Success

Record Yourself To Improve As A Musician

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A recurring theme in my teaching is the concept of "leverage points".

Leverage points are actions that give you a big bang for your buck, a high return for the amount of energy you put into them, and there is usually a major reason why they work:

Most people don't do them.

I'll cover more leverage points in the coming weeks, today, I want to share how a really simple tool that you already possess can make you a much better musician almost immediately.

If you are reading this post, you are doing so on a computer or a smartphone, either of which likely has a built in microphone and camera. In an ideal world we'd have studio quality sound and HD video but let's bootstrap it and get started with what we have.

You're thinking "Record myself? I sound/look awful on tape, and I hate listening to it, this is stupid and it probably won't help at all"

Everyone thinks this.

That's why it's a leverage point.

When you pay for coaching or lessons, what you're really paying for is a body of knowledge attached to an objective set of ears/eyes. The sound you hear in your head when you sing, and the way you think you look when you conduct, and the way you think you sound while you're playing is not the way your audience perceives you. This is why a coach is so invaluable, they can see what you can't, and provide guidance in correctly glaring errors and improving performance.

The problem is that, for most artists, you have 1-2 hours a week of objective observing happening, and you aren't even in control of it!

Have you ever had a relative or a friend hear their own answering machine message, or a random video of themselves and say "I don't sound like that!"

You know that they really do sound like that.

So do you, when you listen to a recording of yourself.

I know it's painful, I know it's hard, I know you cringe and want to convince yourself it's not that useful to do anyway.

And that's why no one does it.

And that's why if you do, you'll have a huge advantage in your field and grow far quicker than you would otherwise.

Recordings allow you to freeze time, analyze deeply, listen objectively, and really hone in on your strengths and weaknesses. If you have a coach, you can look for the concepts you work on in lessons "Is my vowel shape correct? Am I breathing properly? How's my posture? Was that left-hand cue as clear as I thought it was? How's my eye contact? Am I really that breathy on my top notes? Why is my left hand half a second behind my right hand when playing chords?"

This sort of self-analysis is the key to sustained growth in music. Over time you will learn to get better at doing it without a recording, but if you want to shave a few years off the path, invest a few minutes a week in reviewing videos of yourself. This time pays off in so many ways, and as much as it will continue to hurt (I've been doing it for a decade and it doesn't get any easier) it will give you a huge advantage in music.

Now that doesn't mean you need to make these videos public, no one needs to see them except for you. However, one day you may have a really good performance and just happen to have captured it so you can put it out in the world, through your website, youtube page, resumé, or some other channel. Now when a big audition comes along, you can look back and boost your confidence by comparing how you used to perform to how you're doing now, and remind yourself of your most common errors. And you may get lucky and have a great recording you can use for promotion and applications for years to come.

Check out www.youtube.com/user/ChristopherGKeene for several dozen videos of my conducting from many angles and many years and many different choirs. I can list 100 errors in each video (even the 2 minute ones) and watching every one has made me such a better conductor. I know that watching them after the concerts has also made each member of my choirs a better musician.

Facing objective feedback isn't easy, but if you have the bravery to take on the task, you can leverage your effort and accelerate your growth as a musician.

How to Improve Your Auditions

A parent of my student asked what her daughter can do to start preparing for an A Capella group audition.  Below, inspired by my reply , is a three step plan for improving your audition skills.  It's not easy and it's not quick, but the most effective things rarely are.

Learning to audition is a tricky process, as it is mostly an experiential thing,  You can learn all the technique in the world and practice every day, but when you are in the moment there is the element of stage fright which is so difficult to overcome.

As a professional musician and coach who has trained hundreds of musicians and performed in hundreds of concerts, I still feel that nervousness and anxiety each time in front of an audience.  In my experience, and in the experience of the countless professional musicians, actors, dancers, speakers, and other performers I've asked, it's not that the feeling goes away as you progress.  What happens is we learn to take that feeling and reinterpret it as excitement, passion, or some other positive emotion.  Intellectually, I know that the buzzy feeling I get on stage today is the same one that had me shaking before auditions in high school.  Emotionally, it feels like excitement and anticipation, and it tells me I'm ready to go out and give it my all.

