In this special rewind episode of Musicality Now the Musical U team discusses Ease and Joy in Music Learning.
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Adam: Hi. I’m Adam Liette, operations manager for Musical U, and welcome back to another Rewind episode of Musicality Now. If this is your first Rewind episode, let me just take a minute to walk you through what we’ll be doing here. Musicality Now is typically hosted by Musical U director, Christopher Sutton, but every now and then, he lets me hijack the episode so we can look back on previous interviews. I gather the Musical U team together on a call, and we recall our favorite moments from the podcast, all under a theme.
Adam: You can find past Rewind episodes on music theory, singing and practicing at Musicalitynow.com. Today, we’re talking about finding ease and joy in your music learning. This really came from talking with our members and a series that Christopher did on Facebook Live a couple of months ago. What we’ve noticed is that the students that were able to get the most out of the training also said that they loved the experience and that musicality training helped make things easier and more fun, which is almost the exact opposite way that I remember doing ear training during my studies at the conservatory.
Adam: I can remember laboring for hours, trying to hear the subtle differences between intervals, recognizing chord progressions, or analyzing music. Practice always felt like the most pressure because you felt like there were people standing right outside your door, critiquing every little thing that you were playing. It could be miserable. It reminded me of the movie Whiplash, where Miles Teller locked himself in a room and played drums until his hands literally bled. It’s one of those romantic stories that we often hear about, very similar to Alex Van Halen going out on a Friday night and leaving Eddie sitting on his bed practicing. Alex would return after a night of partying and Eddie would still be in the same position.
Adam: Let’s be honest. That’s not something that most of us truly desire. It’s not that we don’t want to be good musicians, but these folklore tales are incredibly difficult to try to measure up to, especially if you’re anything like most of us and you have to balance your music practice between work, family, school events with your kids and community. When you start to think about, it can sound like a cop out. I don’t have time to practice like these other musicians, so I may as well have fun.
Adam: But as you’ll hear in this episode, some of the foremost experts in learning music have adopted this very attitude. Finding ways to make learning more fun. That’s exactly the route to get better results. It’s not just fun for the sake of it. This is actually a more effective approach to your music learning. As you’ll hear from some very accomplished musicians in this episode, we aren’t alone in this thought.
Adam: I’ve talked for long enough. Let’s stop here and I’ll introduce the rest of the Musical U team. Andrew?
Andrew: Hey. I’m Andrew Bishko, known as Weehauktaw on the site. I am the product manager for Musical U, which means I am in there writing, creating and fixing our products as needed.
Stewart: Hi, I am Stewart Hilton, and you would know me as GTRSTU777. I am the community conductor for the site. Most of you have probably talked with me inside the site. Also, I play guitar for a few different tribute bands on the road, along with having another band on the side from that. That pretty much says it all, except for my love of my life, my wife.
Zac: Hi, I’m Zac. I’m a community assistant at Musical U. I help out Stew, just making sure everyone has a good time and everyone is learning and progressing with their music and just having fun. ZSonic on the site. It’s great to be here.
Adam: It’s always great to be with you guys. I feel like we spend so much time talking about the business and making things better for our members, but when we actually get together and just talk about music, it’s always magical and I always walk away thinking, oh my gosh, I have so many great ideas to take back to the practice room and really woodshed, so I’m really looking forward to this conversation as well.
Adam: Without further ado, let’s dive into some of our clips and get this conversation rolling. I know Stew picked a special episode that he wants to start with. Before I let Stew talk about it, let’s just play it real quick.
David Wallimann: Trying to find why is this thing that I’m facing a frustrating thing, or why am I stuck or, I think this applies to not just music but anything in life. You have a problem, you’re facing something difficult, just asking yourself all the questions that you can. Those could be what led me here or how do I get out of this, or is this really a bad situation? Maybe there’s something good in there.
David Wallimann: Musically that looked like an example is… there was this song, I can’t remember the title, but I kept hearing it on the radio, a very popular song. It’s probably a French song too. I’m born and raised in France. I loved that song and I didn’t understand why, so that triggered one of those mini quests as the big adventure of understanding music is.
David Wallimann: I asked myself, “Why do I love this song?” It’s not particularly the style I’m into. I kept asking questions. Is it a rhythm thing? Is it an interval that I’m hearing? What is it? That led me down a path. I think it was a scale, I can’t remember, maybe it was the first time I heard the Lydian scale or the Lydian mode, and that’s what I mean by being an investigator in your life as a musician.
Stewart: What I enjoyed hearing him talk about are dealing with those difficult things in the music. Also, looking at it as an adventure. He called it a quest, and being an investigator of the music. What I have done, I guess these last many years, actually last three years, which is weird. You go through your life when you’re younger, you’re like, “Oh, I’d love to do this,” and then you’re going through your 20s, doesn’t really happen, it goes for a while and all of a sudden you hit a certain age where, this is getting awesome, boom. Oh wait, I’m doing it now.
Stewart: I have played with a tribute artists, and it has caused me to really have to buckle down, not just with my playing, but also my listening. It’s been quite the adventure over three years, because I feel like I am constantly learning something new, or developing something new, and it’s just helping my playing, it’s helping my listening skills. Sometimes, it isn’t even really holding the guitar in my hands, but it’s listening to the music and it’s this whole process, kind of like what he’s talking about.
