Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How to Listen

One of the most important traits a musician can have is how to listen effectively. Yet it's something that doesn't seem to happen often enough. It's mentioned but it's rarely taught or discussed. Listening is important for playing well in a group. It's important in figuring out (and enjoying) music. It's important in creativity.

Listen Up!

Arguably, one thing that makes great players great isn't so much their playing as it is their hearing. When listening to great players, they always seem to have a great sense of rhythm. They seem to be able to play what's 'appropriate' or 'interesting'. This comes from listening. Having great chops is one thing, knowing when to play what is another. All of this comes from listening. When playing with other players, no matter what kind of music you play, it's vitally important that you listen. You can always tell the tightest bands because the members make sure that they listen to each other. When playing with others, you should be listening to only about 40% of yourself, the rest should be everybody else. Of course the number is arbitrary, but you get the idea.

Easy Listening

There are many ways to listen. All of them are important to musicians. The first is the way you first started to listen and that's simply for enjoyment. There isn't much right brain activity, it's mostly about feeling the rhythm and melody. Beyond feeling the music, there may be some right brain activity involved in sorting out the various parts of the song and listening to the lyrics. But, you're mostly just enjoying the music without too much brain activity. This is important because this is how music is consumed a lot of the time. It's also useful when writing or listening back to your own creations. Sometimes when we write and record we get lost in the details too much and forget to just listen. This is what happens when you're right in the middle of recording. You listen back to the track but you're no longer completely separated. You're hearing the part you just recorded, your ears may be fatigued, or you may be listening to the mix. Whenever you do a lot of work on a specific track, I always suggest time to leave it. Once you've left it for a while, you come back with fresh ears. With fresh ears, you begin once again to listen like this. You hear the song, the rhythm and feel all in one instead of the separate parts. This is like the critical listening, without the actual 'technical' part.

Critical Listening Part I

This is sort of listening you do when working on tracks and recording yourself. This involves taking your performance apart and making sure it all works. This is critical in a musician's development. You must be able to sit down and critically assess your own performance. This involves pitch, timing, feel and dynamics. If you can hear the problems in your own performance, you're more likely able to fix them. It also works when writing and improvising. It means listening to your track and being able to assess if you've created the right message; to assess if it's 'working' or not. This means the lyric, the chords/harmony, phrasing, rhythm, etc. It's listening creatively to see if you're getting your message across. This is also critical in developing your own voice and style. It means listening to your dialogue and tweaking it until you're saying what you want to say.

Critical Listening Part II

This is another level of listening. This is the listening that goes on when actually playing and performing. It's the sort of listening I encourage all of my students to do. I start with playing to a metronome. Playing with a metronome isn't just about playing rhythms, it's about listening. I usually start with just practicing rhythms in 8th notes. I don't make the metronome very loud at all. This way the student has to really listen to make sure they're in time. Too often we get lost in listening to ourselves and lose track with the rest of the band. Playing with a metronome forces you to use a huge portion of your focus away from yourself. This has two outcomes. First of all, you get into the habit of not just listening to yourself but trying to 'meld in' with a group. You have to play with the metronome, not against it. So often you hear performers who seem to be in their own little world. They're in time (sort of) but they seem removed from the band and the song. This is because they're only listening to themselves and not the rest of the band, It's important that your listen to everybody else and become part of that sound, instead of simply sitting on top. Secondly, you get really sympathetic with other sounds besides your own instrument. It means you can hear any sound that you choose to focus on. It helps you isolate the kick or hi-hat when the rest of the band is playing at full boar. It makes you aware of all of the sounds going on a one time. It's great when playing with a band, you can pretty much hear what everybody else is doing (even to the point of picking out bad notes from other band members). It's almost like listening in 3D.

Combining the Difference

As you can see, there are many ways of listening. There are others but they are mostly variations of the ones listed above. Each one is valuable in it's own way. You should be able to go between each of these at will. When practicing, you want to have your 'critical listening II' going on. Making sure you're listening to everything that's going on. Making sure your rhythm and phrasing is in time. After practice, turn on your 'critical listening I' and see how your performance went. Where you in the pocket or playing ahead? Are there some interesting ideas there, or are just rambling on? After finishing up some initial takes and/or tracks, you may want to kick back and do some basic listening, seeing if it all works together. Is the message and vibe getting across, or did you make it too complicated? Make it too jazzy and not bluesy enough (or whatever you set out to do in the first place)?

Working On Your Ears

Whenever you sit down to practice, some ear training exercises should be part of your regular practice session. That means listening to and evaluating rhythms, pitches, scales, chords etc. Once you get your ear in motion and work at it everyday, a whole new world will open up for you.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Musician's Top 10 Getting It Done List

Being a working musician is tough. You're pretty much on your own. You have to take care of all of the business, networking and finances. On top of that you have to find time after a busy day to try and be creative and make some great art. Here are a list of things to help you keep focused and on track.

