There is no doubt that learning to play and continually developing new skills on a musical instrument is hard. It requires hours of dedication and diligent practice, however despite this many musicians, including myself, have fallen into the trap of practicing in a very ineffective way. In this weeks blog I try and address those ineffective methods and provide useful tips that I personal wish I had heard a lot earlier.
One of the biggest mistakes that musicians make when it comes to practicing is practicing without purpose. They decide to practice whatever they feel like in the moment, they learn half a song one day and then try developing technique the next. This approach will lead to little development and will result in the player having a large number of half learnt skills. This is why it is important to have specific goals in mind to inform your practice routines. It is well worth using the acronym SMART to help inform your goal setting.
Create a Structured Practice Routine
Setting yourself goals is certainly important when it comes to developing effective practice, however setting goals is no good if you then practice aimlessly. It is therefore important that you come up with a set number of tasks and exercises that you will do in your practice session that will work you towards your goal.
For example, if one of your goals is to play a certain lick or sequence faster you would create an exercise such as playing the sequence to a metronome at a very slow speed and over a number of practice sessions you will gradually increase the speed of the metronome. You will come up with a number of these for each of your goals. Some goals may only require one exercise whilst others may require a few different exercises. Once you have laid out your exercises you can then look at how long you would like to practice for each day and then divide the practice session into set periods to tackle each area. So if you had a 1-hour practice session and 4 different exercises, you would divide up the practice session into 15 minute chunks. The key now is to stick to that plan until you have achieved your desired goal.
A common mistake many musicians make when it comes to practice is not practicing regularly enough. Some aspiring musicians will believe that if they do one marathon 4-hour practice session a week that they will improve quickly. This is far from the case. We learn new skills through our brain’s ability to create neural pathways, once a neural pathway is created it can be fired to allow the quick and unconscious execution of the skill. These pathways develop much quicker from more regular shorter practice sessions. Doing a marathon practice session only once a week may result in you seeing gains within the practice session but by the next practice session the skills you will have learnt will likely be forgotten. It is much better to practice every day for 10 minutes than to do long irregular sessions, so if you have not already, start building the habit with a regular short practice session; If you want to do longer practice sessions, slowly increase the length of your practice session over time to help maintain the habit.
Practicing music can be a very intensive task that requires high levels of concentration for long periods. However, our ability to focus on tasks can diminish over a period of time and can therefore effect our ability to make sufficient gains in our playing. This is due to to an effect called Vigilance Decrement where over time the brain dedicates less cerebral resources to a particular task (more information here). This effect is particularly true for those who are doing very long practice sessions that are well over an hour in length. Taking breaks can help offset Vigilance Decrement whilst allowing our brains to absorb the information from the exercises you have been working on. After a short break you can start practicing again fully refreshed with your full attention.
When we play we often find that we a focussing on a lot of things, the movement of our bodies, what we are about to play, what is going on with the music, staying in time and many more. With that in mind it is not surprising that some of the finer details of the sound and technique of our playing might go unnoticed.
So what is the best way to get around this problem? Record yourself playing. Buy doing this you will be able to hear any problems with pitch, rhythm and tone without the distractions that comes with playing. It is even better if you can record yourself with a video as being able to see you’re the elements you use to play your instrument such your hands, arms, feet and face can help you to diagnose problems with your technique that might be holding you back.
Once you have identified problems with your playing you can then make adjustments to your goals and practice to help address these problems.
Use a Metronome
For a tool that many proficient musicians see as vital to one’s ability to play well it surprising just how often some musicians completely forget to use of even avoid the use of a metronome. Some musicians hold the false belief that metronomes will result in a lack of feel, and though a metronome has a boring, lifeless and a somewhat annoying sound this could not be further from the truth. Music relies the musicians being in synch with one another whilst playing with a regular time and a consistent groove and as simple as it is, a metronome is the best way to develop this skill. Metronomes are also a vital tool for helping instrumentalists develop speed. It is important to use a metronome wherever possible; there are of course occasions where using a metronome is not important, say for example you are playing to a backing track or you are trying to nail the fingering to a particular piece without having to be tied to a rhythm, but for the most part a metronome is your best friend and an amazing tool.
Degrees are a qualification held highly by society. Often seen as the ticket to a good life with a good salary, a degree requires a lot of hard work and dedication creating a qualification with a lot of respect and prestige. However, in recent years a number of elements have lead many to ask ‘Is a degree really worth it’. This question is even more prevalent in creative fields such as music. With large increases in tuition fees and the increased availability of other education tools through the internet it is easy to see why such a question is being posed now more than ever.
The main argument that comes up against degrees is due to their increased cost. In the UK degrees used to be free with living costs being supported through grants. This meant that degrees used to present little to no financial risk but those days are now long gone. In 1998 the Labour Government introduced tuition fees charging £1000 per year for tuition; this has since increased under the Conservatives in 2012 to £9000 and later £9250. Across the pond, in the USA, the story is even grimmer with the top Universities charging as much $59,000 in tuition. With such high costs with what is often seen as little return, it is easy to see why many would see degrees as overpriced and not worth the financial risk. Add this in with the fact that the Music Industry itself rarely requires, looks at or even bothers worrying about a person’s level of formal education then the costs begin to look even more exorbitant.
