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10 Ways to Be Refreshed Musically These Holidays

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The holiday season is almost on us. For most of us, that means less pressure, less deadlines, and less time spent working. It means more time to do what we enjoy, and more time spent with friends and family in a relaxed setting. It's a time unwind before starting a new year. As you relax this year, take your music with you.

While the pressure is off, take some time to look at music from a different perspective. Give yourself permission to do something you haven't tried before without necessarily having high standards and expectations. You might just take your music to a new level.

Here are ten opportunities you have this holiday season.

1. Learn A New Instrument

You may be skilled at playing several instruments, or you may not know how to play one. Try learning a new instrument this Christmas.

That doesn't necessarily mean you plan to become an expert at the new instrument, or even that you intend to continue playing it. But the experience might give you a new appreciation for something you haven't seen before. It will give you the opportunity to experience a new perspective on playing music.

My second son is a drummer, but also has a broad interest in music. While he was at school he always maintained positive relationships with his music teachers. So a few years ago, he managed to borrow a collection of musical instruments from the school over the holidays, including a French horn. He also borrowed instruments from other family members, including an acoustic guitar, flute and clarinet. His bedroom looked like a music shop, and he loved every minute as he experimented with each instrument.

I don't know whether he has played a French horn again since that holiday, but I do know that the experience played a crucial role in his music development.

2. Learn Something New on an Instrument You Already Play

If you enjoy reading or watching videos during your holiday, consider visiting the local library or music store and getting hold of some instructional material for the instrument you play. Or surf the net for some instead. (Our article 47 Sites Every Recording Musician Should Visit might help.)

Before looking for material, sit down and right a list of areas you would like to improve in your playing. Do you want to learn some new riffs or fills, add a few more chord shapes to your repertoire, or develop a more solid tempo? Is there something that frustrates you about your playing that needs addressing? Do you keep pushing the limits in a certain area you would like to expand?

Improving doesn't always mean learning something new. There is also a lot to be said about going back to the rudiments of playing your instrument. Go over some old scales, play along with a metronome or drum machine, play at half speed, play through some basic chord progressions, go through some exercises like those in Hanon's Virtuoso Pianist.

But don't forget you're on holidays and make it a drag. Pick the areas you really want to improve in, and have as much fun as you can. Then take a break!

3. Play Musical Instruments with Family and Friends

Many of you will spend time with family over the holidays. Are any of your relatives musical? Spend some time jamming with them, if only briefly. Have your acoustic guitar (or other portable instrument) with you, and have some percussion instruments on hand.

Some of my best musical memories are of playing acoustic guitar with friends on a camp well after midnight. No one else was listening (as far as we know), and that time spent together helped bond our friendship.

If your family aren't musical, they may enjoy singing some Christmas carols with you as you play. Or head down the the nearest karaoke bar together and spend some time laughing at one another.

4. Teach Family Members How to Play

Non-musicians often see playing music as an insurmountable hurdle. You can do something to break that illusion. Teaching someone a melody on the piano or some chords on a guitar can give them a real sense of accomplishment.

That's how I got started. I didn't grow up in a musical family, and didn't realize normal people could play music. In my late teenage years some friends taught me a few basic things on an acoustic guitar. They taught me a few basic chord shapes, then they would play a progression (normally of a familiar song) on one guitar while I tried to keep up on another. I felt very uncoordinated to begin with, but eventually got the hand of a few basics. And I had a ball.

Why don't you try that with someone these holidays? You never know what a difference you will make.

5. Participate in a Carols Night

Tonight I'm playing piano with a band at our local Christmas Carol night. I've done this sort of thing for years, and during the nineties organized several carol events each year. Often I'm playing with musicians I know, but not always. I really enjoy playing with someone I've just met. It's a great way to get to know them.

It's probably too late for you to get involved this year, but if you find yourself a a carols event, try to catch a musician at the end of the concert, and ask how you can get involved. When I was organizing carols many of the musos we used were introduced to me by other musicians in the band.

Playing different styles of music, and playing with new people, stretches and refreshes me. The music may not be your favorite genre, but it can be challenging to play, which is a growth opportunity. And often the songs will be played with a more contemporary arrangement anyway. Playing with other musicians is also a great opportunity—especially if you make most of your music in your bedroom.

Some items at a carols night can be very "different", like this one where the band play iPads:

6. Declutter Your Studio

I read on a productivity blog recently that the beginning of the year is a great time to organize your life and office—and studio—but the end of the year is the best time to declutter. When you're relaxed, you tend to notice things that you don't need.

When you're out of work mode, have a look around your studio. How much gear is there under tables and on top of bookshelves that you haven't used in a year or two. Do you really need it? Is there any point to its taking up space? What about that pile of books next to your desk? Is there somewhere better to keep them?

Some things you decide to get rid of will still be in working condition, and might still be useful to someone else. Most likely they are sitting their unused because you replaced them with some new gear. Consider selling them on eBay or Craigslist, or on consignment at your local music store. Or maybe you have a friend you can give them to.

Other things might really belong in the rubbish pile. I know how hard it can be to throw away rubbish, especially if you've had it for years and have fond memories of using it. But if you don't use it, don't keep it. Bite your bottom lip, and throw it out. Or ask your significant other to throw it out for you while you go for a walk. I'm sure she's been dying to throw out for years!

Here are some helpful reads about decluttering:

7. Reorganize Your Studio

I recently had a two-week holiday, and I spent the second week reorganizing my office/studio, and moved it to a different room. And I'm very happy with the changes. I'd been meaning to do this for months, but found it hard to get a big enough burst of energy and time while I was working. While on holidays I often find the energy to do jobs that I've been putting off for ages.

Are there big or small changes that would make your studio more effective? A better way of running the cables? Repositioning the furniture? Putting your monitors on a different angle, or at a different height? Acoustic treatment? You might find the energy and motivation to do those things while on holidays—and the benefits will be there long after the holiday has finished.

Here are some great hints from Lifehacker about how to streamline your workspace:

8. Update Your Gear

After Christmas can also be a great time to update your gear. You'll often find some really good sales early in January where the stores try to move the stock they didn't sell at Christmas. And anyone lucky enough to get some great gear for Christmas might be selling their old gear second hand.

For best results, don't just head to the store to see what's cheap. Sit down and make a list of what you really need and want first. Avoid impulse buying—though if you find a bargain too hard to refuse, I totally understand. What's on your wish list?

9. Evaluate New Software for Your Computer

If you're anything like me, whenever you have some down time you'll start tinkering with computer software. Downloading demos of other DAWs, checking out free or cheap plugins, listening to loop an sample packs, and discovering new software—especially audio software and utilities.

I also spend time exploring the software and plugins I already have. There always seems to be something new to learn.

When you feel relaxed and unpressured is always a good time to re-evaluate the software choices you have made, and whether they are working for you.

10. Evaluate New Software for Your Gadgets

Gadgets are increasingly becoming just as important as computers. The great thing about iPhones, iPads and similar devices is that the software is so cheap. It's easy and inexpensive to try lots of options before making a decision. And hopefully lots of software authors will try to tempt you to buy by dropping prices in the holidays.

I use an iPhone/iPad app called Appshopper. The program lets me keep a "wish list" of apps I'm interested, and it notifies me every time there is an update or price change to any of the programs. It has helped me grab a few bargains. Do you have any recommendations I should add to my wish list?

Well, that's enough from me. It's time to head off to the carols night. But what about you? How do you intend to bring music into your holiday? Do any of the ideas above appeal to you? Do you have some more ideas of your own? Let us know in the comments.

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