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Improvising with Chords and Melodies

By: Konner Scott

It’s common for budding musicians to begin their journey by learning how to read sheet music and play songs note for note. The methodology here is very straightforward (but certainly not easy!): learn one measure at a time, start slow, pick up speed, and fine tune the song as you become more and more comfortable with it.

Eventually, though, musicians will often get to the intermediate level and start to wonder about improvisation. The act of inventing music on the fly can seem quite daunting and open ended: how do I know what to play? How do I play it without messing up? How do I ensure I’m not just playing the same thing over and over again?

These are all complicated questions with complicated solutions. I have spent a lifetime trying to learn to improvise, yet still feel like I’m standing at the base of Mount Everest. However, over time, I’ve picked up a bunch of tips and tricks that have provided me with some direction, and I’d like to share some with you here.

Although these strategies can apply to most instruments, I’m going to take a piano-centric approach, as it’s perhaps the most versatile instrument when it comes to improvisation.

Learn Music Theory
It’s painful, and it’s extremely mathematical, but it’s necessary. Learn the basics of music theory. Understand how a major scale is constructed, then learn how to build major and minor chords. Learn diatonic chord theory (the chords that can be constructed from each major scale), and how they function in the context of a song. Learn about chord inversions. Learn a little bit about suspended chords, 7th chords, and diminished chords. 
You don’t need to have a master’s degree in jazz music in order to improvise well, but it will be much more difficult if you don’t have a cursory understanding of what you’re trying to play. It’s a rare talent that can get by playing only by ear without any understanding of conventional music theory whatsoever, and even someone with off-the-charts talent will eventually be stunted by their lack of knowledge.

Play What You Love
If you have a favorite song or band, that’s a fantastic place to start! If the song or band is popular, it will be quite easy to find resources online. These could be chord charts, sheet music, or video tutorials of someone showing you how to play the song. 
Learn a bunch of songs by your favorite band, then learn a bunch of songs by similar bands! Since you enjoy the music you’re learning, the chord progressions & melodic patterns that resonate with you will be easier to grasp, and you’ll recognize useful patterns more quickly. (For bonus points, learn each song in all 12 keys. It takes MUCH more time, but there are no words for how valuable a skill this is!)
Once you’ve learned a bunch of songs, you’ll probably have built a small library of chords and melodies that you can try to apply to your own improvisation. Don’t feel like you’re “stealing” chords from your favorite bands if your first improvised tunes just synthesize a bunch of chords you’ve ripped directly from their music- that’s how it starts! Over time, as you continue to expand your ‘musical library’, you’ll be able to string chords and melodies together in more unique ways that are a reflection of your personal style, rather than an obvious amalgamation of other influences.

Learn, Practice, then Explore
To be able to improvise with beautiful chords and melodies, you first need to learn how to playl chords and melodies. Start simple, but as you grow as a musician, try to elevate the complexity of chords and melodies that you learn to play. Again- learn them in all 12 keys! It’ll feel painstaking, but take the time. You will always be limited by the keys in which you can’t play.
Once you’ve learned and practiced a bunch of chords, chord progressions, and melody riffs, spend some time spontaneously stringing them together. It won’t sound good at first! You’ll be slow, awkward, and clunky; and you’ll play a bunch of things that feel wrong or don’t work. This is as valuable as learning how to play things that DO work: your brain will start to subconsciously internalize what patterns are useful- and which ones aren’t. It just takes time!

Be Consistent
On that note, the more you improvise, the better you’ll become! When I learn a new melody or chord progression, I try to spend a bunch of days in a row improvising with my new material in every key. The goal is to internalize the new information so deeply that it comes out naturally in my playing, and the only way to make this possible is to play it every day for a while. This trains my brain to understand that the new chords & melodies I’ve learned are important, and are worth expressing in my music.

