written by Dr. Victor Ezquerra
Another year is in the books. Chances are, you’re one of the many people ready to leave 2020 behind and start anew. A fantastic way of achieving the “new you” and starting fresh is by making a resolution for the new year. Making New Year’s resolutions to exercise, eat healthier, ditch a bad habit, be a better person, or learn something new are extremely common. Why not embark on a musical New Year’s resolution? Below are some ideas for creating your own musical resolutions.
The suggestions for musical resolutions mentioned in this blog are: increasing practice, listening to more/different music, singing, dancing, playing with others, writing, and learning something new. Like many lists, this one is incomplete. There are countless ways to include more music into your life and improve your musicianship; this blog is merely a jumping-off point. At the end, I will conclude with some general tips and guidelines that can help you be successful. As a lifelong musician and seasoned music educator, I am constantly trying to improve myself. But as I wrote this blog, I was able to recognize the need for me to set achievable goals and be more efficient with the way that I do that. As a result, I will be doing a lot of the things I mention here. Let’s make 2021 a musical year, and good luck on your journey!
A simple resolution that every musician should want to undertake is to practice more. In order to be successful with this, create specific goals for a practice routine: what you will work on, when you will work on it, how long you will practice, and how the practice is structured. Establish a reasonable agenda that is organized, consistent, and attainable. Build up a healthy, regular habit, and eventually it will become natural. One of the pitfalls of practicing is lack of progression, or only practicing the same thing. Although some practice is better than none, your practice should have intent and stimulate growth. Adherence to a curriculum can assist with this. Some options include taking a class, asking a teacher for lesson plans, buying a lesson book, or looking up some tutorials online. Regardless of your instrument, you can vary your practice by working on theory, method, technique, aural skills, etc. There’s always room for improvement!
This is probably the easiest resolution to take on. The objective is to expand your musical horizons by listening to new music—or listening to music differently. Start by making a list of music you want to listen to. You can try out different genres, new artists, famous albums, or individual pieces, or simply mix these up. It helps to do a bit of research into your interests beforehand—look up playlists or get recommendations. Remember that the point is to experience something new, so be bold with your choices. Here are some resources for music playlists to get you started:
- iHeartradio (moods, activities, decades, genres, etc.)
- Youtube (more contemporary overall)
- NPR (eclectic mix of styles)
- The Guardian (writers and critic created playlists)
- Mic (lists of music created by famous artists)
If you don’t feel like listening to new music or you already have an eclectic listening style, try listening to music differently. I recently wrote a blog on music listening, which contains some good information on how to listen to music more actively. In short, listen intently and carefully pay attention to specific elements that you might not have noticed before (instrumentation, lyrics, production/mix, emotion, etc.).
When I ask people if they sing and they respond “no,” I usually follow up with a couple of questions. Usually, the questions are “What about singing in the shower?” or “What about singing in the car?” At that point, the person I’m talking to almost always concedes that they sing. My point here is that nearly everyone sings. If you do already sing in whatever place, keep doing that. Making a resolution implies growth or change, so if you don’t sing and want to, start. If you already sing a little, sing more and get better! Take singing lessons, or perform a song in front of people. A fantastic, low-stress way of introducing yourself to live vocal performance is karaoke. There are some great websites and apps that offer those experiences (lucky voice, smule) and of course, there is probably a bar or restaurant near you that does karaoke. For something more serious, consider joining a community choir or a local musical theatre production.
Dancing along with music has an added bonus: exercise. Whether your goal is to learn new dance moves, improve your ability to dance, get a cardio workout, or just have fun, dancing is a great way to enjoy music and develop rhythmic awareness. Take a dance class (online or in person), look up some easy dance moves online, or dance with someone else. Often regarded as the artform that is most closely related to music, dancing engages two of the eight different intelligences in Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory: musical intelligence and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.
Playing with Others
Few musical experiences can be as fulfilling as making music with others. A natural place to begin would be with those closest to you: family and friends. Although the music might be better quality if this is done amongst seasoned musicians, value and enjoyment can be attained amongst musicians of any level. There are countless opportunities to make music with others within arm’s reach, such as having a child play a simple percussion instrument alongside of you, an amateur accompanist jamming with you, or singing along with friends. More serious endeavors include joining a band or choir (as mentioned above) to either jam out with or practice regularly and perform. If you aren’t part of a musical community, there are several sources where you can find other musicians:
- Facebook, Reddit and Craigslist communities
- Bandmix, Flint, Vampr (app), Musolist, Find-a-musician (just to name a few)
Writing music, songs, or lyrics can be demanding and perplexing. Much like everything else, it gets easier with time and practice. One of the main impediments I have noticed with beginning songwriters is being overwhelmed with possibilities and not knowing where to start. To get past this first hump, try making clear delineations or limitations for your song. This can be done in several ways:
- Try mimicking a style or genre of music (a reggae song, 12-bar blues, a bluegrass tune)
- Start with a basic style or song that you can use as a roadmap to follow
- It also might be useful to copy a specific artist by trying to replicate their sound
- Limit some of the elements of your song (i.e., use only 3 chords, use only 5 notes for the melody, or impose a 30 second time limit)
Finally, borrowing from another artists is a common practice for musicians. Use a chord progression, melodic line, or theme from another song and tweak it a bit (play in a different order, change a couple notes, use different instruments or tones, or simplify the existing work). Writing a prequel, sequel, or spin-off from a piece of music you enjoy also makes for an easy theme to go off of. Playing the same thing with different voices or instruments also produces surprisingly cool results; try messing with tone or instrumentation of the song for inspiration.
