I wasn’t a child prodigy at music. In fact my first 10 years of music lessons were very unproductive.
Only at age 17 did I start changing my practice habits, and that’s when my huge breakthroughs started to happen, mostly within a 2 year period.
So today I’m sharing 9 habits that have played an essential role in my success, as well as that of my music piers and mentors. I’m sharing these to help you identify any areas that might be missing from your music practice. So as you read, see if there’s anything you need to add:
THE 9 HABITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL MUSICIANS:
HABIT #1: THEY READ BOOKS
I’ve learnt a lot about music theory from reading books.
At university I used to go to the music library and browse through all of the old books on harmony. I’d take out ancient and rare books on things like harmony, orchestration, how to write a fugue, jazz harmony, and more.
My reading obsession even branched out into music software manuals (I’m probably one of very few people in the world who’s read the entire Logic Pro manual from cover to cover… It’s something like 900 pages, but teaches you a lot about music mixing.
What books should you read?
Well you can’t really go wrong in my experience. I’ve never picked up a music theory book and not been impressed. I nearly always learn something new from every book.
Reading is an essential habit to becoming a great musician. Even if you just read ONE book on theory, it will probably double or triple your understanding of theory… and that takes us to the next habit.
HABIT #2: THEY LEARN MUSIC THEORY
In this day and age, everyone can download some software and start ‘making beats’. It’s very seductive to just start making music, without any training or understanding of how music works. But learning music theory is a step which cannot be skipped.
If you avoid learning some theory, you’re basically setting out to reinvent the wheel. You’re trying to figure out how music works from scratch, and you’ll have a lifetime of very slow devlopment.
Take the smart route instead; Many people have gone before us and figured this stuff out. You can learn it very quickly from reading a book, or studying with a good teacher, and it doesn’t have to take long at all.
When a great musician writes music, they are not ‘just strumming around to find some chords that work’. They know EXACTLY what they are doing.
Now occasionally someone who doesn’t know theory might get lucky and write a hit song, but they will only be a One Hit Wonder, and won’t be able to follow up with a 2nd or 3rd song, let alone album.
The great bands of all time, who produced hit album after hit album (Pink Floyd, Prince, The Police… and that’s just the P’s) – these musicians knew exactly what they were doing and left nothing to chance.
So learning theory is an essential habit to becoming a great musician.
HABIT #3: THEY COMPOSE
Some musicians get very good at sight-reading and develop great technique, so they can play complex pieces from books. And if that’s all someone wants then that’s absolutely fine.
But this doesn’t meet my definition of ‘great musician’. To be a great musician someone has to have a range of skills beyond just being able to read and play music (in fact you can be a great musician without reading music).
The best musicians I know all do at least SOME composition, and many of them do a lot of it.
Composers in general have the best understanding of music theory. They’re driven to learn it because the more theory they understand, the more interesting their music gets.
Composers also do a lot of exploration to find new sounds at their instrument – so over a few years they usually come close to trying out everything that can be done within 12 notes.
Composition is also a great way to learn new concepts – when you use a new technique or sound in your piece, you’ll remember it forever.
I consider composition an essential habit of great musicians. If you’ve never composed before, start out small and make a few short sketches at the piano.
HABIT #4: THEY WORK VERY HARD
This one I really want to get across – especially to younger readers.
When you watch interviews with modern day musicians it can seem as though everything just works out for them effortlessly. They just did what they loved, and then blew up.
But most interviews never ask about the work behind the scenes, and all the hours that went into learning what they do. I guarantee that musicians like Deadmau5, Skrillex, Prince, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Snoop Dog, Eminem… and anyone who’s been successful in music, worked VERY VERY VERY hard at their craft, for at least 10 years before you ever heard of them.
I heard Prince say in interview that he writes a song every single day. And I’m sure a lot of writers do the same.
Another of my favorite music producers is a dance producer who calls himself ‘Breakfast’ (or ‘BRKFST’). The story behind his name is that every morning he would go straight from bed to his bedroom studio and start writing music, for hours. His mum was always shouting up to him to ‘come down for breakfast’, and he would always miss breakfast. I like this name because it conveys the work ethic that every great musician has.
When I was 13 my dad got rid of our television, and it is the best thing that ever happened for me and my brothers. All of a sudden I found myself playing piano a lot, reading books a lot, playing by dad at chess, and doing lots of outdoor sport. It was a simple hack which I will live by for the rest of my life.
But even when he bought back TV for a short time later when I was 22, back from university, I still chose to spend all of my time working at my music producing skills. So while my parents would watch a film most evenings, I would CHOOSE to work at my craft.
