Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tip 10: Identify your weaknesses. (And address them.)

For years I was an undisciplined musician. Or more accurately, I would hover between discipline and otherwise. I'll exclude my days taking piano lessons as a child, because back then everything was orchestrated by adults. The grown ups determined who I'd take lessons from (and when), when and for how long I would do my practicing, what pieces I would learn to play, what I would do for my recitals, etc.

I was just a kid, and my passion for learning music hadn't kicked in yet. Discipline was not an option.

When the music bug finally did kick in, it hit me hard; and it wasn't the piano that kick started it, it was guitar. I started learning guitar about the time the folk music craze hit the culture, circa 1961. So here I was between 14 and 16 years of age, when Peter, Paul and Mary stormed in. Pete Seeger was a big influence. Bluegrass. Old Timey. Irish. I just soaked it all up. Then Bob Dylan came along, and I was mesmorized.

I played guitar constantly. I'd rush home from school, get the homework out of the way as soon as possible, and spend the rest of the evening in my room with my old Silvertone acoustic. Nirvana.

That alone doesn't mean I was disciplined. Obsessed, yes. But not always disciplined. But sometimes I was. I recall about a three month period where I was determined to learn three-finger picking. I was painfully learning it out of Pete Seeger's Folksinger's Guitar Guide. It was days of obsessive pain. The days turned to weeks, the weeks to months. I wasn't really getting it, but I was determined to stick it out.

Then one day, all of a sudden it came to me. I could three finger pick. I was a three month overnight sensation.

That was an example of discipline. But here's the kicker. Unfortunately I did NOT progress much further on guitar for a long time, and here's why. Once I hit the three-finger picking plateau, I kind of coasted. I was happy with my achievement and became complacent. I had attained a certain level of achievement with my guitar playing. And that's what I played. I reinforced my strengths, through continual playing in my new comfort zone. And that's a good thing.

But had I been really interested in improving my guitar playing, I would have addressed myself to my weaknesses (of which I had plenty). I didn't acknowledge my weaknesses. I was in total denial. Although I had plenty of role models to listen to, I did not make much of a conscious effort to play like them. I just kept with my three finger picking.

If you are a piano player (or any kind of musician), it's up to you to decide if you want to get better. Human nature is such that almost all musicians I've ever met, and I've met quite a few, wish to become better musicians. Insane? Maybe. But that's the nature of learning music.

Others might worship you as a musician, based upon your current skills. But you know you can do better. And it kills you, because we all know what it takes to become a better musician, right? Practice, practice, practice.

Actually, there's more to it than that. It's not just practice. It's knowing WHAT to practice. I tell my beginning students that there is no reason ever to practice the piano. Of course they are astonished to hear those words coming from a music teacher. But then comes the punchline. "Just play," is my frivolous follow up. Okay, that's kind of a joke with a little truth thrown in.

The real truth, however, is that making music is a combination of practicing and playing. We PRACTICE so that we can PLAY better. When we PLAY, we have a natural tendency to play to our STRENGTHS. When we PRACTICE, however, we need to practice to our WEAKNESSES. We need to address the areas of our playing where we are weak, and devise a prescription for making ourselves stronger.

So how do we go about that? A good music teacher (make that a VERY good music teacher) can assess your weaknesses AND find ways of addressing them. My hunch is this works better in the field of classical music than in pop, owing to the relative dearth of pop piano teachers and their almost non-existent formal training, especially in the field of pedagogy. In absence of such a teacher, you're going to have to find and correct your weaknesses yourself. Here we go.

It's not easy to distill the essence of musicianship into a finite number of categories. There are just too many subtlties. But for the sake of illustrating the point, let's look at just five:


Chances are if you're like me, you could use some work in all five areas. In that case, you need to prioritize. So take a careful look at your piano playing. Record it. Analyze it. See if some of these symptoms apply to you.

Symptom Problem Type
hit a lot of wrong notes technique
don't feel comfortable in certain keys technique
don't feel in control technique
not able to predict chords repertoire/theory
get lost in songs repertoire
can't take requests repertoire
just have trouble memorizing repertoire
tempo slows down rhythm
tempo speeds up rhythm
stop and go rhythm
tied to the sheet music improvisation
sounding dull/boring improvisation
lack of intuition theory
trouble with keys theory

So once you have listed a few symptoms, you can refer to the chart above to try to pinpoint the problem. And then you can go about working on the solutions by using the chart below. Here are just a few ideas.

Problem Type Solution
technique Hanon exercises
exercise books
your own exercises
repertoire learn x songs per week
different composers
different styles/rhythms
different keys
rhythm work with metronome
work with recordings
rhythm instruction CD's
improvisation work with recordings
play along instructional media
record yourself and play along
theory study theory books
learn more songs
analyze music

The point is, don't just do what's fun to do unless it doesn't bother you not to make progress. We get weak in certain areas, because we neglect to work in those areas. And the reason we neglect to work in such areas, quite possibly, is that it's not very fun to do so. So we end up trapped within a vicious circle of stagnation.

These suggestions are just examples. There are many other areas of music in which we can work and improve. Recording yourself can help a lot. So can getting the opinions of others.

I mentioned that there are resources out there to help you learn. We have a lot of good stuff for sale too. But remember that it's just information. It's there for you when you want it. But first it will be of real benefit to do the prep work and discover what's wrong with your playing, find the right information to help you solve what's wrong, and then do the work that it takes to make the corrections.

Of course when you do discover your weaknesses, it will be very helpful to write everything down in a log. Indicate your weakness, write down the name of the source of information you plan to use to fix it, write a specific game plan for working on the weakness (specify that you will spend exactly x minutes a day on this problem), and finally set a target date for when you will evaluate your success.

Then take the plunge. There is even a chance you'll discover that the sessions spent at the piano addressing your weaknesses will become fun after all. That's called success.

This is the 10th installment in our series of articles on hidden or obscure strategies for improving musicianship. These strategies are not intended to be a substitute for (I dislike this word) "practicing." To the contrary. Spending time playing your instrument is mightily important.

But think of these 22 ideas as strategies you can use in addition to your time in the woodshed. How does one find a label for these strategies? Subconscious? Metaphysical? Whatever word you want to use, go ahead. It's just that these ideas are not often presented to you as part of a musical instrument learning regimen. For earlier articles, check our blog archive.