Stewart: When I first started playing some of this music, I listened to it and it was a quick thing. The guy was like, “Learn these tunes, be ready in a week.” I’m just buckling down, making sure I get the right chords, get this done, can I get through this? Of course, after the first show, there’s a few train wrecks in my brain and I’m like, “Okay, why is that not working? What is going on there? How do I fix this?”
Stewart: That begins the journey of how do I make myself better? I didn’t get fired, so it must not have been terrible-terrible, so how do I step it up for the next one? That’s been going on for three years, and even now I’ll listen to music, because a lot of times what I do, I have how the music goes and I have different things I have, but even as I’ll sit and listen to the music and the set list over and over and all of a sudden, boom. Oh wait, that’s interesting. I should probably figure that out, because that’s kind of cool. It may not be anything that he wants, but in my ear I’m going, that’s kind of neat what’s going on there. Then I sit down and work it out.
Stewart: Sometimes it even goes to with what we do on the site is asking other people. There have been times I’ve talked with Mr. Weehauktaw and said, “Andrew, I don’t know what is going on in this piece. I’m doing this solo. There’s times I feel right, and there’s other times I feel like somebody should have a giant hook and grab me off the stage.” He’s been really good, and we’ve shot ideas back and forth, but it’s been just that good neighbor, so to speak, in helping each other out and it’s been great. It’s been a great exploration.
Stewart: There’s the solos in songs that if I would have to do, especially when we’re doing Elton, he does these elaborate long songs, that at one point he would change Elton John costumes, so he’d stick the guitar player out there to play these way too long solos that are three to four to five minutes long. Then there’s other times, especially playing artists that are piano focused, there’s a lot of interesting chords that are going on. It’s not sometimes just a one, four, five, or your four chords, they add all these little things going on, and you can hear it in the guitar.
Stewart: Davey Johnstone, who plays for Elton, he’ll do certain things that will … it’s a chord, but he does inversions, or he plays it up the neck and it’s really opened up a lot of things, even in my own playing.
Stewart: With Davey Johnstone, like I mentioned, he does a lot of different things using the chords, but he’s not just playing your normal first place chord of a C-chord or bar chords. He’s doing inversions or he’s playing different forms of the chords around the neck, and how he plays the chord is different. That’s really, as much as it made me explore how I’m playing it, it’s opened up new things for myself where I’m playing, and other projects, where if I’m at church and we’re doing a song, all of a sudden I’ll switch it up and play it differently, and it adds this whole new world to my playing.
Stewart: I’m going to steal something that Mr. Bishko does, and it relates to Rascal Flatts. We were doing a Rascal Flatts show, and there’s a song, when I first learned it, it was just … there’s two chords. There’s more, but there’s two chords that stand out, so it’s a song called, I Melt. I don’t know if people know that, but if you want to look it up, the chorus goes…
Stewart: Just straight chords. Well, I was listening to the song and I thought, wait, there’s something a little more going on there with the C and the A. What he’s doing, it’s kind of a normal chord, but he’s just adding a little color to it, so it’s…
Stewart: It’s something simple, but man when I’m playing it on the… I don’t play acoustic, I play electric there, but boy, does it really open up that song and gives it a little bit of personality. That’s one of those, when you’re doing it, when you’re investigating, you hit what’s going on, and you’re like, “Wow! That is really cool! I want to do that too!”
Stewart: Another thing is, when I do country, I’ve had to learn chicken pickin’, which has been a neat learning experience, and there’s a couple other songs that I have still… in the future I want to work on that I can do a little bit, but there’s so much other in it that it’s going to be fun. There’s always something to explore and something to learn. That is quite the ease and joy.
Zac: I really love that whole idea of exploring. That’s such a great thing to do, because when you’re exploring, you’re just seeing what you can find. You’re seeing what you can learn and you’re not really worrying about doing something the right or wrong way. I really like on that clip, what he said about exploring and listening and trying to figure out why he loved that song, even though it wasn’t in his normal style.
Zac: That’s a transformation that happened for me since being on Musical U, is just listening to all kinds of music and figuring out things about them that I like. I can listen to pretty much any genre, any style and really just listen to it and ask myself, hey, what about this do I like? There’s always something. Even if it’s not the overall sound I like, there’s always a rhythm idea in there, maybe a melodic idea in there, or a harmonic idea like Stew was talking about with just changing those basic chords just a little bit and just exploring and being open to new ideas, I think, is very, very joyful. It takes a lot of the stress away if you approach it with that exploratory mindset and just try to see what you can figure out and see what you like, then run with that. It’s been really amazing just listening to music and exploring it with a little bit more of an intent, but also more open mindedness about what it is I like.
Adam: I can remember being at the conservatory, and I made friends with the librarian so I wouldn’t have to look up the CD in the book or in the old Dewey Decimal System, the card catalog. Gosh, we’re dating ourselves, but I would go back into the record room and just pick out a random CD, and at the end of a long day of practicing, just putting on something random was, oh my gosh.
Adam: I’ve learned from Andrew now, listen with a question in mind. When you’re listening to music, have that in mind. What are you listening for? What exactly do you want to hear? Now it’s so much easier, because we have Spotify. We have Pandora and all these great tools where you can just explore new music at a whim and just see that they’re always trying a new channel.
