Got problems playing music?

You are not the only one

For some people, learning music is easier than others. Some people just have a natural talent and aptitude for music, others have to work hard for it. In my experience, only a very very small portion of musicians are truly blessed with the gift of music. But with even these few blessed individuals, they still have to work and learn to use their talent. If you are playing and feel you are getting no where, don’t worry, a lot of people feel the same. I have worked hard with music because I love it so much and throughout the years I have learnt a thing or two about playing music and playing in a band. Here are some thoughts of mine :-

1. Start with the Blues
Whatever musical instrument you are playing, you should start with the 12 bar Blues. This is where most of our contemporary music comes from. I have met a lot of young musicians at 48th Street attempting to very complicated music and I often jam with them. Almost without exception, they could not play a straight 12-bar blues; they invariable lose their way in this simple chord progression. I remember many times when I played with them the bassist and the rhythm guitarist were each playing different bars in the progression and I just did not know who to follow. Learn how to do a 12-bar Blues properly. The is the minimum basic, you just cannot go anywhere if you cannot even play and count 12 bars with only three chords. Learning to play the 12-bar Blues will give you the necessary discipline and a solid foundation to progress to more complicated music. You don't have to be an expert in playing Blues, but you definitely need to learn it. If you cannot even walk, you will never be able to run.

2. Practise what you play well
Practice makes perfect. Always practise with a click or a drum machine. One of the best ways is to learn to play a musical instrument is make your own backing track and practise with the backing track. Constantly playing against a mechanized tempo will instill a sense of tempo in your heart and mind and you will be able to keep time instinctively. Spend as much time as you need to learn a piece of music or a set of chord propgression well before moving onto something else. If you leave unfinished business in every piece of music you are learning, they will come back and haunt you.

The first thing a lot of young musicians wants to is a lightning fast solo. I have seen so many young players brandishing their Steve Vai, Paul Gibert licks at Tom Lee trying out guitars, playing faster than the speed of light with all the fancy finger tapping and what not. But many of them cannot function with a band. That is because they cannot do rhythm, they do not understand the chords and they do not know how to play with other people together to make music. Remember you are not playing on your own, you are playing with other people and each member of the band must possess certain quality in order to make music together.

Depending on the music you are playing, theory may be an important element. Basic music theory will help you understand what you are playing and pave way when you move on to other more complicated music.

For a start, everyone in the band must be able to play their instruments at a constant tempo. You can learn all the difficult runs at home, spend hours perfecting your 28 bar solo, but you will not be able to play that on stage if that is all you learn. Unless you can play at a constant tempo and know the chord changes, playing that complicted solo will not help. Always start with the chords. Everyone wants to play solos, but unless you can play chords properly at a constant tempo, you will never be able to play solo properly. Chords are the skeleton and backbone of a song. The important thing to remember is you are not just playing on your own, you are interacting with other members of your band. Each member has to be able to keep time otherwise you will not be able to get the music off the ground. If you are the drummer, you have the responsibility to keep a constant tempo. Use a click when you practise your drums and learn the shuffle beat. A lot of young drummers find the shuffle beat very difficult. All that is is like learning to ride the bicycle the first time. Once you learn it, it will always be there. Once you learn the shuffle beat, you will be able to play the 4/4 beat with more ease.

3. Understand how other instruments work
If you play guitar, you should understand how the drums work. You don’t need to be able to play drums, but you have to understand how the drums work, how the basic pattern of the song is played. You should also learn how the bass line. The drums and bass is the foundation of it all. Often you find the song you are playing doesn’t “sound right”. Unless you understand how other instrument works, you will not be able to fix the problem. For example, the drummer may be too busy or he is playing the hi-hat when he should be hitting the cymbals, or the bassist is not playing a bass line that grooves with the song. You should be able to tell explain to other members where the problem lies and what you want. If you could spare the time, work out how the bass and drums parts. This will give you a much better understanding of the song.

For drummers, you should be able to do some basic chords on the guitar. It will help you immensely if you know the chords, you will be able to play the song without having to memorize the exact number of bars before the chorus comes in, you will be able to end the song at the right place instinctively and you will be able to flow with the music.

4. Express the music not the technique
You have to have technique in order to play music. But you need technique to express your music, not vice versa. Music is a language. You are trying to communicate with the audience. Instead of employing conversation, you use your music to communicate, you are trying to touch their heart. You can be as technical as you like but it doesn’t mean your music sounds good. Very often simple music is all it takes. Technique on its own is not enough. You need to express you music.

5. Use your ear, listen
When you are playing in a band, listen to what everyone else is doing. But before you will be able to do that, you have to learn your part of the music well. If you are constantly worrying about your own part, if you feel tense and nervous when it is your time to do the solo, you just will not able to listen to the rest of the band, you have enough on your hands already without having to worry about the others. But once you have learnt your part well, listen to what other members of the band are doing. Is the bass line right? Is the drummer playing the right pattern? Is the rhythm guitar player playing the right chords? In order to sound good, the whole band must sound good as a unit.

