I started to learn to play music properly when I was twenty. I bought the books, practiced for an hour or two a day, and got some lessons. I could often sense my progress, but not always. There was something new to learn each day, and from time to time I could tell my playing jumped up to the next level. But that was over half a lifetime ago, and though music has always been an important part of my life since then, I haven’t always had the time to play regularly.
Even when you are working on music every day - for example, in a home studio - it’s possible to become distant to your instrument. There are so many ways of generating music - sampling and looping, arpeggiators, and other music-generating software - that composers might just start to lose touch with the tactile joy of creating music with their own fingers, mouths and feet.
If your music playing becomes erratic and irregular, your technique suffers and you become rusty. For some people, it is a condition they never recover from, and being a musician becomes a thing of the past. For others it is just a temporary condition in the ups and downs of life. Some musicians have the discipline and commitment to never suffer from this.
What can we do over the years to maintain our skill and enjoyment of playing music? Despite the ups and downs over the years, I have a sense that my playing has continued to improve and evolve. Here are twenty things that have helped me to keep playing better.
1. Play a Bit of Music as Often as you Can
One day last year my son arrived for a visit as I was playing piano. “You’ve been practicing, Dad.” That week I had been playing at least twenty or thirty minutes most days - a rare privilege in my busy life. I asked him how he could tell. “When you’ve been practicing, you start playing extra notes between the usual ones, and I can hear new rhythms.”
Music is a language. We learn to express ourselves better in a language by using it every day. And it’s not just what we say, but how we say it. A little bit of playing every day doesn’t just keep our skills with our instrument current. It gives us fresh daily opportunities to learn to express new and relevant thoughts and feelings in our music.
2. Occasionally Put in Some Big Hours
As I look back over the decades, most of the quantum leaps in my playing have come after periods of intense work. There have been periods of my life where I have found time and motivation, and worked hard on my music for six or eight hours a day. Those periods have paid off, and have had an almost magic effect on my playing.
On the weekend, I caught up with Grant, a drummer friend I haven’t seen in ten years. He was a teenager last time I saw him, and his skill and kit have grown considerably over those years.
Grant told me of an opportunity he had a few years ago of gigging and touring with a pretty good band. His friends thought he was too rusty, and they were probably right. But Grant started putting in long eight-hour days on the kit, and when the band was ready to tour, he was at his best.
Opportunities to put in big hours of practice don’t come along often, but if you grab the opportunity, the lessons you learn will influence your playing for decades.
3. Go Back to Basics
Sometimes I get so focused on playing new grooves and chords and sounds that I forget the basics. It’s good to revisit those basic foundational lessons from time to time.
This week I’ve started to practice scales again. I used to play them well, but my technique has become a bit sloppy and lazy over the years, and now I can’t play them for peanuts. By practicing scales again, I’m hoping to improve my technique, retrain my fingers, and regain a more natural playing action.
Playing along with a metronome is another technique to get back to the basics. Timing can also suffer from sloppiness, and a metronome can demonstrate that sloppiness, and motivate us to play in better time.
4. Keep It Simple
Sometimes less is more. Removing unneeded notes from our playing can clarify a piece of music and give it more power. It takes time and reflection to achieve that.
Gary Brooker, a well-known keyboard player in the 80s, once described jazz pianist Count Basie’s playing. “The older he gets, the fewer notes he plays, yet each one tells beautifully.” Count Basie made a decision that he would go for telling simplicity than dazzling, busy playing. The same might improve our playing.
5. Try to Apply What You Know on One Instrument to Another
I met a piano player years ago who had just started to learn guitar. Rather than learning chord shapes like everyone else, this guy would take what he knew about chords on the piano, and try to work out how to play the same chord on the guitar. He ended up coming up with the open chord shapes we all love and know, but he probably learned something in the process.
Learning a new instrument can be refreshing and fun. It can also help us to see our old instrument in a new way, and understand music in a wider context.
6. Keep a Few Instruments on Hand
My drummer son doesn’t just see himself as a drummer, but a musician. Although playing drums is his first love, he enjoys fiddling with all sorts of instruments.
A couple of years ago, he filled his bedroom with musical instruments, and started to learn how to play them all. He was surrounded by a keyboard, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, clarinet, flute, trumpet, french horn, xylophone and snare drum.
He hasn’t (yet) become an expert at any of the other instruments, but he loves playing them all, and has learned a lot about music in the process. And now his school music teacher thinks of him as a normal musician, not just a percussionist!