The Music industry looks at number of key aspects when it comes to the employability of an individual, for example: can the person play/perform/produce/mix to the standard required, is the person reliable and does the person have equipment needed. Other factors that play a role in someone getting a gig include the people the person knows and other areas of value that the person can bring to the gig, for example if the individual owns a PA system that a band can use for their shows. Very quickly you begin to see that access into the music industry has very little to do with the piece of paper a degree offers and more to do with who you know, what you know and the other areas of value an individual can bring to the gig. The only area within the music industry where this does not apply is within education where a degree can be useful, however, even then it is not required for all teaching work.
Another main problem is simply due to the fact that in the modern day we do not require a university to learn a lot of the skills required to become a professional musician. Universities once used to offer fairly exclusive centres of learning. If you wanted to learn the broad range of knowledge and skills required to work in the music industry you either needed access to high level one on one tutor and a rich and varied music scene or a University. This is no longer the case; we now have access to wealth of music to transcribe as well numerous tutorials, lessons and learning tools all through the tap of a keyboard and a touch of a button. If we want to learn from a teacher on top of what we learn from online resources then we are no longer restricted to the best teacher in our local area, we can get lessons from which ever master we wish to learn from through the power of Skype. With such availability of tools then why pay large sums of money to learn the same things when you could use that money for arguably more effective online lessons?
With all this in mind is there really any point in bothering with a University education? I honestly believe there is, but what they can offer does not fit what we traditionally value from degrees and the unique advantages they have may not be obvious to those looking from the outside. Before contemporary music degrees became common place, getting into the industry relied very heavily on who you know and as a result you either got into the music industry through a teacher/tutor, a band member or from getting know people at local jam nights. Now in many ways very little has changed. Getting into the music industry still relies very heavily on who you know, however, what Universities have done is expand the space for us to network and opened up other gates of entry for future musicians. The people who you learn and play with, as well the teachers who teach you at University can be the people that will get you the paid gigs that you are after in the future.
University also offer the chance for someone to completely immerse themselves in music. From classes, to the social interactions, having people exposing each other to music they otherwise would have never have heard of, getting the chance to play a variety of styles and genres, to having living costs covered freeing up time for practice, jamming, attending gigs, to the chance to experiment and try new ideas and concepts. It is an opportunity and experience you will not get anywhere else quite as easily as you can get it at University.
A side of University that cannot be underestimated is the social opportunities it offers. Music is for the most part a social art form, it often relies on collaboration for its production and learning the skills required to interact and collaborate with other musicians and artists is not something that can be taught on an online forum. They are skills crafted through hours in practice rooms with others. There are also plenty of opportunities to learn through the social connections formed with a Universities faculty, it is only really in places of higher education that you can end up having a good conversation with your tutors outside of class on a whole range of topics and in those conversations you sometimes learn a lot more than you do in the class room.
University will also introduce you to many new ideas, concepts, approaches, artists and musical styles that you otherwise would not have tried. Before I personally went to University I was only really interested in Rock and Metal, I only played Guitar and I only wrote the music to songs, by the time I had completed my degree I had developed a passion for Blues, Jazz and Funk as well as a taste for Soul and R&B, I was writing both music and lyrics, I had become a fairly well developed producer and I was even experimenting with vocals, keys and bass. I had also become familiar with many other musical genres, tried my hand at percussion and even composed a few pieces for a variety of ensembles. In my years of study, I learnt and tried so much more than I ever could have done on my own, in my bedroom, taking a guitar lesson once a week.
It is also worth noting that there are some weaknesses from learning and developing solely from one on one tuition and online materials. As already covered these include the social elements, the exposure to other genres, musical ideas and approaches and the exposure to other areas of music making. Typically, when learning from a single tutor we are only able to be exposed to the ideas of that particular tutor. Even if the tutor is a highly proficient musician, this is still only one set of ideas about how to approach music. Within a University, you will be exposed to many highly proficient tutors, across a number of disciplines, all with different areas of expertise and all with different ideas on how to approach music. Many of the most important lessons I learnt came from tutors who played instruments different from mine. This is something you are unlikely to come across outside of centres of formal education such as University.
Though the power of the piece of paper that is a music degree is arguably severely diminished when compared to other more formal degrees, it still holds power. It can be used to get the all important teaching job that can pay the bills for you as a musician and can open up options for you to explore other career paths. You can use them to gain access to higher level roles in other industries, jobs in the music business at labels, publishing houses, promoters, management companies and booking agents, you can qualify as a school teacher, go into post graduate education and develop a career in academia or even requalify at Masters level in a different field all together, the options are endless. A degree can still open many doors, but maybe not the ones you would expect.
In short, you do not need the piece of paper a degree is written on to become a successful musician, writer or producer in the industry, and at no point in time was a degree ever needed. But that does not mean that they are worthless, the value of any degree is not in piece of paper at the end, it is the skills, abilities, ideas, concepts and acquaintances you make along the way. Now that does not mean choosing to do a degree is a decision to be taken lightly: for many a degree is not the right choice, maybe you already have the insights, values, ideas, concepts, skills and connections required to craft a successful career in the music industry without it; however, do not assume that it is worthless and weigh up the decision of doing a degree on the strengths and weaknesses it offers you as an individual.
Creativity: it is something some people believe they do not possess and could never do; to others it is something that they are so full of they can barely contain it within the bounds of there own bodies, to them creativity is something that shines constantly and brightly within them. We all have different experiences with creativity but I feel that we too often look at creativity in completely the wrong way. We often look on it as skill that someone simply possesses, they either have it or they do not. Some will even argue that those who do possess such talent, for the most part, are only able to apply this skill to one or two areas in which they are gifted. I personally do not believe this to be the case. I believe that creativity is a muscle and to get good at it, it is a muscle that requires exercising and it is a muscle that anyone and everyone can develop.
