Maybe you are just starting on your musical journey or haven’t picked up an instrument in a long time. You watch some crazy musician slash away at a mind-boggling guitar solo on YouTube, wonder how you could become a Top 40 songwriter, or just listen in awe to a singer that sounds like an angel from heaven. And then you wonder, “Will I ever be that good?”

The truth is that it takes years of practice, dedication, and even failure to get to a high level of musicianship. No one is born singing like Mariah Carey, turning classical music on its head like the Piano Guys, or jamming out like Metallica. The good news is that the steps for doing so are clear and totally doable.

5 Steps to Success

In this article you will learn five ways to hack yourself into good music habits:

  1. Visualize what you want to accomplish
  2. Set goals
  3. Be realistic
  4. Build a supportive community
  5. Practice

1. Visualize

Where do you want to see yourself as a musician in five to ten years? Do you want to create a band that tours the world, have a Top 40 song, join a professional orchestra, write music for a summer blockbuster, or become a full-time music educator? These are all entirely different paths that require different goals. While your dreams for your musical life may change over time, knowing what you enjoy doing will help.

…be realistic about your talent. If you can’t hold a tune, have the rhythm of a three-legged turtle, and sheet music looks like another language entirely to you, becoming the next Adele is probably not in the cards for next year.

Evolution. I never wanted to be a band director or songwriter. I worked towards being a professional orchestral percussionist, then I chose to become a composer and wanted to write for film. Along the way I fell in love with electronic music and new media. Now I write music for film, multimedia works, and more, and still get to jam out on the drums when I write.

Many musicians, from Lady Gaga to Justin Bieber to Jay-Z to Taylor Swift have evolved as musicians, branching out into new genres of music and even business entrepreneurship that they may not have envisioned when they first started singing or mixing their first notes.

So visualize who you want to be and then move on to the next step.

Young rock star singing with stage lights on background.

And never, never, let someone convince you that you can’t accomplish your dreams. The dreams may change over time, but “settling” for something less than what you have a passion for will set you up for failure.

2. Set Goals

Once you know what you enjoy in music, what you want to do in your life, it’s time to set goals. Each musical path has a series of smaller goals to accomplish before succeeding. For example, you can’t be a member of a professional orchestra unless you can read music. The best songwriters write dozens, even hundreds, of songs before they create their first hit song, and music producers need to have an ear not only for music but for technology and audio production.

Divide and conquer. Divide goals into long-term goals, short-term goals, and micro goals. You might want to check out this great article on goal-setting.

woman contemplating dolomites panorama landscape

Here is a very basic example of goal-setting for a guitarist that hopes to lead or be a member of a popular band. In most cases, you will find that it will take several steps, not just three, to reach your goal. Break up the goals once you have set the macro-picture.

  1. Long term goal – Tour with a successful rock band
  2. Short term goal – Audition for local rock bands that have promise
  3. Micro goal – Practice your best guitar riffs for the audition

When you break up the different goals and add in specifics, you might have a list that looks more like this:

  1. Long term goal – Tour with the Dark Knights of the Lizard Kings next year
  2. Short term goal – Audition for the Dark Knights of the Lizard Kings and their rival band the Death Slugs, and any other bands that might want a guitarist
  3. Short term goal – Write a new tune for the audition
  4. Short term goal – Learn tunes from the Dark Knights of the Lizard Kings album
  5. Micro goal – Call band manager to see if they need a new guitarist and find out when the auditions are being held
  6. Micro goal – Attend several gigs of local rock bands
  7. Micro goal – Set up three auditions with three bands
  8. Micro goal – Practice best guitar riffs for auditions

3. Be Realistic

Remember that I mentioned that you should never, never, have someone squelch your dreams? Where here is one caveat: be realistic about your talent. If you can’t hold a tune, have the rhythm of a three-legged turtle, and sheet music looks like another language entirely to you, becoming the next Adele is probably not in the cards for next year.

Work, family, health issues, and crazy situations that life throws your way all might limit what you can accomplish right now. That doesn’t mean that your dream is impossible, but if you have to choose between taking care of your kids or quitting your job so you can practice six hours a day, you will probably choose family over music – unless you have a supportive network and financial freedom to pursue those goals.

No matter what: Don’t Give Up!

Vertical image of woman doing exercise on the mountain

The Digital Age allows anyone that can upload a file to a website to share their talents with fans whether they are twelve or forty or sixty-five. Avoid the negative inner voice that criticizes your every move and questions what you are doing. It may take you five months or five years to reach your long term goals, but that doesn’t mean that it is impossible. 

Cut yourself some slack if life gets in the way of your music, or if you find out that picking up the violin or mixing down a track is harder than you thought. No biggie. Just persevere. Here’s three ways to put yourself back on track with your motivation.

4. Build a Supportive Community

To succeed in anything in life, especially the arts, you need a supportive network that helps you accomplish your goals:

  1. Immediate Circle – spouse, family, friends
  2. Work/Professional Circle – colleagues, boss, teacher, mentor/expert
  3. Extended Circle – organizations, music groups, online support

Your Immediate Circle is the most important of the three circles:

Senior Couple Fountain Ukelele Instrument Concept

They help you achieve goals in a practical way, maybe by watching the kids or taking on a bigger workload so you can spend time working on your music. They help with time management and may be your biggest fans – and your biggest critics. No one else might have the guts to admit that yeah, they love that you have been working on writing jazz tunes, but no, that song is not Broadway-ready.

Colleagues, teachers, and seasoned musicians provide expert advice. Their critical insight provides you with an extra element of expertise that helps you develop your musical skills in ways that friends and family can’t. This Professional Circle is key for any serious musician. Some artists like to create in a void, but without the insight of others in your field, you might miss out on opportunities to fix problem areas, collaborate, or incorporate new ideas into your music.

“You can read all the textbooks and listen to all the records, but you have to play with musicians that are better than you.” – Stan Getz

Your Extended Circle allows you to network with other musicians in a broader sense. Organizations, music groups, and online resources like Musical U connect you to other musicians that provide advice, instruction, and collaboration. The Extended Circle can meet locally, at conferences, at your workplace, or online.

5. Practice

After you have developed your goals and built your community, it’s time to practice your musical skills. This includes practicing your instrument/vocal technique, ear training, music theory, standard repertoire and overall musicianship.

“When you are having a bad day and nothing is going right . . .When the pressures of life are crowding in on you and you need some time by yourself . . When someone, or something has made you angry .. . When you are bored, or when you are feeling flat or unhappy, don’t complain, just go and do some music practice. That will lift your spirits and energize you.” – Ron Ottley, from Now I Love Music Practicing

Even if you are “natural” and good technique comes to you easily, it is necessary to develop good practice habits like using a metronome and checking your tuning.

practice-flute-score-and-metronome

Ideally you want to practice every day. Depending on your instrument/voice, each practice session may be anything from thirty minutes to several hours. Be sure that you take care of your health by sleeping, eating properly, and using good technique. Vocalists especially have to keep healthy habits since their body is their instrument.

Be Yourself

“I don’t have to compete in the charts. I can just be myself as a musician, a songwriter, and play with the musicians that I really love.” – Elton John.

Success in music is no mystery. Musicians of all times and climes have relied on a progression of simple steps to move forward on this journey. So when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the distance from where you are to where you want to be, remember these five essential music habits. You may find that you are further along than you thought.

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