Musical Tendencies: Know Thyself!

Sounds like something out of a Karate Kid movie, right? Well, I’m sure our guitar-sensei, Mr. Fastfinger, would have a thing or two to say about knowing thyself!

Illustration by Mika Tyyska. This image is used with permission only. Usage enquiries should be directed to www.mrfastfinger.net.

Illustration by Mika Tyyska. This image is used with permission only. Usage enquiries should be directed to http://www.mrfastfinger.net.

(For those that don’t know, Mr. Fastfinger is the creation of the incredible Mika Tyyska. He regularly performs alongside Mika and provides sage advice to guitar players, young and old, alike. Be sure to check them both out at www.mrfastfinger.net!)

Self-awareness resides at the epicenter of our ability to play nice with one another, not only in a musical context, but also in life. Regardless of what instrument you play, we all have tendencies to overcome or shape in our playing. It doesn’t matter how good you are, we all have/had them in some form or another. You will overplay, underplay, rush, lay back too much, accent too much or too little, etc. The list could go on and on. The key here is awareness and that is what separates the amazing players from the average ones. When you hear a pro level player, unless there is something really obvious, you probably won’t notice many mistakes or flaws (everyone makes mistakes at some point but work with me here). One of the keys to their ability is that they know what tendencies they currently have (or did have) and how to curb or shape them. As you could probably imagine, this is extremely important in the context of a group. For example, if the drummer is on a click and the keyboard player is rushing a section night after night, then there might be an awareness problem. For the record, there will always be musical issues to iron out within a band regardless of the level of players present. But, there are a few things that we musicians can do to help prepare ourselves for these situations through getting to know our own tendencies.

  1. Are you a rusher or a dragger? Practice with a metronome or jam track!

Every musician alive deals with this issue at some point. While different styles of music require focus on different parts of the beat (some lay back, some sit on the front end of the beat), it is absolutely essential to have an awareness of your own tendencies regarding time. It is completely possible to manipulate feel against a metronome (sit on either the front end or the back end of the beat), but it requires a lot of practice and listening. Always be working on it.

  1. Are you a bashful player? Work on playing out!

For whatever reason, some of us get bashful and play quieter than we should at times. Unfortunately, the end result is that you may not be heard which can be problematic if you have a featured part in a song(s). Focus on playing out and bringing your volume to a comfortable level that works for everyone and suits the song (be respectful!). Own your part!

  1. Do you ever overplay? Work on breathing!

An easy way to understand this is to think about a horn player. They MUST breath in order to continue playing which means that unless they are one of the freaks of nature that can circular breath for days (it’s really impressive if you haven’t seen someone do it), then they have to stop playing for a second or two when they breath. Applying this mindset to other non-wind/non-brass instruments is really important for two reasons: (1) because it allows the music to breath and have some ebb and flow to it, and (2) because it allows the musician to breath (both mentally and physically) and take a second to think about his/her next solo idea. This is easier said than done and must be practiced. Try playing a measure or two of a solo section and then rest for a measure or two. You’ll be amazed at the way it will change the way you hear the music and craft your solos over time.

  1. Do you know what you sound like? Record yourself!

In 2015, it seems that nearly everyone has some way of recording, even if it is just to his or her phone. The availability of this technology makes it virtually inexcusable for any musician to not record themselves as it can provide an almost instantaneous and unadulterated snapshot of their playing. Gaining an idea of where you sit on the above items (1, 2, and 3) can easily be remedied by doing this. It can be very humbling and disheartening but it is vital to your growth as a musician. Furthermore, it will help set you up for success before you ever walk into a band setting because you will already have an idea of how you sound. I cannot overstate the value of having that knowledge.

These are just some small tidbits but they can make a huge difference in your playing by striving for self-awareness. Get to know thyself! The more that you can counter/correct/shape your own tendencies, then the more prepared you will be to play with others and most likely, the more other folks will want to play with you.

Do you have additional tips on musical self-awareness? Please share in the comments below!

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