I was following week 2 from the Jillian Michaels “Ripped in 30” DVD with my wife when something Jillian said struck me as being wise. As being something that doesn’t just apply to working out, but also quite directly to music (as well as many other things, I’m sure.)
I’m paraphrasing from memory so this may not be exactly what she said but it was something like this: “If it doesn’t make you uncomfortable then it’s not helping.”
I think this is so true when it comes to improving as a musician. For years when I would play guitar I would just play whatever I already knew, whatever was comfortable and easy. Even though I played guitar quite a bit during this time, I never really improved my playing much at all. I had very little improvement over the course of about 7 or 8 years of playing because I didn’t push myself to learn new skills.
Over the past year or so I’ve been actively trying to improve my skills as a musician and the difference is night & day. Now that I’m practicing daily with guitar lessons that often make me feel “uncomfortable,” instead of just playing around, I become a much better guitarist.
I’ve also been playing guitar more often and for longer periods (I think this is mostly because I find it more enjoyable to play when I can play better) but I think the big difference between now and before is that I’m now actively practicing to improve rather than just playing. It makes all of the difference in the world.
This goes for more than just playing guitar of course. It goes for all musical skills, including songwriting (and drumming: from a background of having never played drums in my life, I’ve become a decent drummer over the course of the last 6 months by practicing about 30 minutes a day on average – by the book – see my post from early March on my new drum set.)
Before, I would “write a song” by just singing whatever came to my head while I was strumming some chords on my guitar. I still sometimes get initial ideas that way. But now I push myself much farther. I study the musical structure of songs I love (and those that I hate – it’s good to know why things don’t work too.) I write down my melodies and try all sorts of variations with them on the piano (which I’ve also learned to play, at a basic level, this year.) I’ve read books about lyrics and lyric writing and study the lyrics of songs I love.
This can be quite hard, quite uncomfortable. But I find myself understanding music at a much deeper level than I ever did before. And I think my songwriting is improving significantly.
Another important point that I think goes hand in hand with this is that everything is difficult at first. No one is born a great guitar player for example. When Jimi Hendrix first picked up a guitar he sounded like crap. Even a skill we think of as being something someone is “born with” like singing is mostly a learned skill. The people who we say are born great singers simply learned to sing at a very young age.
And no, getting better at something hard doesn’t happen overnight. But if you keep at it every day, you will notice a few weeks later that you can do all kinds of things you couldn’t do before. And then a few months later you will barely recognize the blundering fool you were before. It’s an amazing thing!
I know in many ways this is all quite obvious; but I’m sharing it because I know that while it is obvious I somehow didn’t really manage to realize it until about a year ago (you can see the kindling for where I’m at now in this post from July 2010) and I think it may help light a spark under the ass of some other person out there who is going along just doing what’s comfortable with their music. Get better by getting uncomfortable!
And yes the “Ripped in 30” DVD is pretty good. Yes the target market is clearly females, but the workouts are pretty tough. They kick my ass and I’m a guy in decent shape. And I know that if I do them every day and push myself to the point of being uncomfortable that I will see the same type of positive changes to my body that I’m seeing with my guitar playing and other musical skills.