HOW TO IMPROVE
AT YOUR INSTRUMENT
Just because you practise every day, it doesn’t mean you’re going to improve. Sure, you might get better at taking lessons, but what happens when you remove the lessons or the recording you’re playing along to?
How do you improve to the point where you stop feeling like a perpetual learner and start to feel like a musician?
Discipline is the first, and for most people the hardest lesson to learn. Discipline is a skill you need to work at all by itself. Practise is useless if you don’t have the discipline to do it regularly, and practising regularly is useless if you don’t have the discipline to practise properly. Set yourself a goal and ‘simply’ follow through to complete that goal. Always. Forget excuses, force yourself to follow through. Repeat this in every aspect where it applies to your life and it will become easier. You want to get to the point where you are upset if you miss a practise session.
So you’re a disciplined practise machine, a wizard of technique, a master of scales. No one has ever practised harder, or with more dedication than you. But machines don’t make good musicians; music is about emotion, even if it’s created specifically to have none. Machines can’t express themselves, musicians can.
Once you have sufficient skill you need to learn to express yourself with your instrument.
Expressing ideas and sentiments are hugely important to making good music
We’ve talked about how it’s necessary to gain intimate knowledge of your instrument, but do you know all the sounds it can make? Learn! Search online for new and unusual ways to make sounds from your instrument that others might have tried already. Have you tried plucking piano strings? Playing the guitar with a bow? Playing violin with a shoe? Singing into a jar? Experiment! Push the limits of how you can make your instrument sound. Go against everything you’ve been told is the correct way to play.
Dynamics is the softness or loudness of a sound or note, and is the primary way we express ourselves through music. You will recognise clichés such as loud is aggressive and soft is gentle, but in fact you can use dynamics in many different ways to represent emotion or create atmosphere. Softness can be scary, it can draw the listener in and force them to focus, it can be light and breezy and everything in-between.
Harnessing the power of dynamics and knowing when to use them will make you an exponentially better, more interesting musician.
Let’s apply this to drums for example. If you are playing full-force all the time, where do you have left to go when the song calls for a step up? It’s common among drummers to give a little bit extra during the chorus of a song to emphasise the change and groove, and really drive home the hook.
Similarly, let’s imagine you’re performing acoustically with some other musicians. You need to make sure the other musicians can hear themselves, especially the singer, and you also need to be aware of what the audience is hearing. Imagine drowning out everyone and everything else because you don’t understand dynamics. Embarrassing!
So you can play softly with a shoe. Amazing. You’re almost there.
One of the reasons why art is so important is because it is a medium of expression. We need expression in our society as a means of sharing and communication, but also as an outlet for our views and feelings we might not otherwise be able to share.
The best way to learn expression is by figuring out what you are passionate about, and applying that passion to the instrument you are now skilled with. This might come easily to you, or you might need to spend some time soul-searching, but expressing ideas and sentiments are hugely important to making good music. Often it’s authentic expression that sets good music aside from bad. No one likes a faker.
A great example of how to use passion and expression is the hardcore punk scene. People join the scene in some way because they identify with the values it represents as a collective. You get people from all walks of life and social demographics coming together to contribute ideas and hear what others have to say. Individuals and groups express themselves through fashion, food, visual art, body art, magazines and importantly for us, music. There are thousands of scenes and genres with their own ideas, viewpoints and music. Take a look around.
Think about how you see the world and your life experience, and apply that to your music. Is every day sunny and incredible when you’re a 14-year-old in California? Write about it! Express it! Find others who think the same and make happy, sunny music together. No doubt there are some other 14-year-old’s out there that feel the same and would identify with your music.
If you’re disciplined with practise, starting to learn about experimentation and dynamics, and applying all that to working out how to express yourself, you’re going to start improving and feeling like the musician you are.