you to progress. It’s important that they are not critical, as this can damage both your confidence and your motivation.
When choosing a tutor remember that, although they are the expert, you are the customer. For example: It’s up to you what style of music you want to learn. I recommend you find someone with empathy for you and your ability, with whom you can build a trusting relationship. And then do trust them, for they will know many things that you have yet to learn.
Everyone you know potentially knows someone who could help you in some way – or even move your career forward. The more friends you have, the greater your chances of success. There is generally a culture of friendliness in the music industry and successful musicians know this and actively manage their networks.
You might need some technical advice or some coaching or some repairs to your instrument. So be nice to everyone you meet, even if their own music, style or personality is different from yours. When you meet someone new, rather than push your music on them, you’ll make a much more positive impression by showing a genuine interest in the music they make. It’s also worth noting that many musicians undertake more than one role: festival directors, agents, promoters and sound engineers are likely to be musicians themselves.
And, as you develop in skills and experience yourself, be friendly and kind. It’s probably won’t cost you anything, but it could enhance your esteem and help to grow your own network. There’s a saying in the music business: ‘Be nice to everyone on the way up, ‘cos you’ll meet them again on the way down’.
Singing In Tune
Of the thousands of singers that have attended my voice workshops, many of them had issues with hitting high notes or generally being in tune. Some even believed they were tone deaf. In my experience however, everyone can learn to sing in tune, if they adopt the right approach.
Firstly, without pitching the song too low, find a key that puts the high notes within your range. Then, if you are singing from memory, make sure you a really familiar with all of the melody. I don’t recommend singing unaccompanied until you feel more accomplished, by the way.
Lastly, within the accompaniment, be it a backing track, guitar or keyboard, there will be the reference note you are aiming to hit with your voice. Listen carefully for this and when you can hear the reference and your own voice at the same time, you will be able to marry the two and sing in tune. It may take a little practice, but everyone can learn to do it.
Very few singers have perfect pitch and there are many other aspects to singing well. So enjoy your music and don’t be overly concerned about pitch alone.
Active listening is perhaps the most important skill a musician can develop and it’s especially important if you are going to play with others. The more you develop your listening skills, the more you’ll understand and appreciate music.
Watch and listen carefully to players you admire – their concerts, recordings and videos. Listen to each player in the ensemble and hear their contribution to the whole. Listen to the soloist and hear what they are playing and how – the tones they create, the expressive techniques they use and their timing. Watching virtuosos performing at the top of their game may seem daunting. But a presupposition (principle) of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) is that if one person can do something, others can learn to do it.
In the decades that I’ve been working with music my listening skills have developed significantly. I now hear the same music I liked years ago, but in whole new way. I understand it better and enjoy it more. I am also proud to work with international jazzman Andy Crowdy, who has accompanied me with superb string bass on my recordings. Andy is perhaps the best musician I know. He’s also the best listener I know – it’s no coincidence.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Practice is often underrated and I’ve seen many a performance marred due to poor preparation. So don’t cut corners on practice. It’s absolutely not a waste of time. Whether you perform or not, quality practice will not only enhance how you play your music but improve your skills, confidence and even wellbeing.
Quality practice means not playing idly, but being focussed. So take a break every hour to keep your concentration high. When you make a mistake: Stop, understand what’s gone wrong, then play the phrase over and over slowly, until it is re-committed to muscle memory correctly. Once you can play the pieces flowingly and consistently, play to a metronome. As you get to know a piece it’s tempting to play it faster because you can, rather than you should.
But music is more than just the dots on the page and playing the right notes at the right time. Music is about sound and feeling, so don’t forget the emotion. Once you can play a piece well, focus on what it means to you. You will then express it in a way that brings the music it to life.
‘Practice makes perfect’ they say, and I could not agree more