7. Jam with Others
Playing with other people is fun, and makes you a more versatile musician. Listen to the others, and incorporate their style into your own playing. Mimic one another. Ask one another how they accomplish those little things that impress you.
8. Experiment with Different Styles
We all have styles of music that we enjoy, but always playing in the same style will get you in a rut.
Listen to other styles of music, and work out the ingredients of that style. You might discover some new flavors that you enjoy, and can incorporate into your playing.
9. Learn Some Riffs
Riffs and licks are useful. You can learn a bunch of them in a few keys, and pull them out to spice up a song. If you put them together in different combinations in different chord progressions with different tempos, you can achieve amazing variety with just a few licks. One lead guitar book that I have is simply a book of different riffs.
Gary Brooker also described actor Dudley Moore’s piano playing. “To assimilate the style of the greats you have to be technically superb. I suspect that many people achieve this to a great extent by relying on a repertoire of ‘licks’ which they insert in their playing. Dudley Moore is an example; he is an excellent jazz pianist, and he introduces a selection of licks into his playing. A lot of top guitarists are like that.”
10. Get Some Lessons
It’s often hard to find time for ongoing lessons, but if you find the right teacher, even short lessons are valuable.
Recently my guitar guru friend Ryan met a talented session guitar player. Ryan was amazed with his playing, and wanted to learn. The guy agreed to give him some lessons, which have happened from time to time over a few months. I don’t know how long the lessons have been, but Ryan has spent many hours a week practicing what the guy taught him. That has been the real value. Most of the lessons have revolved around new ways to play scales on a guitar for better lead playing.
11. Buy a Book
If you can’t find a teacher in person, buy a book! Just reading it isn’t enough. You need to practice what it says.
One of the most useful books I have bought is “The Guitar Handbook”, and practicing some of the things in that book have made a huge difference in my playing.
12. Imitate Others
If you hear something you like on an album, try to work out how they did it. Play along with the album and copy what they are doing.
I remember a story Tommy Emmanuel told about learning music. There was a great guitar part on a record that he really liked. He was trying to work out what the guy was doing, but it was too fast. He ended up slowing down the record by putting some coins on top of it, and eventually working out the part.
13. Buy a New Instrument
Practice is often about motivation, and there is nothing so motivating as a new toy!
One of those times in my life when I was motivated to practice eight hours a day was after buying my Ovation Elite. I’ve had that guitar for twenty years now, and still love it.
14. And Make It a Good One
Buy a good quality musical instrument. If you buy a cheap one, you’ll never be able to tell whether it’s you that sounds bad or the instrument!
We’ve all heard the saying, “A good workman never blames his tools.” That’s because a good workman makes sure he has good tools. The same applies to a musician.
15. Learn Some Theory
One way to play music better is to understand more about music. Learning music theory doesn’t just help you win Trivial Pursuit, it can effect the way you play, and give you more options.
Learn about scales and how they relate to chords, the different types and flavors of chords, and how to transpose from one key to another. Learning to read music can open up more resources to you.
16. Become More Fussy
Nothing can hinder your improvement more than being too easily satisfied with your playing. Become your worst critic! You don’t want to discourage yourself, but you do want to pull your playing apart to work out what needs to improve.
17. Become Less Fussy
On the other hand, perfectionism can also stop you improving. You might be so focused on improving one aspect of your playing, that you’ve lost the big picture of the song. For example, by focusing on your fingering, you might not realize how bad your timing is.
Usually more relaxed playing sounds better. And if you don’t relax, you won’t enjoy yourself. Isn’t that the main point?
18. Learn New Ways of Embellishing
Earlier we talked about the value of simplifying. Embellishment is like the icing on the cake. Too much, and your playing becomes sickly, but with just enough, your playing is tastier.
On a guitar, learn things like slides, bends, hammer-ons and pull-offs. On a keyboard, incorporate grace notes and little runs into your playing.
19. Search YouTube for Some Tutorials
While books are useful, videos let you see and hear what the teacher is talking about. Search YouTube for “music lesson,” “guitar tutorial,” “how to play piano,” and more.
20. Record Yourself, Then Become Your Own Critic
Listening to a recording of your playing is like listening to a recording of your own voice. You sound totally different to what you expect. When you are playing, you are partly hearing what you intended to play, and the fact that you are involved in making the music changes your perspective.
Hearing a recording of your music could give you a pleasant surprise, or an embarrassing shock. You’ll have to try it to find out. You will be better able to hear if you are in time, and your mistakes will sound amplified. You’ll be able to hear things in your playing that need to be improved.
So now it’s over to you. How do you keep improving and evolving as a musician?