Go Easy on Yourself- and Have Fun!
It’s easy to get frustrated while learning to improvise, and you’ll inevitably hit brick walls where it feels like your efforts are futile. Don’t be afraid to take breaks! These can either involve walking away for a while, or pausing on your new material and spending some time improvising using skills you’re already comfortable with. All your hard work is meant to give you the tools to play exciting chord progressions & melodies in real time, and if you don’t spend some time enjoying the fruits of your labor, then what’s the point?

Blurring Creative Lines – The Old and the New

By: Konner Scott

Order and chaos. Yin and yang. Tradition and novelty. It’s the age-old human story. How do we walk the delicate tightrope between the two? The same question can be applied to the creation of music. When writing, composing, or arranging, a musician may find themselves struggling to determine the appropriate balance.

The tough truth is that everybody has to figure out for themselves how to best mix together familiar territory with novel innovation. I’ve heard some artists say that they almost never listen to music, for fear that it will cloud their creativity and cause them to accidentally just reproduce something that has already done before. I’ve heard other artists say that they listen to new music nonstop, constantly trying to add more influences into their sound so they can mix them together in new and unique ways. Personally, I fall somewhere between the two. I’ve noticed I go through phases- I’ll have a month or so where I listen to music nonstop, and that will often be followed by a month where I’m completely in a creative zone and I hardly listen at all- almost like I’m ‘purging’ all of the new ideas I absorbed the month before.

If you don’t know where to start, learning the classics can be a great way to get going. It’s hard to innovate properly without integrating your culture’s musical traditions into your soul. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, after all. I spent a large part of my youth learning to play pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and other classical geniuses. As I got older, my focus shifted to guitar and I began to replicate parts by Boston, Kansas, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, and an ever-expanding variety of classic and modern rock artists.

All the while, I was doing my best to go into my creative Narnia and return with something new and unique. By the time I was at that point, it wasn’t a conscious process- the conscious legwork had been done while I was learning songs by other artists. I found that if I turned my conscious brain off and let my wandering mind search for what felt like the best guitar part, piano part, vocal melody, or lyric, I would often emerge from my creative trance with something that surprised even myself. It was as if there was a part of me that I didn’t understand creating music that I couldn’t fully grasp.

Through years of refinement, I’ve gotten my creative routine to a place that works well for me. The funny thing, though, is that I’m still constantly changing and tweaking it! That’s the thing about creativity- it’s not static. It’s an ever-changing river of ideas and processes, and needs regular updating to stay fresh. The more I pay attention to what works and what doesn’t (and when things stop working), the more I walk that tightrope between familiarity and novelty, and the better my creative output becomes.

My advice, then? Start trying things! Listen to music. Play music. Create music. Pay attention to the things that help, and the things that don’t. Get frustrated, walk away, then come back and try again. Creativity is messy, and finding the appropriate balance in your creative process takes time and requires failure. Just don’t give up!

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Four Tips for Musical Self Study

By: Konner Scott

We live in an age where we have the expansive wealth of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. Could you imagine what might have been had Mozart, Bud Powell, or John Lennon been granted access to the internet? The 21st century is a golden age of information, and it’s easier than ever to capitalize on that and acquire a new skill without ever having to leave your computer desk. If you’re interested in studying music but would like to forego expensive lessons or college courses, the internet can be a great resource.

The downside, of course, is the same thing that makes the internet great: anyone anywhere can upload their thoughts on anything and publish them as fact. As such, while many of the world’s geniuses have poured the contents of their brain into YouTube videos, it’s also important to be able to sift through the information of… shall we say… lesser quality, so that you can find the tools that will actually improve your skill set. It’s easier than ever to acquire information, sure, but it’s also easier than ever to acquire bad habits.

In my own experience with self-study, I’ve come up with a framework that I use to bypass the noise and find my way straight to the most valuable information, as well as some techniques for how to best absorb and internalize that information. Here, I’d like to provide you with five things I’ve learned that have been useful in my own journey.

