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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lane

What's keeping you from being a GREAT Performing Musician?

(This is a revision of a post from my old blog originally posted on May 22, 2019)

For the sake of simplification, we're going to say that there are 4 types of musicians in the world: Bad, Average, Good, and Great. I understand that there are transitionary levels ("below average", "above average"), which do not need to be mentioned since these imply moving from bad to average or from average to good. I also won't mention descriptions beyond great (such as elite) which represents a very small percentage of people who play your instrument, and honestly... If you're old enough to read this blog, and are reading about about how to improve your musicianship, then you probably haven't started early and fast enough to become elite. But don't be depressed. Being merely a great pianist, violinist, clarinetist, vocalist, and so on is not only nothing to cry about, but it is a laudable achievement that is something to strive for. However, most musicians are not great. Bad and average musicians probably make up way over half, maybe even *60% of all musicians in the world. Of the remaining 40-50%, most of these musicians are good, with only a small percentage being great or elite. Why is this the case? For reasons you'll see, climbing up the ladder in musician categories is hard. This is very important before we go on. It's crucial that you accept this fact before moving on with this article, because I'm going to make a big deal of it. (*These percentages are completely made up, but based on experience and observation.)

Being GREAT at an instrument is HARD! Being GREAT at an instrument is HARD and takes A LOT of time! Some of you might be thinking: Really? Okay. I guess I won't be great at my instrument if it's going to be really hard and take a lot of time. I'll go be great at something else that isn't as hard. So, let me go ahead and tell you this before you go away. Being GREAT at ANYTHING is HARD and takes A LOT of time! So if anything requires difficulty and time to be great, why not pursue that on the piano or the marimba or the viola or the oboe or any other instrument? Let's proceed. This article is about becoming GREAT, but we have to quickly talk about how to get from bad to good. TO BE A BAD PERFORMER Simply play during your lessons, and hardly ever in between. Practice, if it occurs, is unfocused. Or...take a few lessons, and stop. Don't practice at all. TO BE AN AVERAGE PERFORMER Practice at least a few days per week with some focus. Practice on new and challenging material doesn't have to be a high percentage of your time on your instrument, but it needs to be something regular. Do this consistently for at least a year or two, and you will be an average instrumentalist of vocalist TO BE A GOOD PERFORMER Practice needs to become a HABIT. You need to shoot for daily time at your instrument. You need to be focusing practice on new and challenging skills and pieces. You also need to be taking lessons, or have someone experienced who can give you feedback. How much time should you be spending? Honestly, it doesn't really matter. Practice 15 minutes a day with focus, and you'll eventually be good, but it may take many years. Practice several hours a day, and you'll get good faster. But practice 8 hours a day with just what I said, and you'll never be great. Sorry, but it's not enough, and that's because time and effort are only parts of what make someone great.

What's keeping you from being a GREAT performer? 1. You're not GOOD yet. This is a simple test. Is practice a habit, a daily habit? Are you focusing on new and challenging material? Are you taking lessons, and applying feedback to your practice? You have to do this to become good. You don't go from bad to great or average to great without passing by "good". Check your habits. This is not requirement 101, but 099...something you must do before you can move on. 2. You place too much value on comfort and satisfaction. As I said, practice 8 hours a day with the habits of a good instrumentalist or vocalist, and you won't be great...IF your material and technique doesn't stretch you to your limits. A runner who isn't huffing and gasping every now and then knows they won't get faster. A weight lifter who doesn't feel the soreness of muscle burn isn't getting much stronger. As a musician, you must face the facts: Stretching yourself requires DISCOMFORT. Practicing in a way to be great will not feed your ego. If you want to be a good performer with great self-esteem, then take that piece you learned last year that you already know and play it until it's fast and fulfilling. Being a great performer will not feed your ego. The road to being great is chock-full of potholes. It is constantly under construction. There are detours. You'll have times where you wish you could just go back to the land of good and stay there. At the same time, the road to great does make progress, and you are getting closer if you persevere. The next few points are related.

3. You waste time on easy sections, and ignore what is difficult. Unless you're trying to jump many levels ahead, almost nothing you practice is totally hard. It has easy measures and hard measures. In most cases, it should be simple to figure out which is which. The ego-driven good instrumentalist or vocalist practices what is easy every chance they can, because it's fun to hear the accomplishment and avoid the brain strain of what great performers do: Dive in, struggle, and wrestle with the difficult sections. Commit a large portion of your practice to the hard places. Tackle them first, and tackle them often. If you have pesky measures, there's a huge advantage to doing 5-10 focused minutes of practice on the same spot multiple times a day. Give yourself a break, but keep coming back. Don't get mad or discouraged while it's hard. You WILL win every match eventually if you simply don't give up. 4. Your music is too easy. I'm going to be specific for pianists here because I know the repertoire, but there's a similar path for other instruments and for vocalists. Here's an easy guide to the levels: To be average, play music that average pianists play. To be good, play music that good pianists play. To be great, play music that great pianists play. Now this is tricky, because the road from Clementi's Sonatina op. 36, no. 1

to Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata (still regarded as one of the most difficult pieces ever written)

has many, many steps in between. Your music should always challenge you, but never overwhelm you. You need to be practicing music that will advance you a few more miles down the Road to Greatness. Practice easier music to stay in the land of good, but with more property. This is where a teacher is invaluable, to help you move forward at the pace that best suits you. 5. You ignore or underemphasize your technique. Check out Valentina Lisitsa performing the finale of the Hammerklavier Sonata starting about 30 seconds before the sheet music excerpt I posted above.

To achieve the speed and independence required to play that requires many hundred to thousands of hours on specific scales and arpeggios, not to mention etudes and exercise that mix these together. Here's a fact: The speed of your scales is the limit of how fast you can play music with those scales. The same goes with arpeggios. Learn your skills, then speed them up, then learn them in harder ways, and speed them up again. This needs to be a regular part of your practice. 6. You neglect your theory. I've met good musicians who don't know much about theory, but I've never met a great musician who was lacking. Theory requires study, written study. The more you know, the better you understand what you're playing. 7. You haven't mastered the art of Deliberate Practice This is the most important distinction between a great and good performer. A good performer can work on something hard, but the goal might be: I'm going to start on measure 1 and play to measure 16 as many times as I can within 20 minutes. The great performer looks at the really tricky measure 12 (the one with the chromatic scale), and practices ONLY that for 15 minutes. They practice it super slowly focusing on fingerings and absolute accuracy. Then they apply long-short and short-long rhythms. They also approach it from the end, moving progressively backwards from the beginning. They notice that, since it's chromatic, so they review a chromatic scale. They then get out a metronome, and work on the tempo. They'll also do this tomorrow and the next day and so on until it's mastered. This blog was inspired by a book that talks about this 7th step, one that I highly recommend to those of all ages: "So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love" by Cal Newport

By the way, there is nothing wrong with being an average or good instrumentalist or vocalist. If you enjoy the fun side of your instrument, but get burned out from the challenge, this is not something to find shameful or embarrassing. Music should, in the end, give you joy and serve your needs. This article is only if you're wondering: what's keeping me from being great? And the answers are: only your time, your resistance to difficulty, and/or your approach to learning. Master those steps, and you'll too be great!

What resonated with you, or what did I leave out? Comment below, or let me know here:

The podcast episode based on this blog post can be heard here:

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