Saturday, July 23, 2011

Keys To Becoming a Great Musician

There are many ways to get good at your perspective instrument and achieve some success in the music industry. It usually entails spending many hours in the practice room, going over the fundamentals. Then getting out there and trying to make some money from all of your efforts. Along the way you will find that there are some skills things that are more important than others as far as what it takes to be a musician. In fact, if you practice these essentials, it will be the difference between you being a mediocre musician and a great one.


I'm going to mention one musical skill above all others and that's great rhythm. Great rhythm is critical. Rhythm is is a huge subject which we don't have space to cover completely here but we'll start with some basics. People think that rhythm is simply playing in time. This is a tiny part of rhythm. Rhythm is part of everything you play and if you can play it with great rhythm, you'll be a great musician. Every melody, accompaniment, vocal line, solo...everything has an inherent rhythm. It's too easy to pass this off without making sure that we're playing the rhythm properly and in time. All too often musicians are all over the board when it comes to playing and soloing. You want to be in time or be out of time on purpose. It's important that you really take notice of where exactly you are putting those notes. If you're not sure, try this:
Set up your metronome at a pretty slow pace. Try 60 BPM for now. Now try playing a major scale with quarter notes right on the beat. Try to stay with it and see how long you can go without rushing the notes. After a time, most musicians will start to rush it especially with something that they can perform easily. Next, try playing one of your favorite solos or songs at the same tempo. Are you playing in time?? Not so easy is it?
This simple exercise usually tells us how much we may be missing simply by playing through pieces without thinking too much about exactly where we are placing those notes. The same goes for playing rhythm parts. Take your metronome and try playing straight 8ths. It's important that you practice this on it's own. Its seems like a simple exercise until you see how far you can go off without thinking about it. If you think you're great, try recording your performance with your favorite DAW. Then when you're done, magnify your track so you can align it with the timeline in the sequencer. Now check to see how often you were right on the beat. How often were you early, how often were you late? You'll find that you weren't consistent as you would think. And, (this is critical) can you hear the difference without referencing the sequencer? Practice this, just this on it's own. You'll start to notice and hear the difference in a short time.


To most this may seem obvious but it's amazing how many musicians fail to listen actively. That means not only to pay particular attention when playing pieces but being able to listen properly when playing in a band. It's important that you listen and try to hear all of the things going on. Are you in time? Are you in tune? Are you too loud, too quiet? The list goes on and on. The same goes for playing live. Are you listening to the drummer? The bassplayer? When you listen properly, you make continual adjustments that makes your performance that much better. You play in time, you are sensitive to the overall dynamic of the band and the song, and the band will just sound better. Everytime you pick up your instrument, make sure your ears are wide open.


I've written about this in a past post but it needs to be stated again. One thing that musicians must have is a great memory. It's important to remember all of your chords, scales, melodies, licks, fingerings etc and know them like the back of your hand. Charlie Parker was famous for the fact that he could remember and play back hundreds of licks, scales and melodies in all keys. How much of this is entirely your memory? The same goes for writing. Once you've memorized ideas, it's all too easy for them to 'pop up magically' in your songs. It comes from being familiar with the style but that really comes down to the material being internalized and memorized. That's why it's important to write something that you're familiar with because you've more likely memorized  many facets of the style without really realizing it.


One of the things that musicians are known for is their consistent practice at their art. One of the best and most effective ways to learn and master anything is through consistency. It's important that not only you practice everyday, but you're consistent in that practice. Practicing one thing one day then trying something completely different the next without coming back to original may be fun but it isn't very productive. The best way to internalize ideas, get your muscle memory working and mastering your instrument is practice the same fundamentals consistently.


This follows with the consistency factor. It's important that as a musician you have a certain amount of diligence when it comes to learning the craft and especially when trying to achieve some success. It's true that being a musician isn't an easy way to go and you'll need diligence to make it through the rough spots.  Other things, like sticking to your practice regimen, practicing stuff that you don't find all that exciting and trying to get something done everyday without much support also come under this topic.


One of the other important traits to have is initiative. It's one of the things that's drilled into us since we started out first practice sessions. In fact one of the things that regular practice teaches us is to have the initiative to work on our own and try to keep motivated. It's not just the practice room that needs initiative either. You're going to need to get most things started and keep them going on your own. There is some support in the music industry but not much. You're pretty much going to have to figure most of this stuff out on your own. That includes everything from how to get a gig, to how that next verse is going to go.