1. Spending Some Money Can Help Trim The Fat

Free information is great, but it’s hard to know the level of quality you’re getting, especially if you’re doing research on a field you know quite little about. Companies like MasterClass and Monthly have come up with an elegant solution: they provide a subscription service for courses, which costs a bit of money, but substantially less than consistently taking music lessons, and certainly less than college courses. I’ve taken a bunch of these myself, and I’ve found they’re a great way to ensure you’re not only learning from the experts, but you have a structured learning path & curriculum to help you stay focused and efficient!

2. Research Those Providing the Information

Speaking of learning from the experts, you want to make sure you’re doing just that! It’s important to check that the information you’re obtaining is from an accredited individual that knows the field you’re studying inside and out. That’s not to say that amateurs don’t have useful tips to offer, but across time, the average quality of information from an expert will far exceed someone who has not put the requisite time and effort into learning the craft. If you find a YouTube channel or website that seems to offer a lot of valuable information, pause and do a quick Google search on the individuals offering up the advice. If they’re legit, there will almost certainly be a plethora of sources confirming that- and there will certainly be more than just a self-aggrandizing biography that they themselves authored.

3. Don’t Just Absorb; Apply

A little under two years ago, I decided I wanted to improve my music production skills. I’d always enjoyed home recording, but had never invested much time into learning the craft. I began to binge watch advice videos and tutorials, but found myself frustrated at my sluggish rate of improvement. That all changed when I encountered a tutorial from a wonderful YouTube channel called ‘Make Pop Music’ (quick plug; thank you Austin Hull!) that encouraged me to follow along and try to apply the techniques that were being covered in the video. I opened up Logic Pro and began to alternate between watching segments of the video and pausing it to try some of the techniques on a song of my own creation.

By the conclusion of the video, I had put together a track that was of far higher quality than anything I’d created up to that point! I internalized the moral of that story: put my ego aside and don’t think that “I’ll remember how to do this”. Even if I do, knowing how to explain it is not the same as knowing how to apply it. Since then, this has become one of my biggest strategies for developing my skill set. Whatever I’m trying to improve- my production skills, my piano chord theory, my guitar technique- I sit with instrument (or computer program) in hand while watching tutorials and I try to apply the concepts on my own.

4. Take Notes!

This one seems simple, but can be really powerful. If you’re like me, after roughly a decade and a half of slogging your way through school, you might be sick of note taking and have no desire to return to it. However, if it’s in service of something you’re passionate about, it can be a very useful technique! I’ve found myself often taking notes on tutorials & other videos I watch. Strangely enough, I rarely return to the notes and reference them, but just the act of writing down what I think is the most important information helps hone my focus and I find that I absorb more useful info in the process.

The Case for Piano as a Starter Instrument

By: Konner Scott

As a parent looking to enroll your child in music lessons, it’s difficult to know where to start. With the vast array of musical instruments, teaching styles, and types of music available, how can anyone who’s new to music education know what the right path forward is?

As opposed to a pros & cons list of different instruments and styles, this blog is an attempt to make the case that for all students- but particularly young children – piano is a strong foundation for music education that’s hard to beat.

Ease of Access

As far as simplicity, the piano is about as basic as it gets. All one has to do is press down a key, and sound comes out. Contrast this with string instruments (hold down strings with one hand and pluck/strum/bow with another) or brass and woodwind instruments (establish correct embouchure and posture, then develop lip strength and learn valve positions), and the ease of access is immediately apparent. This allows a student to jump right into the music making process without having to spend time and energy on all of the necessary prerequisites- and risk getting bored and giving up before the music making even begins.

Mapped Out Notes

Visually, it’s hard to beat the piano. Not only are the notes oriented from left (low notes) to right (high notes), they’re grouped in convenient patterns of white & black keys that make it easy to orient yourself no matter what octave or key you’re playing in. The cherry on top is that to play a C major scale – one of the foundational concepts in all of Western music – one need only drag their hand across the white keys, starting on C and ending on another C.

