In this series of posts we explore musicality: what it means to be “musical”.
You hear the cellist playing the arduous melody, his musicality flowing as the notes weave in and out of the concert hall, singing a song that delves deep into the depths of your soul. Or perhaps you watch in awe as a rock drummer’s limbs flail in rhythmic dance as each of her sticks pound out a mesmerizing groove. These musicians are more than performing, their instruments have become an extension of their physical bodies. They know their instrument inside out.
Regardless of where you are on your musical journey, a key part of musicality is knowing your instrument. Perhaps you remember those days in middle school band, hearing a roomful of excited young people squawking and squeaking their way through what was supposed to be a convincing rendition of the “Music Man”. Or maybe you and your friends are learning (or getting reacquainted with) instruments that you haven’t picked up in decades and the results are less than stellar.
By truly developing your musicality and skills, you can know your instrument inside out and discover a new world of incredible musicianship and performance.
What is Knowing Your Instrument?
When we talk about “knowing your instrument”, we mean the basics like learning how to play your instrument, understanding the make and model of your instrument, and knowing how it was made and its history. How can these different aspects help your musicianship?
Take percussion, for example. When a percussionist plays a vibraphone, she must understand every nuance of her instrument, like how many octaves the instrument has in its range (not all vibes have equal ranges), how fast or slowly the motor works, and where she should strike the bar. When playing repertoire, she needs to understand the history behind it to perform it convincingly.
The same can be said of any instrument. Most pianists can tell you the beleaguered history of their instrument, and this knowledge allows them to play period instruments like the harpsichord and understand the difference in execution between a work by Mozart and a work by Beethoven. They understand the various ways they can adjust their fingerwork to draw out a wide range of timbres from their instrument.
A guitarist, woodwind, or brass player also needs to know all they can about their instrument. Imagine if you were a clarinet player unaware of the natural “break” around B flat when playing a melody. The result could be a squawking mess instead of a beautiful performance. Knowing and listening to famous musicians play your instrument is another way to truly know your instrument inside out. Their performance can inspire you and show you techniques that you may not know about.
In addition to knowing the basics and history of your instrument to develop musicality, you also should know extended techniques. What are extended techniques? These are musical techniques in your instrument that have developed over time and are not necessary considered traditional. Examples could be striking the strings of a violin with a bow (col legno), putting paper in the strings of a piano to play a piece by composer John Cage, playing unusual tunings in the guitar, or using specialized mutes for brass instruments.
How to Master Your Instrument
The simplest way to master your instrument is to practice, and practice, and practice. This involves more than jamming with your friends or playing a favorite song over and over and over and over again. Instead, purposefully practice your instrument, taking the time to develop your musical technique and skills. Use a metronome while practicing, working on difficult sections slowly until they are accurate, then slowly working up the tempo. Don’t rush through a piece or allow frustration to keep you from practicing. Sometimes it is better to take a break if you are overworking yourself, then approach practice fresh the next day. Good practice techniques will help you develop musicianship.
Formal training is often a key component of this process. These can be lessons, playing with an ensemble in college or in the community, group classes at a music school or even online lessons. What you need is a professional musician to guide you through your journey to great musicality. Even a mentor can fulfill this position, helping you with hints and tips that they have learned over the years. Going through method books will also help you develop good technique.
Excellent musicianship is more than playing an instrument. Music theory, ear training skills, and reading music are skills that every musician should develop. Learning how to sing and play basic keyboard are good musical skills for any musician regardless of their main instrument choice. Understanding the basics of music will help you perform better, read more difficult music, and truly understand musicality.
How Musical U Helps you Know Your Instrument Inside Out
Musical U provides you with a skills-based approach to developing musicality with an engaging community of musicians. With Musical U you don’t have to conquer your instrument alone. From learning how to sing and play popular chord progressions to developing good pitch and rhythm, Musical U covers an impressive array of skills for every musician.
Take advantage of our simple in-depth exercises that develop music theory skills, ear training, rhythm, chord progressions, and improvisation. These helpful exercises have been designed to help any musician at any level develop their musicianship at their own pace, with quizzes and assessments to really help you see where you need improvement and how Musical U can help you in those areas.
Although we don’t teach instrument technique at Musical U, we do have an incredible community of talented musicians from all walks of life helping each other with tips and hints. Through our message boards, musicians help each other with tough questions and enlightening insights, and your fellow musicians and the Musical U staff can help answer any questions you have about getting to know your instrument inside-out. From singers and songwriters to guitarists and pianists, the strong bond between Musical U musicians provides you with the support you need.
Throughout our modules we take a holistic approach, helping you connect specific skills with the bigger picture of playing by ear and using these skills to truly know your instrument.
Musicality Means… Knowing Your Instrument
So take the first steps today to knowing your instrument. Pick up a method book, take a music lesson, practice to a metronome, and check out Musical U.
Truly knowing your instrument will help you in performance, creating a much deeper understanding of how to truly play. Develop musicality through working on music theory, pitch, extended techniques and more.
The process does not happen overnight, but someday you may find that it is you on stage wowing audiences with your extraordinary musicality.
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