So why do people believe they are unable to create? I believe this mainly down to individuals having unrealistic expectations around what they can do and what they should be able to do. What we often forget is those who have become talented creative individuals, whether they are artists, writers, film makers, actors or musicians, have often been creating for many years whether entirely in their chosen discipline or even across others. We forget that they may well have started that spark as children or young adolescents. These people were not simply just formed that way. They would have spent many years creating bad pieces of art to get where they are and yet I feel too often, people who do not see themselves as creative often expect themselves to suddenly be able to create great pieces of work. With such unrealistic expectations you can see why people may find themselves unable to create.
Childhood is a time of endless creativity: Colouring books, arts and crafts, inventing games, playing, drawing and painting, creativity is everywhere in a child’s life and yet we forget that compared the work of creative professionals the creative results often made by Children are objectively awful in comparison. Why do we forget that? Because we do not hold children to the same rigorous standards of adults and yet we hold adults who may have not created anything since childhood to the same standards when in reality we should be freeing those people of judgement and be encouraging through a period of experimentation and self-discovery whilst making sure that we let them know not to hold themselves to such standards. Only true freedom and experimentation can give rise to the development of taste and by doing so the creative muscle can be exercised.
Another problem that people face when it comes to creativity is around pre-conceived notions that some forms of creativity are more legitimate than others. It is in many ways unsurprising that we have these notions, after all we hold the masters of certain creative forms such as musicians, songwriters, authors, poets, painters and sculptors, among others, up as people to admire and of high social status. But there are loads of ways to be creative outside of that, dressmaking, tailoring, patchwork, knitting, house crafts, carpentry, gardening, just to name a few, just because you find joy in developing your creativity outside of the usual art forms does not make your form of creativity inferior. One of the most important aspects of creativity is finding the creative form that you identify with most and through which you feel you can express yourself. Try not get tied up in more traditional art-forms simply because you think that is what you have to be to be creative when in reality you may prefer and enjoy something unconventional much more.
Another notion I wish to challenge is the idea that we are only able develop our creativity within one or two art forms. Now this idea may hold true if you wish to actually become a master of one art form, after all time is precious and to become highly exceptional in one form of art takes hundreds, if not thousands of hours of work and practice. However, most people who take part in a creative art are not looking to become masters, so why restrict yourself to one skill if you want to learn a number of them. Each art form will develop different skills and ways of thinking that can compliment the other forms. I personally spend most of my time crafting my skills in my primary creative area which is music, however, I do not limit myself solely to this. Part of the reason I write this Blog is to help develop my writing, I have recently started to explore film making and in the past I have drawn, painted and written poetry and short stories. I do not expect to become as good at writing and film making as I am at playing guitar, song writing and music production but I enjoy it and am learning numerous new ways of approaching art and thinking that I have already seen have an impact in how I approach problems both in my music and my life.
So why am I placing so much emphasis of developing one’s creativity? Well the ability to think and approach life creatively is a skill that is vitally important to so many roles and yet it is one of the most undervalued skills. Albert Einstein once said ‘The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination’. Knowledge can only tell what is already known, it is imagination and creative thinking that helps us find and discover the new. Art has many roles in society but it can be argued that one of its most important is to act as the Gym in which we develop our creativity. So do not undervalue Creativity and do not leave it as an un-flexed muscle. Your ability to think creatively and outside the box will stand you in good stead in all other areas of your life.
So many people when they start playing guitar approach it believing a number of ideas that are simply not true. They may have heard these rumours from friends or family who have never played guitar before, or they may have heard these ideas from people who have played guitar for years, they may have even just assumed some of these myths were the case. Myths however can be damaging; they can put new players in a position that makes the guitar less exciting, enjoyable and engaging. They can be discouraging or act as unsubstantiated excuses when the learning gets tough and at their worst they can threaten to cause injury. That is why in this weeks blog I am challenging the ‘Common Myths Beginner Guitarists Believe’ and in its place I am offering the best advice I can give.
Myth 1: You must start on an Acoustic Guitar
There are number of reasons why people buy into this idea. Some believe that you need the higher tension strings to help build up strength whilst others believe that you master the skills needed for all Guitar playing on Acoustic before transferring it to an electric. This could not be more false; in fact, I will often advise pupils to start on an Electric or Classical guitar.
Though you can certainly start learning on an Acoustic there is one key problem it causes many new players: the increased likelihood of injury. Imagine if you went to the gym to start lifting weights, you would not start on the heaviest weights possible, you would find it really difficult to lift them with good form and if you could lift them at all you would be putting yourself at risk of injury. Instead you would start with a light weight and over time and number of training sessions build yourself up to the heavier weights. Guitar is very similar and though a beginner guitarist could start on an Acoustic, if they have the correct instruction to ensure they maintain good form, it is not always the best approach.
Another problem is due to the simple fact that you cannot learn all the techniques to master all kinds of guitar playing on a single type instrument. You cannot learn techniques used on electric guitars such as bending and vibrato on an acoustic and likewise you cannot use percussion techniques on an electric.
So what is my advice for beginner guitarist? Start on the type of guitar that inspired you to play. If your heroes include the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Slash, John Petrucci or Kurt Cobain start on an Electric. If you are more into Ed Sheeran, Mike Dawes or Bob Dylan then start on Acoustic or if you possess weaker fingers maybe a classical. By doing this you not only ensure that you decrease the chance of injury but you also gain the added motivation from being able to play what you wanted to play all along, after all there will be times that you are going to need that motivation.