This visual clarity is paramount when it comes to learning music theory, particularly early on. Having the notes in an easy “grid” allows a student to create visual mental maps of different chord shapes, scales, and motifs. Instruments with valves, slides, or multiple strings do not offer the same level of clarity, and can serve to obfuscate the simplicity of many music theory concepts.

Melody & Harmony

Few instruments offer the opportunity to create both a melody and the supplementing harmony at the great time. While this is possible at advanced levels on certain string instruments (guitar in particular), piano makes it unbelievably accessible!

The concept is simple: typically, especially at beginner levels, the right hand will take care of a song’s melody, while the left hand acts as the accompanying harmony. This allows beginner musicians to immediately develop a strong understanding of and intuition for the ways in which melody and harmony complement each other.

Versatility

See if you can come up with a style of music where it’s unheard of to incorporate piano. It’s tricky, right? Heavy metal? On the more melodic and progressive side of the genre, you’ll often find piano in the background or even as a main instrument (Dream Theater is a phenomenal example). Bluegrass? You’d be surprised at how much piano exists in the genre- particularly in a ragtime or blues style. Hip-hop? Listen to “Still D.R.E” by Dr. Dre or “Changes” by Tupac and tell me that piano isn’t (pun intended) instrumental to the history of the genre. Learning piano allows you the chance to quickly adapt to nearly any style of music you want to play.

History

Keyboard-based instruments date nearly 2500 years. The harpsichord or clavier was the predecessor to the modern piano (or pianoforte, as it’s technically called), and came to popularity in the 14th century. During the 1600s and early 1700s, it became a centerpiece in compositions by the Western classical masters.

Throughout the mid-to-late 1800s, the piano as we know it today became an even more ubiquitous fixture in popular music. Since then, we can’t seem to get away from it in our culture. It’s deeply embedded in our musical roots, and learning how to play it allows you to access the annals of musical history. Practice enough, and you have a tremendously large repertoire of music – from Bach to Billy Joel – at your fingertips.

Listening as a Form of Practice

By: Konner Scott

In the music world, we have this paradigm of practice as a very active endeavor. Practice to us often constitutes repeating passages, playing with a metronome, running scales, and doing the physical & mental legwork necessary to level up on your instrument.

Of course, these things are crucially important. They’re the cornerstone of an effective practice routine. But I’d like to suggest that we expand our cultural understanding of “practice” to include active and passive listening.

Imagine, if you will, a world in which accomplished concert pianist Evgeny Kissin knows how to play piano, but has never actually listened to music. All he knows is how to read the symbols on the sheet music in front of him and replicate them on the keyboard. He can play the proper notes for the correct lengths of time, and perhaps even add the appropriate dynamics and articulation.

Do you think that he’d be able to take that information and apply it in such a way that he could deliver a world-class performance? Would he be able to rouse people to their feet and bring a tear to their eyes? It’s entirely possible, sure. With his particular musical genius, maybe he finds his way to that level of skill without ever actually listening to music. But I think it’s far more likely that something is lost in translation between the sheet music and the keys on the piano.

A music performance, in some sense, is a synthesis of inspiration. Every single high-level performer on Earth has a list of influences who have both consciously and subconsciously influenced their style. Things like feel, tone, emotion, tempo, and phrasing don’t exist in a vacuum. We take on an understanding of these through listening to the works of those who came before us.

This is why I believe that listening is a critical component of being able to play your instrument at the highest level. The more we indulge in our influences, the more the best characteristics of those influences work their way into our playing. And by expanding our musical tastes and interests, we can enhance and synthesize elements of our playing in novel ways.

The difference between active and passive listening is an important one, too. Passive listening is what we do when we’re singing car karaoke with our friends, or listening to heavy metal to get pumped up before our football game. It’s how we listen when we just want to enjoy our favorite music and allow it to elevate us above the material world. This type of listening gives our subconscious minds a chance to process the emotional weight of our favorite music and integrate it into our understanding of the world around us. It’s the reason why you may tear up in the grocery store aisle when an old favorite you haven’t heard for years starts playing over the radio (or maybe this is just me).

