No matter which instrument you play, you will spend years developing your techniques and become a better player. But to become a great musician, you’ll also need a good set of musicianship skills. Here is a list of skills we think will help you along your musical journey, and the reasons why they are important:
Ear training is the ability to hear melodic and harmonic intervals, identify chord qualities and progressions, find particular notes in a chord and work out scale degrees of a melody, etc. It is important because understanding how chords function in music will make you a better performer, and being able to hear harmonies and chord progressions allows you to improvise accordingly. When you want to compose and write down ideas, you’ll also need to know what is that you’re hearing.
Being a good musician requires being able to keep a steady beat, and reproduce rhythmic patterns accurately. You might think that keeping the beat is the drummer’s job. But no matter what instrument you play, having good time and rhythm is more important than playing the “right” notes. A “right” played out of time will only sound out of place.
Music reading is the ability to read notes on musical staves in at least one or two clefs. Some musicians spend all their lives reading music, and some never read a note in their lives. Most classical musicians are trained to be excellent sight readers, while many improvising musicians in other genres don’t read as much. It might be less important to read music if you learn all your music by ear, but if you know how to read, or even sight-read, it allows you to play unfamiliar material or other people’s music and opens up more gig opportunities for you. Also, being able to read means you will also be able to write. You can write down melodic or rhythmic ideas and notate your own compositions, and have written record which you can go back to.
Unless you are a vocalist, you don’t need to have extraordinary singing abilities. However, it does help to have a basic singing skills which allows you to hum a melody on pitch, or sing back a tune you’ve just heard. It helps you connect to what you hear in your head, and is also extremely useful if you want to communicate with other musicians about musical ideas you have.
Music theory is everything from harmony, scales, chords, rhythm, keys, to notation and terminology. And it should be learned in conjunction with all the above skills we’ve already mentioned, as they are meant to be applied to all aspects of music making. By understanding the relationship between chords, you can hear them better; by learning about notations, you will become a better reader, etc.
In some forms of music, like jazz, improvisation is everything. On the other hand, genres like classical music, there’s almost no improvisation at all, which is a strange thing, since many of the greatest composers in history, like Bach and Chopin, were extraordinary improvisers. Being able to improvise not only means that you’ll have a deeper understanding of music, because you do need to know how chords and harmonies work; but it also gives you the ability to be free and creative in your playing, when you’re not confined to playing what’s on the page.
Compared to improvisation, composition is a much slower form of music creation. It allows you to come up with ideas, and develop, organize, and reorganize to create something that is carefully crafted. Again, having a good ear, notating skills, and improvising chops will leave you better equipped for writing your own music.
So you have been honing your skills for a while, and you decide to go out there, play in front of people, with other musicians or by yourself; and you realize everything feels different, you nerves creep in, and you can’t play the lick you’ve worked to perfection at home. Performing to a live audience is a completely different than playing in your bedroom, you’ll need to keep your mind more focused than usual, and be really prepared. Every time you perform, you take notes and go back to the practice room and work on it. Fortunately, like everything, the more you do it, the easier it gets!