Fast track your musical fluency.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

What is musical fluency?

When you first learn your native language you begin by speaking. Then you add reading and writing to your skillset, developing a more rounded understanding of your language. With time you reach the point where you can freely communicate what’s in your head to another person, at which point you’d be considered fluent. You know when you’re fluent in a second language when you no longer have to rely on pre-planned sentences and phrases to have a voice in the world, you’re able to interact in real-time.

‘Musical fluency’ is much the same. It can be described as the ability to communicate what’s in your head in the moment, either through playing or writing musical score. You don’t have to be an advanced instrumentalist to be musically fluent. Just as a 10 year old is fluent in their native language for the age and stage they’re at, an intermediate musician can successfully improvise and compose in line with their level.

If you’re interested in becoming a more rounded and ‘fluent’ musician here are my favourite tips…

#1 Narrow your focus. Boost your creativity.

Being able to read music is a wonderful thing. You can buy the sheet music of your favourite artists (or download my transcriptions for free) and learn to play that which you love the most. But reading isn’t the be all and end all. How about improvising? Experimenting with what sounds good by ear?

Improvising strikes fear into the heart of many a student. They look at me like a rabbit in the headlights. ‘You want me to improvise?’ I can empathise. The idea of creating something when the entire universe of musical options is at your disposal is paralysing. So narrow your focus. Start by exploring the tones of just one chord, in any order, all over your instrument. When this feels comfortable move to a new chord. Again, explore the tones, in any order, all over your instrument. Now move back to the first chord. With a simple sequence of chords now flowing, you might like to play with some more ideas:

  • Try playing one note at a time — now two together, now three….
  • What rhythms can you create? — in the right hand, in the left (e.g. for pianists), in the higher register, in the lower register.
  • Add dynamics — softer, louder…
  • Vary the tempo — speed up, slow down…

Improvising becomes easy when you give yourself a tight brief. What’s more, a tight brief encourages creativity to emerge organically. Without a goal in mind, a simple rhythm naturally becomes a groove. A four chord sequence becomes the backbone of a chorus. When I’m composing, my starting point is always humble improvisation; pure moment to moment noodling, free from the pressure of having to come up with something ‘good’. Try it. Improvise, with as narrow a focus as possible. You might just stumble upon something wonderful.

#2 Compose, memorise and perform your way to mastery.

David Bowie once said “If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom you’re in just about the right place to do something exciting.”

This quote sums up the journey of composing so well for me. When I create I have no fixed goal. I have lots of ideas, accumulated over time, but no initial feeling as to how I want them to fit together. Often my first draft contains too much, and a large part of the process is tastefully chipping away at all that seems unnecessary. Even at this stage I don’t quite know where I’m going to end up, so I simply have to suspend my disbelief and keep feeling my way forward. If I didn’t feel any discomfort I’d be bored by my own composition, and probably park it. Too much discomfort and I’d procrastinate. It’s all about finding that sweet spot between familiar turf and the unknown.

Once I’ve finished a composition I always commit it to memory, if it hasn’t already naturally become engrained through the act of composing itself. Next I perform it, to my computer to make an audio file and to family and friends. One of the most satisfying experiences you can have as a musician is to play something that you yourself conceived of. A finished work that began as just a whisper of inspiration, just a fragment. Magical.

#3 Keep it chunky.

Whatever aspect of music you choose to focus on, it helps to limit your practice time to short, manageable chunks. Firstly, it stops you getting disheartened. Secondly, you’ll just be getting into it and it’ll be time to stop. That’s no bad thing. It will make you more motivated to return to the task tomorrow. It should feel like a bit of a tease.

People are often surprised when I tell them that my own practice takes the form of several, short stints — some just minutes long. Each time I pass an instrument in my home I play it. Most of my instruments are fairly static, like my drum kit, piano and double bass. Others are portable, like my ukulele or xaphoon (aka pocket saxophone). With the portable ones I purposefully pick them up, play, and put them down again in different places; so I’ll encounter them again later at random moments throughout the day. It might drive my partner mad, but it keeps things interesting. My practice feels effortless and steadily builds over time. Here’s some other tried and tested methods to give yourself the best chance of succeeding at practice:

  • The 1 Minute Principle — A Japanese approach where you commit to a task for just 1 min a day. You’ll almost certainly feel like you’ve stopped prematurely, but that will keep you coming back for more.
  • The 10 Minute Hack — Spend just 10 mins on tasks that feel difficult and overwhelming. You’ll realise they’re not so bad after all.
  • The Pomodoro Technique — Inspired by those plastic tomato kitchen timers, work for 25mins then take a short break before returning for another 25min round. Repeat this a few times. In my twenties I challenged myself to learn to juggle in a weekend. I’d never heard of the pomodoro technique but it was pretty much how I approached the task and achieved my goal.
  • The Power Hour — 60 mins per day. Save this one for days you’re exceptionally in flow.
  • Chunking Technique — Break the piece of music you’re learning down into bite size chunks. Your practice might only focus on one or two bars. That’s fine.
  • Gamification — Make it fun. Turn practice into a game with plenty of rewards. (Not just for kids)

#4 Be willing to make mistakes. Lots of them.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he says that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master of something. I’d like to add that these 10,000 hours will include hundreds, if not thousands of mistakes. Think about it. To get better at anything you have to be willing to attempt the things you can’t yet do. To go outside of your comfort zone. To practice the bits you can’t yet play.

In my lessons, I purposefully ask students to try an exercise that I know will be too fast or too slow for them (playing slowly is often harder than playing fast). I also make it clear they have full permission to get it wrong — I’m not a sadist. My aim is to show the student their current level. Where are they at? And what should they focus on improving next? When learning new skills, there are four stages of competence you will move through:

  • Unconscious incompetence — You don’t know what you don’t know.
  • Conscious incompetence — You know what you don’t know.
  • Unconscious competence — You don’t know what you know.
  • Conscious competence — You know what you know.

Giving students exercises that push them, exposes the areas that need work. They become conscious of what they don’t yet know (conscious incompetence) and therefore know exactly what to get to work on.

Anyone teaching themselves independently can easily apply the same logic. Expect mistakes. Know they’re the necessary first step. Don’t beat yourself up.

“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a narrow field.” — Niels Bohr

In a nutshell…

When we hear an incredible, musically fluent pro it’s easy to romanticise. They must have started learning before they could walk. Must have had genius teachers. Perhaps they did, but don’t overlook all the other stuff they did that you can do too — starting now. There are so many benefits to learning an instrument — from improving memory to easing anxiety and stress — not to mention the pleasure you get and give others playing a beautiful tune. There’s also never been more apps and online content to help you learn independently, in the comfort of your own home. Excuse the pun, but there’s everything to play for.

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Self taught musician who loves to learn and share with the world. www.benspooner.co.uk

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Ben Spooner

Ben Spooner

Self taught musician who loves to learn and share with the world. www.benspooner.co.uk

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