Adam: Michelle McLaughlin, who has been on this show came up. It was like, “Oh, Michelle, I love her music.” It was that discovery. It’s this never ending fun of being a musician and constantly exploring.
Andrew: It really all comes down to mindset, because first of all, what would you rather be? A laborer, or an explorer? What sounds like more fun? What sounds easier? It doesn’t mean you’re not doing the same work, but your whole attitude has shifted, and what is going to come out of that? What’s going to come out of exploration? Discovery. What comes out of labor? It’s work. It’s a product. Labor’s good. Products are good, but discovery. It’s not just discovery.
Andrew: I think a lot of what we’re talking about is taking things that are situations that we’re all familiar with. We come up against something in music or in life, as he was saying, and we come up against something and it’s like, “Oh my gosh. How am I going to get through this?” We’re butting our heads against it. Instead of butting our heads against it, let’s explore it. Let’s go explore. Let’s see it. Oh wow, I found the way through. I found the way past there.
Andrew: It reminds me, here’s a big confessional story. It reminds me of one time when I was touring with a Reggae band and I was really in not a good emotional state. I was in conflict with my band mates and I was in this room, and I couldn’t open the door. I was absolutely certain that they had locked me in that door, in that room. I was pounding on the door, and I was pounding on the door, I was like, “Let me out! How could you guys do this? How could you lock me in this room? Let me out of here!” Screaming and yelling.
Andrew: At one point, I had my hand on the doorknob and I’m jiggling it. I was trying to push the door when I had to pull it, so pulling doors is much more easy and joyful. I like to think that I’ve gotten a little more control over my emotions since then, but it was a really revelation. It was like, “Okay.” And that’s what we do a lot of times. We make things harder with our attitudes.
Stewart: Okay, along with that adventure of life, I would say I’ve learned this over mine, which, when I was a kid, my mom and dad loved to get me different records of different guitar players such as George Benson and country guys. I remember when they gave them to me, I’d be like, “I don’t want to listen to this. I’m listening to KISS. I’m listening to Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden. I don’t want to listen to this other stuff.”
Stewart: But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to really investigate all of those, and it’s helped me in my own playing, but when you check out some of those other styles and how to do them, it becomes part of your playing. It becomes this meld of all these different influences and styles.
Andrew: That was fascinating Stew. I think we could go on and on about that whole philosophy of exploration. We have more, we have such a rich resource in our podcasts, of wisdom, it’s just amazing. I was listening to a podcast by David Row, who is a music educator, and he was talking about, that sometimes it does not seem that it’s easy or joyful, but what that builds and listening to that… well, let’s listen to the clip and then I’ll comment on it some more.
David Row: I think for anything, there is going to be a level of, this is not fun, for a while. If you’re a runner, running is not fun at first. You have to build up that muscle and you have to get used to a process. My nephew is learning to try new foods, and at first, you don’t like them. They say it takes seven or eight times trying a food to decide whether or not you like it and to acclimate to it.
David Row: I think with all things there’s a level of this is not fun for a while. There might be fun things about it, but if you abandon the difficult parts, that’s too bad. I feel like that difficulty helps you gain a lot and learn a lot.
Andrew: When I listened to this, I was like, this seems to go against what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about ease and joy, and he’s saying, oh, there’s this part that’s the, this is not fun part of it. The key is, in this case, when we come up against these things, the this is not fun part, is to ask why am I doing this? Why am I 59 years old, I’m sitting in a room with an accordion, trying to play a polyrhythmic, or Pongo rhythm with my left hand and right hand together, playing this certain kind of mariachi style.
Andrew: Nobody does this, because everyone else has a bass player with them. Why am I doing this? It’s hard and I’m working on it and I’m working on it, but the key is, I’m doing it because… and I’m going to now quote Lisa McCormick, who is one of our earlier podcast eps, because I love it. She has this thing called, Note To Self. Because I love it. I love this stuff. I love music. So what if it’s hard, I love it.
Andrew: That brings so much more joy to the situation, and it’s interesting, because I was listening to her podcast too, for this, and I was thinking about when I came to that. I’ll go and I’ll slave away and I’ll be like, “Uh, uh, uh,” on something, and I’m doing that knocking my head against the door thing, and I keep on doing it and doing it. First I ask, “Why am I doing this at all? Why am I bothering?” It’s really, it’s because I love it. I really love it, and I think of it that way.
Andrew: You know what’s really funny about that is when I change that mindset, “Gosh, I love this,” I start going down what Stew was saying about that investigative mindset. What’s really going on here? What’s hard about this? What is difficulty anyway? What is it? My mind opens up, because if I’m thinking about I’m loving it, I’m going to start enjoying this. I’m going to start having more fun with it and being more open to the solution to the problem.
Andrew: I know another thing that really has inspired me over these past couple of years is we did a masterclass with Mark Goff who will also come in another podcast, and what if I practice this a little bit differently? What if instead of sitting down, I stand up? What if instead of facing that wall, I look out the window? What if I close my eyes? What if I open them? What if I try a different fingering that really doesn’t make sense at all? What if I try doing these different things? What if I try playing… one of my favorite things to do with my students, what if I play it wrong on purpose? I’m going to play the wrong note on purpose and it’s like, “Wow, I played the wrong note on purpose, now I know why I’m playing that. I figured that out. I’m getting into that.” And it’s more fun. It’s an investigation. It’s an exploration. Then I start learning from the difficulty and it becomes a challenge. It becomes fun.
