5 Things You Can Do Without Your Instrument to Become a Better Musician

by Bennett Sullivan

Originally published to www.bennettsullivanmusic.com 

Its true - you can practice anywhere with no instrument! These are 5 things that you can do without your instrument to supplement your hands-on practice time to progress at least twice as fast.

1. Actively Listen to Music

I’m sure you’ve heard this over and over again from teachers, online, at workshops, etc., but it’s probably the most important thing you can do when learning how to play an instrument. Listening to music is good, but actively listening takes your experience to a whole new level.

Actively listening is taking song that you enjoy, are interested in, or want to learn, and listening to it on repeat, with no distractions. NO DISTRACTIONS. This means sitting down or standing up, preferably with headphones on, and concentrating fully on the music. You aren’t walking around, on Facebook, or thinking about what you have to do in 30 minutes. Be in the present moment, fully taking in what your ears are hearing. It’s kind of like meditation.

The goal is to be able to hear things in recordings that don’t pop out to the untrained ear...to get to a deeper level of hearing. This requires a lot of repeated listening, or listening to the same song over and over again. Focus on a different instrument each time. Listen to how they solo. Do they play long, extended phrases that go on for almost the entire solo(Adam Steffey is really good at this), or do they play in shorter phrases? How is their playing different from other musicians on the same instrument?

These are just a few of many questions to reflect on prior to listening. The active listening technique allows you to grow as a critic and student, and is the absolute best way for you to learn about different styles, find your favorite musicians, and train your ears to recognize and pick up tunes faster when you actually are sitting down to practice with your instrument or at a jam session.

2. Visualize

Visualization is incredibly important to becoming a better player. I’m talking about seeing images and hearing music in your mind. There is science to prove that musicians that use imagery and hands on practice with an instrument improve at a much faster rate than musicians that just practice with their instrument.

Close your eyes, and imagine your instrument - lets use a banjo for example(since thats what I play :)). See the instrument resting in your lap, with brand new strings on it and the whole thing is just glowing, ready to be played. Choose a song to play. Now slowly play the song. See your left hand fingering the correct spots on the fretboard, and hear the song being played. Do the entire song, then open your eyes.

Visualization is a practice that can be applied to any instrument, song, or technique that you want more clarity on.

3. Sing

Don’t let this intimidate you.. You don’t actually have to know how to sing, although you’ll probably get more gigs that way ;). You may have heard the phrase, “If you can sing it, you can play it.” This saying is so right, and it ties in with #1(Active Listening).The more melodies you can sing from memory, the faster you will develop your improvisation skills.

I’ll say it one more time:

The more melodies you can sing from memory, the faster you will develop your improvisation skills.

No joke - if you can sing “Fisher’s Hornpipe” from memory and in tempo, you’ll be able to play it better on your instrument than you would without being able to sing it, because you won’t be solely relying on muscle memory. You’re involving your ears, which is something that people learning from tab are missing. You are also laying the foundation for improvisation, because the more songs you memorize and sing, the more you are internalizing the music on a deep level. It’s kind of like putting all of these melodies in a big pot in your mind and heart, and they are just slow cooking there, while you’re adding more and more ingredients(songs, licks), until it’s time for them to be put to use. You could also look at it as developing your musical intuition, which is closely related to improvisation. You don’t have time to think when you’re improvising, so the music needs to be there, ready to come out.

The more that you immerse your ears and mind in music, the quicker you’ll develop essential connections in your mind to allow you to play by memory, improvise, and play at a much higher level.

What does one do to quickly learn a language? They place themselves around people that speak that language! This is totally true for becoming a better musician. The more music you listen to recordings, go to shows, and play with more advanced musicians, the better you will become. It’s all about immersion.

4. Meditate

Meditation puts you into a state that is incredibly similar to what happens when you improvise. When you do get around to improvising, you want to be able to flip a switch to have a clear mind, without those distracting thoughts. Also, being present allows you to focus on any tension you may have in your body and relax it.

I recommend meditating in the morning after you wake up, or right before you go to bed. If you’re new to it, it may help to put on a guided meditation, or some peaceful music. Don’t get frustrated if you feel like you aren’t progressing. It takes time, and practice, and you can’t force the results. It will happen at the right moment.

5. Exercise

You’re probably saying, “Seriously, this guy thinks exercising is going to help me shred like Yngwie?”

Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know that you have to move your body to live, and you also have to move to play an instrument. You can’t have a well conditioned mind without a well conditioned body. It’s just not possible. The mind and the body can’t survive without each other, and when one part of the body is lacking in a certain area, it reflects the entire body, including the mind. To feel able to practice for longer periods, develop your focus, and overall be a happier musician, you need to move your body. It doesn’t have to be much, even 30 minutes a day is better than nothing.

Through moving, you are circulating your blood more, which transports oxygen, nutrients, and information all around your body. This information is necessary to have efficient communication between body parts, which, of course, is crucial to being able to play without effort or tension.

Read the original publication here.

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