One of the first things to ask is“Does it sound right? Does it feel right?” If you play guitar and think the bass and drums have nothing to do with you, you will not be able to get your band going. Every single instrument in the band matters. The sum is great that than the individual. Do not just focus yourself on your own instrument, listen to other players and try to visualize how the audience will perceive your music as a band.

6. Sound balance

This is one of the most important aspects of live performance and many young bands I have seen at 48th Street ruin their otherwise great performance because they could not get the balance right. When you are playing in a band, you should think in terms of a football team. There is a goal keeper (the drummer) and the full backs (the bassist), then there are mid-field and forward players. It is absolutely essential to turn down your volume when someone in your band is taking a solo. If your rhythm guitar is as loud as the solo guitar, you are ruining the song. When someone is talking a solo, he is the forward player and you become the mid-field player. You should turn down the volume of your supporting rhythm guitar and let the solo player come out loud and clear. Many young musicians play at the same volume the whole night through regardless of whether they are doing the backing or taking a solo. That is alright if you are playing as a trio. But if there are other musical instruments in the band, you have to fall back when you are playing rhythm. The level of your rhythm should be in the background, just loud enough for the audience to feel it and enough to give the backing to the solo player. The audience may not hear a lot of you but if you are not there they will feel something missing. This is what a rhythm player should aim for.

7. Live experiences
Play as many live shows as you possible can. A lot of young musicians often find that they cannot reproduce on stage what they spend hours at home perfecting; they just could not play what they thought they knew so well on stage. This happens often to experienced players. For a start, you have to get used to the stage, get used to playing in front of an audience. There is pressure every time you walk on stage. The only way to combat and reduce the pressure is confidence. In order to have confidence, you have to know you music well and you have to spend the necessary practising with your band. The more live shows you play, the less pressure you should feel each time you walk on stage.

In live situations, you often find the amp provided is not your ideal amp, you just cannot get the sound you want, you cannot hear the vocals well enough. All that is part of the learning process. You should be able to function at any given situation and achieve a minimum standard. The more live shows you play, the more comfortable you will feel on stage. If you get the opportunity to play outside Hong Kong, don’t miss it. You will find immense pressure playing overseas, particularly in Japan and America but once you have done it, the next show will become easier and the next even easier.

7. The attitude
It is important to have the right attitude. If you have the right attitude, the music will come, it is only a matter of time. Do not feel jealous of people who are playing better than you. You should learn from them. When you see a band performing, the first thing is not find faults and criticize. You should try and learn their good parts of their performance. Making other people small will not make a big guy, belittling other players will not make you a better player.

In you want to enjoy music, you have to have a big heart. Always share with other musicians what you know, don’t keep any secrets, accept that there are many better players than yourself. Playing music is not a Holyfield/Tyson boxing match. It is also not a track and field game, the faster one wins. Music is for sharing. Unless you open your heart, you will not be happy playing music. If you think anyone who plays better than you is your enemy, you will never be happy playing music and you will never improve as musician.

When band members talk about performance of individual members, do not take it personally. You should welcome comments on your playing and improve the deficient aspects of you performance.

8. Learn from other players and bands
This is the one of the most important things to playing better music. When you see a band playing and they sound good, you ask should ask yourself this question :-

Why do they sound good?

Analayse other bands to find out what make them sound good. A band can soumd good without having to play very complicated music. And when you see a band that sounds awlful, you should as yourself these questions :-

What do they sound awlful?

Is our band making the self-same mistakes?

These are matters which should addressed when you see a band playing. Lean the good points of other bands and avoid making the same mistake as other band. After each show, sit down with your band members, discuss your performance, find out which aspect and which songs require improvment.

9. Chose a direction
You should listen to all kinds of music. The more you are exposed to different styles of music, the more you will realize the difference and essence of each individual types of music. At some stage, you would want to choose a kind of music you love most. It could be Jazz, Rock, Blues Fusion, Latin Bossa Nova. You can of course enjoy playing different kinds of music, but you should have your “thing”, you should find a type of music through which you are best expressing yourself. You cannot serve too many masters and if you do, you may end up being a Jack of all trades but Ace of none.

10. Respect others
Do not look down on less experienced players. The fact that you are playing better than someone means nothing; there are so always so many players better than you. Do not belittle other players, the fact that they are bad players do not make you a good player. Do not feel jealous becuase someone is playing better than you, you reap what you sow. It may very well be the other person was spending all his time practising whilst you were having a good time in a bar drinking with your friends. A musician means two things : one is the music and the other the person.

11. Progress
A lot of people learning music get frustrated because they feel they are never making any progress. After picking up the basics, they often feel no matter how hard they practise the never seem to make any progress. The answer to all this is you just have to keep playing, spend as much time as you can afford to learn your instrument well. Progress will come, it is a matter of time. Very often, progress is a very subtle thing. One day your friends will tell you you are playing better. There is only one way : never give up.

12. Talk to experienced players

Seeking advice from Mr. Kazuo Takeda

Always talk to experienced players about you music problems, never feel embarrassed to ask questions. True musicians never look down on less experienced players, they are always willing to share and give advice. I am fortunate to know Mr. Kazuo Takeda and I never hesitate to ask for advice when I have a problem and he never hesitates to give advice.