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Tips, Tricks and Road Stories


Playing An Instrument Is A Skill

Developing skills takes work; but work can be fun!
March 15, 2012; Immanuel N. Comer

How many of you remember when you first became interested in music.  Perhaps it was the way it sounded or perhaps how some other musician looked while playing it.  If you were like me, you were drawn to the instrument and began playing enjoying it because it was FUN.  Somewhere along the line you probably ran into a wall, frustrated that you couldn’t play what you heard or saw someone else play. You realize, that they had skills that you didn’t have … yet. Of course that meant you had some serious skills to work on. Of course, that’s not always fun.

I began playing drums at around age 6.  I had a small off-brand drum set in the basement that I thoroughly enjoyed banging the same couple of drum beats that I felt like playing. That is, until a family member gave me some constructive criticism.  I was crushed, and suddenly it was no longer simply fun and games. I learned that I had to practice in order to get any better.

In school, I began playing clarinet and later valve and slide trombone while plucking away at an organ we had in the house. Of course, on these instruments I was learning “by the book,” meticulously learning one note at a time, learning to play clearly and in tune.  I had to learn key signature, time signature, note values, tempo, dynamics, control, breathing, technique, fingering, etc.  I didn’t realize then that “by the book” playing was typically done at a pace that prevented me from running into the frustration of “I can’t play that.”  Now, I believe that with patience and good practicing anyone can develop the skills to become proficient on their instrument.  A lot of good practice techniques can be found in books, dvds, videos, etc. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to. Don’t avoid the basics as great musicians have mastered using the basics in simple and complex ways.

I began listening closely to drummers on recordings and did my best to play what they were playing and not just my own thing.  This often meant listening over and over again to, first, ‘ hear’ then mimic what I heard.  I didn’t realize it then, but that type of listening was a skill that is ESSENTIAL when practicing to become a good musician. Average music listeners don’t hear the way musicians do.  Good musicians, can hear the slightest difference between notes and chords, the exact timing of complex rhythms, and the dynamics that make the difference an average song cover and a truly great one.  Great musicians, know how to pull on everything they have heard and make their instrument do it, on the fly, at any given time in the song.  One great application of this is jazz.  Great jazz musicians usually have a split second to know what their fellow musicians is about to do and make the adjustment. Yet, the next time the song is played it may sound totally different. The key is to listen both while you are playing and when you aren’t and practice what you hear.

Today, I still find myself wanting to go back and practice “the basics.”  Of course, this can easily be a daunting task.  I already can play, yet find myself grabbing the same types of “beginner” books and videos that I started out using.  Of course, being a good musician also means that you need to learn to be creative.  All it takes is a little creativity to make your practice fun. Here’s a couple things I’ve been trying lately.

Practice a fun yet technically challenging song. A friend of mine suggested that I learn “ Donna Lee”. After months of working on the song (nearly every time I sat at my keyboard) my left hand chording and bass lines got stronger and faster, meanwhile my right hand finger speed and solo ability skyrocketed.  I was suddenly playing in a way that I’ve seen others play for years that had never been “my style.”  I knew I was practicing, but my practice was enjoyable (Much more than simply practicing scales, sight reading, or Hanon exercises)

I realized this past Christmas that playing along with every song that came on the radio (of a music station I liked) is a great way to work on my ear.  Playing by ear literally means that you can't depend on memory (or sheet music for that matter). The best way to do that is play along with music that you DON’T have control over. On top of which, you can’t rewind radio (even if it is internet radio) so you typically have 4-5 minutes to get the gist of the song and it’s over.  It’s nice challenge and in the meantime, you’ve familiarized yourself with 12-15 songs an hour that you may have NEVER played before. Be patient with yourself, the goal is not to play any of the songs live this weekend.

USE/BUY EQUIPMENT THAT HELPS YOU PRACTICE: Sometimes, I will sequence a song or short loop purely for practice purposes, leaving out the instrument or part that I’m working on practicing.  I’ll use my keyboards rhythm feature to practice the same song over different genres which calls for a different set of skills.  I’ve even used the keyboard’s transpose feature to practicing the same song over different keys.  I look forward to buying an electronic drum set that will allow me to do the same and allow me work on my timing.  Sometimes, as a test, I will record something in MIDI format, then quantize it just to see how accurate my timing is.  If it sounds the same before and after quantizing then my timing was good.  If you can’t play a song or technique in time then you simply have NOT mastered it. Slow it down and try again.

Whatever you do, make it fun. After all, isn’t that why you started playing?


Immanuel N.Comer is a multi-musician, instructor and IT strategist. He has over 24 years of music experience, playing in several types of bands (concert, jazz, marching/parade, quintet, gospel, etc) where both reading and improvisation was required. He is proficient on both the piano/keyboard and the trombone and is a self-described “Pocket” drummer. In addition he has a working knowledge of clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, baritone/euphonium, bass, guitar, percussion, & organ, to name a few. Immanuel has been creating & arranging music for over 10 years. As a pastor’s son, Immanuel is a Christian that follows the example of Jesus and is intimately aware of and passionate concerning music ministry issues and has over 15 years of teaching/mentoring experience. Immanuel graduated from Drexel University with a degree in computer science. He has been creating websites for over 10 years continues to offer website solutions through AC Computer Systems. Immanuel currently gives music lessons at Aundra Clark School of Music in Augusta, GA.

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