"That's all well and good, but what can I do to get there?"

The first step is to do the audition NOW, don't wait til next year or the next show, just giving it a shot and saying "I won't get in, I won't get the lead, but I'm doing this to get better at auditioning".  Honestly, the only thing that makes you better at auditioning is doing it more often.  I am pretty good at interviews and auditions now because I've done hundreds of them, and I'll still do them even when I don't want the part.  In fact I regularly interview and audition for new choir positions even when I know I don't have the time for them, just for the experience.  When I actually need a position, I bring not only my skill and experience to the table, but the dozens of interviews I've done as well.

Beyond that, daily singing will help to build skill more than anything. Consistent technique work will do so much to improve a singer. You can download a free CD of vocal warmups and exercises from my website.  What you can improve which will very much impress judges is ear training - the ability to sing in tune, pick up a part quickly, and read music. This comes first from a large amount of listening and singing.

After the listening/singing foundation has been laid, musicians need a systematic way to approach deciphering the language of music.  I've written on this before, and will again in the future, for now you must know that the scientific literature states that all systems of ear training (fixed/movable solfege, numbers, letter names, intervals) work about equally well, the differentiator is the instructor's mastery of the method and teaching ability, the amount of time students devote to practice, and the outside work of the students. Pick a system and stick with it, get a coach, or buy an audio/book program.

In the broader scheme, stage fright is stage fright, and working on it in any context will help to improve in auditions.  So public speaking, running for office in a club, reading a passage at church,auditioning for anything and everything that comes up, performing in front of family and friends, trying out for a sports team, doing announcements over the intercom, giving a speech in class, etc.

Getting over the fear of being judged by others and feeling totally comfortable standing up and showing your stuff in a relaxed way is incredibly difficult and takes a lifetime to master, best bet is to get started now and just practice it in the real world whenever you have the opportunity.

Action Step: Google auditions in your area for your artform, pick 3 that fit in your schedule (even if they are way out of your league or genre) and put them in the calendar today.  Good luck, though if you audition enough, you won't need it.

Why The Dedicated Always Win Out In The End

"I'm just not as talented as he is"

In the first weeks, months, and even years of competition between peers in any field, the advantage goes to the 'naturally gifted', the 'talented', the 'gifted'.

We've all seen it: the highschooler who gets every lead in the musicals, the young salesman that consistently outsells his coworkers, the kid on track team that no one can seem to keep pace with.

But what happens 10, or 5, or even 2 years down the road?

Let's take our imaginary "talented' youth, say they are a gifted dancer, and name them Billy.

And let's take another, shall we say "less gifted" (read: clumsy) dancer, named Zoey.

For at least the first few years of their dancing lives, Billy will consistently outperform Zoey, that's just the way things are, some people are better than others, and you need to accept there's always someone better than you.

But what does Billy learn about dance by being so good?

In many cases, Billy learns that dance is easy and requires no work or discipline.  While others in the studio must practice for hours to master a move, Billy practices for 5 minutes and nails it.  While other students need help from dance teachers and coaches, Billy thinks he's already got it all figured out and doesn't listen to the voices of experience.  Even when Billy is more amenable to instruction and hard work, he rarely learns to spend the kind of daily practice time most professional dancers do.  Billy started out as a 8/10 dancer, and after 3 years is still a solid 8/10.

Zoey on the other hand, sees that while she is not fantastic, when she practices (a lot) she gets better.  With proper encouragement and a supportive environment (good teachers and parents) she is rewarded for dedication and hard work, and has the intrinsic reward of getting better at something she loves.  She starts out as a 1/10 dancer, and every 6 months gets one level better through hard work and discipline.  3 years later, she is a 7/10 dancer.

Zoey is still not as good as Billy.

At this point a lot of Zoeys give up, and are encouraged to do so by well-meaning parents, friends and teachers that say "it's just not your thing, find a safe career".