Andrew: I remember when I used to, in my 20s, I traveled a lot. I backpacked and all kinds of stuff, just going where the wind blew me. Whenever I would come to a fork in the road, I didn’t know, should I go this way or should I go that way? I always decided I was always going to walk uphill. It always felt good to walk uphill. It always felt good to have that mountain underneath me, to have that land pushing me up, to walk uphill. I would always come to a place where I could see an overview. A hillside where I could look over something or I’d be at the top of a city or I’d be at the top of tower or something where I could look over everything and have this overview. I was always like, “Go uphill. Go uphill.”
Andrew: It’s the same thing with music. It’s fun to go uphill. The rewards are really great. On the other hand, now that I’m older, I like going downhill too. That could be fun too. It’s not… sometimes I found that a lot of times we try and challenge ourselves. We want to learn something that’s difficult, but we miss a lot because we’re always like, “Oh, I’ve got to get that. I’ve got to rock it like that.”
Andrew: I did a gig recently. My wife and I were hired to play a jazz gig. I’m not a really technical jazz player. I played jazz all my life, but I never really committed to the really macho, making every single bebop change disciplined. I admired it, but for some reason, it never really just grabbed me as something that I loved enough to really want to do that. I admire people that do.
Andrew: However, when I play, I play very musically. I really use my ears and it sounds nice, and people really enjoy it. I’ve always associated jazz, because there’s a part of jazz that’s really about the competitiveness, about making the changes and playing something that’s really impressive, but there’s also a part, it’s music. It’s musical. It’s beautiful.
Andrew: Anyway, I really let go of that whole thing when my wife and I played this. We just had fun together. We had a blast. We had so much fun playing off each other and playing together and the audience was great. They really got into it. We just had a really good time and we made beautiful music and it was great. I don’t know if it was this mind blowing thing. I know what I did well. I know what I might’ve liked to improve, but I had a great time and made music and the audience really felt that.
Andrew: Sometimes you learn a lot about doing something that’s a little easier and a little more fun, just playing music where you can put more attention on your expression. More attention on your ear where you’re really connecting with the music. More attention on playing from your heart. I’m playing something simple, and playing something beautifully and making it meaningful, so that’s another aspect of ease and joy I wanted to bring up, is that sometimes it’s just fun to play something easy and focus on the other dimensions of music and really make it sing, really make it beautiful and from the heart.
Zac: Wow, that was incredible, Andrew. You said so many amazing things in there. That was awesome. One of the things that you mentioned specifically, the Lisa McCormick Note to Yourself thing about, I love this. I love that, because that is something that transformed my life and brought a lot more joy and ease is just that mental model. It’s a mantra. When stuff starts falling apart, you just say, “Hey, I love this!” And then it’s fun. It’s like, “Oh yeah, this was fun. Just have fun.”
Zac: I would extend that, as well, to saying, “I love myself,” because when you are investing time and practicing music and playing music, it’s an act of self love, so you’re loving yourself. I think of my cats. I’ve got cats. Sometimes they puke on things and they shred up your couch and they do other things that’s annoying things that cats do, but every time I see them I’m like, “Oh, they’re so cute and I just want to pet them and love them,” and I feed them every day and I put up with all the annoying cat things they do because I love them.
Zac: I try to treat myself the same way. Love myself like I would love something else that has all these imperfections because anytime you see a fault, you see an imperfection, something like that, that’s just an indicator of where you need to put your love. I love all that and I think that even if you don’t have some grandiose vision, some big picture vision, you want to win a Grammy Award, you want to perform in front of millions of people, just having that one, “I love this,” or “I love myself,” both really, just the love to it is a really great why, and that really has helped me, certainly, have way more fun in my practice.
Zac: I rarely get frustrated anymore. I rarely get to the point where I’m like, “Forget this!” And then run out of the room and don’t practice for a couple days. That doesn’t happen anymore because I just say, “Hey, I love myself. I love this thing. It doesn’t matter if I mess up the furniture a little bit. It’s all good. I love myself. I’m good now.”
Stewart: I love what you said about loving yourself, and also with Andrew’s clip, they discussed the difficulty, but through difficulty comes good stuff. We were talking about the joy and ease. Once again, I’ll take it back to this guy I played for. We have a lot of preparation, but there’s no preparation as a full band. Everything is done by ourselves until we’re on stage, and then you either make it or break it, so there’s a lot of at-home woodshedding.
Stewart: That can be the difficult part, because you’re trying to figure out, if I’m doing this, is it going to all work? I really hope I’m good on the stage. That’s the difficult moment, but the thing that is great is when you get it, when you get a technique or a part of what ear training is and you nail it, and we see members do this all the time. They get excited at the end. They’re like, “Yes! I got this! I never thought I could.” Or when we have a member who’s been told in their life, “Boy, you’re tone deaf.” Because of what they have heard us talk about and as we help them improve, you see them get all excited in their posts about, “Oh, I never thought I could do this. I’m doing it.” That makes all of us on the team just excited when we see that type of thing.
