Remember those high school classes you thought were a waste of time? Maybe you were one of those who struggled through geometry proofs. Or perhaps you scheduled a sick day when your biology teacher scheduled a frog dissection, or flung curses at Chaucer’s Middle English, joining the chorus of countless generations of students: When am I ever going to need to know this?
I’m certain your parents and teachers did their best to convince you of the benefits of a well-rounded education. As you went through your college years however, you probably discovered that a degree of specialized knowledge is essential in the pursuit of a career. Your academic track became more directed to your career path. A well-rounded education is a fine thing, but there are times when you only need to know what you really need to know.
This applies to music study as well. If you are going to be a professional musician, your musical literacy is expected to be at the highest level. This is why music conservatories require students to study subjects like 16th century counterpoint and fugue composition and the symphonies of Beethoven. But does this mean that every musician needs this in-depth knowledge?
On first consideration, knowledge of Beethoven symphonies may seem more useful for an orchestra player than for a jazz artist, but most jazz artists cite classical music as one of the sources of their inspiration and an important part of their musical education and experience. So does a musician simply need to learn everything about music, assuming that such a thing is even possible? And what if you only want to play for fun? Do you still have to learn everything, and if not, how do you know what you need to know?
Generally speaking, there are three categories of musical learning. First is technique, everything related to the physical playing of your instrument. Second is repertoire, the body of music associated with your particular instrument and specific genre. Third is musicianship, which includes music theory, music history, aural skills, understanding of musical expression and character, and more.
How much of this huge body of knowledge you need depends completely on where you want to go, what your musical goals are.
Here’s a quick, if imperfect, example. I believe that knowing your scales and key signatures is fundamental music literacy for all musicians. However, I will concede that if you are just playing for your own pleasure, familiarity with just some of the keys and modes is probably OK. But if you are going to teach others, then it becomes your responsibility to have a working knowledge of all major and minor keys. Going one step further, familiarity with related topics like modulation and modes will enable a musician to play more expressively and teach with more understanding.
So how do you know what you need to know?
First, look at your goals. What kind of playing do you want to do? What kind of music? In what venues? Clearly playing in your living room may not require the same skills as playing for a critical audience.
(Note: While it may not require the same skills, you may choose to develop those skills anyway. Your musical development is up to you.)
Next consider your playing right now. Do you encounter persistent stumbling blocks? Are you ready to move forward? Are you satisfied with your progress? Consider the gap, if any, between where you are right now and where you want to go. Think about all three areas of music study. Is your technique ready for the challenge? Have you learned the repertoire you need? Are your weak musicianship skills holding you back?
Lastly, get an expert’s advice. You may know where you want to go, but ask the opinion of someone who has already gotten there. What skills do they consider essential? What knowledge do they think you need to acquire? And can they help you set up a plan?
Maybe your goal is learning that one special piece of music that you love. Rather than just keeping it as a “someday” dream, or deciding to learn one page of it each year until you’re “good enough” to play the whole piece, find out exactly what you need to work on and set those benchmarks for when you will be ready to learn the piece successfully.
You don’t need to know everything. But knowing what you do need to know will help you get where you’re going.