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How to Play Like a Studio Musician (in 30 Days)
I’ve always dreamed of being a studio musician and at one point in my life, that was the direction I had planned on going. I had applied for a university music program, went to the audition and even got accepted on bass guitar, but I decided to play it safe and get a business degree. In spite of this change in plans, music was always my first love. Years later, I had the opportunity to play on a CD my friend had produced. It had been a few years since I was completely entrenched in music, so I had lost some of my “chops”. I needed to get back to top form because playing in a studio isn’t like playing live. It’s actually a little nerve-wracking your first time. It’s a little bit like being under a microscope. You become much more aware of your timing (or lack thereof) as well as your musical knowledge. In the studio, time is money, so if you don’t know the music it’s going to cost you. You generally don’t use studio-time to rehearse. Overall, the experience was a good one for me but it left me wondering, if I decided to pick up where I left off in university and become a studio musician, what it would take.
If you’ve ever been around real studio musicians, you might leave never wanting to play your instrument again. They are just so amazing at their craft and fluent in the language of music. It’s easy to think that all of them are simply musical geniuses and resign yourself to the fact you will never be that good. I’m sure there are some prodigies out there, but the majority of them got where they are by good, old-fashioned hard-work. They spent hours practicing, working on technique and constantly trying to get better. As a music educator, I believe that even though we will never stop learning musically, it can be mastered. It takes a lot of hard work, discipline and dedication.
So if the opportunity were to come up for me to record a live session next month, here’s what I would do to get ready. This might be a good time to provide a little bit about my musical background. I started playing piano at age 9. In the fourth grade, I was chosen to be part of a musical program that featured stringed instruments and choral music where we did music 5 days of the week. When I got to high-school, I decided I would join the jazz band and play the bass guitar. I was also in the orchestra on the french horn and by my last year of high school my music teacher thought I should try percussion as well. I was still playing piano for my church with sheet music and sometimes by ear. I also did music theory during these years to gain an understanding of the why and how of music.
I’ve been involved in music my entire life, but I would still have some apprehension if I had to go back into the studio today. What would my game plan be to become studio-ready? Based on my experience and that of well-respected, professional musicians, I believe this is what it takes to become a great musician, regardless of your instrument or skill level.
1. Do your scales everyday.
I say this to all of my students. Scales may be boring and repetitive, but they are the foundation of your playing. They make you familiar with your instrument and they make your fingers much more nimble and quick. Just like we wouldn’t build a house without a strong foundation, you can’t expect to become a strong musician without these building blocks. There are a variety of different scales, but even if you stick with the traditional Do Re Me Fa Sol La Ti Do (you may remember this from the Sound of Music), you will see your playing improve immensely. An effective method I use with my students is to challenge themselves to play the scale without any errors 5 times in a row. If they make an error, they have to start over again until they achieve five perfect, consecutive runs. This is a great exercise for focus and concentration.
2. Learn how to play in every key
As musicians we may get tempted to play in one or two of our favorite keys. I prefer the key of F because it feels nice on my fingers and it’s comfortable to sing in. This really limits your playing though. Sometimes playing a song in a key that is too low causes it to lose a lot of its intensity. On the flip side, a song played too high runs the risk of sounding like shrieking. A good exercise for this is to take a song that’s not too basic or too difficult and transpose it into every key. You will want it to sound as fluent in every key signature as in the original key.
3. Learn how to read music
Reading music is a language that can be learned at any age, though the earlier you can start the better. In a studio setting, the ability to read music can save a lot of time for everyone. If you have the chart right in front of you, you won’t have to worry about arranging the song or remembering the framework of the song.
4. Learn how to play by ear
Playing by ear is a skill that I have to consciously work on to get better at it. I wasn’t born with a “great ear” as some people are, so I tend to prefer using sheet music. Any one who has played music in church can probably tell you of the time when they were asked to play a song they didn’t know. They may have heard it once or twice, but the sheet music wasn’t right in front of them. This used to be my worst nightmare but I overcame the fear of playing by ear, by ironically enough, playing by ear. If sheet music isn’t available and I’m required to do the song, I have to figure it out. This requires a lot of critical listening. A great tip that I was taught was to listen from the ground up. Start by listening to the bass line and charting that out. The reason for this is that the bass is the foundation of the band in a sense and it is what we build the chords on. Generally, we can figure out a chord progression from the direction the bass is going in. Then you can add the melody on top of it to get a more complete picture. If you don’t know how to play by ear, the best way to start is by playing simple melodies that you’re very familiar with. A great, more advanced way to build your ear is to recreate a song using music production software, like Garageband. Listen carefully to each musical element and try to copy what they are doing. When you’re done, compare your song to the original recording and see how close you were to it.
5. Work on your vocals
It seems such a shame to master a musical instrument, but not master your own built-in instrument. Using your voice properly, through proper breathing techniques and physical awareness has many benefits to you. Singing becomes more enjoyable when your voice is consistent and doesn’t let you down. Improper use of our voice can also lead to throat problems.
6. Play with other respected musicians
All of the technical aspects I mentioned are very important, but once you get to a place of musical proficiency, you need to constantly keep yourself sharp by playing with other musicians. I learned so much by just watching other musicians play and copying what they did. You can also gain a lot of insight by speaking to other musicians about their musical philosophies, past pitfalls and practice techniques that worked for them.
I can’t guarantee that producers will be beating down your door to play on their next record, but if you did even half of the things on this list for the next 30 days, you will see your playing improve significantly. You never get “too old” to play music. In fact, the more you work on your skills, the more you will have to offer.
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