Musical U Member Spotlight: ZSonic

Though it’s easy to look at seasoned musicians and assume that they get by solely on their existing knowledge and chops, taking a look into the mechanics of their practice paints a very different picture.

There is always more to learn, and new avenues of musicmaking to discover – regardless of your level. The pros know this better than anyone, and this understanding helps them continuously enrich their knowledge base, push musical boundaries, and create better and better music.

Meet ZSonic, a DJ and producer who has been at it for 18 years, playing gigs all over the midwest and composing music with an unlikely instrument: the turntable. In the years prior to joining Musical U, he was feeling stuck in his approach. He was practicing long and hard, and yet experiencing frustration with the process and results.

With the help of Musical U, ZSonic has developed healthy practice habits that allow him to be creative, consistent, and focussed in his music – and has began composing his own music again after a two-year hiatus, with the help of his newfound singing and audiation skills, and his piano chops, all of which complement his turntabling technique known as “skratching”.

In our interview, ZSonic talks about his musical journey and the setbacks, realizations, and successes he’s had along the way, what made him give Musical U a try, and how it’s exposed him to a new practice framework that allows for creativity, accountability, and efficiency. And of course, he gives us a peek at “skratching”, or the fascinating art of creating tracks from vinyl using a turntable, resulting in an incredible musical collage that transcends genre.

Q: Hi ZSonic, and welcome to Musical U! Tell us about your musical background.

I’ve loved music my whole life! I was inspired at a young age by the DJs, dancers, and musical guests on “In Living Color”. I would emulate the rapping and dancing. My first rap group was called “The L-A-Z Rappers” with my cousins Lisa and Anna (naturally, I’m Z). We even had a hit music video – well, it was a hit with our family.

Both of my parents listened to a lot of different music, with well-rounded collections of vinyls, cassettes, and CDs. It was a pleasure growing up with a diverse influence of styles and genres.

I took violin lessons when I was in first grade. I didn’t like it. That didn’t last very long. In 4th grade I took some piano lessons. That lasted a little longer than the violin. I still didn’t stick with it. In 8th grade, I picked up an electric bass. That was fun, but I didn’t dukey-stick with it.

DJ handsThen, as a high school sophomore, I got into electronic production and DJing. This was awesome! I didn’t have to choose just one instrument – I had control over them all. I went on to win the Senior talent show by performing an original rap and turntable skratch to a beat I made. I’m a one man hip-hop army!

I’ve now DJed all over the midwest and done sample-based production for about 18 years. I’ve released many original songs and remixes over multiple labels, domestic and international. I’ve taught children how to rap and DJ at the Hip-Hop Academy in Kansas City, Missouri. I did freelance audio engineering for a couple years, during which I essentially lost time to work on my own music – that was soul-sucking.

As a result, I decided to not do mixing and mastering for other people and just focus on my own music. Over the last two years, I’ve been learning music theory and piano in an effort to be able to compose original music. Fortunately for me, I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learnt to my main instrument, the turntable. Studying and practicing piano has really made my skratches more musical.

Q: Amazing – so your chosen instrument contains virtually all other instruments within it, allowing you to play with sound in a way that most musicians never get to experience! What turntablists inspire you? What’s your favorite music track these days?

It’s very hard for me to pick a favorite, so I’ll mention two pieces I feel are very important.

The first is C2C with their 2005 DMC Routine, a clear demonstration of the turntable being used as an instrument to create any style or genre. It illustrates how any piece of recorded sound can become an instrument and how multiple turntablists can work together to create music as a band. So cool:

The turntable is also a great improvisational instrument that can work with more traditional instruments. Here’s a video of one of my favorite turntablists, DJ Kentaro, jamming with an amazing shamisen player, Kinoshita Shinichi:

Q: Those are some crazy chops – and nicely illustrate your point about the turntable working beautifully on its own and with other instruments. What are you currently working on?

I just finished a 21 Days of VGM Challenge via Video Game Music Academy. I am continuing to work on my composition skills with a focus on writing melodies.

I have a couple of collaborative songs with another turntablist DJ and fellow Qbert Skratch University member, Fresh Kit. I am working on a song for a Brooklyn-based Footwork label, Zona Music. I am also building a repertoire of original dance music to release via my own label and to perform live. I’m always working!

Q: Before joining Musical U, where were you stuck? How did you become interested in Musical U?

I was losing steam with my piano practice. I had also been practicing ear training for a couple years and didn’t feel like I was improving much. I felt like I didn’t really understand how to apply the theory and ear training to actually making music.

I first heard about Musical U via the fantastic I was interested in it when I first heard of it, but I wasn’t ready to commit to a full membership, so I signed up for the email list. I’ve heard a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will present themselves. Musical U presented themselves in my email with a fantastic sign up offer, and I got on board!

Q: And we’re delighted to have you! How have you benefited from Musical U so far? Why is it important to you?

One of the biggest benefits I’ve received from Musical U is a more musical mindset. I no longer just practice to get better – I practice with a bigger picture in mind.

