5 Things I Wish I Was Told in Music School

5 things I wish I was told in music school

Moving to New York to become a professional musician was always a dream for me as a kid. I did everything I could to soak up the knowledge that I thought I needed if I was ever going to “make it” which included studying at the Berklee College of Music, The University of Miami, and New York University. While I did learn the foundational and advanced technical and theoretic knowledge that continues to serve me in my music to this day, I was completely unprepared in knowing what was actually expected of me and necessary to be a sideman and band member beyond the academic world. I learned much more about music and how to be a great musician through my experience than through any institute. In my own teaching I have tried to impart some of this “real-world” experience to my students and help younger musicians understand the priorities of becoming a great musician. Here is a short list of what I call “The five things I wish I was told in music school.”

  1. Know your role in the band and execute the basics:

As we develop in our own personal musical journey, we often blur the lines between the “shed” (practice room) and the “gig” (performance). As one of my former teachers once said to me “no one has ever been fired for comping too well.” If you can play with a great time feel, outline the form, give the basic harmony, etc. than you are fulfilling your duties as an ensemble member. This is a pre-requisite for any type of music and in any musical situation. As a sideman your number one obligation is providing a level of comfort for the other ensemble members. All the hip creative stuff is essentially icing on the cake, which can be delicious on its own but makes you sick if you have too much. This brings me to the second topic:

  1. Serve the music before serving yourself:

In addition to or in conjunction with understanding and executing your role in the band is serving the music before serving yourself. Sometimes the best contribution to the music lies in doing the least. There’s a reason why guys like Earl Palmer, Steve Gadd, and ?uestlove work/ed so much and get called for the BIG gigs and it’s not because they can play syncopated 32nd note grooves with mixed meters and syncopated dotted rhythms. Rather its because they have the strongest groove and make the music sound better than anyone else.

  1. You don’t need to learn a million songs, rather learn how they work:

Of course its wonderful to know as many songs as possible but memorization is not as good a method of learning music as is understanding harmony and training your ears to hear the important aspects of a song; key, form, bridge, and turnaround. In every genre there are those dozen or so songs that you will need to know to survive playing regular gigs, however what is more important than memorizing chords is training your ears and understanding how harmony works. Most songs follow basic principles of chord structures and expectations of tension and release. Someone will always call a song that you don’t know or ask to play a song in an unfamiliar key. By learning how to hear the song rather than recall what you’ve seen on paper, you will not only serve the music but you will have a much easier time learning new songs in the future.

  1. Play the Blues!

This one might seem obvious, and it is true that some professors in college will tell you to play the blues but they do not treat it with the importance it deserves. Playing the blues does not mean shoving in the blues scale whenever you want, playing the blues is an art form onto itself. The blues is not only the foundation of jazz music but it also resonates with audiences and other musicians more than anything else. And if you think that playing the blues will box you in too much check out Ornette Coleman, the first “free-jazz” musician who primarily plays… the blues!

  1. Rhythm is king

Rhythm is the single most important aspect of jazz music. We have an entire language developed around certain rhythms and responses to those rhythms. We also take in rhythms from Brazil, India, Cuba, Haiti, and more cultures and implement them into jazz constructs. A mastery of rhythm and time (that is playing string rhythm in good time) is a necessity if you want to play jazz, as is learning rhythms and grooves from around the world and from the masters of your instrument.

I hope this gives you all some food for thought as you step into the practice room and eventually on to the bandstand!!


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Michael is a bassist, team member and ensemble instructor at NY Ensemble Classes.
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One Comment

  1. Great suggestions and thoughts that make all the sense in the world. Trying to keep it simple, on target and in a groove. Seems I need to avoid trying to do too much. Can’t wait for the next class

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