Myth 2: I’m not Talented enough to Play
In a way I addressed this myth in my Blog: ‘I’m not talented, I just work hard’ but I think the point needs to be reiterated: Playing guitar is hard work and only a small amount can be owed to talent if any! Why am I reiterating this point? Well I have often come across people who try guitar for a few weeks and give up early because they could not play the chords to an entire song in that amount of time or pupils who have only tried the instrument for a few weeks and were somehow expecting to play like Ed Sheeren in that time. What were these people’s response to their predicament? “I’m not talented enough to play guitar”. I can tell you these people could not be more wrong.
Since the article, I have come up with a new theory as why people say such a statement. I believe it is statement that helps to protect an individual’s Ego; it is much easier for them suggest that their inability to play is down to some innate thing that they cannot change and not down to lack of hard work. So let me say this once and for all, Playing guitar is hard, it takes time and consistent, diligent practice; if you find out that you do not want to spend your time and effort learning guitar, that is fine, I have no problem with that, you do you the best you can, but do not blame your unwillingness to learn on lack of talent when in reality it is lack of time practiced.
Myth 3: The amount of time you have been playing dictates your skill level
This in many ways links back to my previous point that somehow the time someone has spent playing directly correlates with a player’s skill level. Now there is a grain of truth to this, sure if you are practicing regularly the more time you spend playing the better you will be however it is far from a direct correlation. There are some people who have played guitar for two years that are much better than those who have played for five and there are people who have played for five years that better than those who have played for fifteen years and vice versa. At the end of the day, it comes down to how often and how dedicated you are to practice that will dictate your progress, not the amount of time you have been playing.
Myth 4: You should start on a cheap guitar
To a certain extent there is some sound logic behind this thinking. After all, if you want to see if the guitar is for you but you are not yet one hundred percent dedicated to playing, why invest a large amount of money if you are only going to end giving up the instrument a little further down the line. The problem is, is that most very cheap guitars come in a state that makes them very difficult to play and you will either need to shell out money for a good set-up or risk being put off playing guitar by the instrument itself and not necessarily your actual interest.
Now of course there are ways to get around the investment risk. First, ask a friend if you can borrow their guitar while you try a few lessons, or ask a tutor if you can take lessons using one of their guitars. Most tutors will happily let you use their instruments whilst they teach you and many close friends will happily let you borrow a spare instrument for practice. Doing this means you can get a feel for the guitar and decide if learning to play is something you want to dedicate you time a money to and when you do you can spend a bit more money on a decent lower-mid priced instrument.
The second option is to spend more money on a higher grade instrument. As a general rule, the more you spend on an instrument, the less value it looses over time, in fact vintage and limited edition Gibson and Fender guitars will often show an increase in worth over time. Of course the problem with this is that it requires a much larger upfront investment that may not be available to everyone and therefore makes this a limited option.
In short starting on a cheap guitar will result in you investing in an instrument that is going to be difficult to play and will not last you very long if you choose to continue to play as at some point you will want to invest in a more playable instrument.
Myth 5: You must have an Amplifier to play Electric guitar
This is a myth I used to personally buy into as a younger player, the idea being that if you want to know if you sounded any good you had to hear yourself through an amplifier and if you wanted to play through distortion you definitely had to play through an amplifier. The truth however, is that many new players play for a long period of time before they play through an amp. You can still hear yourself clearly whilst unplugged and in fact in some ways you can hear yourself more clearly.
Sure playing through an amp has a different feel and requires some adaption like making sure you are not hitting the strings too hard as well as changes to your technique to reduce unwanted noise from distorted amplifiers, but playing unplugged has benefits to. Distortion can often cover up the mistakes in your playing, whilst developing techniques such as legato and use of hammer-ons and pull-offs can often be helped by playing unplugged rather than through a clean amplifier. So can an amp be useful? Yes, but it can also be a hindrance, you do not have to have one to begin to play and if it is something you cannot afford at the moment, be happy in the knowledge that it is an investment that you can pass further down the road and even when you do possess one know it is a good habit to play unplugged once in a while.
Myth 6: Your Fingers are too big/too small to play guitar
This statement is often made in response to person’s inability to play something as quickly as they would like to. Now there is certainly truth is saying that an individual’s fingers are too big or too for a certain guitar, those with big fingers may find themselves unable to hold a single string without touching the strings next to it on guitars with a small neck whilst those with small fingers and hands may never be able to play an 8 string. However, this is down to the guitar and guitars like people come in many shapes and sizes. Your ability to play comes down these three things ranked from least importance to most importance…
As you can see though you can make choices informed by your finger and hand size to help aid your playing but your finger size, big or small, does not determine whether you are able to play guitar. You only need to look at players like Jimi Hendrix who had giant hands or on the opposite end of the spectrum Randy Rhoades who had small hands to see that hand size does not and never will determine your ability to play guitar.
Myth 7: You must learn Classical/Jazz to be a good Guitar Player
This comes from the idea that Classical and Jazz are superior musical styles and by learning these styles you will somehow be able to master all musical styles in the process. This is far from true, each and every musical genre has their own challenges. Yes, Classical music may be great for learning how to sight-read guitar as it is a skill core to Classical music and Jazz music may be great for becoming a master of improvisation, however, every genre has its own unique challenges, Metal emphasises highly technical playing, whilst funk emphasises Groove, many people will say that Blues has a much higher emphasis on feel, whilst Country emphasises twang. The simple truth is there is no single style able to make you a well rounded guitar player. So if you want to become a well-rounded guitar player take the time to learn as many styles as possible, or if you are not interested in learning all those styles, you do not have to; Learn the styles you love and enjoy yourself; there are many guitar players who are masters of just one style and nothing else and that is ok. Play what makes you love guitar and do not just play something because that is what people expect, you should be playing and loving guitar for you, not for others.
