Three Things Every Musician Should Be

A big welcome if you’re visiting from CD Baby – you probably want to jump straight to the application, right?…

I’m a guitar teacher by trade. Sure I write songs and perform, but if you met me at a party and ask what I do I’d say “teach guitar.” If I won the lottery tomorrow* I’d still carry on teaching (but maybe reduce my hours a little) because I feel a responsibility to pass on what I’ve learned and I think it’s something every musician should do.

At the same time, it’s a battle. Full-time teaching tends to squeeze the original creative impulse out of my soul that made me want to play guitar in the first place. And I’m aware that not having the time to learn anything new on my instrument dries up writing AND teaching, keeping me going round the same ever deepening ruts.

Many of us will be firmly in one camp. A teacher, student or creator. That’s fine. But to be a truly healthy member of musical society, we need to be a little of each.

A Teacher

I am self taught. What that means is my school music teachers, Jonathan Trout, Steve Milward and Lesley Lear, taught me a little notation, broadened my horizons, got me to listen critically and perform in school productions. Malc Rowe, an older guy at school, taught me all the Judas Priest songs he knew in return for me roadying for his band. My art teacher, Ken Jones, introduced me to lots of jazz & avant garde music. My sister Roberta loaned me everything from Gershwin & The Beatles, to Ry Cooder & Led Zeppelin. Denton Williams gave me a case full of gospel tapes. I devoured instructional books and columns by people like Mickey Baker, Paul Baloche, Paul Gilbert, Joe Satriani and attended courses and masterclasses lead by Brian Doerksen, Jon Gibson, John Etheridge.

I hope you get the point? No one is self taught. We all had help coming up and we all have to give something back. Not everyone could or should teach formally – some of us lack patience, punctuality or an analytical mind, or have issues with alcohol or the police. But we can all do something to help the next generation.

A Student

Sadly, most teachers stop learning anything new about their subject right after they qualify, just like recording artists stop learning once they start touring the first album. Thereafter the next 20 years worth of music (or teaching) is drawn from an ever diminishing pool of ideas.

Teachers and lecturers get long summer breaks (some even get sabbaticals) but many down tools just to collapse and recover. And the few successful artists that do seek out formal tuition usually do it to correct career threatening flaws in their technique.

A Creator

Art & Fear warns of the danger that –

“…an artist who teaches will eventually dwindle away to something much less: a teacher who formerly made art…like some perverse recycling process from a sci-fi novel, the same system that produces new artists, produces ex-artists”

and goes on to say

“The greatest gift you have to offer your students is the example of your own life as a working artist” (p.82-3).

Meanwhile students are sometimes trapped into a mindset that they must learn everything before they create anything, not realising that the best way to understand any musical concept you learn is to use it.

So if you know you’re lacking in any area here’s some tailor-made suggestions

A Teacher who Creates
A Teacher who Studies

A Student who Creates
A Student who Teaches
A Creator who Teaches
A Creator who Studies
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A Teacher who Creates

  • Write for you school/church/organisation – A colleague who teaches piano recently wrote a song for a school’s centenary celebration. One of my english teachers always wrote the book for our school musicals. He later quit to write radio plays for the BBC.
  • Write with your pupils. Many have the ideas to kickstart a song but not the skill to bring it to completion. Filling in the gaps for them can be inspiring for you. For the last 3 years I’ve co-written and recorded songs with groups of kids aged 6 to 18 for events like FAWM and 50/90. Speaking of which…
  • Sign up for FAWM. An insane one month writing splurge is doable and Feb is a good time to do it. You even get a half term holiday.
  • Have a summer recording project. Don’t be too ambitious – maybe write and record a solo acoustic EP and stick it on Bandcamp.
  • Hit the open mics. It’s hard to hold a band and a career together but getting up to do a couple of tunes in front of a handful of other musos is low maintenance.

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A Teacher who Studies

  • Allow your pupils to bring in current music and learn some of it. It’s a great way adding to your catalogue of teaching resources.

