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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

9 steps to becoming a better musician, performer and artist

By Ted Slowik

I've learned much in nearly 50 years as a hobbyist musician and about 35 years as a songwriter. Remarkably I feel I've learned more about making music in just the past three years than all of the previous ones combined!

Just to recap, three years ago I switched from playing bass as a primary instrument to guitar--acoustic mostly but some electric. Every so often it helps to pause and reflect on how far you've come, so here are nine things I've learned about becoming a better musician, performer, songwriter and recording artist.

1.) Get good gear. You might start out with hand-me-down instruments and amplifiers, and that's OK for starters. But if your gear is subpar you've got to save up and invest in better equipment. I bought stuff as I needed it and as I could afford it until one day I looked around and realized, "Hey, this is a kick-ass professional setup!"

2.) Make a professional studio recording. Many musicians make home demos, and some are top-notch. But people who record in a professional studio discover that music-making is a collaborative process. While the end result may not always be what anyone expected at the onset the conclusion always seems inevitable. Don't let affordability be your excuse. Save your money, find the best deal and record a few tracks as you're able. Not every session has to result in a full-length album.

3.) Perform regularly. There's no substitute for experience. If you don't gig regularly, find an open mic and perform at least once a week. You'll become more comfortable performing in front of an audience and learn the importance of interacting with a crowd--however large or small. You've always got to be in the moment when performing live. You can go in with a plan but it helps to be versatile enough to call audibles, like when The Blues Brothers showed up at Bob's Country Bunker and had to play country and western to save their hides. Learn to banter with people, work on your timing and most importantly--be relaxed.

4.) Take lessons. I'm almost 50 years old and I can tell you taking guitar lessons is the best investment I've ever made. It's helped not only improve the music, but overall confidence in everything. I don't always practice what teacher shows me but I listen very closely and usually discover something new about theory, rhythm, harmony or some other aspect of music.

5.) Get in tune. This one sounds obvious but you'd be surprised how many musicians--guitarists in particular--don't understand the importance of being in tune. Invest in a tuner. Your ear will become better to the point where you'll be able to tell instantly when someone is out of tune. If the music is out of tune the singers will have difficulty singing notes in key. You don't need to be born with perfect pitch--you can acquire good pitch over time, and it matters a great deal.

6.) Play sober. I hear a lot of professional musicians laughing at this one and a bunch of weekend warrior good ole' boys scoffing. I can only speak from experience. From my earliest days making music with friends we always had beer when we jammed. It was fun! And alcohol helps many of us achieve that most important part of No. 3 above, which is to be relaxed when performing. But someday you'll play a family party, or in church, or in a public setting when drinking is prohibited and you'll discover you can play sober and still have fun! And you'll remember it better, and you will sound better--ask anyone. A lot of great artists sobered up at some point in their lives. And many who didn't clean up in time died too young.

7.) Be a class act. Dress nicely. Speak politely to and about others. Listen to others, when they talk or play, and you'll learn a lot. Think about others, care about others and how you might be able to help them. Karma is real, and if you show kindness to others you will be repaid. Why, it's the Golden Rule, the Greatest of the Commandments: Treat others as you would like to be treated. All of organized religion is based on this notion, after all. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the more you think of others the happier you will be.

8.) Be socialable. Meet people. Make friends. Friends lead to connections and offers and invitations. Expand your circles. Try different places. You never know what you'll find. If you need a wing man, bring a friend. But get out and experience live music, even if you're not performing that night. You'll be amazed at how exposure to a real music scene will improve your own craft and give you all kinds of new ideas and inspiration.

9.) Nourish your soul. Pete Townshend once said music comes from the heart, lyrics come from the head and the voice comes from God. But what about the soul? Art without passion may be technically proficient but tends to lack the hard-to-describe "X-Factor" that touches people emotionally. Soul is about energy, attitude and intensity. To nourish your soul you might have to confront your fears or demons, relive your happiest childhood memories or fall in love all over again. Find your source of inspiration and allow it to lend passion to your craft.