Your journey toward musical instrument improvement

I’m going to Los Angeles next month for the Taxi Road Rally conference. Taxi is an independent A&R company that helps composers submit their music for film, TV and games. I am excited about networking with producers and musicians, and learning more about that part of the music business.

There will be lots of opportunities to submit music for critique as well as for projects needing music. So the question is, what music of mine will I bring. I’ve put close to 50 pieces of music together in my studio, most of it original, through out the past few years. I shouldn’t have a problem finding stuff to submit.

Reviewing past work

Yesterday, I went through the catalog of my music and listened to a bunch of it, some for the first time since releasing it up to three years ago. While pretty much all of it holds up compositionally, much of the older stuff is lacking in terms of mix and sound elements. I must admit that I have no idea what the hell happened to Expedition Vertigo. I couldn’t have thought that was ready for prime time. Did I upload the wrong version? I’ll figure it out.

The point of this post is that it’s a good thing to listen to stuff you did in the past and hear the progress you’ve made since then. After all, if you do something most every day for years, you should be getting better at it or something is horribly wrong with your approach. This applies to practicing, composing, one’s sense of pitch and/or rhythm, improvisation, etc. For me, there is a significant difference between music I produced even two years ago and what I’m producing now. The mix of the older pieces is more flat and there’s not enough dynamic range. Movement is an important element of my music and in some of the earlier pieces, the movement is sometimes stilted or out of pace. The sound design is not a crisp due to the more limited tools I had in the past and my less developed skill in using synths and samplers.

How to practice

Malcom Gladwell wrote the now classic 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. He wrote that proficiency in anything occurs after about 10,000 hours of doing it. And Malcom calls those 10,000 hours “meaningful work”. So what is meaningful? I’m creating a video course on developing musical proficiency and the first video lesson is on how to practice. I make the point that you could practice hours a day and not really get much better if you are not doing some important yet basic things.

One of those important things is to listen to yourself in a ruthlessly honest way. I think it’s a great skill to hear yourself, not as you wish nor as you fear, but as you are. Let’s call this being present with your musicianship. I often coach musicians who will play something for me, after which I’ll ask them, “So what did you hear?” More often than not, they mention something fairly superficial. Sometimes they’ll sheepishly admit they weren’t paying enough attention. I’ll have them play it again and this time they’ll hear something significant within their playing. Here’s the magic: once they hear it themselves, they can improve it.

Yes, that is a role of a teacher, but your teacher isn’t living with you (probably) and guiding you through all of your practicing. And if you did have someone constantly monitoring and providing feedback on everything you play, they’d be crippling you. We all have to be present enough in our practicing and performances to hear the reality of our instrument’s sound, and that includes tuning, rhythm, phrasing, articulation, etc.

The best method of self-discovery

So, how do you sound? Objectively. Much of my musical work involves recording and then carefully evaluating it. I spend much of my life listening back to my studio performances and hunting for things to improve within my trombone playing, synthesizer programming, arranging, and composing. I just finished a song called Sweet Jungle Lullaby. It is an arrangement of the song Sweet Lullaby from the group Deep Forest. The melody is built off of intervals and is therefore less intuitive for trombone. When I first started playing it, I sounded terrible. The pitch was off, the phrasing and timing was sloppy, and the articulation was very un-voice-like. How did I know? I recorded myself playing it and I listened back over and over. By the time I recorded the final melody, I must have played it well over 100 times and listen back to most of them.

I don’t always immediately hear every problem and its solution. For example, I eventually heard that the articulation of the melody was too harsh. But no matter how I tried to soften it, the attack wasn’t right. So I played with different mic positions and eventually discovered that if I played very close to the mic but at a 90 degree angle, the harshness of the articulation disappeared. That discovery came about only because I was recording and listening over and over to different approaches and being willing to hear the reality of the sound.

I know… You don’t have a recording studio. But you probably have a smartphone which comes with a very good recording capability. Start to record yourself when you practice. Save some of your first recordings for later. Just like I am now hearing the improvement in my compositions, you should hear improvements in your playing. Not from yesterday to today, although that’s possible, but from six months ago to today. Can you verbalize what is different about your performance of a certain piece of music between six months ago and now?

 

Your journey to improvement comes from knowing how you sound right now. So start recording yourself, not as an occasional event but as a regular habit. By listening to the recording and paying close attention to pitch, articulation, tone, and every other important aspect of your playing, you will be able to eventually look back and say, “Hey, I’ve really improved in this specific way.” Congratulations!

 

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