Passive listening is useful for being able to deliver a smooth performance. It helps grant us a deeply intimate understanding of what makes music powerful so that we may replicate it in our own playing. Active listening, on the other hand, is important for understanding the fine details of what makes a performance great.

Active listening is a far less common type of listening, and requires much more mental effort and attention. Some questions active listeners may ask themselves while listening to a performance are: What are the differences in dynamics throughout the performance? How does the artist play with subtle tempo changes and what effect does that have on the listener? What is the particular rhythm that holds the performance together? What motifs and themes are incorporated into the melody to make it memorable? Active listening involves listening to the details of a performance with full attention and observing how those details contribute to the performance as a whole.

Both types of listening are incredibly important and should not just supplement a practice regimen, but should be incorporated as a vital component of that regimen. These oft forgotten techniques are simple to employ and can enhance our musicianship in drastic and unforeseen ways. At the very least, you’ll be able to rest easy knowing that your time spent stuck in traffic with the radio on is actually improving your musicianship!

A Tale of Two Attitudes

By: Konner Scott

Do you want to succeed and push yourself to the next level, or do you just want to get it over with?

These are the two prevailing attitudes I see in most of my students (and also within myself). The difference between how these mindsets affect growth is, in my experience, absolutely astounding.

Sure, just going through the motions is better than doing nothing. If you’re mindlessly practicing scales you already know well, and your only goal is to log the hours, you will continue to reinforce them and see marginal improvement. But how does that compare to someone who’s hungry to improve? Someone who masters a scale and then musters up the effort to learn another one, then figures out how to use those scales to improvise and create new melodies?

Sure, forcing yourself to learn one new measure of a song every week will get you across the finish line. If you sit down and slowly work through it 20 minutes every night, eventually you’ll be able to play the song, and perhaps you’ll even be able to play it well. Months down the line, you’ll have something new in your repertoire. But how does that compare to someone who aggressively devours new material, measure after measure, and spends small chunks of their free time reinforcing what they’ve learned?

Hunger; drive; desire- these are the qualities that create success. Balance these with appropriate goal setting and there’s no limit to how far you can go.

However (and this is very important), you can’t expect to carry around that level of intensity all the time! Having stretches of time where the bare minimum is all you have to offer; that’s called being human. Even the greats often struggle with motivation and confidence.

The trick here is to practice resilience. Listen to your body and mind and recognize when it’s necessary to take a break. Nobody is a machine and everybody needs rest. When you recognize yourself starting to slide from a go-getter attitude to a bare-minimum attitude, step away for a few hours, or days, or weeks. Once your battery is charged back up? Time to hit the gas pedal again- full speed ahead.

The Art of Rolling with the Punches

By: Konner Scott

Last week, I was hired to play a gig. They pulled me in last-minute because one of their instrumentalists had backed out. Originally they had asked me to play acoustic guitar, but the night before the show, I was switched over to electric. As if this wasn’t enough to create stress, I also didn’t receive the songs to learn until the morning of the show.

In a past life, I would have panicked. But I’ve been in this situation quite a few times by now. Being a gigging musician is more than just learning and practicing songs: it’s learning to adapt on the fly and to embrace discomfort and challenge.

The first question I had to ask myself was: what’s the most effective use of the time I have before the show? I didn’t have enough time to chart out and memorize the songs the way I usually do, so I had to streamline my process to the best of my ability. I decided that memorizing the keys of the songs would be a great place to start.

Once I had the keys down, I practiced a few simple parts over each chord progression. I tried to come up with some ideas that were easy to remember and play, and would work over additional chords in case I completely forgot the chord progression. (The advantage to playing electric guitar, as it turns out, is that I was able to play more of a “lead” part without relying on the chords).

