Know your level


What if you’re not ready to play in a group or perform, or even play in front of your mum? Are you good enough? What if you pick up the clarinet as your first instrument and six months later win a Grammy award for jazz composition? Are you a virtuoso? The next Mozart?

How do you know?

I’m going to say that, yeah, if you’re winning awards after six months you are probably a virtuoso and you probably know it before you have a Grammy. It’s not hard for you and everyone is very jealous. For the rest of us mortals, knowing what level we are at is a bit trickier. As is music evidently.

Musicianship has a fairly natural progression: once you get good at something, other doors start to open, things click into place and you move onto the next level. You’ve gotten really good at chord changes, which opens the door to riffing: you’ve just moved up a level. Your band has gotten really good at rehearsal, which opens the door to live gigs. Next level achieved.

Knowing what level you are at enables you to define the steps you need to take in order to make progress.

If your level seems obvious to you then congratulations, you are one of the select few. Most musicians optimistically believe they are a few levels above where they actually are; it’s natural (in conjunction with feeling like we’re never good enough, but we’ll talk about that another time). This is why talent competitions like the Idol franchise had live, televised auditions; to take advantage of unfortunate, optimistic singers who think they are a few levels higher than they actually are; in order to provide entertainment for the viewers.

These people are a great example. I’m talking about the people who fail the auditions on these shows: the ratings fodder that get everyone watching. The ratings fodder are either attention seekers or poorly misguided music lovers.

Don’t feel bad for the attention seekers; they know what they are in for when they sign up and line up. They are dressed in costume, half drunk, and are only there to have a laugh and be on TV. Laugh with them and forget about them. 

It’s the misguided music lovers who we should feel for. For some reason people around them, likely the people that they love, have told them they had a chance. Their friends and family (who might not have any experience in music) have been overly encouraging, confirming their optimism, and have made these singers believe they are many levels above where they actually are. It’s not until they are singing in front of impartial people, judges no less, that their true level becomes clear to everyone involved.

So how do you find your level? 

Family & Friends.

Ironically, the first place to start is with your family and friends. They aren’t going to be completely honest with you, they love you and that’s what they are for, but they can still be a useful reference point to gauge your level. See how often they ask you to play for them and how honest and enthusiastic their praise is. Hopefully you can tell if your mum really means it, or is just being nice.

Other Musicians.

Anyway, after you’ve been confused by your family and friends, the next best place to look is at other musicians. This will change from person to person; some people join a band without being able to play a note, some people become a wizard on their instrument before they show anyone else at all. Only you will know how you feel, but look around. I know you’re going to loads of gigs, since we’ve talked about them so much...Is the singer on stage at your local venue good? Could you step in and replace them or even do better? Maybe you could! Maybe that means you’re ready to try and make that step up. 

What about the guy teaching a Metallica guitar cover on YouTube, do you think he’s messing it up? Can you play it correctly? Make your own video and try! Use other musicians as a gauge to find what level you are at, then take it public.

Public Opinion.

Public opinion is unbiased and impartial. People will let you know very quickly if you are bad at something. If you upload a cover video that’s not correct, you will know instantly. If you step on stage, start playing, and the room empties; you might not be ready quite yet.  

But, if your video gets thousands of views, shares and positive comments; if you step on stage and people can’t take their eyes from you; you know you’re ready to be there.

When you’re good, you’re going to be getting positive affirmation after everything you do in public. If the positivity isn’t forthcoming, if you’re getting ignored: you need to try harder or try a new approach. Go back to the drawing board and try to figure out where you’re going wrong, or get in touch with me and I can give you some specific advice.

Here’s the kind of questions you should be asking yourself in progression:

  • Can you play an instrument?
  • Can you play your instrument well?
  • Can you imitate songs in the style you prefer?
  • Do you play at the level people around you are at? (school, local gigs etc)
  • Can you jam with a group?
  • Can you rehearse well?
  • Can you perform live?
  • Do people come to your shows?
  • Can you make a recording?
  • Do people listen to your recording?
  • Can you go on tour? 

You see what I mean? No matter your level at the moment, with hard work you’re only going to get better. Keep playing, keep working, keep comparing, and keep sharing.