Myth 8: If you don’t start young there is no point in starting at all
There is this idea that to become a great musician you have to start young. Well this many ways depends on what you define as great, is great becoming famous? In which case Slash and Eric Clapton some of the most famous Guitarists of all time started playing the instrument comparatively late to many at the age of 15, maybe you are referring to virtuosic talent in which case Wes Montgomery, one of the most revered Jazz Guitarists of all time only picked up the instrument at 20. Either way there are examples of people who started playing the guitar later than the usually expected 5-13 age that you expect great players to start. However, there is one huge screaming problem with this view point, the assumption being is that people who learn the guitar should learn it with the aspiration of becoming great. That honestly is complete rubbish and I can guarantee that most of the greats would agree with that sentiment; People should learn the guitar for one key reason, to bring joy into the lives of themselves and others, or in a less pretentious way of saying it, too have fun.
Much like your favourite meals, you may love the musicians and artists you listen to, but sometimes listening to the same musical diet can get bland and you may find yourself craving something new to satisfy your musical palate. But where do you start? Most people do not go out of their way to spend their time finding new music, often settling for the music they happen to come across from friends and family, or from entertainment such as Radio or Film. Therefore, going out of your way to find new music, particularly when you have certain style, genre or sound in mind, can often be a lot harder than it initially seems due to us not possessing the skills and techniques to discover new music. Well do not worry any longer; Below I have compiled a series of tips and techniques for finding new artists to reinvigorate your musical listening.
It is so simple that it might be easy to forget but Google and other search engines can be your friend when you are exploring for new artists to blow your mind. There are so many keywords and search terms that can be used to help you in your search for new sounds. You can ask the search engine to find music similar to a band or artist that you love, or to find music within a certain genre or scene, maybe you are curious as to what the hottest new singles, EP’s and album releases are at the moment; the options are endless. From the results you can follow the links on the search results page to blogs, videos and articles that can answer your query with more information. You will be surprised how quickly you will find new music using this method.
Using streaming services
Streaming services are something that is still fairly new to the world and yet, in such a short space of the time their use has become fully ingrained into our day to day lives and with its many advantages it is easy to understand why. We no longer need to dedicate large amounts of space in our homes to our music collections, we can carry whatever music we want with us in our pockets and have an endless library of music to explore. There are a number of ways you can find musicians on streaming services like Spotify. First are playlists curated by both real people and algorithms. You can use them to follow specific musical styles, the top releases and popular songs on the platform. Spotify’s algorithms will also curate playlists (What are called Daily Mixes) with a mix of artists you already love, along with new artists that are yet to listen to.
Another option is to go the sites such as last.fm. Last.fm will analyse your listening habits across multiple platforms and then make suggestions for new music you should listen to.
Follow Niche Blogs
As music fans we are probably familiar with the big online music blogs such as Pitchfork, NME, NPR and Stereogum, if you are not they are definitely worth checking out and are a useful tools for finding new music. However, they do come with their own problems. The big blogs tend to focus on bigger acts that can pull large amounts of traffic to their websites and therefore finding underground acts through these sites can be difficult. They also tend cast a wider net in terms of the musical genre’s and style’s that they represent. This can be great for eclectic music lovers who will listen to anything and everything and are looking for something to surprise them, but for those of us who have a more refined and specific music taste, such blogs are pretty inefficient for finding new artists to satisfy out interests. So why not look for smaller blogs with smaller followings and a more specific taste of music. There are so many advantages to this. Firstly, small communities of people can build up around these blogs for you to interact and share artists with. Secondly you can guarantee a lot of the music that you hear from such blogs will fit your personal tastes as opposed to the hit and miss nature of the big blogs.
Social Media sites and forums such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit provide a number of options to help you find new music. On Facebook and Twitter, you can make a post to your friends or followers asking for music recommendations and you may be surprised just how many replies you receive; people love to share what they think is amazing music. You can also follow pages and other users who are likely to post new music regularly on places like Facebook and Twitter for example: music bloggers, magazines and reviewers who you have discovered and like. Facebook and Reddit also gives you the opportunity to join forums (Groups in Facebook or Subreddits in Reddit) dedicated to a particular music scenes or genres giving you the opportunity to share and discuss with folks who have a like minded music taste.
Music Podcasts and Radio
One of people’s regular complaints about radio stations is that they tend to play the same music over and over again and more often these songs do not fit our personal musical tastes. Sure, the music played on the radio might be entertaining enough for your drive to work, but it will rarely introduce you to new musical flavours. So what things can you listen to that will introduce you to new music or music that fits your specific tastes. Well first: actually do a read up of the schedules of your favourite radio stations; You maybe surprised to find that there are specific radio programs that either target new and unknown music or that target specific genres that fit your tastes. Also do not hesitate to find new radio stations, again some stations such as Kerrang! target certain scenes and genres whilst others like BBC Radio 6 target new and underground music. Second: hunt around for some podcasts, there are often podcasts that specialise in certain genres and musical topics, and the best thing about podcasts is you can listen to them any time you want. Many radio stations will offer their shows as podcasts but there are also podcasts available that are set up by as little as one or two individuals and as such will introduce you to artists far outside of the mainstream. Third, there are a number of online radio stations that are not available on standard frequencies or even DAB radio. Many of these online stations will specialise in a particular scene or genre and as such you are bound to find one that fits your personal music tastes. College and University radio is also great as they will often look to play new and unheard music that would no usually appear on underground radio.