Now here’s the thing; when you’re doing what you love, it doesn’t feel like work at all. You love every minute of it, you loose track of time, and it’s what you live for.
But there are certainly times where I had the choice; I could watch TV or play a computer game like my friends – OR – I could work at my craft. And I just want you to be conscious of this choice. If you have a serious dream that you want to pursue in music, then you need to put in a lot of hours working at it. Don’t be distracted by your friends who probably aren’t working towards a goal like this – but know that there are people out there (the great musicians of tomorrow) who are putting in the hours right now.
HABIT #5: THEY HAVE AN ATTENTION TO DETAIL
Great musicians continually strive for perfection. They never settle for something that’s not quite right.
Great musicians never say to themselves ‘that will do’ – it’s not in their vocabulary. ‘I must be better’ is closer to what they think. They constantly strive for perfection, their whole lives.
– If you’re a composer, and the chord isn’t quite right – then keep searching until you find the exact chord that you’re hearing in your mind.
– If you’re a performer, and you know there’s that bar that isn’t quite up to standard – keep looping it 50 times until you master it.
Your music should be EXACTLY what you hear in your head – don’t settle until it’/s exactly right.
HABIT #6: THEY PLAY BY EAR
Every great musician has learnt to play by ear, to a very high level.
Some are born with perfect pitch, and some learn relative pitch – either one does the same thing, and will make you a music God.
Ear training is good for many things; It speeds up your learning, you learn from listening, composition gets better, etc. But the main reason ear training is essential to becoming a great musician is that it makes you immersed in music:
Music is a language. The best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it, by going to the foreign country. But with music, the way to get immersed is to become an ‘active listener’ (when you question what you hear every time you music is played).
Ear training is an essential habit that all great musicians have. And like all of the habits in this post, ear training has to happen FIRST for you to become a great musician. It’s not like you become a great musician and then learn to play by ear. All of these habits have to start now.
HABIT #7: BRAIN EXERCISES
Most great musicians don’t sit at their instrument all day. A lot of their practice actually happens away from their instrument.
Just about anything in music can be practiced in your head:
You can practice playing a piece in your head. You can compose a piece in your head. You can build chord voicings in your head, or scales, even technique.
In some ways, brain exercises like these are more valuable than the practice you do at your instrument; Your instrument has a million different distractions to it – pedaling, dynamics, key signatures, reading music, keeping time, etc. Whereas when you practice something in your mind, you can give that one thing 100% focus.
I’ll often practice in my mind during a tea break, when waiting somewhere, or traveling.
So if all of your practice is currently done at your instrument, add 5 minutes of thinking practice a day (starting with my interval arithmetic exercise).
HABIT #8: THEY ACHIEVE A HIGH LEVEL ON THEIR INSTRUMENT
This one is probably the most obvious – great musicians reach a high level on their instrument.
Your playing and your thinking are linked. When your technical ability improves, so does your thinking, and you start imagining more ambitions things. I think it’s very unlikely that someone could imagine ground breaking new ideas with just a beginner’s level on their instrument.
Now this doesn’t mean that great musicians are continually practicing their instrument to maintain their level forever more. I don’t always play much piano, in fact I go long periods without playing at all.
But I did have a 2 year period where I played a lot of piano; 1-2 hours a day, while I was studying for my grade 8 classical piano exam. This is when I got my technique (and I learnt it from playing classical music). And while I might loose the muscle strength if I stop playing, I know I can always get it back within 2 weeks.
To reach a high level on your instrument will usually take 2 solid years of daily practice. All of my friends who are very good technical players tell me that they too had a solid 2 years of playing daily, which is when their technique developed.
HABIT #9: THEY MAKE COPIOUS NOTES
This last one is a speculation, it could just be me. But ever since age 16 I’ve been in the habit of making copious, all scribbled on manuscript paper, or plain paper, or napkins.
If you saw the top of my upright piano you’d think a mad person had been there. Literally hundreds of pages, scribbled on with multiple colored pens and pencils, lots of uppercase letters with exclamation marks, and a sense of speed to all my scribbled ideas.
Writing things down is a sign that you’re thinking about music all of the time (you’re immersed in it). It’s a sign that you’re truly inspired, and you’re on the right track. You’re fascinated in music, and the ideas are flowing to you constantly.
What do I scribble down? Usually new composition ideas (new sounds); Either I know how they sound (because I just discovered them), or I just thought up a new idea and I want to check how it sounds later when I get back to the piano.
So making notes is certainly a strong sign that you’re on the right track, and might also be a habit that all successful musicians take part in.
Which of these habits is missing from your practice?
If ear training is a skill you want to improve and master, check out my free ear training video series; you’ll receive 4 videos by email, and I’ll show you how to practice ear training the right way!