Stewart: Even with this band, the drummer and I, we were doing one of the shows for the first time and we were both a little nervous about it, because we hadn’t really done it much, but I think the first time it was a little rough, but we made it through. This other show we did, we hit it. We got done and we looked at each other and we were fist pumping, “Yeah man! That was great!” That’s to ease and joy. It’s a good moment.
Adam: I think for me, it always comes down to if I know something is difficult at first, it’s probably the right thing to do, and that’s a really hard thing to accept in any aspect of your life, any aspect, but part of the way you get there is to always have the end in mind. Yes, I’m working really hard, yes, it’s not fun at the moment, but the more I stay at it, the easier it’s going to be.
Adam: When you have that end in mind, that makes everything better, because all this stuff does not start easy. It just doesn’t. That’s an unfortunate pill to swallow at times, but finding it, knowing the purpose, I think, is what will really get you there. I want to now introduce… I know that Zac wants to talk about this next clip from Sabrina Pena Young. Sabrina has been just part of Musical U for years. She’s been writing articles with us, she’s been with us on the site, helping us to create stuff, and she has this own incredible background and career that she’s built for herself, and so I’m really excited to hear this clip. Let’s listen to the clip first and then we’ll talk about it.
Sabrina Peña Young: I think one of the easiest ways to balance things is to have kids, because all of a sudden you’re sitting there going, “I really want to write an opera, but I have to change diapers.” All of a sudden, there’s this reality.
Sabrina Peña Young: In college, I had some health problems and some family issues going on that really slowed me down in terms of what I could do performance-wise. It really made me have to drop everything that I loved for a while, while I tried to deal with just the basics of getting myself back on track as a person and as a human being.
Sabrina Peña Young: I think I kept doing music throughout it all. Music will always be what I go to during any stage of my life. I think that I’m still a perfectionist. I’m a recovering perfectionist, but I’m also more forgiving of myself. I also realize that it doesn’t have to be the best of the best of the best. I don’t have to sit here and compare myself to these imaginary people that I never meet that I think are better than me. I really just need to do it as best as I can right now, and just enjoy the process. Life is so short. There’s just no reason to stress about it.
Zac: Oh yeah, I love that clip so much. There’s a lot of stuff in there that is really key to joy and ease. One is about balance. You have to balance your musical life with your other life, your family and your friends. I always thought I needed to practice eight hours a day or I wasn’t going to be good, but you have to make time for your family and friends. That is joyful. You’ve got to create that balance in your life. When you spend some time with your family, spend some time on music, it makes both of them better.
Zac: Another thing she talks about, which is the thing that really transformed my life. When I first heard this episode and I heard her say, just two words in there. There’s two words in there that really changed my life, just opened my mind up, and it was “recovering perfectionist”. Because I thought, wait, you can recover from that? What? Perfectionism is like an ailment? It’s a weakness that you can improve on?
Zac: I never thought of that. I’ve always been a perfectionist. It has held me back in so many ways. In school, I wouldn’t turn in projects if I didn’t think I was going to get a A plus. They were unfinished. I didn’t want to turn them in. A lot of my friends have put out a ton of tracks in the amount of time it’s taken me to make one track because either, A, I’m too hard on myself, I don’t finish things, or B, it takes me a year to finish one thing. Perfectionism has hold me back in so many ways. Now I’m a self-proclaimed recovering perfectionist, because there’s just so much there, it’s hard for me to even find the words to say. It’s just so powerful.
Zac: Perfectionism, it really does hold you back. Part of being a human is being imperfect. Actually, when I see people perform, and they have imperfections in their performance, I can connect with them more. Being a perfectionist closes you off to other people, in a way. It blocks your flow in that way. You’re not going to have fun and ease with the flow of your life. You have to have a flow of your life. That goes back to the creating balance. The more balance you can create, the more flow you can have in your life.
Zac: If you’re trying to be a perfectionist on any one of these points, trying to be a perfectionist with your music and spend all your time on music, or you’re trying to be the 100%, got to provide for my family all the time, and I’m going to sacrifice all these other things in my life that I enjoy doing, it’s all too much of one and not enough of the other. You have to not be a perfectionist in order to create balance.
Zac: Recovering perfectionist. You can recover from it, you don’t have compare yourself to other people. You can just have fun just getting a little bit better every day, and it doesn’t have to be perfect, and now I’m at this point where I feel all right with putting out ideas. I did a video game music composer’s challenge where I just put out a musical idea every day. I never would have done that if I didn’t think I don’t have to be a perfectionist. It was just those two words, recovering perfectionist that just flipped a switch in my mind where I was like, “Hey, I don’t have to be this way! I can just have fun and enjoy the process of making music.”
Zac: Now, that’s my whole focus is just enjoy what I’m doing right now. There are times when you want to be a perfectionist. That’s something else I’ve learned. Perfectionism is a valuable tool, but it’s a very large and impractical tool to carry with you around all the time. It is a great tool to have in your arsenal when you need to pull it out and get some serious work done and have some really high quality output. You don’t need to do that all of the time.