Look up touring acts
Looking up tour posters can be great if you are looking to find when your favourite artists are going to be playing in a city near you, but they can also be great for finding music from artists that you have never heard of. To do this simply keep an eye out for when your favourite artists announce new tour dates anywhere in the world and then research who the supporting acts are. Most bands will have 1-3 acts who will open the show and warm up the crowd for them. These acts tend to have a few things in common. They tend to have a smaller audience than the headliner and are not as well known and they tend to play music from sam or another similar style of music. By doing this you will quickly find your list of artists to check out will start getting very long very quickly.
Music Identification Apps
How often do you find yourself hearing a piece of music that you fall head over heels for only for there to be no chance for you to find out the name of the tune that your ears cannot help but crave more of. Maybe you hear it in a film and cannot track down the music online, or on the radio and the announcer forgets to tell you what the song was, or maybe you were just in your local coffee shop or record store when you heard the song. We have all been there and it can be absolutely infuriating. What you really need is someone with you who has the largest knowledge of music known to man who can hear and track and tell you what it is within seconds. While there may not be such a person in existence, there are apps that are able to achieve this. Apps like Shazam, TrackID and Soundhound listens to the music that is being played and compares it to a cloud database before retrieving the information and showing it to you on your phone. With one of these apps in your pocket you will no longer have to miss a single track and wonder if you will ever come across it again, just take your phone out and find out in seconds.
Record shops maybe few and far between these days and may seem much more like a novelty than they once where but they can still be a great place to find music and can provide a unique fun experience that the other methods of searching for new music just do not have. Do not be afraid to go and have a look, talk to people working and visiting the shop and ask what they recommend; Go flicking through the CD’s, Vinyl’s and Cassettes to see if there are any covers that catch your eye, look in the sections containing the genre’s you love most and see if there are any recordings that you do not recognise the name of and if the record shop has a listening booth and use it; it might also be worth bringing a friend along and showing each other what you find and share your ideas and thoughts together whilst hunting. Exploring record shops can not only help you find new music but can ensure you have the most fun whilst doing it.
Auto-tune, it is everywhere, from its overt use for its distinctive sound by artists like Drake to artists who have used it less obviously to tidy up vocal lines that they sang slightly out of tune. It also sparks hot debates and makes many individuals furious claiming it symbolises everything wrong with the modern music industry. Some hate the sound that the overt use of auto-tune creates, while others find the use of it to correct vocal lines dishonest and believe that it is used to make talentless individuals sound like amazing singers and some musicians even refuse to use the technology on principle. However, many believe it is a useful tool either helping to tidy up great takes or for its use as a creative tool both for transcribing or adjusting the melody of recorded takes after the fact and even for adding a unique sound that other forms of audio processing do not possess. So that leaves the question: Is Auto-tune a useful creative tool or a form of musical cheating?
In the analogue world of music, before the development of auto-tune, you could only use takes that had been produced by the artist, and though takes could be manipulated with certain outboard gear and the pitch of a take could be changed through the speeding up or slowing down of the tape the recording was on, very little could be done to change the pitch of a single note on a vocal or instrument. This meant to get recordings with all the best performances from various takes required the cutting and splicing of multiple-takes to get the desired effect. However, the destructive nature of cutting and splicing tape meant that the technology could not be used excessively without ruining the natural sound of a recording, as such many pre-digital recordings feature vocals and instrumentation that was out of tune. Many argue that the imperfections found in these older recordings adds character and a feel to the music that is often lost in todays world where every second of music is polished to perfection.
Auto-tune, is widely recognised to have first appeared on Cher’s 1998 track ‘Believe’ where it was used to distort the vocals in an interesting and unique way. Though this is truly the first use of actual auto-tune, there is a huge gap between what auto-tune actually is and what what the general public believes auto-tune to be. Auto-tune is a form of what is more broadly known as pitch-correction and there are devices that have been used to correct the pitch of vocals and instrumentation since the 1970s. But much like how brands such as Hoover have become synonymous with vacuum cleaners, the name auto-tune has become synonymous with all types of pitch correction whether done automatically like the actual auto-tune by Antares Audio Technologies or done through a more manual method like the Eventide H910 Harmonizer.
Here in lies the problem, many people hear the name auto-tune and automatically assume that the term is being used to describe the correction of the pitch of a poor vocal performance when in reality auto-tune is used to describe a wide-range of methods and techniques to affect the tuning of audio in numerous ways and for numerous reasons. There are examples of how pitch correction has been used to tidy up vocals in a way that may make sense to many. For example, as a producer there are many elements you are looking for in a performance; tuning and timing are a couple of those elements but there are others; the timbre, emotion, power and dynamics of a performance are just a few examples and if as a producer you have to choose between a performance that is in tune but does not have the power and emotion that the song requires or a performance that is slightly out of tune but carries the weight and emotion that you want from that part of the song, you may forgive the producer for picking out the slightly out of tune vocal and correcting a mild mistake.