”I’ve learned to balance these musical components with shorter, consistent, and focused practice chunks.”

I have found a much more musical focus with everything I practice. This has reduced stress and allowed me to find balance. I used to practice as much and as hard as possible, which is not a sustainable approach. I had previously gone two years without really writing music, just studying and practicing. Musical U has given me the mental tools to form effective practice habits that allow me have fun making music.

I have learned that I need to encode and apply – so I study and practice, then immediately apply it to my own music. This was definitely a missing link for me. Not only does this strategy help me learn faster, but I actually get musical ideas out there!

Q: So you’ve gone from a writing hiatus and a nose-to-the-grindstone approach, to a more deliberate and efficient practice method that allows you room to develop your musical ideas. What experiences – and surprises – have stood out during your journey?

I was surprised at the amount of foundational practice concepts, goal setting, and planning strategies on Musical U. The change in mindset that happened in the first week after joining was very profound. It has shaped my whole life for the better. I haven’t just learned about music – I’ve learned effective practice strategies that I can apply to any aspect of my music. This helps me constantly improve in all areas.

I have learned that singing is a major weakness of mine. In fact, I wasn’t practicing or learning anything singing related before Musical U. I was trying to play melodies by ear, but as I’ve learned, if you can’t sing it, it’s so much harder to play by ear. Audiating (hearing music in my head) and singing have greatly improved my ear. I am still a beginner in singing, but I have had a new path opened up to me in that I now see the musical benefits to singing. I know my musicality will improve in great strides once I’ve developed a basic singing proficiency.

Singing roadmap

Everyone at Musical U is so wonderful and supportive. The staff and the other members are inspiring and helpful. I feel like I can really be my musical self – everyone is very open-minded to different styles and approaches. This is a very fertile learning environment.

Q: How have your plans changed during the course of your time at Musical U?

I have had this idea of writing music and doing cover songs using the piano, my voice, and the turntable as an instrument. Prior to Musical U, my plan was to practice the turntable as hard and as long as possible until I reached mastery, then practice piano in the same manner, then practice voice. I would spend hours a day on one thing, just doing boring drills, really.

Practice habits

Now, I’ve learned to balance these musical components with shorter, consistent, and focused practice chunks. I’ve started to apply these skills in a way that resembles my end goal. I’m having a lot more fun and I’m making a lot more music!

Q: We’ve noticed that you make fantastic use of the Musical U progress journal, with many insightful and inspiring entries documenting your journey. How has keeping a progress journal helped your musicality?

Writing down goals along with a plan is crucial for progress. I strategize, then execute. By pre-planning what I will practice, I eliminate the decision-making step when I actually go to do my practice. This way I can focus much more efficiently on listening and performing as accurately as possible.

Journaling after I practice is extremely helpful – I write about what went well and what needed improvement, helping me hone in on what works and what doesn’t, and what to practice next time. This way, I can continue to improve my focus during my practice sessions.

Personal journal

I’ve learned that improvement doesn’t have to do with how long or how much I practice. It has to do with how consistent and focused my practice is. As Bruce Lee said, “Long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity.”

To quote another great: Mick Kremling said, “The only time you should look back is to see how far you’ve come”. The progress journal makes this very actionable. I can see how far I’ve come in the last week, month, even year! This is a powerful motivating force to keep me moving forward.

The online Personal Journal at Musical U is a really great supplement to my daily written journal. It gives me an accountability system, as I know the Musical U staff and members are looking at my journal, and they want to see me improve.

Having people other than yourself who are dedicated to your improvement is very powerful – I honestly can’t believe I went so long without it. Not only do they provide accountability, but also support and encouragement. If I get to a roadblock, I don’t have to beat my head against the piano indefinitely or scour the internet for reliable advice. I just ask the Musical U community on my personal journal!

We’re here to help! ZSonic, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom on the art of making music with a turntable, and your musical journey so far.

We at Musical U are so happy to have you on board, and there’s no doubt that your fascinating personal journal serves as an inspiration for us and our members – whether they want to learn about turntables and skratching, improve their singing, or start composing their own music! We can’t wait to hear the music you’ll make with your newfound singing skills, piano chops, and ear training!

Sharing Your Journey

We at Musical U swear by progress journals – there’s hardly another tool that allows you to track, examine, and share your successes and setbacks quite like it.

Even musicians with ample knowledge and experience under their belt stand to benefit greatly from keeping a written record of their practice – just ask ZSonic, who relies on his journal for everything from planning to retrospective self-critique, even with a successful decades-long career.

Not only does this allow you to track your progress, but in online communities such as Musical U, it helps hold you accountable to your peers – all of whom want to see you succeed, improve, and meet the goals you’ve lovingly inscribed in your journal.

Want to understand and fast-track your progress? Start a journal, write in it everytime you practice, and share it with your peers – and see for yourself the incredible things that can be accomplished by putting your musical journey into writing and sharing it with the world!

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