BUT THIS IS THE TIPPING POINT

This is the moment where, if the dedication continues, she will start to match Billy's ability, and soon OVERTAKE him.

Zoey CONSISTENTLY improves, and eventually that will ALWAYS win over "natural talent"

Now the topic of whether or not "natural talent" even exists is a whole other blog post, I personally don't believe in it, but even if you do, take solace in the fact that with hard work and dedication, you can surpass any "natural" at anything. What did you used to be terrible at?  What have you worked your butt off to improve on?  Share in the comments!

How To Have More Energy Than a Nuclear Reactor

"I'm pretty introverted and low-key, but once I get to know you, I start to come out of my shell"

This line always gets a laugh.

I use it in every interview, and often use it when meeting new people, it's a crowd pleaser.

Why?

Because I'm the highest energy person you will ever meet in your life (including 5 year olds, I wear them OUT)

I constantly hear from friends and colleagues: "How can you be so full of energy!?"

What would it mean to you to achieve a consistently high level of energy?  What could you accomplish?

Here are some concrete strategies I use to maintain an irrationally high level of energy in all that I do:

1) Get More Sleep Than You Need:  I often sleep 10+ hours on my days off.  On days I work I will sneak a half hour nap before dinner.  The sleep adds up, and while I burn the candle at both ends while working, when I take time off I frequently am awake less than 5 hours a day.  No one can run on all cylinders forever, take the time your body needs to recover and store energy, then give it some more.

2) Be Physically Active:  When Richard Branson, one of the world's most successful businessmen, was asked how he stayed so productive, his two word answer was "work out".  It's paradoxical, we don't want to believe that something that makes us tired can give us more energy, but in the long run, the vitality and buzz you get from being active and having a body ready to respond to your desires is worth every ounce of sweat.

3)  Give Your Body The Right Fuel:  My personal dietary choices are rather eclectic and I believe that everyone's body is unique and you need to find the nutritional path that works for you.  That being said, you wouldn't put diesel in a Prius, you wouldn't put jet fuel in a Harley Davidson, and you wouldn't put vegetable oil in a Aircraft Carrier.  Different vehicles require different fuel, so do some reading, talk to a doctor (preferably a healthy one) and figure out what works for your body, then give it the absolute best.  As a general guideline, whole foods treat the body well, when in doubt: drink more water, and avoid putting things you can't pronounce in your mouth.

4)  Interact With Young People:  Children and young people have insanely high energy levels, especially considering the fact they live on cheetos and almost never sleep.  Being around them every day keeps me on my toes and keeps my energy at a peak level as long as they're near.  Find a way to interact with kids, if you don't teach then volunteer at an afterschool program, coach a soccer team, babysit for a friend, or get busy making some little energy enhancers of your own.

5)  Find Your Passion:  This is an entire blog series and book of it's own, but when you find something to do all day that rewards you not just financially but emotionally as well, you'll find yourself anticipating the alarm clock rather than dreading it.  When I know i have a group of passionate musicians waiting to sing with me every morning, I wake up ready to go and with a skip in my step, even with 3 hours of sleep.  Finding work you are so passionate about that it feels like play is the true secret to having high energy in every part of your life.

6)  Love Everyone:  Try to find something to love and compliment about everyone you meet and interact with.  It starts an unstoppable reciprocal cycle and you will soon find that every interaction you have shifts from draining to empowering.  The smile on a friends face when they thank you for the letter you sent, or the satisfaction of seeing a coworker blush at your praising words to their supervisor, or the look on a kids face when they learn something new from you and you let them know how proud you are of them is the kind of energy that is long-lasting, sustaining and life-building.  Caffeine ain't got nothing on love.

Don't bite off more than you can chew, choose one suggestion and commit to it for 21 days (the scientifically proven sticking point for a new habit)

If you make it that far, it should be automatic, and you can come back and try the next tip, I guarantee if you aren't already doing them, any one of these will skyrocket your energy levels and you won't want to turn back.

Which tip are you going to try?  Do you have suggestions of your own?  Share them in the comments: