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Specialized Lessons
Music as Self Improvement

(Re-edited version of Chapter 21 of the Keywheel Theory System.)

Music is the single art form that allows a person to achieve the highest degree of discipline, creativity, integrated intellect, and physical coordination. Because there is no limit to the conceptual learning process a musician may continue to improve in all of these areas. Playing music also presents a person the opportunity to achieve balance --balance between mind and body, between the left and right brain, between structure and creativity, between praise and criticism, between getting down on yourself and over-estimating your abilities, between work and fun, between business and art.



The inner goals of perfect practice (Chapter 20) are focus and relaxed concentration . A musical exercise or difficult passage in a song is an opportunity for one to confront and overcome frustrations and to advance one's focus. (Musical challenges are then a blessing instead of a curse!)

Focus is achieved through discipline 1 (see footnote), thought, and control and is at all times controlled by the will. (One always chooses whether to focus or not to focus.) Discipline is needed to direct the will, thought is needed to keep the outcome in mind, and control is needed to achieve the outer goal (the music). In time (with perseverance) this will lead to a final mind-state known as relaxed concentration 2. Once achieved, this semi-meditative mind-state will manifest itself in other endeavors 3.

1 The adage "no pain--no gain" does not only apply to physical exercise. Focusing may create a mental "strain", especially if the mind isn't used to it.

2 Many people consider musicians as having a "mystique" or "energy". Mostly this is because people think musicians are mysteriously "gifted". However, the hidden truth of these allegations lies in the musician's ability to focus and concentrate above that of non-musicians.

3 Another term is "the zone", that mental state that athletes refer to regarding a peak performance. (Not to be confused with the "O-zone" or "zoned-out", the state of UN-focus.)

Playing music is like a martial art but involves smaller more precise movements. Playing a song or exercise is like a "kung-fu" fight in that each note is a "blow" from an opponent which must be fended off (played successfully). The faster the notes occur, the more relaxed and aware you must be. (If you slip out of focus the blows will land on you, so use the "force"!)



The word try implies failure. Rather substitute the word effort . Effort with awareness will lead to success. Awareness (what is really happening?) involves analyzing your practice then self-correcting when necessary. (Does outcome equal intention? If not--why not?) When frustration occurs take deep breaths, relax, and be aware.

Your self-talk while you practice has a major influence over the quality of your outcome so don't be too hard on yourself. Over-frustration is caused by gremlins sitting on your shoulder saying you are a klutz. You are not a klutz, so kill those suckers with focus, self-trust, and awareness*. Allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes and the mistakes will soon vanish.

* For help with over-frustration I recommend the book The Inner Game Of Music (Barry Green & W. Timothy Gallwey, Anchor Press). If you can't find it then The Inner Game Of Tennis , The Inner Game Of Golf , or Inner Skiing by W. Timothy Gallwey all deal with the same natural learning skills.




Let's start with an underlying belief of all successful people, musicians included: ACHIEVEMENT IS IMPORTANT . Just how important it is to you can be measured in direct proportion to your effort to achieve your goals*. This signifies the importance of RATIONAL EGO which aligns its actions and emotions with it goals. (As opposed to irrational ego which may manifest as any combination of non-confidence, arrogance, laziness, and envy.)

* Wanting to succeed is a natural state. Observe the small child--from taking their first step to tying their shoes for the first time they seek approval for each accomplishment from their parents. (Unfortunately we are currently living in a society that downgrades personal achievement and instead promotes envy. It takes steadfastness and independence to overcome this external pressure.)

If you are following the steps of perfect practice with few results then you could be self-sabotaging. Self-sabotage (fear of success) is caused by underlying beliefs such as: "I'm not good or smart enough", "I don't deserve to be talented", "Others won't like me if I'm too good", "This intellectual stuff is for the birds", "My dog ate my homework", or for whatever reason. Although these personal myths may be traced to different sources ask yourself the following question: "Am I consciously choosing to believe this?" Answer: Probably not. Short of going to a therapist (God forbid!) personal myths are difficult but not impossible to overcome with introspection. There are hundreds of books and self-help courses on overcoming personal myths but really boils down the the philosophy of Joe Friday.


Projection is a self-fullfilling prophecy. You must see yourself in the near future being successful at your immediate musical goals. You must also see yourself in the future being successful at your long-range musical goals.