I find that expectations play a large part of my songwriting, often in a negative way. I need to recognize that not everything I write will be a hit, nor will it end up being the most beautiful thing ever heard. It should be fun and explorational, so I don’t need to beat myself up if it’s not the best—the key is to keep writing.
Learn Something New (Style, Songs, Instrument)
Learning new songs should be part of how you get better at playing your instrument. If not, 2021 is a great year to start! Try to learn a new song every week, every couple weeks, or every month. Attempt to learn new songs in as many ways as possible (by ear, notated music, videos). Musical ability and repertoire benefit greatly if you work on new pieces in new ways. Just like I suggested with listening, expand your horizons by learning new artists, genres, or finally take on that song you’ve always wanted to learn.
Learning different techniques or styles enables you to be a more versatile and multifaceted musician. I’m primarily a rock guitarist, but I often take the time to learn classical pieces. I usually play electric with a pick, but if I’ve been doing that for a while, I will switch to fingerpicking on my acoustic guitar. I hardly ever play using a slide, so sometimes I’ll try to channel my inner Duane Allman and play slide guitar. By endeavoring to do these things, it keeps me on my toes and helps me to remain a “fresh” musician rather than a “one-trick pony.”
As mentioned above, your musicianship will increase dramatically if you expand not only what you learn, but also how you learn it—while you’re challenging yourself to learn a new way of playing, do so in an unfamiliar way. If you normally use sheet music, try learning a song by watching a video. If a teacher teaches you songs, try learning on your own. If you’re used to learning by ear, try notation. Change things up!
One of the most ambitious (and possibly the most difficult) aspirations is to learn a new instrument, because you’re starting from scratch. If you think you’re up to the task, just do it. Pick up that banjo, strum that ukulele, blow that harmonica, or saw that cello—there’s nothing stopping you! Don’t forget that digital instruments (computer, MIDI, tablets) are musical instruments as well. Learning how to record, produce, compose, or create music on digital instruments can give you infinite tonal possibilities and puts you on the cutting edge of how music is currently being made. Here is a blog about digital instruments I wrote that mentions some of the ways in which they can be used to create music.
Tips for Success
Like any other resolution, the most difficult part is consistently sticking to your resolution. Here are some tips to help you meet your goals:
- BE REALISTIC: Try to avoid romanticized or overzealous goals. Be true to yourself and know your limits. Set achievable goals that will challenge you without stressing you out. Everyone has a sweet spot between underperforming and overexertion. It may take a bit of tinkering to find where that sweet spot is, but the idea behind a resolution is self-improvement through growth. That growth should get you out of your comfort zone, but it should not be halfhearted or overwhelming.
- SET A SCHEDULE: Make sure you set specific times and days to practice. The days and times should be feasible and not conflict with any other aspects of your life. If you’re not a morning person, don’t assume you will wake up at sunrise every day to practice. I usually tell my students that just 10-15 minutes a day is enough to improve playing an instrument. If you are just listening, try for one new album a week. Depending on your goals, you may need more or less time. The most important part is staying consistent.
- PACE YOURSELF: Many times, people go all in to start off the year then quickly burn themselves out. Start off with easy goals, and slowly increase difficulty or frequency. You have an entire year to meet your goals and improve; there’s no need to rush.
- ACCOUNTABILITY: Keeping yourself accountable can be difficult. It may help to create a checklist or “to do” list, mark off times/days in your calendar, or write a log or journal of your accomplishments. Not only does writing it down make it more tangible, you can also keep track of your progress. It also helps to ask someone to do the resolution with you. That way, you can keep each other accountable by checking in with someone else.
- MAKE A WAGER: Some people find it easier to rise to a challenge when it entails a reward or being competitive. Make a wager with yourself or someone else; when goals are reached or there is a winner, they receive a prize (even if it’s just bragging rights).
This is it! 2021 can be your year to become a better musician and expand yourself as an artist. Make the decision to practice more, sing, dance, play with other musicians, write, or learn something completely new. Set an attainable goal, stick with it, and you will succeed. If you’re truly willing to put forth the time and effort, the benefits and possibilities are limitless.