I did the best I could with the hour I had available, and that evening, I arrived at the venue an hour early to squeeze in a quick rehearsal with the band. However, the band didn’t arrive until about a half hour before the show started, and that time was all spent tuning, sound checking, and polishing up other fine details necessary for the show’s success.

One detail that was skimped, however: I still didn’t really know the songs.

We began playing, and thankfully, the first song was a song I’d actually played at a gig a couple years back. I was a bit rusty, but my familiarity with the song helped me to relax and lean into the performance. I made a decision not to add any more than necessary- any note I played would be deliberate, and I wouldn’t risk doing anything that would ruin the atmosphere of the show. I allowed myself to get lost in the song and not think about the impending stress of the remaining four songs that I’d never played before.

It was at this point that the music director- who was playing keyboard- leaned into his microphone and started calling out the chord progressions to the band. It turns out these were new songs for the rest of the band, too, and even though they had rehearsed, the MD thought it would be wise to be in our ears helping guide us through. What a relief! Suddenly, I could just relax, follow his lead, and trust everything to work out. This, combined with the little bit of preparation I was able to do beforehand, allowed me to do my job effectively and contribute to the show instead of taking away from it.

By the end of the show I was exhausted. We only had five songs to play, but many of the songs were extended well beyond their original run time, with long interludes and breaks in between. We played for three and a half hours, all of which I spent learning the songs on the fly and trying to blend with the band.

After the show, the man who organized the performance and who had hired me came up to chat. He told me that he was grateful that I was able to jump in and assimilate with such short notice. He promised that he wanted me back for the next performance, and that they would give me more heads up next time.

This is not an effort to flaunt my abilities. Three years ago, had I been in this situation, I would have undoubtedly freaked out and ruined the show. The entire point is that these past few years of taking whatever gigs I could find had prepared me well for this circumstance. This was far from the first time I was pushed to adapt quickly to an uncomfortable situation, and I’ve found that- as long as I’m willing to put my best effort forward, try to relax, and trust the process- good things tend to happen, and those good things get better with practice and experience.

This is a life skill that extends beyond music. Playing gigs has helped me learn to roll with the punches, but it’s been a skill that I’ve been able to apply broadly. As a music teacher, I will occasionally have to step in and sub for another teacher last minute. This means teaching someone I’ve never worked with before with absolutely no lesson plan, and having to find ways to adapt and make our lesson productive.

It sounds cliché, but it’s honest: we never know what life will throw at us. The best way to learn to handle that uncertainty is to become comfortable being uncomfortable. I’ve found that if I’m willing to embrace scary situations, especially when I feel unprepared, I can actually learn how to better handle any new situation thrown at me. And funnily enough, embracing that anxiety can actually make life a lot more exciting and fun.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

By: Konner Scott

Recently, I bought a book that details the personal histories of some of the world’s greatest classical composers. I highly recommend it: it’s called “The Indispensable Composers” by Anthony Tommasini. Now usually, when I read books, I opt for something other than music-related literature. Considering music is both my full-time job and biggest hobby, I like to give my mind a break every so often. In this case, though, a couple different factors pushed me to buy this particular book.

First, I had the realization that even though I learned piano in the classical tradition, I know very little about the composers that form the backbone of my musical journey. I suppose I could be forgiven for not knowing much about their personal histories, but I also know embarrassingly little about their bodies of work and stylistic trademarks, especially considering how many of their songs I’ve learned over the years. This book promised to detail out all of the above, and I figured maybe it was high time I learned.

I also thought about my own musical goals. I want to be the best songwriter and composer I can possibly be, and I proudly work tirelessly at that goal. But how great can I really be if I’ve never educated myself on the experiences, histories, and mindsets of the greatest people in my field who have ever lived? Sure, I can pursue a path that’s authentically me, but my experience in other fields has taught me that learning from the best mentors you can find is akin to taking drastic shortcuts to wherever you’re trying to go. Why wouldn’t it be the same with music?

