Perhaps your practice doesn’t seem to get you anywhere. Maybe you learn new music too slowly or it takes too long to get it finished. Maybe your hands just won’t do what you think they should. Or possibly music you practice one day seems totally unfamiliar the next day.
It’s likely you are missing a piece in your musical development, leaving a black hole that swallows up your best efforts and leaves you unsatisfied.
The key to solving your problem is in making the right diagnosis, and that’s what this post will help you do. (By the way, even if you’re NOT having any difficulties, going through this quick check will help you focus your efforts and do even better!)
There are essentially three areas that you need to continually develop in order to be playing at your best: Technique, Musicianship and Repertoire.
Let’s look at each area, why it is important, and the goals you should be setting for each.
Your technique is your physical foundation; it is how you do what you do. It is the essence of your craft. Your technique affects your speed of learning new music, your range of expression, your fluency and speed, and your consistency and confidence in performance. It is also an enabling or limiting factor in your sightreading and improvisation. You can only sightread up to the limit of your technique, and your improvisation will only be as adept as your technique as well.
Your technique goals:
Do a daily review of scales, arpeggios, chords. Use your favorite etude or exercise book. Develop speed in the patterns that are common to the music that you play. If you need more accuracy, practice slowly. If you need more speed, set tempo goals for yourself.
Musicianship is the language of our art form. It includes note reading, music theory and music history. Before you panic, you don’t need to be an expert in each of these areas. You need just enough knowledge to enable you to do what you want musically.
I believe that note reading is a skill every musician needs to master. It is the most critical factor in your sightreading and memorization. Good note reading skills allow you to learn quickly and retain what you learn.
Basic music theory literacy would include knowledge of major and minor keys, intervals and chords. Your understanding of music history can be contextual, placing the music you are learning in a historical, social or personal framework.
Your musicianship goals:
Make it a habit to notice the key, composer and basic information, including the meanings of any foreign terms, for every piece you play. Practice your note reading every day by naming the notes in one section of your music, perhaps a trouble spot that needs extra work. Read music-related books; biographies of composers or performers are often interesting and inspiring. Listen to live and recorded performances to help expand your musical horizons.
This seems like a no-brainer. Every piece you learn grows your repertoire. But consider repertoire in a larger sense. What are the different genres of music that your instrument commonly plays? Your instrument’s repertoire is the story of your instrument, how it developed, the players and composers who shaped its legacy. The more you know about the idiom of your instrument, the more information you will bring to your playing and practice, particularly to sightreading and improvisation.
Your repertoire goals:
Include music from different genres and styles in your practice. You can use it for sightreading or to add variety and interest to your concert or gig set lists. Don’t be afraid to experiment. You might find some music you love to play!
What to do next
Now you know what the skills you need to develop to be the best musician you can be, it’s time to make some plans and fill in the missing pieces. Remember that this kind of musical development never ends. But it’s a process that let’s us do what we want: to play music beautifully!