Zac: I’m actually thankful that I spent a good portion of my life becoming such a detail-oriented person, such a perfectionist, trying to be meticulous about all the little details, because now that’s a tool that I can pull out when I need to, and I’m aware of it. It’s really opened me up to a lot of joy and just having fun, transformed my life, so much more ease in just making music. It’s incredible. I love Sabrina for that. I’m so grateful that she shared those thoughts with us.
Stewart: Yeah, that’s good about the perfectionism. I grew up playing in the metal scene in the ’80s and ’90s. During that time, the perfectionist electric shred guys were huge back then. How many arpeggios can you get out within about two seconds? Different things like that, the technical aspect and all that, and I just couldn’t do that. My hands weren’t that fast.
Stewart: A buddy of mine said… and it was great, he was like, “Stew, I know you get down on yourself and all that, but I like when you play. You do prog stuff, but you’re this blues player trying to play prog and I kind of enjoy it. Just be you.”
Stewart: That always stuck with me like, “Oh yeah!” It’s still been a journey of trying to get better at accepting who I am like you were talking in the other part about loving who you are, but that has helped. It’s odd, on the flip side of that, I’ve just gone through a situation with a former band member, and all we were trying to do is get him to come in to play, and part of the discussion was, “Look, we’re not trying to be the greatest band. We’re not trying to be the best. All we’re trying to do is bring our craft up to a level where we’re all really pleased with how we sound.” It became an issue. He just didn’t want to be there. We’re getting someone who does like that type of concept, but it’s nice not knowing you have to be the greatest of all things, and also loving what you’re doing and doing the best you can as who you are.
Andrew: A lot of times, the path of ease and joy and loving oneself is really going to lead us much more to where we want to go. A lot of times we put this idea in mind of what we want to be, and while that can inspire us, you were talking about wanting to be this metal guy or whatever, that can inspire us in a lot of ways. But, a lot of times, we’re focusing so much attention on being someone else and doing something that we admire, but that’s not really where we’re going from inside.
Andrew: There is a place, I know that we have a member, Scott Kuehn, who has been talking about his practice routine, and you can see he’s really found a rhythm with it. What I mean by that is he’ll get inspired with something and work on it for a while, and that will lead to something else, and that’ll lead to something else, and that’ll lead to something else, where it’s become a very joyful process with him, where he’s not asking himself the question all the time. “Is this the right thing to do? Is this the right thing? Am I doing it right? Am I doing it right?” He’s really following his inspiration.
Andrew: There’s so many times in my life where I’ve just boxed myself. I’ll say, “This is who I am. This is what I do and that’s it.” Where I realized that I put myself in a box and it wasn’t easy and joyful anymore. On the other hand, there’s been times where it was something that I really didn’t want to do and focused a lot of attention on, and I focused a lot of attention on playing Klezmer music, which is a Jewish folk music from Eastern Europe. Developing this and developing technique on my instruments, since there wasn’t anyone else playing it on the flute to the depth that I wanted to play at that time, I learned so much about my instrument and about myself, and I wasn’t focusing on my instrument.
Andrew: I was focusing on the music and producing these sounds, but I learned so much about my instrument, I learned so much about phrasing, so much about melody, things that no one else was teaching me, and I put myself in that channel for 15 years, that was my creative thing, and when I came out of it and I started playing jazz again, and I started playing classical music, it was a whole new world. I knew all kinds of stuff from having challenged myself in that way, and built that, I knew all kinds of stuff that I didn’t know before and was playing a completely different kind of music in a completely different genre and it was really about musicality and expressiveness and about use of tempo and articulation and all the things that we don’t spend a lot of time on. We’re trying to play as many notes as fast as possible, or we’re trying to work out something technical.
Andrew: I built all this stuff in a very disciplined way, and now I was able to spread it out into everything I did and everything I do, because it’s with me until this very day.
Adam: There’s a really common principle that’s taught. It’s the 80/20 principle, where you get 80% of your results from 20% of your work. I’ve been working with a coach lately who said, “No, that’s way too much of your work. It’s the 5% principle. If you can devote all your efforts into the 5%, that’s where you’re going to see all your results.”
Adam: Talking about perfectionism, I wake up every day and I keep a journal, and I find the 5%. I know we talk about practice journals. We talk about how we’re keeping track of what we’re doing musically. Find those 5% tasks, those exercises. You’re going to be amazed at what you do when you just focus in on that little bit and the results that brings. It’s incredible when you can get that kind of focus and it just makes everything easier. It makes your practice routines go smoother and absolutely everything else.
Zac: Definitely, definitely. I can attest to that personally, because for the past few weeks or so, I’ve been doing what I call a daily bare minimum, which is where I find out what’s the most bang for my buck exercise I can do. Right now it’s sight singing. I do it at the super basic level, but I make sure I just get in that five minutes of sight singing every day and that bare minimum, that’s what I call the bare minimum principle.
Zac: You said fail safe, no matter what else happens today, I’m going to do this thing, even if it’s one minute. I’ve done it with one minute exercises before, and the results compound over time, and it really is super powerful, that 5%. I love that. I love that.
Adam: Cool, thanks for sharing that, Zac. I love hearing different strategies people are using, like those one minute exercises. You hear about them and it’s like, “How do I do that in my own practice?” That’s really useful, thank you. We have one more clip to share with you, and this is from a guy named Josh Wright. Josh was on the show a while ago, an incredible pianist and a gifted teacher as well. He has an awesome YouTube page. Let’s hear what Josh has to say.