Pitch correction can also be used in a creative way that creates a unique sound, instrumentalists utilise systems such as talk-boxes and vocoders to create interesting sounds that you just cannot achieve with any other method, and auto-tune is often used in this way as well. We often hear these uses in a lot of modern pop music from artists like Kanye West who uses it in many tracks including ‘Love Lockdown’ and Bruno Mars who uses a vocoder in the introduction of ‘24k Magic’. But plenty of artists have used these techniques in the past, Kraftwerk used vocoders in a lot of their work including their 1978 song ‘The Robots’ and even the The Beatles manipulated the pitch of their songs by speeding up and slowing down tape; the perfect example of this is ‘Strawberry Fields’ where the speeding up and raising of the pitch of the track can be heard at around the 1 minute mark.
That being said, where does auto-tunes bad reputation come from? As I have just explained, much of it comes down to the difference between peoples’ expectations of what auto-tune is used for and what it is actually used for. With such expectations it is no wonder that people feel auto-tune is being used as a way to cheat talent. This coupled with a number of on stage performers such as Britany Spears and Katy Perry being caught lip synching vocals live and certain talent shows such as the X-Factor admitting to using auto-tune on their contestants then you begin to see why people may feel cheated and mislead when it comes to modern pop music.
So are there plausible uses for this technology? I would say yes, to an extent. Of course I have explained how it can be used in really cool creative ways that have changed how music sounds forever, it has also been used to make the most of the best takes to ensure a track can sound the best it possibly can. And though it may seem that its use in a live setting is cheating, the reality is that auto-tune cannot turn a bad singer into a great one. The technology itself only goes so far when being used live, as it can only be used to bring a note that is within a semi-tone of the desired pitch in tune, and to sing that close in tune consistently requires a strong and confident vocal ability. In such a setting in can be argued that is no difference between auto-tune and other audio-processing that is used in Live performances. No matter who the performer is, auto-tune or no auto-tune, other processes are used to bring the best out of a vocal performance with EQ being a bare minimum and the use of reverb, delay and compression also being perfectly normal processes to improve the sound of a vocal, how is the slight use of auto-tune any different?
Now this is not to say that the technology gets off the hook completely. Many people argue that the music of today has lost much of the feel that music used to gain from its imperfections. What used to be an art-form that relied entirely on imperfect human beings who, no matter how good, would always play slightly out of time and out of pitch when recording themselves to tape, a medium with limited editing ability, has now been replaced by computers and algorithms that can ensure that music recordings can be edited to produce perfectly timed and pitched music in a way no one could have ever imagined. Now it is important to realise that auto-tune is not the only culprit in this problem with modern music as there are loads of different modern recording techniques such as midi and audio-quantisation that helps in the creation of super-clean and super-perfect music of the modern era, but perhaps auto-tune is part of a trend in music that has seen the thing that made music so human disappear: imperfection.
What's is you opinion on auto-tune? Do not hesitate to comment below and start of a discussion on auto-tune and whether it is cheating or a useful creative tool?
Being creative and can be one of most joyful experiences a person can have. It can act as therapy, it can occupy the mind in a meditative way that blocks out the other stressors in your life and there is nothing quite like seeing other people enjoy your art.
That being said, making things is not always smooth sailing. From writer’s block to not feeling good enough at your craft and sometimes failing to get the joy you were hoping out of something you are making, being a creative, can actually be downright infuriating. So with that in mind I have created a list of my top ten tips to help reduce these problems as a creative individual.
1. Create without Judgement To often when trying to create something the biggest obstacle we come across is our own minds. People often feel they cannot come up with ideas, and while sometimes this may be true, in my experience the reality is not that people cannot come up with ideas but that they are too quick to dismiss the ideas they initially come up with. Putting ideas on the rubbish heap before you even start can be a killer to creativity. An idea does not have to be fully formed or even good when you start, in fact some of the best pieces of work started as really rubbish ideas that were crafted into good ones. The best way to tackle this problem is to create, at least in the starting phases of creation, without judgement. Make something and do not judge it, just create, save the judgement until later down the creative process when you can become an Editor which leads me onto…
2. Being an Editor, not a Artist So if we are initially creating ideas without judgement we are going to end up with our first draft. Now is the time to judge. Some of the elements of your creation may impress you and make your proud, whilst others will disappoint and will not be up to your standards. This is where editing is vital. We can identify what works and what does not, adapt, change, cut and add, recreate and develop our initial idea a piece we can truly be proud of.
3. Mistakes are to be sought out, not hidden from To often in life we fear mistakes and failure. Such fears are dangerous, particularly in the creation of art. Why is this the case? A couple of reasons. First, we often learn much more from mistakes than we do from success. With that in mind it is easy to see how we can improve as artists from mistakes. Second, mistakes can actually sometimes be the cause of great creative decisions. A mistake will often produce something we could not have imagined from out heads alone and can push the boundaries of your artistic expression. So do not fear mistakes, instead, seek them out and welcome them as part of the creative process.
4. Practice, Practice, Practice Creativity is a muscle. For it to be improved it needs to be exercised regularly and have its boundaries pushed. The more you exercise this muscle the more you will improve as an artist and the easier you will find creating things.
5. Create in other Styles and Mediums Whether a musical genre, an artistic style or medium, a form of writing or a genre of fiction, creative people will often pigeonhole their way into one particular specialism. This within itself is not necessarily a bad thing. As artists we often strive for our work to stand out from the crowd and be recognisable and one of the most effective methods for doing this is to dedicate our art towards a particular medium or genre. However, there is a lot to be gained from writing and mastering other mediums and genres. It can improve our technical ability, give us new methods and techniques for approaching our art form and even give us ideas to try when we go back to creating in our main medium or style.