1. Move away from abstract ideas to actionable goals - There was a study done with two groups of people. Both groups where given a set of tasks to complete. Group A's tasks where clear and concise (like go pickup this, go here etc.); whereas Group B's tasks where a little more abstract (like having to pick out 'interesting items'). Group A completed all of the tasks whereas Group B had trouble completing the list. It's much easier for us to complete concrete, measurable goals. This especially applies to musicians because so much of what we do is abstract. For example your goal maybe to write a song. That's not well enough defined and also may not be something you can complete in one go. A better goal would be to finish a first draft of a pop song or ballad. This applies to everything; your writing, business and practice sessions.

2. Work backwards with the end in mind - This is another well known technique that is hard for musicians to convert to their art. If you're creating art, you can't start with the end in mind because you usually don't know what the end is. This works better for career goals and band/marketing/business tasks but like noted above can be helpful in your writing and practicing. For example you have a band and don't know where you want to go. You decide that you want to release a 6 song professionally done CD in 6 months. That's starting with the end in mind. Now when you get together you can start planning for that end.

3. Create and/or get involved in a community/network - One of the worst mistakes I see artists doing is working in a vacuum. Not only does networking and being in a large community help with your creativity, it helps get gigs, make money and keeps you in touch with what's going on. It also helps in the learning curve since so much can be gained from others' experience and mistakes.

4. Take note of your successes - It's easy to get carried away with trying to get stuff done that you don't take notice of what you've accomplished. This is also very important in another aspect; if you take note of your successes, you'll slowly start to learn what works and what doesn't. Most of the time musicians have to fly by the seat of their pants. If you come across something that works, take note and use it again. It doesn't matter if it goes against the grain or not, if it works for you, it works.

5. Review plans and goals often - This goes along with the previous. It's too easy to get carried away in creating music and playing without taking note of why you're doing it or if it's line with your goals. One of the great things about music is that it is literally never ending. It's too easy to go in a hundred different directions at once and in the end not get anything done at all. Make sure what you're doing stays in line with your goals. Review your goals often; edit and change when you feel the need.

6. Create time-lines and deadlines - I've known musicians how have worked on the same song for years. It's important that for every goal you write down, you create a time-line and more importantly a deadline. Try as hard as you can to adhere to these if you can. If you've put something on your list, it has to have importance to it and it has to be done. This is one of the best ways of getting things done.

7. Simplify - There are a million things that you have to do. More now than ever, a musician has to be effective in tons of areas. The best way to make sure things are getting done is to simplify. Simplify your entire life if you can. That means sometimes saying no to new projects because you must finish the ones you're on. That means using the gear you have and not needing every new piece that comes along. It means saying no to other activities to open up time for your music. Or, leaving off some new musical ventures and techniques because you have to prepare for your next gig. You must be ruthless in this area. If you are effective in this, you may actually find time opening up for all of those other things that you want to do.

8. Create working hours - It's too easy to just try and fit your musical activities into your 'free' time and hope to get it all done. The most effective way to make sure that you're getting something done everyday is to assign certain times of the day for work and practice. I separate the two; music business, and music practice. Music business can be done at almost anytime of the day although I find it's best to do it first; that way I know that it's getting done. The first thing you should do during your 'office hours' is go through your goals and planner and see what needs to be done. That way you're always on course and not likely to waste time on things that aren't on your list. Secondly, always schedule practice and writing time into your day. You may find that certain times work better for this than others. Maybe you're more creative at night therefore you would schedule your time for that. Schedule in a certain amount of time (I like to work in half hour increments) and always make sure you do at least that.

9. Be diligent - Getting stuff done on your own takes a lot of discipline. It's important that you stay focused, practice discipline (it's a muscle, not a talent), and always finish important projects. It's easy to get discouraged and let things go. It takes diligence to make it.

10. Always make time for your art - Being a musician is a 24 hour a day lifestyle. Although it may not seem like it, this list is to free your mind so you can get that all important work done. When you have a community that you are a part of, if you're taking care of the business side, if you're staying disciplined and on course, it becomes a lot easier to get more done. You'll be amazed at how much more you enjoy the process, even though there's a ton of stuff going on. Most of all, it leaves time in everyday to be creative and just enjoy being a musician.

Try and Try Again

The idea of getting things done isn't new. Most of these are tried and true techniques. Musicians and artists seem to have issues all of their own. It's important that you address these and find work-arounds. It's tough enough trying to create great art in the first place, never mind having to deal with the million other things in your life. Simplify, work hard and stay focused and you'll soon find yourself enjoying the process all that much more.