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Jan 09 2018
by DC

7 Ways to Be a Better Musician

By DC - Jan 09 2018
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Music is the food of love and life! It touches something deep inside us, and is a mode of self-expression that transcends culture.  It’s why we surround ourselves with it, whether that means listening to the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” or “Te Presumo” by La Banda el Recodo. It’s also our love of music that makes us wants to make music by singing, by trumpeting, whatever suits your fancy. However, like we all know, the struggle to become a better musician is constant whether you’re a beginniner or seasoned first chair. If you’re just an occasional guitarist or a dedicated multi-instrumentalist, here are seven ways to be a better musician:

1. Practice

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Yes, I know, everyone always says practice. That's because it is essential. Without it, you can't possibly succeed. How much practice am I talking about though? Do I mean insane four-hour practice sessions every single day ever? Actually, no. Those can be detrimental. You run the risk of straining yourself and causing injury, especially if your technique is bad. On hand-intensive instruments like the piano and cello, that could be carpal tunnel syndrome. In singing, that might mean vocal nodules or throat pain. So, no, intense four-hour sessions are not required. What is required is deliberate and efficient practice.

Before you start, have an idea of what you want to cover and what you need to improve on. Moreover, focus on developing and maintaining good techniques and foundations. Without a good foundational technique, you won't be able to progress. For example, when practicing singing, I focus on good vocal technique and foundations like breath support in my diaphragm and pitch accuracy using scales to practice.

2. Join an Ensemble or Band

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Joining an ensemble or band or choir is a must, especially if it's a bit above your abilities. It's one of the fastest ways to grow as a musician. Not only do you get structured practice and rehearsal, you also get an amazing networking and exposure opportunity. Usually, more experienced musicians might offer you bits of advice. Even if they don't, you get to learn just by playing with them and observing their techniques and pre-rehearsal habits. Moreover, your conductor or director will push you to greater heights as a musician.

I wholeheartedly recommend this. Really, when you aren't in an ensemble or band, it slows your growth. I can't tell you how much I grew as a cellist when I first joined an orchestra. But I won't lie to you, if it's your first time in an ensemble, it might be hard. My first year of orchestra was filled with tears and squirming in my chair when my pitch accuracy was spotty.

3. Exposure

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Expose yourself to music and all its wonderful musicians! See and hear how other musicians make their music, especially in genres and instruments that aren't your own. Yes, I know you love the Bel Canto singing technique, but it wouldn't kill you to see a non-operatic technique. There's good things you can take from all musical genres and musicians, whether it be artistic interpretation or execution of a certain technique. It opens your mind to new ways and new possibilities in your own playing and music making. Though we all love Whitney Houston's rendition of '"I Have Nothing," you should also listen to other covers of that song. It gives you more possibilities.

However, exposure isn't limited to just going to a concert, watching videos or hearing music. It also means watching films about musicians, music documentaries and even reading biographies and music analysis. It exposes you to the life and artistic process of others. Personally, it's one of my greatest sources of inspiration as a musician, especially when my muse vanishes.

4. Set Goals

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Like I mentioned in the "Practice" section, deliberate and efficient practice is a must. Setting goals is the best way to achieve this. You should set short-term practice goals and overarching goals as well. Say, I want to play Popper Etude 17 in eight months. How will I achieve it? I'll make smaller goals along the way. For a Popper Etude you need to master all the positions on the cello and certain bowing techniques. In this case, I would say, "I want to master X technique or piece this month and X technique next month, to achieve my overall goal."

By setting concrete techniques and goals, you will be much more likely to reach your dreams. You will also be more efficient.

5. Vary Your Repertoire

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Vary your repertoire! Learn and play different kinds of music! It helps you grow immensely. If you're primarily a pop music fan, start trying some blues or jazz. Different musical genres have different characteristics. By exposing yourself to different genres, you learn different techniques and how to handle different musical situations. Jazz is primarily focused on improvisation. Blues have different time signatures and even a special scale. As they say, knowledge is power. So get more power as a musician and begin trying different kinds of music. The farther away from your comfort zone the better.

As a final note about repertoire, if you're a singer or nearly any other type of musician, try music in different parts of your range. What do I mean? Say you're a pianist, and the music you play tends to stay in the same area of the keys, the same key or doesn't move around a lot on the piano; try something that's mostly in the high range of the piano versus the middle, or in melodic minor A rather than C major or even Emile Pandolfi's version of "Once Upon a December" that jumps all around the piano instead of La La Land's "Mia and Sebastian's Theme" (AKA that main dramatic piano song). In the case of a string player, use different positions to play the same songs or songs that require varied positions besides first position. For the singer: sing different genres, different techniques like vibrato and different parts of your vocal range, like using your chest or mixed voice instead of your head voice.

6. Get a Teacher or Mentor

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This is key. Yes, the internet is filled with great resources, but I fully maintain that having a teacher, especially in person, is one of the best things you can do. If you don't need a teacher as much as a mentor, the idea is the same. It will help you either way. Teachers and mentors have more and different musical experiences that you can draw from. They are an invaluable resource that can also show you different musical perspectives. If you're just learning an instrument, teachers are invaluable. They can catch mistakes, bad habits and bad technique before it plagues your musical career.

7. Learn Music Theory

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It actually isn't as bad as it looks. Really. Well, OK, it can be tough, especially when you get to the intermediate and beyond, but learning music theory has lots of rewards. It doesn't detract from your artistic interpretation or stifle your muse. If anything, it frees you to be a better musician. Like a wise soul once said, you need to learn the rules to break them. More than that, it gives you knowledge to draw from when you're playing or composing.

Here are some concrete examples: If you master sight-reading, you don't have to worry about messing up when your conductor expects you to play through a piece you've never seen before. If you have ear training, you'll know what notes you can sing in without jarring the audience, or you'll know what notes you can do to build a harmony. Knowing scales and arpeggios is also wonderful. And if you take nothing else from this section, at least learn the circle of fifths. It is life giving.

So there you have it! Seven ways to be a better musician! I hope you're musical journey is a long, wonderful and filled to brim with laughter and love. Happy late New Year, from me to you.

Music is … A higher revelation than all Wisdom & Philosophy

― Ludwig van Beethoven

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DC - University of California, Riverside

DC (also known as Creative Fish) loves animals and people and creativity. She is a Junior Editor and contributing writer on Fresh U and Media and Outreach Coordinator an interdisciplinary journal. You can follow her on Instagram @_thecreativefish to find out more about her creative hijinks and new adventures.

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