Teaching Yourself Music: The Hidden Skill Behind Good Practice

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When we move beyond the fundamentals in any instrument, there’s a point at which we have limitless options and ways to improve. We could hone in on a particular technique, dive into a genre we love, focus on writing original music… and many options have enough depth to study for a lifetime.

With so many ways to improve musicianship, it becomes increasingly more important to better our ability to critique our own playing in actionable and helpful ways rather than focus on choosing the “right” thing to practice, because there is no perfectly right or wrong thing; it is all relative to our goals, stylistic choices, and current abilities. You also get more out of everything you work on when you’re better at pulling insights out, making it a catalyst for musical growth.

We listen to ourselves more than anyone else

No one else will listen to you play as much as yourself — it’s not even close. And thinking like a teacher can and should be done even when working with a teacher. It is a complementary relationship.

So if becoming our own teachers is a fundamental aspect of effective practice, how can we do a better job of it?

Here are a few ideas, and keep in mind: the time you spend investing in this will pay dividends because this skill shapes how you learn everything else.

#1 Get used to recording yourself

The easiest way to listen objectively is to record yourself. You can do this to whatever degree of professional quality you’d like, although if your priority is to get better at your instrument, you should spend the minimum amount of time necessary to capture what you need.

A phone video or audio recording will be more than enough in most situations. I find that recording audio is easier for me to analyze my playing than video — the visual element can be distracting. That depends on what you’re analyzing, though.

For example, if I were a pianist working on finger placement and efficiency, then I’d record a video to see if I am making the right choices.

On the other hand, if I’m working on injecting triplet rhythms over a funk groove on guitar, it’s probably easier to just do audio and listen for my timing.

#2 Record with a specific goal in mind.

Record for a reason. Sit down with a chorus or solo section of a song you like and think about what you want to accomplish. Maybe you focus more on your audiation, or maybe you want to have a better pocket. Knowing what you want to improve will make analyzing it faster and more efficient.

#3 Start with clear goals and check your progress

An extension of purposeful recording is to track toward something tangible. You must define what you want to get better at. It focuses your attention, practice, and makes everything more effective.

You can also use recordings to mark progress toward those goals. For example, if you want to get better at swing music soloing, take a stab at a standard you love once every two weeks. Go at it with complete abandon and don’t stop yourself for at least one time through a chorus or two. Label these “Taste of Honey Improv Test 11/1/2021” or whatever, and then check on them every month to hear how you’re improving.

#4 Give critical feedback

Teachers provide objective feedback. They make us aware of our weaknesses and offer solutions to overcome them. Approach your practice in the same way. Take one of the songs in the genre you’re learning and record yourself playing it. Then return back to the original and A/B that recording vs. yours. How can you construct your phrases to be closer to the original? What inflections can you give that are stylistically appropriate? How in the pocket are you?

Listen for:

  • Rhythmic variety
  • Melodic pacing and phrases (are you telling a story)
  • Tone
  • Appropriateness to genre
  • Any other variable you can think of.

Then, isolate something to work on and build exercises around it for your next practice session.

For example, I used to rush triplet runs all of the time when soloing. They were always ahead of the beat. To remedy this, I’ve been running metronome drills where I switch from eighth note to triplet runs, focusing entirely on the rhythmic aspect of it. I’m not worrying if I am playing a particularly interesting phrase, it’s all about the rhythm.

#5 Chase your motivation

An often overlooked and fundamental role of a teacher is to instill passion and foster a student’s motivations. For ourselves, this means we must listen to what makes us excited and shift our practice there. If you feel like you should practice Bach but never enjoy it, then don’t. It’s okay.

Alternatively, if you always play pop but have a yearning to play classical, add it in. Don’t question your motivations, just listen and take advantage of them. This is how you build consistency and synthesize a multitude of other genres and inspirations into a unique sound.

#6 Celebrate failure and success

Another good way to maintain your consistency is to view failure as an important learning mechanism. Language polyglots say to fail fast and fail often. It’s a bit different with music since it’s often a smarter idea to learn things slowly and deliberately, but for higher-level thoughts and moments, having bad days when practicing is okay. Messing up is okay — it means you are pushing yourself beyond your edge, which is where all good practice resides.

On the other hand, if you are playing a solo and kill it or play a piece for the first time perfectly and love it, celebrate! You’re working hard, and you deserve to praise yourself for your efforts.

The bottom line on becoming your own music teacher

You’re going to be listening to yourself more than anyone else. The more you can sharpen the image of the player you want to be and compare that to the player you are now + create specific routines to remedy those issues, the better player you will be in less time.

By the way, are you a musician?

Then I guarantee you will love the Noted Newsletter — a free email I send that teaches you how to get better at music, faster.

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Written by
Nathan Phelps
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