Josh Wright: he said, “When I perform, I feel this current working up inside of me that I have to share with the audience. I have to share this experience and this journey with them.” I actually watched that interview. I had that interview bookmarked to watch, but I watched it two hours before my Rachmaninoff Third Concerto performance, and I feel like it was one of my more successful performances I’ve ever given.
Josh Wright: It was because I was so concerned about sharing. I was thinking of everything that he said during that performance, and it was no longer about me. It was no longer about my own insecurities. Getting rid of your self in your performances is one of the most crucial things to success. Stop thinking about yourself. Stop thinking about what you struggle with, and instead think about sharing with that audience and enjoy the experience yourself and enjoy the music. You’re playing this wonderful music. Why are you thinking of yourself when you have this amazing music that you’re going to play?
Josh Wright: That’s harsh advice. I’m not saying you’re a selfish terrible person if you’re thinking of your own insecurities. It’s a natural human inclination, but if you can quiet your mind, get rid of negative self talk, stop thinking of yourself and start thinking of the music and sharing this beautiful experience, performing becomes a joy. It’s no longer scary, it’s no longer nerve wracking, it’s actually just fun at that point. It’s anxious anticipation.
Adam: This one hit home on a couple different factors. I’ve always had this eclectic music experience where I was playing multiple different styles, multiple different instruments all at the same time. When I was learning classical and studying very heavily, classical music, I was making a living playing hard rock. I was never nervous playing hard rock. It was always about the experience. It was always about the show.
Adam: People would see me before a show and I’d be pacing backstage and be like, “Oh, Adam’s nervous again.” I was never nervous. It was pure adrenaline. I was ready to go, and the moment those lights came on, the guitar was in my hand, the drums hit the first snare drum, I was on and I was going to be on for the entire 45 minute show, because that’s what I did. I was so involved in the experience and trying to take all of my energy and push it through my guitar to the crowd and they were giving it back to me.
Adam: However, the next day I’d go to the conservatory and I would clam up when playing classical. It was because I was so concerned with what everyone else thought of me when I was playing classical. I was trying to impress them rather than try to be in the moment, and try to move them with my interpretation of the music. This continued for years and I couldn’t find a way out of it, but we always talk about those a-ha moments, those moments in your life that change everything. For me, it was playing Taps at my first military funeral, because for the first time ever, on the trumpet I was able to remove myself from the equation and focus only on the sound coming out of the bell my horn.
Adam: As I look back, that’s when everything changed for me on the instrument and with that genre, because suddenly I could see it. Suddenly I could feel it, and I knew what that performance felt like in here. That made it easier to replicate in the future. If performance anxiety is something you have trouble with, most musicians do at some point, you just have to find that moment, find that why and really, like Josh said, focus on the experience. Focus on giving out all this energy to the crowd, and they’re going to give it back to you. I promise.
Stewart: I have a cure. I’m not really sure if it’s one that everybody wants to do, but it has helped me get rid of some of that worrying about other people. That is to go play outside during some sort of major weather catastrophe. I have found, I’ve done a few shows where, one, there was a tornado warning and we were on a metal trailer. We were watching lightening in the sky, but it was funny, the drummer, when we got to our first break, he was like, “Dude, you are killing it.”
Stewart: I realized, I know why. My mind is not even really thinking… I’m just playing, the music is just natural, because really my brain is not thinking about, oh gosh, I’ve got to get this perfect, because I’m thinking, am I going to get struck by lightening? I’m not worried about it. We even had that again last week. We were playing outside and we were watching clouds roll in and I’m doing the solo and I’m just having fun with it, because I’m not worried. The only thing I’m worried about is self preservation.
Stewart: Once again, I don’t recommend that we all go outside and play in the middle of a major thunderstorm with lightening or tornadoes, but yeah, it’s definitely when you can get through that and just enjoy what you’re doing in the moment. It’s a great thing. I am going to get better and better without the natural disasters going on.
Zac: Yeah, I’ve definitely played in a disaster. It wasn’t a natural disaster, but it definitely ended up being one of those a-ha moments, and definitely a transformation in my life. It was my first DJ gig that was a real gig. It wasn’t a house party or just someone’s backyard party. It was in a club. There was other DJs playing. There was a lot of people there, they were charging money for tickets. It was a real gig and it was my first real DJ gig. I was playing, and everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong.
Zac: The equipment was messing up. I felt like I was messing up all my mixes. I felt like I was doing terribly. It was the worst. It was so bad. I actually ended up crouching down underneath the DJ table and crying. I was crying under the table in the middle of my DJ set. Once I got that out, I was like, “Okay, okay, okay, okay. Shake it off. Let’s just have some fun. Let’s just go back.”
Zac: When I came out from under the table, everyone was still dancing. They were all dancing, because the song was still playing. There was a song playing but I was freaking out and crying. I came back, and everyone was still dancing. At that moment, I was like, “You just got to have fun.” When performing, everything is probably going to go wrong. That’s just how performing works. Just expect everything to go wrong and just have fun.
