For musicians: 10 ways to improve and invigorate your playing

For musicians, the most obvious answer to the question “How do I improve my playing?” is very simple: “Practice!”.  In reality, though, I’ve found that improvement is not always a linear process, and can be approached in various ways depending upon where in the developmental process the individual musician finds him/herself.  For example, an enthusiastic high school student may have an approach that is different from that of a technically proficient but somewhat burned-out 50-yr-old clarinetist.

With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of 10 ways that musicians can improve and invigorate their playing. Some of the items may help different people at different times, and many deal with keeping things ‘fresh’ in the spirit of artistic rejuvenation.  I recently saw a video about classical musicians in the Philadelphia Orchestra who play salsa, bluegrass, and other non-classical styles to keep their outlook fresh. In other words, the more you love what you’re doing, the better the chances are that you’ll perform at your maximum potential.

Here’s the list:

10 ways to improve and invigorate your playing:

1. Pick one thing to practice for an extended period of time. This can be a piece of classical music, a difficult jazz transcription, or a particular technique. Several years ago I realized that I never liked how I improvised over “Rhythm Changes”, which are important in jazz. So I made a whole practice routine involving 50 exercises to be practiced in all 12 keys. I worked at it daily for over a year and kept a practice log. Even though I sometimes only did it for 10 minutes, it was extremely gratifying to have this kind of continuity. And I started to actually enjoy how I sounded on “Rhythm Changes”!

2. Find someone to play with. The give-and-take of rehearsing with another musician can give you fresh energy.

3. Go to concerts. This one sounds obvious, but often we get so busy with our schedules that we don’t take the time to just go out and enjoy listening to music.

4. Relax! Have fun with your current level of playing. Folk and rock musicians are good at this; jazz and classical players often beat themselves up when they don’t feel they’re playing well. This self-criticism, if it becomes negative, can make us play poorly.

5. Teach young kids. Many professional musicians prefer to teach students who have a high technical ability, at the high school and college levels. While I enjoy that too, I was surprised to find that my own playing soared to new heights after teaching improvisation to 5-8 yr-olds. I was having such a great time jamming with them in a non-judgemnetal way that I began to trust in the flow of the music, instead of always trying to outdo myself.

6. Read interviews with your favorite musicians. (Easily available via the internet)

7. Study a new instrument. I recently blew into a clarinet for the first time and was astounded by the instrument’s resonance. This type of experience can help keep music fresh.

8. Listen to the music you liked when you were 15 years old. It may still hold a special place in your heart.

9. Check out the best of today’s artists. They may be of a different generation than your favorites, but they’ll bring a fresh perspective to the styles you enjoy.

10. Find a teacher. A good instructor can help you learn a new style, refine your technique, or simply give you the support and encouragement to help you keep growing.

There you have it; my 10 ways to improve and invigorate your playing. Let me know what you think, and what your ideas are. Do you have any suggestions from your own experience? Share them in the comments section!

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12 thoughts on “For musicians: 10 ways to improve and invigorate your playing”

  1. I have the absolute pleasure of living next door to Ron. I get to hear him play the most beautiful music. A truly kind and patient man who is an amazing teacher. Allow yourself a few minutes to review his videos here under “free lessons” you have nothing to lose! The world needs more musicians!!!!!!!!

  2. I love these, Ron! Well, okay, so maybe not the “teach young kids” one because I’m just not good with that age group! You had recommended the book, “Songwriters on Songwriting” to me a while back, and I just love it! I’ve read the Walter Becker interview about 5 times because it’s so interesting. I also find that talking with my fellow local songwriters can get reinvigorated in my own music. Now, what advice do you have for squeezing energy out of a limp rag? 😉 My job takes so much out of me even tho I really love it…

  3. Limp rag, huh? Maybe playing music for 5 min each morning before you go to work. Make the time for yourself for 2 weeks to see how it goes. I often do something like that.


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