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!