Love of the Art

If you want to do this for a living, you're going to have to love it. You're going to have to love it just for what it is. You're going to have to love it, pursue it and try to get better everyday for no other reason other than the fact that  you love to do it. Music is just too tough a career choice for anyone who isn't right into it. Even people who work in the music industry, who are in supporting roles have this attitude. Second, it's this love that will push you to do all of the things that you're going to have to do to become great at your art. It's a long journey and there needs to be that internal motivator for you to push through and become a great artist.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Christina McPhee - bird of paradise / channel three

Christina McPhee's three channel video triptych, Bird of Paradise (Christina McPhee 2011) is a stunning silent visual music work, with such visual harmony and balance - a very beautiful work.

Bird of Paradise three channels / 10 minutes / HD video /silent / 2011

bird of paradise / channel three from Christina McPhee on Vimeo.

It will premiere in a program curated by the Center for Visual Music at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), in late July. The program will screen at LACMA through January 2012. Location: Stark Bar, central plaza (new design by Renzo Piano), LACMA.

Check out many of Christina's work on her vimeo channel (to date 39 uploaded)

Christina's website:

About Christina
"Christina McPhee’s visual art, media and writings consider site as landscape and language. She develops film and media works that montage remote landscape footage at high – tech energy installations, and in ecosystems where biosphere meets human intervention in ‘kairotic’ spaces. Her drawing practice moves into critical spatial practice in media arts and writing."
Source: http:/

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Expanded Abstraction: CVM Program, Los Angeles

Opening late July,2011, Los Angeles:
Expanded Abstraction:
A special 3-screen program from CVM featuring Scott Draves' Generation 244, plus work by Robert Seidel, Baerbel Neubauer, Christina McPhee, Maura McDonnell and Charles Dockum. Curated by Cindy Keefer. LA County Museum of Art, central plaza, Stark Bar. On view beginning July 28, evenings through January, 2012. Images courtesy Scott Draves and the Electric Sheep. PREVIEW of McPhee's Bird of Paradise video triptych.

(re posted from CVM events page:

OPENING NIGHT - Thursday, July 28

Please join CVM at LACMA at Stark Bar - Thursday, July 28

CVM's new *Expanded Abstraction* 3-screen program begins in LACMA's Stark
Bar (central plaza, next to main entrance) at 8 pm...that's the same night
as Marclay's THE CLOCK 24 hour screening in Bing please join us while taking a break from The CLOCK, as Stark Bar will be open until 2am screening the CVM program. Or come just to see abstract film/digital work curated by CVM.

*Expanded Abstraction* features *Scott Draves*' *Generation 244* (2010),
plus triptych work by *Christina McPhee, Robert Seidel, Baerbel Neubauer,
Maura McDonnell, Charles Dockum* and more. Runs through January 2012,
evenings only.

Friday, July 8, 2011

How To Find Your Musical Goals

There was a comment recently about tips for trying to figure out your goals. This seems to be a tough thing for most people, especially musicians. There are tons of articles out there about how to get things done and succeed. They start off with you making a list of your goals and then move on from there. Unfortunately, figuring out your goals is usually difficult and timing consuming. Some people go through their entire life not knowing what they're goals are. Yet you're supposed to figure this out in a short time and then move on from there. Figuring out what your goals are like asking you what your favorite color is. It's all personal and one person's answers are going to be different than another. The key to figuring out what your goals are is all about asking questions; tons of them. Once you start asking yourself the right questions it will become easier figuring out what direction you should take.

Where Am I?

This should be your first question because all of the others stem from this. If you're just starting out, in the middle of your career, changing directions or trying to look for something new., this will impact all of your other decisions. For example if you're just starting out, you will have tons of options as far as where to start but be limited by your experience whereas if you're in the middle or your career, you will have different priorities. Part of this question relates to other things going on in your life. If you're in your 20's, you'll have different responsibilities than if you were in your 40's. You will have different resources available and different opportunities. For example; you might be in your early 20's, just out of school, not much money but no responsibilities. You are willing to travel and don't need much to get by. Your goals would be different than somebody who was in their 30's who may have experience touring and teaching, newly married and thinking about staring a family. You can see that their goals would be different just based on these few factors. It's important to start here is because any decisions you make are going to affect the rest of your life in some way. Looking at all of the variables allows you to make better informed decisions.

The first step in figuring out your goals is to brainstorm. It's important that for this first session you just let it all go and not think too much about details or even if the goal is realistic or not. It's all about just seeing what moves you and what you want out of life.

The Big List

We're going to start with the big list. We're just going to let it all out here. One exercise that I did when I was going to college was a 'where do you see yourself in 5 years' paper. I still remember what I wrote and to this day most of what was on that paper applies. I was thinking in general terms of all of the things that I wanted to do with music and wasn't worried about being realistic or even succinct. I put down everything that I wanted to do. I'm amazed at to this day how accurate this list was. The only thing that was off was my timing...I was only off about a decade.
Just start writing. Don't worry about how or even why, just write. You may find yourself not believing what you're writing but do it anyway. There are no limits here. Start with your biggest dreams and aspirations and go from there. Don't leave anything out.
You may find that when reviewing this list that it's all over the place. Some of the goals seem to go in a completely different direction than others. While others seem very doable and achievable others seem impossible. Let it go, don't dismiss anything yet.

