Becoming a good musician is an aim for almost everybody that spends time learning to play an instrument. However, I get the feeling that very often people fall at the first hurdle every time that something gets a little bit tricky.
There are so many elements that go into what can be defined as musical, or traits of a good musician, and I am going to just focus on two of those:
I have come into contact with a number of students and fellow musicians that feel that either they have reached the limit of their ability and there isn’t anywhere left for them to go, or students that simply say that because something isn’t instantly accessible then they are not good enough. These attitudes can stop instrumental progress in its tracks and can put the brakes on confidence and self-belief.
There is also the feeling that if you say you are good at something, and you know you are good, that this will instantly mean that you are arrogant or big-headed. But I truly believe that if you have put the work in and you know your limitations, but also are acutely aware of your strengths then it is possible to believe in your own abilities as an instrumentalist. There is a real difference between arrogance and self-belief and I feel that the understanding and awareness of this is something that is declining in our society.
Developing your ability is an important reason behind why we practice. Understanding how to achieve fantastic tone quality when playing in the quieter dynamics or how to produce good, clean legato playing across the range are important things to continually work on and improve. Other technical aspects such as improving range, lip flexibility and intonation are important elements that will give greater control when playing your instrument.
To be honest though, are these really the important things?
Well, my belief is no and also yes (and definitely in that order!) I have begun to think that ability, as important as it is, will never be the over-riding factor that helps you become a better musician. In fact, in some cases too much focus on technical (and physical) aspects can lead to paralysis by analysis. Maybe the following statement gets us somewhere closer to the truth:
Ability is what you need, but talent is what you really want.
Developing awareness of pitch, rhythm, sight-reading, scales and arpeggios are things that will enable greater control over how you physically react, which is fundamental, but it is really the application of these skills that lead to a developing sense of musicality.
The Arban Cornet Method has to be one of my all time favourite books for developing instrumental technique. Recently I have thought about how often I used to practice with this book and although I developed a more secure technique, I failed to focus on the real point of all of the exercises. The key issue really is to always consider how each phrase can be played in the most musically appropriate way.
Can talent really be developed or improved, or is this just something that some people have or don’t have? Well to some extent this could be the case, but it appears to be used as an excuse by many people to avoid embarrassment or feelings that they are not good enough. This, I believe, is where the problem is.
Clearly it is very important to be aware of your own limitations, and understand what is both musically and technically beyond you. But, and much more importantly, know how to develop the technique that is required to perform the music with a sense of musicality. This allows for belief and confidence whilst keeping firmly rooted in the understanding that limitations do exist.
Musical talent is about creating a convincing and appropriate interpretation with a good awareness of how to communicate and portray the feelings and emotions that you believe are contained within the music that you play. Of course, doing this consistently is the real aim.
Can this really be learned or taught if this innate ability doesn’t appear of its own accord? I feel that it definitely can providing that the attitude of the musician is what it should be. A positive framework of past experiences should be developed allowing confidence to build. There will of course be times when things go a little awry of course but if the right attitude is applied to practice, ensemble work and performance then the good will always outweigh the bad.
Approaching the instrument with a clear attitude of always aiming to play something better, more musically or accurate than the previous time is something that will allow for real musical development. Often it is easier to go for ‘safe’ and play the dynamics at a fairly consistent level, or not worry too much about the articulation or even not consider how the phrasing of your musical line interacts with another. This will obviously produce poor results and lead to greater musical dissatisfaction. What the mind thinks upon will grow and negative reinforcement will only make this feeling gain momentum.
I don’t really believe that talent can be achieved simply through a change in mindset, but I know that it can do a great deal to help develop it. Consistent effort, care and attention to the finer details within a musical context is really the way of developing musicality and ultimately, talent. The late John Fletcher was someone who definitely worked with this feeling in mind, in fact it is believed that he would rather die than to play a note badly.
Ability and technique are an obvious must for focus in our own practice, but believing in our awareness and understanding of the music can help stretch musical horizons and take our playing to a whole new level.