6. Learn new skills Just by creating in other styles and mediums you will be learning new skills but you do not have to stop there. Mastering new skills and techniques can really help expand the possible creative choices available to you as well as help you to complete projects much more efficiently. If you’re an instrumentalist, learn to sing so you can see how your songs sound with a good a voice to them, if you’re a writer why not learn a certain type of meter or poetry that you have never tried, if your film maker why not take some acting classes so you are better able to communicate with your cast on set. The options are endless and they will improve your ability to do your craft.
7. Be open to Criticism It can be hard to takes criticism for our art. After all, the creation of art can require us to be venerable and when someone criticises the product of that vulnerability it can feel like the criticism is very personal. However, if we want to be better artists we need to realise that criticism is one of the most useful tools for helping for progression. So, first make sure that you get your artwork in front of people so they can criticise it; work cannot be criticised if it is hidden away. Second when people tell you what they like and do not like about your work, listen. Realise the critique is not a critique of you personally but a critique of the work itself and listen to the criticism carefully, even if in the end you decide you do not agree with that persons conclusions. You will find that due to the help of others that you will identify problems with your work quicker and your work will improve greatly.
8. Complete your projects Not completing creative work can be a real crux for many artists. I myself used to start and develop songs, drawings, poems and stories only for them to end up hidden away in a draw in my room or in folder deep in my computer documents. Now you do not have to complete every idea you start, it is good to either realise an idea is not worth any more energy and should be placed on the scrap heap or that maybe the idea should be shelved for a while for you to come back to later and complete with a fresh perspective. However, it is vital that you do not let this become a habit you see happening to the majority of your ideas for one key reason. Firstly, each particular phase in the development of a piece has unique features and skills, for example in a painting there is the inception of the idea, the drafting process, maybe a research phase, there is the drawing of the outline, the mixing of paints, the base layer, the shading, the highlights and so on. With each phase in the development of the painting is the use of a number of different skills and techniques. How can you develop as an artist if you only ever get good at coming up with an idea, sketching and drafting but never actually seeing an idea through to completion? By completing projects, you can ensure you become well versed and practiced in all the key areas of the creative process.
9. The 90% Rule Hank Green, for those who do not know, is an American entrepreneur, musician, educator, producer, vlogger, and author who is probably most well known for the YouTube channel he and his Brother (John Green) post to regularly: Vlogbrothers. In a video he says the key to his productivity is the 80% rule. This means he aims to get his work ‘80% of the way to as good as’ he ‘can make it, and no further’. His reasoning for this is because…
Hank then goes on to describe how you will never know if you are going to hit ‘the bullseye… that is what the 80% is about’ but ‘you will never really know where you are going to hit until you actually throw the dart and if you spend a tone of time thinking about how you’re going to throw the dart and you never throw it, you might be doing a whole lot of work that isn’t actually helping’
Now, personally I do not believe for creative work that the 80% rule is high enough and therefore I prefer to use a 90% rule and yes on some pieces of work, I do I aim for 100%, however, it is important that you do not let that target of 100% get in the way of you producing more creative pieces. You learn a lot more from creating multiple pieces that are not 10% than you do trying to get one piece to 100%.
10. Do it for the Love Too often I see people get so wrapped up in their creative work that they have completely forgot why they decided to become a musician, artist or writer in the first place and what is the point in doing creative work if we do not love. So always try to remember whenever you are trying to apply these tips, Love you work, Love being a creative and Love your art.
There is a compliment that many musicians with any level of skill have heard and secretly cringed at. It is a compliment which to many may not seem that problematic and in fact is often said with kindness and born from inspiration. But to many a musician it can feel minimising at best and demeaning at worst. So what are the fateful words that have such a rift between their intention and reception. That fateful phrase is…
‘Oh, you are so talented!’
While non-musicians may be sat their slightly bemused by such a statement I can guarantee the musicians that have read this have just turned a mild shade of purple, possibly with steam coming out their ears.
Ok so maybe I exaggerate; I am sure plenty of musicians see these words as the kind compliment they are intended to be, and even those who find those words frustrating like myself will admit that hearing such words is hardly a reason to go insane. None the less, what is it about the praise of talent that causes musicians and creatives such annoyance?
Simply it comes down to what talent means both in its definition and how society views it.
In understanding its definition, we can quickly see how a term such as talent could cause certain musicians to foam at the mouth. I can certainly tell you I did not come out my mother’s womb holding and electric guitar playing Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’. I myself didn’t actually touch an instrument until I was 15, and I would never say I had some natural inclination towards music; In fact I was told by my neighbours, friends and even my family that I sounded awful on a regular basis for the first three years of playing, but that did not stop me practicing every day, that did not stop me learning songs, mastering chords and moving repetitively up and down scale shapes day in, day out.
And that is what gets us to the crux of what makes the praise of talent feel so demeaning. It ignores the hours of hard work, the constant practice and development despite criticism from those around us, the pure effort and the blood, sweat and tears poured into our craft.
There is however something a little more insidious and damaging about the assumption that creative ability is innate that many do not consider. Those who praise talent will often wax lyrical about how they wish they could do what creative people do and how they wish that they possessed the natural ability to play, sing, write or draw. What they do not seem to realise is they are perfectly able to. If they are prepared to work hard nothing can stop them from mastering creative skills. The dangerous thing is that by perpetuating the myth that creative abilities come from some inbuilt genetic code or divine blessing and not from many hours of hard work, we could well be putting off a whole group of people, young and old, from taking up a creative craft because they truly believe that they do not possess ‘the talent’.
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