Mistake to Masterpiece, Play It By Ear, Getting “Off Book”, and Discovering Ska

A common trap in learning to play an instrument is being so concerned about getting all the notes right and playing “correctly” that you forget one little thing: music is all about expression.

Regardless of your level, it’s easy to get bogged down by the technicalities of your practice and fail to inject your own style and personality into the music.

This week at Musical U, we’re giving you three ways to avoid falling into this trap: not sweating the mistakes, learning to play by ear instead of relying on sheet music, and getting “off book” by putting the sheet music away once in a while.

Finally, we’re talking about the style of music that is all about feeling, groove, rhythm, and self-expression: ska.

Mistake to Masterpiece

We’ve all been there: performing a piece in front of an eager audience, sweaty hands moving over the suddenly-slippery keys or strings of your instrument, when suddenly… oops! Your hands slip, hitting a bum note and leaving you flustered and frozen.

About recovering from mistakes when performingMistakes are an uncomfortable but unavoidable part of live performance. However, what may seem like a disaster in the moment is actually an opportunity to develop your improvisational skills and build your confidence as a musician, by recovering from your mistake!

In our podcast episode About Recovering from Mistakes, we go beyond the usual “just keep going!” advice, and give you four ways to gracefully bounce back from your musical mishap.

Bonus: mistakes often actually end up charming the audience, because they can see that you’re only human, too!

In this episode of the podcast, we shared a number of strategies that you can use when you make a mistake during a live performance. As musicians, we must accept that we will make mistakes, and learn ways to persevere through the performance and stay engaged with the music. For another approach to this, “The Power of 3” from The Curious Piano Teachers discusses a great way to build your musical acumen and overcome hesitation during performance.

Many times, the only person that will notice any type of mistake on stage is the performer. The audience may not be familiar with the piece of music, but also accept that live performances are inherently prone to wrong notes. Contrary to what we may think while performing, audiences are not sitting there just to judge us! Jen from Activate You describes the way many musicians see their performance as evaluation addiction – and describes how to overcome it.

Musicians are not only performing on stage, but frequently have to put on a different type of performance… interviewing with the media! While this is an exciting part of being an up-and-coming musician, it can be a bit disconcerting if you’ve had no experience doing so in the past. For some great tips to prepare for you media interviews, the folks at Wysidio have compiled a list of helpful tips.

Getting “Off Book”

Good music teachers know better than anybody else that mistakes play an important role in every musician’s development.

Great music teachers know that sometimes, the best performances aren’t about hitting all the right notes. They’re about making the listener feel. This is where getting “off book” comes in – it’s about beyond going simply the mechanics and technicalities of playing, and adding a human element to it.

Getting off book with Melody Payne the plucky pianistaSo what does getting “off book” mean, specifically?

It’s a way of performing music, without needing all the notes right in front of you. Instead, the focus is on creating a musical, memorable, and moving performance. In Getting “Off Book”, with Melody Payne, she explains how she discovered this tool for musical freedom, and the ways in which she applies it to her teaching methods to give her students the ability to express themselves through their playing.

In her interview, Melody discusses how she had difficulty transitioning to performing in public, which is very common in musicians. Performance anxiety can be crippling to any musician, but there are steps that you can take to overcome it. Christy-Lyn has some great tips on getting through your stage fright.

Overcoming performance anxiety will allow you to express yourself musically in ways that you can only imagine! Taking deliberate steps to work through the fears that you may have requires hard work and dedication. The Liberated Performer discusses even more steps you can take that will transform you into the musician aspire to be.

Melody mentioned that she was terrified of making any mistakes during her first performances and as she moved into playing off lead sheets. Learning to let go and accept “mistakes” as part of musical performance is something that you can learn to do. And even come to really enjoy! One way of doing this is in Tip #1 from Piano in 21 days’ master list, in addition to other great suggestions to that will help you express yourself musically (no matter what instrument you are playing).