As I’ve been reading this book, I’ve been learning some amazing things about the classical musicians who basically raised me. I learned that Mozart was touring Europe and performing for royalty before he even turned six years old. I learned that Robert Schumann suffered greatly from what we now think is Bipolar Disorder, to the extent that it drove him to a suicide attempt. I learned that Chopin was raised in Poland but lived his entire adult life in Paris. I learned that he never felt truly at home in either place.

I’ve learned about the anatomy of symphonies and sonatas. I’ve learned that Beethoven had a flair for the unconventional and the dramatic, while Bach’s legendary set of Preludes and Fugues were more or less intended to be technical exercises to help his contemporaries improve their clavier skills. The book has pointed me towards specific pieces that demonstrate beautiful examples of melody, harmony, rhythm, theme & motif, and pretty much any other important musical skill I can think of. Listening to these pieces now, I hear them in a different way. I can better understand what made them great, and I can better apply those principles to my own music.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned, though, is how much there is to learn. All my musical heroes are human, just like me. They had good and bad days. They had their genius moments and they had their flaws. But the thing that ties them all together is their willingness to learn and their desire to grow. They researched the tradition that came before them and they sought out mentorship from the elite musicians of their time. And I can’t help but smile, because as I learn more about these towering giants of the past, I realize that I’m attempting to do the exact same thing.

How I Learned to Play (and Listen to) Music for Myself

By: Konner Scott

I’ll admit it up front: I’m remarkably insecure about my level of musicianship. It’s quite difficult for me to hear a recording or see a live show and just enjoy the music, instead of comparing myself to the instrumentalists involved and wondering if I could fill their shoes. Whenever I play with musicians I haven’t performed or rehearsed with before, it’s an exercise in staying in my lane and not trying to constantly prove myself.

I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember. I have a hyper-competitive personality, and my natural instinct in such situations is to try to one-up everybody and prove why I’m the best musician in the room. Of course, when I’ve given in to these destructive instincts, the results have been just that: destructive.

Good music is finicky. It’s easy to ruin a good groove. A few wrong notes (or for that matter, a few too many notes) can be the difference between a stunningly emotional masterpiece and a jumbled mess. Walking that fine line is an art form in and of itself.

When I first decided I wanted to play music professionally, I was frequently in this position. It was soul crushing. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong or why everybody always seemed to be on a more “pure” musical wavelength than me, and I kept feeling like my job was to show up and ruin whatever was going on.

Eventually, I got fed up enough with trying so hard (or “over-trying”, which I didn’t recognize at the time) that I began to allow myself space to just play and listen. As soon as I adopted this mentality, things began to improve. I slowly began to realize that the more I focused on myself and my own playing, the less I was focused on blending in with the musicians around me. We were all paints on a canvas, and often I found myself trying to be neon yellow splattered across a subdued landscape. No surprise at all that it didn’t work!

Over time, I came to understand that when I was playing with other musicians, I had a role, and everybody suffered if I tried to overextend myself. If I was the rhythm guitarist, I shouldn’t be trying to take solos. If I was playing piano on a soft ballad, whipping out some wild Chopin-style riffs would only confuse and frustrate the audience (and, equally importantly, the other musicians).

This became even more obvious once I started to listen to other musicians with a critical ear. I found that even the musicians I admired most (or, perhaps, especially those musicians) would primarily play with the other musicians, not in spite of them. Neil Peart’s drum solos, for example, are like nothing I’ve ever heard… but he’s not constantly playing insane solos in the background of Rush songs! Most of the time, he finds a groove that’s technically proficient enough to be interesting, but not so over the top that it destroys the whole musical landscape.

Once I had this realization, I began to focus more and more on how to use my skill set to best serve the role I was trying to fill. I now think in terms of “how not to ruin the performance” instead of “how to show off as much as possible”. Strangely enough, most of the time the solution has been to play less!