Learn from other musicians. Don't be shy to ask for advice, insight, or to ask someone to show you a "lick". (Most musicians are flattered by these requests.) You can allow yourself to feel jealous of their ability because that means that you want the abilities they have and the only way to have them is to earn them yourself. However, envy (I hate them for being so good!) is an emotional short-circuit that leads to certain failure.

Sometimes accomplished musicians are perceived by others as arrogant. Although a few might be, this demeanor is usually an outward manifestation of their internal focus and striving to improve.



As musicians develop so do their opportunities to play with other musicians. These situations are important for improving musical skills and usually come in stages. At first you may play one on one with a friend. That might develop into a jam session with several musicians. Occasional semi-professional gigs (mainly for fun) might follow and before you know it you will be playing professional engagements (mainly for money--and fun). Each of these settings can pose new challenges for musical and personal growth.

All challenges can be met with relaxed concentration which originates with perfect practice methods. (Stay focused and "within yourself".) Feedback from others may come in the form of indifference, criticism, praise, patronizing, envy, admiration, etc. Criticism and praise are sometimes constructive--consider comments and their source.*

* I play primarily to meet my own standards which are set pretty high. Although it is nice to be recognized for accomplishment I generally don't care what other people think--except the people that hire me.

Playing for an audience creates another echelon of emotions. For some musicians emotions are heightened so much that they throw up before they go on stage. This is fairly common among classical soloists. (I have played with musicians that had to urinate immediately before they went on stage!) Stage fright can be overcome by relaxed concentration (traced to perfect practice!) and anxiety can also be controlled by deep breathing. Reaction to criticism and praise are also heightened at this level so more objectivity is needed to consider comments and their source.

Playing in a group presents its own set of difficulties. In a successful group musicians must be responsible as they are interdependent upon each other to achieve a common goal. It is enough just to form a cohesive unit with rational egos let alone irrational ones. Musicians with bad attitudes usually have questionable motives ("I'm in it for the glory", "I like to get high", "I want the chicks", "I'm cool because I own a 1952 Stratoblaster", etc.). Depending on your access to other players you may want to learn what you can from these situations then move on when the opportunity arises. (Or, like dandruff, get rid of the flakes).*

* I would rather associate with musicians that share my musical values even more than those who share my musical tastes. For social playing I also like to play with musicians that may not yet be accomplished but are on the permanent path of self-improvement.

By the time a musician becomes a professional (making his living from performing, writing, recording, teaching, etc.) he has usually run the aforementioned gauntlet, which weeds out the not-so-serious from the serious. It then becomes a matter of competing with other musicians in the market. Now the gauntlet has transformed to a higher level.* (Kind of like a video game!) Music now becomes a business as the stakes take on a monetary value.

* The exception is if you are fortunate enough to be in that high-charisma low-talent rock band that gets picked up by a large recording company and thrust into stardom with a megabucks recording contract. (HA HA!--Keep trying!)

There are many books written about the music business, each covering subjects as varied as playing in a group, writing songs for submission to publishers, recording industry ripoffs, how to make money playing in schools, etc. There is also the School of Hard Knocks. Regardless of where your interests lie I offer the following advice to all would-be professionals.

1.) BE COMPETENT: (If you have to be reminded of this then you will fail for sure.) This includes showing up on time for gigs and rehearsals. (A band member who constantly shows up late lacks the respect for the other members who waste their collective time waiting for him.) Also, put your money where your mouth is--invest in good equipment. Unless special arrangements are made, being a good band member also includes helping haul and set up equipment. (Everyone benefits from the p.a. system, even if you don't sing.)

2.) LEARN TO SING: Unless you play classical music or jazz (both very narrow markets) singing is always the focus of attention in most musical groups. The more things you can do the more valuable a commodity you will become. Be willing to learn back-up harmonies and when it comes to singing lead, well, you don't have to be a great singer to fool the public!

3.) PLEASE THE CUSTOMER: (If you don't there is always someone who will and they will get the job.) Play the right material for the occasion, dress accordingly, don't take overly long breaks, don't drink while performing, avoid lewd gestures, etc. (There is, however, going to be the occasional "gig from hell", "club manager from hell", "recording session from hell", "student from hell", "student's mother from hell", etc.*)

* If you have learned to avoid these then you have fully run the gauntlet!

3.) REMEMBER--"WORD SPREADS": It doesn't matter whether you perform, write, record, or teach--word gets around among customers, potential customers, agents, and other musicians. (Ninety percent of my clients come by word-of-mouth.*)

* Speaking of which--be sure to tell all your musician friends to buy this book!