It was such a pleasure having Melody on The Musicality Podcast! If you haven’t heard the interview yet, make sure to listen here. After that interview, we can’t help but want to hear more advice that Melody has to offer. On her blog, she has recently published a piece on how to achieve a magical musical performance. Be sure to take a read.

Play It By Ear

Playing by ear is a challenge many will shy away from, often out of fear. On top of that, the amount of sheet music and tabs available online begs the question: why bother spending the time to learn to play by ear?

play ukulele by earBecause, simply put, it will make you a better musician. Finding the notes yourself is a major component of ear training, and will make you more confident and expressive with your instrument as you develop your ear and learn to recognize the melodies and progressions that work.

Ukulele Go!’s Dave Ellis discusses an excellent starting point for players in How To Play Ukulele By Ear, starting you off with the basics and taking you all the way to figuring out chord tones. Also included: valuable advice to deter you from “cheating” in the early stages of your playing-by-ear journey.

A practical method of tuning your new ukulele by ear is to use a reference pitch. Many musicians rely on reference pitches and use a variety of tools like tuning forks or pianos to do so. Another great way of always having reference pitches in your pocket is to keep a pitch pipe on hand. Cesar Blues Guitar demonstrates tuning his instrument using this handy little tool.

Using reference songs as a way to start playing by ear benefits many musicians. This helps to set you up for success as the melody is already well known in your mind and you just need to put it onto your instrument! For more great suggestions on further developing your musical ear, Piano Couture has the answers!

One common pitfall of ear training (referred to as the Ear Training Trap here at Musical U) is failing to apply your skills to your instrument. But once you learn a couple of tricks, you can put your musical ears to good use with any instrument. Tiffany Shaefer discusses how she applies ear training to the harp. Don’t let the instrument selection fool you, these are great tips that are useful to every musician!

Discovering Ska

Most people today know ska for its “skanking” dance, associated checkerboard fashions, and fusion with modern punk rock.

Intro to ska musicFew know that the same genre that rose to popularity in the 90’s thanks to bands such as Sublime, No Doubt, and Reel Big Fish actually had its beginnings in the streets of Jamaica, where radio waves carrying R&B from the United States were picked up by musicians who fused it with their own traditional music, creating an uptempo, highly danceable style of music that dominated Jamaica’s scene for much of the 60’s.

And of course, it’s impossible to talk about ska music without discussing the culture and instrumentation that are unique to the style. Combine the genre’s strong political statements with those irresistible, forward-driving horns, and it’s hard to imagine a more energetic, moving style of music.

This week at Musical U, we give you a history primer on the three waves of ska, and talk about the idiosyncratic culture that surrounds the genre and the instrumentation and rhythms you can expect to find in classic ska tunes. Get your skanking shoes on, pick it up, and head over to An Introduction to Ska Music to get schooled on ska!

A hallmark of ska music style is the walking bass line, which provides a foundation for the melody and harmonies. Learning how to “walk the bass” is a great exercise for any musician, regardless of their instrument. Music Protest kindly walks you through the fundamentals!

Much of ska music is played with the emphasis on the offbeat, or that tiny bit of silence between the main beats. Playing on the offbeat can be great fun! To master this part of your musicality, try to practice with a metronome to get your upstroke matched up with the offbeat, as recommended by I Will Teach You To Play Guitar.

Once More, With Feeling

Imperfections are not necessarily weaknesses.

Owning your mistakes and using them to connect with the audience is what a good performer does. Playing by ear requires a lot of work and some trial-and-error, but the freedom you gain in your playing is more than worth it. And of course, what better way to focus on style rather than nitpicky details than by putting your sheet music to the side? Nobody ever made a hard-hitting, unforgettable song by only worrying about the mechanics of the song; they felt the music.

Even if it’s every once in awhile, put the concern of technical perfection to the back of your mind, and play from the heart, not the mind. This will remind you of your true goal as a musician and a performer: to express what you feel inside and share it with others.

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