Zac: After that, I have always just had fun with my DJ sets. When I’m having fun, the crowd is having fun. As long as people are dancing, I don’t need to try to impress them with some technical skills. It doesn’t matter what kind of gear I’m using. All this other stuff doesn’t matter. As long as I focus on having fun and making sure the people are dancing, making it about the people dancing and having fun, and that’s helped my life ever since then, being more easy, more joyful especially.
Andrew: I really want to thank you for bringing that clip up, Adam. That was really good. That whole concept, it’s about the music. You see people making fun of, “It’s about the music, man!” It really is. It really is about that, and that’s what we love. That’s what we’re doing it for. We played a gig on Monday, so a couple days ago, and if you guys haven’t figured out by now, I’m in a Mariachi band. We did it in a restaurant, and a lot of times when we’re playing gigs, we have the sound system. More often than not, we have the sound system.
Andrew: But we said, “No, we’ll just go around to the tables and forget about the sound system.” We had to play quiet while the vocalist was singing. We had to stage ourselves where the vocalist is right up to the tables and we’re back a ways to get the balance right for the people who were listening. We went around and we sang and played for specific people. We would go around to the tables. It wasn’t like, a lot of times you play a show and you’re up there and you’re playing for everybody, and here you’re playing for everybody, but you’re also really pinpointing certain people and making that connection.
Andrew: We were singing the Mexican birthday song. It’s called Las Mananitas. It is the most beautiful lyrics. There’s one line in there that, I just love this line. It says, since the day that you were born, that’s the day that all the flowers were born. Can you imagine being on the receiving end of that? Someone is saying, “When you were born, all the flowers were born.” Here we’re up, we’re three feet away from this person and we’re singing this. We’re looking at her and she’s looking at us and making that connection. It’s not about am I playing the right chord? It’s not about am I playing the right notes and stuff like that.
Andrew: You are expressing to somebody about their beauty and their light that they’re shining, and you’re sharing that light with them, and your light with them, and it’s like your guys says, get out of the way. Let that stuff happen, because that’s it. That’s what it’s all about.
Adam: Wow. Thank you all for this incredible conversation. That was wonderful and so many good points were brought up. I say this all the time and so forgive me for being redundant. I said it already in this episode, but getting this chance to talk with you all, it’s one of my favorite things that we do here, and I look forward to our next time together, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed getting to hear clips from past interviews, and how the Musical U team has been able to take away all these learning points, what it’s done for our musical lives. If you’re interested in hearing the rest of the interviews, just go to the show notes at musicalitynow.com, or YouTube for links to all the episodes we referenced. Really, these little short clips were just the beginning.
Adam: I just want to close with something that happened to me last week. It always seems to happen when we’re getting ready to prepare a Rewind episode, or perhaps I’m just more in tune with it, but a member asked, how do we keep practice interesting? I was immediately intrigued and eager to answer. I’ve talked about how, in the last couple weeks, I’ve been helping at our community elementary school with the incoming fifth grade band. They’re playing their instruments for the first time, and my son happens to be one of them.
Adam: He’s in the first couple weeks of learning the trumpet in primary school. He looked to me for help, and all these kids were together. The most incredible thing happened. I got hyper focused on the basic mechanics of playing the trumpet, both on the horn and what was going on in my ear. We were focusing in on a simple melody and we started with Hot Cross Buns. We started with the solfege, not the notes. They haven’t read the notes yet, they’re just doing the solfege.
Adam: I was helping the kids focus in on making the sounds, articulating the note, the breath that they were taking and the way they were projecting their air. Later we’d move on to rhythm. Very basic stuff, but later, I went back to my own practice room and I noticed that I’d been immersing myself in the basics all week and the more difficult things that I typically do in a practice session were becoming easier. It was almost like I was putting a new mindset on my approach to music learning because I was focused on these little things.
Adam: That was what I shared in the discussion, but I need to share some of these other things that our members share, because they are incredible. David W., he talks about what he calls lollipops, which are those fun musical moments. He said, “Maybe I’m still in the initial euphoria, because at this time last year, the only musical thing that I did was listening, but simply making music is a big reward. That said, I do have some exercises that are more, you know it’s good for you, and other more fun ones that can be pulled out as lollipops to lighten things up if need arises.” I love the way he’s mixing up the hard work with the fun work. It’s incredible.
Adam: Jenny wrote, “I think I just don’t call it practicing. I just play around with my instruments. Listening to them, comparing sounds, testing this theory, et. cetera. In those terms, I have no need for motivation because they’re all super fun to do.”
Adam: Finally, Charlie wrote, “I have a couple things that make practice really enjoyable. The first is having a trumpet that I just love to play. It’s a pleasure each time I pick it up, so I always look forward to playing. The second is that I set practice up as a reward for myself. After a day of work, it is my reward to get to practice. My getaway time.”
Adam: As Sabrina said, “Life is too short. I think we all think of music as something that enhances our life, and finding joy in music is the reason that we all came here in the first place, so why wouldn’t we find ways to make it more enjoyable as well?”
Adam: That’s it for this Rewind episode. Big thanks to the rest of the team again for sitting down with me. I look forward to our next time together. If you like what you heard from this episode, we’d love to hear from you. Just drop us a line at [email protected] and let us know. Until next time, I’m Adam Liette for Musical U.
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