Improvement: A 3-Step Guide for Hobbyist Musicians

Monday, 13 July 2020

Have you ever met someone who became instantly world-class at anything? Was Serena Williams serving ace’s the first time she held a racquet? Was Neil de Grasse-Tyson born with an intimate knowledge of the physical universe? Was Gordon Ramsey born with a Michelin-Star palette and stovetop abilities, or did he have to constantly swear his way through it?

I don’t really know the answer, but if I had to guess, I’d probably guess they all worked hard at their craft, making many mistakes along the way. But what about the Sunday tennis player, the casual constellation-gazer, or the avid, part-time curse-word enthusiast? This article will serve as a guide of what to expect and how to overcome three common plateaus in the development of hobbyist musicians; mindset, frustration, and tackling new material.

▪ “I can’t…”

Without sounding like I’m borrowing from The Secret, the mindset when approaching a task is very important. Performance psychology is an important asset to a good practice regime when time is limited. W Timothy Gallwey writes in his book The Inner Game of Tennis:

“When the mind is free of any thought or judgment, it is still and acts like a mirror. Then and only then can we know things as they are.”

This quote is relevant as technical limitations are seldom overcome when frustration, anger, anxiety, or feelings of inadequacy are present in the mind. Nobody sounds good in the practice room. Give yourself a break, and remember that music (as a hobby) is a pursuit of personal enjoyment, not an uphill battle against finger dexterity.

▪ Start slow. Really slow

This tip links in with one of the key principles of music: time. Time encompasses rhythm, metre, and momentum, but reflects on noise (the sonic wave shape of the instrument, also called timbre or tone), and the frequencies (the pitch, or the note).

Trying to continuously soldier-on at the finishing tempo is only going to cause frustration and the improvement in technique will be flawed (I’ll explain that further down). Incremental steps up in tempo can help keep what you play rhythmically and metrically accurate, while developing a sense of physical momentum and connection. Start at 50% of the goal speed, and work your way up in 5% increments.

Goal = 220bpm
50% 110bpm
55% 121bpm
60% 132bpm
65% 143bpm
70% 154bpm
75% 165bpm

You may think “I’ve achieved my goal speed without starting slow. Wouldn’t this just take up more time?” And yes, this may take a little more time, but the result will be a more refined and more accurate and the skill will forever be transferrable to other similar passages. To really engrain the principles of the techniques in question into your playing, take it past the goal speed. Remember, the speed of the passage isn’t as important as the noise and frequencies within it.

▪ Set up a ‘Challenge = Reward’ system

This one is more for those who find themselves either practicing the same thing over and over (this isn’t really practicing), or end up doing more fooling around than practicing.

Setting a new challenge, whether it be a new exercise or song or just an idea you want to pursue, is important to improving. New material gives you new challenges and results in new skills. I also understand that wanting to practice chicken-pickin’ techniques on guitar isn’t that fun if your favourite band is Slayer, and this is why it’s important to set yourself a reward.

Setting up a Challenge=Reward system involves setting a goal, which you can read more about here. After you’ve set yourself a goal, find a reward that might inspire you – a new effects pedal, a new mouthpiece, an album, a book, or even a new instrument. It doesn’t even have to be related to your musical practice; you can treat yourself with a takeaway dinner or a new car if you want!

I hope these tips help you soldier on during your journey as a musician. For more info on how to practice, be sure to check out more articles on practice here.