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
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