  • Always have a piece of music or some scales/chords to work on in down time – lunch breaks, kids not turning up. Redeem the time rather than zoning out in the staff room.
  • Try to have one composer/artist who you dig down deep into and try to master their whole catalogue and style. Read, watch, and listen to all you can find on them. Here’s mine.
  • Pick a genre you’re not too familiar with. Find a good ‘best of’ compilation (eg “Now That’s What I Call Samba Metal Vol. 1”) and learn every song.

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A Student who Creates

  • Every time you learn a new chord, scale or technique, get into the habit of writing a short piece of music using it and record it. Don’t even wait till you’ve mastered it.
  • Try to mutate a song you’ve learned, changing it a chord/phrase/word at a time till it becomes yours. Subconscious plagiarism is a massive problem for beginners. Solve it by deliberately stealing your ideas!

[back]

A Student who Teaches

  • Find someone who knows less than you and show them something. Don’t try to be a teacher, you’re just someone a few steps further along the road, so remember to act like it.
  • If you’ve been learning a while you’ve probably found some good songs, books, articles, youtube videos, even real live teachers. Point people to the good stuff.

[back]

A Creator who Teaches


  • Work with the younger generation, let them learn from you up close as they write, record and tour with you. That is how the apprentices of old learned, side by side with an experienced craftsman.

[back]

A Creator who Studies

  • Find a new chord, tuning or scale and write 5 songs in it
  • Learn a new instrument and play it on your next album.
  • Learn to play all the songs on a classic (or brand new) album and perform the entire thing at a one off charity gig
  • Record a side project EP playing a completely different instrument or genre
  • Every month listen to the top 20 songs (or top 20 in your genre) and try to write something as good or better. Incorporate any new ideas you pick up.
  • Collaborate with an ‘outside’ co-writer from a different genre.
  • And yes, if you have some downtime you could get some formal tuition from an expert.

Over to you

  • What area do you fall short in?
  • Is there anyone you know who’s a good example of a well balanced musician?
  • Do you have any tips to share?

Leave me a comment

*unlikely, as I don’t do the lottery.

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About mattblick

Songwriter/Singer from Nottingham, UK. My 2nd EP, Everything In The World Is Fighting Everything In The Sky, is out now. I'm blogging (& podcasting) through the entire Beatles catalogue at Beatles Songwriting Academy. In my spare time I wish I had some spare time.
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6 Responses to Three Things Every Musician Should Be

  1. stevemilward says:

    Great to hear from you. So many wonderful memories at the Centre – I really wish those days never ended.
    I really agree with so much of your comments regarding song writing. Involvement, fun, experiment… in short just be creative and live the moment. So many times people can get bogged down with a small detail in a song and then miss the point. I ‘fall short’ in that area sometimes.. Given the technology around now and that’s available to me, it’s almost too easy to spend hours tweaking something that wasn’t broken.
    As for a well balanced musician, does one exist? I know people who are multi-talented, but historically, musicians have had a slight ‘left-field’ slant.
    Tips – I’m not sure I have any really. Just do it, say what you want to say. Some will love it, some won’t.. nothing I can do about that. Have no fear and believe in your abilities.

  2. Mark says:

    Great blog post – very true. So many teachers stop learning, so few students pass on their knowledge, and so many creators refuse to learn new tricks or pass on the tricks they do use.

    I teach and study constantly, and I’d say that being a creator is my weakest area. I do create constantly, but they are fragments rather than anything more whole. I rarely have the motivation to harness/corale the fragments I create into something resembling a whole. It’s a work in progress.

    Although I’m now doing this more, the progress is slow… but I’m OK with that. I don’t yet feel like I know how those fragments I create fit together in a way that resembles what I love and what I’m about as a creator, so I’m happy to keep experimenting for now.

  3. Pingback: Three Chords And The Truth: The Importance Of ‘Fact Checking’ Your Songs | Everyday Songwriter

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