5 ways to improve your musicianship

Over the years I have had the opportunity to play with and learn from some of the best musicians around. Whether you have traveled the country gigging for 30 years or have just started taking guitar lessons, there are a few foundational concepts in music that will enhance your playing and help you develop chemistry with a band.

1. ART.  Artists paint, musicians create. One of the most foundational concepts to remember is that music is an art. It’s all about the big picture. When painting Starry Night, it’s pretty safe to say that Van Gogh didn’t toss his paintbrush aimlessly toward the canvas expecting a masterpiece to evolve on its own. Just as each stroke was carefully constructed to fit into “the big picture,” each note we play as musicians is part of a bigger picture.

2. TASTE. There is nothing worse than over-seasoned food. Too much salt will always ruin the best foods. When it comes to music, taste isn’t just about knowing what to play–it’s also about knowing what not to play. That means that really cool chord you’ve been wanting to throw in or that insane lick you learned may not fit within the context of the song. Every song has a style, and every musician has a unique way of interpreting that style. Creativity is part of what we do as musicians, BUT–and that’s a big BUT–creative license should never be an excuse to forfeit quality and finesse.

3. SPACE.  Do you remember that stage in life when you and a sibling would fight for your parents’ attention? You would try to talk and your brother or sister would interrupt you, then you’d jump in and interrupt them. Then you hear the famous words “One at a time.” Music is similar. IT NEEDS SPACE. It needs to breathe. If you don’t take anything else away from this post remember this: empty space in music doesn’t always NEED to be filled. Great musicians are great listeners. Pay attention to the rest of the band and know your place within the big picture. Just because you are talented doesn’t mean you should express that talent with 12,000 notes over one measure. Hacking is for lumberjacks and computer techs–not musicians.

4. TONE.  Expression is one of the greatest arts in music. How we express musical ideas is just as important as the ideas themselves. Trying to play John Legend’s “All of Me” with an organ patch probably won’t give you the best results. In the same way, the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s brought out some great music–but it’s 2015. The 80’s tones may not be the best options for what you are playing. Part of being a musician is recognizing changes in music. Stay true to yourself, but also stay current–or you may find your audience losing interest.

Learning is a journey. When you stop traveling, you miss out on the beauty the world has to offer.

5. PRACTICE.  As musicians, we should constantly be learning. One of the easiest ways to learn is to practice. Practice often, and practice well. Your skills, timing, and rhythm should always be improving.

  • Practice scales–Major and Minor.
  • Learn every chord in every scale. Learn their numbers (Major – 1, 4, 5 & Minor – 2, 3, 6). Learn how each chord works on a scale. Learn every inversion for every chord in every scale.
  • Learn 7th chords. Learn how to use them effectively.
  • Know the song you are playing. If the melody note starts on the root of the chord, playing a 7th chord probably isn’t the best idea.
  • Practice improvising. Find a song you like, and use the scale + chord tones (the notes in the chord you are playing) to build your own melody.
  • If you want to start learning music theory or would like to brush up on what you know, click here.

Finally, remember that music is about the big picture. Each musician/singer on stage is a part of the big picture. It’s not all about me and my talent. It’s about working together. Listen often, be open to constructive criticism, and–most importantly–HAVE FUN!

As a pianist, here are a few artists I listen to for creative ideas:

  • Alicia Keys
  • Classical (Debussy, Chopin, Bach, Beethoven)
  • Coldplay
  • Israel Houghton
  • Jazz (McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, Thelonius Monk–to name a few)
  • John Legend
  • Jonathan Stockstill
  • MuteMath


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s