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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lane

The Musician Toolkit

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

As of today when this is posted, I am starting a new podcast called The Musician Toolkit, and my blog will partly be in sync as far as the main content. The podcast will not solely talk about the toolkit itself, but will frequently bring up the elements.

What is the Musician Toolkit?

For years, I've had a toolkit in my car. It has, among other things, a socket wrench with probably 18 different sized attachments. I've probably used 8 of them. There are other tools in there that I've used quite a bit (bit driver and attachments, allen wrenches), and there are some tools that I've seldom used (zip ties), or a few that I've never used at all (antifreeze tester, electric wire cutters). However, I know one thing: having the tools with me and not needing them is much better than needing them and not having them.

I've met music students in the past who were only concerned with how well they played their instrument, and sometimes how well they played their instrument in a certain style. You know who I'm talking about? The violinist who can't fiddle. The opera singer who can't sing pop or theatre. The guitarist who plays his Rodrigo rep but can't whip out a Jimi Hendrix riff.

But besides being versatile in styles, how about the composer who can't compose at a table because they HAVE to hear the sounds before knowing what to write? The terrific sight-reader who can't play by ear. The great improviser who can't read music well enough to follow a chart. The classical musician who doesn't know what to do with a lead sheet. The jazz musician who can't play what's on the page. The instrumentalist or vocalist who doesn't understand how their note fits with the chord. The musician who simply can't transpose. And how can you be an advanced musician and not know how to create (improvise or compose) at least a little?

No musician is born with every toolkit firmly in place, and probably very few musicians make use of all of them (at least not in equal amounts), but good musicians are not one-trick ponies. They embrace their strengths and use them well, but are also mindful of their weaknesses.

As I've said quite a bit in the past, I never had trouble with improvisation, memorizing, or playing by ear. But I was woefully underdeveloped as a sight-reader when I began college life as a music major, and had to work hard to bring this up to par. I've since then discovered to be one of the most valuable tools a performer can have.

The Tools

This almost certainly isn't a complete list, but these 20 skills will start us on further exploration of what a well-tooled musician needs to be as good as possible (in no particular order):

  1. The Skill of Sight-reading: This is simply the ability to play a piece well without previous practice.

  2. A Well-Developed Ear: To hear a piece of music and know what is going on and how to imitate it on your instrument is an essential tool.

  3. The Ability to Transpose: All is forgiven if you aren't ready to transpose any Chopin Etude to any key, but you should be able to do that with a church hymn, or the accompaniment of an art song, or any pop song, or any jazz chart.

  4. Skill of Creation - Improvisation: Spontaneous music creation is something that FAR more people in the history of creating music have had compared to...

  5. Skill of Creation - Composing: Writing music down and crafting it to a polish. This is a very marketable skill that can be coupled with skills that won't get their own mention such as Orchestration. You can also add Arranging to this as an equal branch.

  6. The Ability to Practice: "Just sit down and do it!" is useless advice. A good musician can take any piece on any level and figure out how it can be learned and come up with a low-stress strategy to make it happen!

  7. The Ability to Play Any Rhythm: Percussionists, take a seat. Everyone else, hang around. There's some bad notation out there, but any rhythm that exists within good notation should be something that you can play either by sight or with little practice.

  8. Mastery of One Instrument: There's a danger with this whole topic and that is the possibility of trying to be come "Jack of all trades, master of none". You don't have to win an international prize or hold 1st chair in your orchestra, but you need to be good on at least one instrument.

  9. Experience with Other Instruments: I've never met a truly great musician who wasn't at least a little familiar with a completely different instrument. Not all instruments put an emphasis on the same musical qualities, so that experience makes you a good musician.

  10. The Ability to Sing: Professional vocalists, sit down. Everyone else, hang around. There are elements of music you can only truly understand by singing with your own voice. You should, at the least, be able to sing in tune and with expression.

  11. Knowledge of the Piano: Pianists, sit down. Everyone else, hang around. The piano has several advantages as a tool for musicians. First of all, it's excellent for teaching regardless of the instrument being taught. Second, it has the widest range of anything other than a pipe organ, can demonstrate melody and accompaniment, and can show a visual layout of pitches.

  12. Knowledge of Music Theory: I took note in college of classmates who completely tuned out to music theory. It was a required course, and one they just had to get through, but they had no excitement or appreciation for the subject. As far as I can tell, none of them still work as musicians. Understanding how music works is essential to being a musician.

  13. Knowledge of Music History: I'm no purist and will never say absolutely NOT to use a damper pedal in Bach's music because it wasn't used and couldn't have been used back then. But I also need to realize how reckless it may sound to use a Debussy bass-to-bass style pedaling or how the ornaments would have been played. Jazz musicians need to know how their '30s chart would sound differently than their '60s chart.

  14. Ability to Follow Other Musicians: If you've ever played with someone who jumped a measure ahead while you kept going oblivious for at least a short while, this is a tool that needs improving. Sometimes others make mistakes or get off the book. You need to be able to go with the flow.

  15. Ability to Play in Many Styles: Classical, jazz, rock, pop, country, R&B etc. You don't have to be great at everything, but you shouldn't be completely inexperienced in anything.

  16. Experience with Conducting: Do you need to be called the new Bernstein? No, but you should be able to lead any group of musicians in a rehearsal or performance.

  17. Experience with Studio Production: Whether you run a mixing board, add in some plug-ins, or just want to not be nodding while pretending to understand while the engineer talks to you, it's good to understand how recording, mixing, editing, and mastering all works. Consider that Experience with Music Technology (such as notation and sequencing software) is an extension of this tool.

  18. The Ability to Teach: In running by this list with someone else, I got push-back on this. "Not everyone is meant to teach", and they named a colleague as a perfect example. In the end, we all agreed...whether you only ever have a single student and even if that student is yourself, the ability to explain what you do and how to do it will not only help create other musicians but also continue your own development.

  19. The Ability to Memorize Music: Not every musician finds this necessary, but as I often tell my students, it's great to receive a request to play some music, and not have to use "Sorry, I don't have my book" as an excuse.

  20. Basic Business and Marketing Skills: If your goal is simply to be a high-caliber artist who makes their money from another profession, then this isn't needed when it comes to your music. Professional musicians, however, need to see themselves as business owners. Those who don't sit around wondering why nobody is calling them for a job.

My new podcast and related blog posts will regularly go over all these tools and how to go about improving them without going through a conservatory classroom approach.

The podcast will also talk about the specific tools most helpful for various jobs a musician should have, exploring those jobs one at a time.

What are the tools for being a great musician do you think I've left out?

You can listen to this at as a podcast here:

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