How Do I Reach the Next Level of Musicianship?

Every person can learn something new, regardless of their age or years of experience.  The operative question is not “Can I” or “May I,” but “How do I.”  It is a state of mind, an attitude.  Do you want to learn?

The challenge I face, and many of the people I have worked with, has been to acknowledge that we do not know it all and that we might have something to learn.  Choosing this point of view requires vulnerability, or humility.

Humility means primarily “not proud or arrogant, modest,” and comes from the root word humilis, which means “lowly, insignificant, on the ground.”  Humilis comes from the root word humus, which means “the dark organic material in soils . . . essential to the fertility of the earth.”

The resultant meaning of humility is not self-disrespect or self-demeaning or self-deprecating; those are actually reverse forms of pride, where we sabotage our own egos so that no one else can.  Humility is bringing yourself low enough that you make your heart a fertile place for things to grow.

Humility is described this way in Proverbs 25:6-7: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

Once we acknowledge we do not know it all, then we are in a place to actually take steps forward in our musicianship.  The opera star Cecilia Bartoli takes lessons from her mother to this day, even though she has been on top of the vocal world for years.  The same was true of Beverly Sills.

And the same has been true of the great musicians I have known in church bands; they all find a way to learn and continue to grow.  If you do not have tons of money for lessons with a world class musician, here are some tips I have learned that can help you get a head start.

1.  Memorize.  You can memorize your music, and it will change your musicianship and worship experience.  The congregation will be thrilled to see you without a music stand in front of you.  So many worship bands are populated by music stands with heads.  Let me give you a hint: NOT engaging!

A friend of mine thought that memorization was out of his capability as a worship leader; memorizing all of the lyrics had always been difficult.  When he buckled down and worked at it – listening to the music every day, reviewing the words – he found he could do it, and he realized that he could focus so much more clearly on the congregation as he led.

  • So what’s your excuse?

2.  Take lessons.  OK, so right off the bat let me acknowledge that this can be costly, which is a challenge in this economical climate.  Lessons with a professional is optimal.  A guitarist friend of mine would take jazz guitar lessons for a while, then classical, then trumpet, and on down the line, increasing his overall musicianship.

If you do not have the cash, have you lead guitarists considered getting all of the lead guitarists together and having a show and tell on each person’s foot pedal techniques, equipment, and sounds?  (insert keyboardists, pianists, vocalists, whatever)  Of course, that would require a little humility, which is tough for us ego-heavy musicians.  The up side is . . . it’s FREE.  Everyone bring some nachos and munchies and make it a party (um, party – meaning fun and sober, not party – meaning pasted).  In the end something more important than musicianship happens: community.  When you work together like this, the whole team benefits and the atmosphere on the platform changes.

Another option is using technology to gain the input of other musicians.  Check out my example on point 3.

  • So what’s your excuse?

3.  Practice.  Yep, that’s right, good ol’ sweat and effort.  Nothing beats spending focused time on your instrument.  Note I said focused.  You might want to check out my friend Erica Sipes’ blog, where she is experimenting with practicing only 15 minutes a day as she prepares Beethoven’s third piano concerto for a competition.  Erica is a fabulous musician who is posting video of herself practicing and gaining input from other musicians who watch her blog and comment.  Talk about humility!

Her big push right now is to really focus and not practice for practice’s sake – no “junk” practicing, as her friend called it.  (By the way, she is playing by memory; notice that?)

Oh, and she is only practicing 15 minutes a day . . . for a concerto.  Not 60, 90, . . . . 15.

  • So what’s your excuse?

4.  Emulate.  Whether you are writing songs or learning music, and whether the style is rock or classical, one of the best things you can do is emulate great artists and try to figure out how they got their sounds.  This is one of the biggest reasons I recommend using recordings to guide the band in their preparation.  When you prepare a song and try to get your sounds and playing to be like the recording, you stretch your own musicianship and you grow.

When I was studying piano in my undergraduate degree, one of the first things we would do when we were assigned a new piece was to go listen to half a dozen different versions of it to see what the great artists have done.  Besides being a feast for the ears, you could look at how different artists resolved different issues in the piece and give yourself some options as a starting place.  Then we would go off and make the piece our own.

Emulation requires humility, though.  Enough humility to be willing to be accused of being a cover band when you are actually increasing your band’s musicianship.  Some bands are focused on being cover bands, duplicates.  You might get lumped in with them.  No matter.  You know what you are doing and why; who cares what the critics say.

  • So what’s your excuse?

By now I am starting to feel, as usual, convicted by my own writing.  I think I need to practice some more today!!

How have you encouraged your musicians to remain humble and teachable, and did it work?  How have you helped them to increase their musicianship?

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One thought on “How Do I Reach the Next Level of Musicianship?

  1. Thanks a lot, Maurice. Musicianship is a big issue with our little church band, and previous efforts of mine have met with discouraging results. Thanks for the ideas. They will help me improve my own playing at least, and also provide some good ideas for our band.

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