10 Progress Questions For The Next-Step Musician

stairs blueEvery so often, it’s time to step back and take a look at our musical progress. We can celebrate those goals we’ve met and decide how best to follow through or maybe reset some of the other ones.

Here are 10 Next-Step Musician questions that will help you do just that. The only presumption is that you are interested in growing as a musician.

1. Do you regularly listen to music that crosses styles and genres? As creatures of habit, we don’t often expand our musical tastes unless we are pressed. If your music is getting stale or too predictable, try a new artist. Find a different radio station. Let YouTube pick something new for you.

2. Can you sing or play music from a different genre than how you started? The classically trained artist will benefit from learning some jazz or pop tunes, while the rocker will find some classical training really helps his chops.

3. Have you considered taking up an instrument you don’t currently play? There are so many instruments to choose from: strings, winds, brass, drums and percussion, ethnic, cheap or expensive, historical or modern. If you’re a guitar player, try the banjo or bazooki. For a flute player, take up the piccolo, or maybe a recorder. For a violinist, try a mandolin. For a trombonist, see if you can master a didgeridoo (complete with the circular breathing).

4. Can you sing melodies and harmonies in tune? Record yourself and listen to your intonation. Need to work on it? And as a second step, can you find harmonies to sing that fit the song? Understanding how harmony works will set you apart as a vocalist, you’ll find opportunities to sing come your way more and more!

5. To what extent have you had musical training? Are you interested in more? Finding a quality teacher/mentor for your instrument or your voice is invaluable. A teacher should inspire you and stretch your imagination, helping you to envision yourself as a great musician and aiding you in finding success with practicing.

6. How well can you sight-read music? So the first question is: can you read music at all? If you can’t, that’s step one. Next is working on singing or playing the music accurately and expressively the very first time you encounter it. Take yourself through some new charts. Look them over in detail before you begin. And once you start to play, don’t stop until the song is over. How did you do?

7. Do you enjoy singing and/or playing with a group? And do you perform? When you have to listen and react as others play, you’ll find a new set of reflexes to train. But once you are able to listen and play at the same time, playing in a group will expand your experience and your thinking. You might play in a school or community band, orchestra or choir, in a club band, on a worship team at church, or in any number of small ensembles. The music will take on significantly different properties from when you only play by yourself.

8. Are you writing music? No matter what level you’re on, try it. Use everything you know about music to figure out a new song, then write it down in a way that you can play it again later. The coolest part is when you find a note you don’t like, you get to change it. You’re the composer!

9. Are you methodically teaching others how to sing or play?Are you ready for new students? If you are interested in teaching, first find a teacher to show you how. The teaching method, as a broad category, is called ‘pedagogue’ (ped-uh-goh-gee). If you are simply showing others how to play certain songs, I’ll call you a helpful friend; but a teacher is someone who will help the student become independent, able to figure out any new song on his own because he has been taught principles and fundamentals.

10. How soon would you like to make strides in any of the above areas? Here’s what really separates the average Joe from the Next-Step Musician (sorry, Joe). Give yourself a date on the calendar to take on any of these questions, then follow through on your plan. If you wait, it will never happen. Now is the time!

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about Next-Step Musicianship to [email protected].

© 2015 Steve Case

Sometimes We’ve Just Got To Sing

at the farmOn the way home from our family reunion a few weeks ago, I was reminded once again how important music is to each of us, how integral it is to life, and how so much color is added to our lives by it.

We sang a few songs at the reunion, from Loggins & Messina and James Taylor to Chris Tomlin and Keith Green. Really fun. But when we left at the end of the day, the music wasn’t over just yet.

We had been driving back to our motel for just about two hours. The family farm is in northern Michigan, but we were staying near Sue’s brother’s house, so it was a hike. My grandson Emery rode in the back seat while she and I navigated up front.

Emery had finished watching whatever DVD from his collection, then he had a short conversation with Sue about the magazine she was reading. After that, he was quiet for a few moments. Then, he started to sing.

Now he’s just a little guy, and I really have no idea what the song was. Not a clue. Couldn’t tell what the lyrics were. And the melody, while purposeful, was not quite recognizable. Yet he sang with joy, control, and artistry.

I was really proud!

our stageWhether we’re singing in a group or by ourselves, whether we’re singing ancient pop tunes (like in the 80’s? are those ancient now?) or praise songs, we are musical beings. And as I understand it, the fact that humans must sing is a universal truth.

It might be a song I heard a long time ago. Might be harmonizing to a tune on the radio. Let me tell you, I can sound pretty darned impressive in my car.

When I sing, I express my heart, my experiences, my optimism and my hurts, in a way that goes beyond mere communication. My soul peeks out through the melodies and lyrics. My life feels more colorful when I can sing.

When I don’t sing for a long time, I think I go a little stir crazy. And at 5 years old, my grandson gets it.

Is it just us, or does singing help your soul breathe, too?

I’d love to hear from you! Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you may have about singing, musicianship, or how to use music theory to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case