Long Term Vs. Short Term

There are two sets of goals that you have to create and they all depend on the size and importance of the goal. Generally, the bigger the goal, the longer it will take to accomplish that goal. Also, once you have decided on a big, long term goal, you will have to break it down into smaller, more manageable goals.  One important note, think big. Decide what you really want. These will usually be big dreams and that's perfect for our initial session. We do this because we want to make sure we're aiming for something that we really want and not something that we're willing to settle for. All too often we base our goals on smaller things that we assume will be easier and much more realistic. There are two problems with this; first of all things are rarely as simple as they seem and two, we may end up spending a lot of time and reaching a goal that we weren't all that crazy about in the first place. If you're worried about being realistic and creating manageable goals, wait until the next part of this process.

Keep Em Separated

There's a famous story about Walt Disney who used to keep all of the 'creative' people (artists, writers etc) separate from the 'realistic' (managers, accountants, lawyers etc) people. He would let the creative people roam freely with their ideas and creative output. He would later put the ideas through the administrative people to see what was possible. You want to do the same with your goals. When deciding what you want to do, wait until later before you work out the details. After all you're a musician, it's all about possibilities. Once you've got a good idea of the direction you want to head, then you can sit down and see what's realistically possible in the next year or so.


You may notice that throughout this post I've used the word direction when describing your goals and career. That's because being a musician is about trying different things, taking different routes and figuring out what to do next. A musician's career is rarely straightforward and simple. You should get used to this process because you're going to have to do it on a regular basis. There are going to be wrong turns, great runs and a lot of not knowing what to do next. Get used to it.

Reality Check

Ok, it's about that time. Time to go over your list and make some decisions. These are usually tough because we're bent on making the right ones first. Let me tell you straight won't make all the right decisions. In fact some of your decisions are going to be completely wrong. But of course, you won't know that until you've actually done them, so don't worry about it.

Keeping Track

It's a good idea to just get started. It's a bad idea to keep doing something just because you started and made some personal investment. It's important that you step back periodically and see if you're happy with the way things are going. Are you getting any results from your actions? Is this something that you feel that you should keep on pursuing? People are really reluctant to give something up once they're put enough time and energy into matter how fruitless the endeavour seems to be. Once again I'm speaking from experience here. I don't know how many times I've stuck with a band simply because I've made such a huge investment in time and effort. It's really important that you step back on a regular basis and take stock at where you are.

There's A Fork In The Road

We do all of this is to give our career some sort of direction. You will want to stick with your decisions and see if they're working. If you've made an effort and see that there's another direction you want to take, then do it. Remember to go through the same process so you don't end up waving all over the place, doing a million things without really getting anything done. Some musicians are guilty of trying to keep all of their options open thinking that this will increase their opportunity for success. In fact, your chances are much better when you have focus and specific direction. Mostly because you're not being pulled in a million directions and not really accomplishing anything. There will come a time however when something unexpected springs up. This happens more when you're doing things right than wrong. For example you may be doing really well with your band when you get approached by another band to do a major tour. This is when your lists really come in handy. What do you do; stick with your band or take the risk and join the other? Of course this a completely personal decision but if you've been regularly checking your goals and making conscious decisions about your career, the decision may be easier to make. If touring is really high on your list your decision would be different if you were bent on getting a new CD released with your current band.

Not A Clue

At this point if you're sitting there and still don't have a clue what you're going to do don't worry, you're not alone. Even with all of this information it still may not be clear to us what direction to take. Either you have too many things you want to do (typical) or no idea whatsoever. The long and short of it is; you're going to have to do something. It's better to do something and get started than to do nothing. Sometimes you may want to put it off and try and figure it out later. There's nothing wrong with wanting to figure out what exactly it is you want to do but you don't want to wait too long. If it's been a couple of months and you're still trying to make out your lists and figuring out the perfect thing to do next is...then stop. Pick something and do it. If you're worried about wasting time heading in the wrong direction don't, remember you just wasted a couple of months not coming up with any ideas of what to do next.

On Your Mark...

This is just the beginning. It's also one step in many. It's important to get into the mindset of figuring out what it is you want to do and how to get there. This list will change. That's typical, especially for musicians. Don't worry about making the perfect moves and decisions. It won't happen. Pick something that you believe in a get going. Stick with it and see if you're getting the results you want. If you aren't, re-examine and start again. Repeat until you get there.