Are You A Musician? You very well might be!

Are You A Musician? You very well might be!

My nearly three decades of musical performance experience and also my long career as an instructor of clarinet and saxophone have taught me a lot about what it takes to develop raw talent into a refined and polished musician.  Both my own personal development and my observation of many young music students have revealed to me a basic set of variables that I use to assess talent and to prescribe a course of study for people coming to me to become a studied, creative musician. Some of these variables may be advanced with hard work, and some are obviously inherit in rare talented individuals.  Some individuals who possess the requisite talents in large quantities never quite achieve their true potential, while others through dedication and hard work achieve great results.  There is no perfect recipe for developing your own musical ability and personality.  But there are absolutely some general parameters that can be worked within to further your progress and development as musician.  It takes patience and dedication, but you can become a fine musician if you are willing to pay the dues.

While I am no expert on audiology or the physiology of listening and hearing, I can say with some certainty that the overall ability of your ears, your ability to perceive pitches, and your ability to hear relative pitches and intonation serve an important function in you becoming a fine musician.  Many of the skills involved in using your ears in the specific ways that a true musician does can be developed consciously, but no doubt some people possess more of these abilities naturally than others.  Certainly the case of people with perfect pitch, while both a blessing and a curse, comes immediately to mind.  Ear training is a basic part of any musical education program, and while this can take on many shapes and forms, and seem very tedious to student musicians, no doubt this is a discipline that leads to more musical awareness and perception.  Interval and chord identification, transcribing melodies and chord progressions, and learning to sing along with recordings are several ways to achieve success in this area of musical development.

Hand eye coordination is another skill that factors into the development of good musicianship.  Particularly with musicians that read music, i. e. classical musicians, people with profound hand eye skills tend to excel in this regard.  I think we can expand this category to include what I call “hand ear coordination”, which is present with many jazz improviser’s.  When the ear tells them what to play, the fingers respond.  I also have developed and observed what I refer to as “musical reflexes.”  The ability to “think fast” when it comes to musical challenges, and the ability to translate that fast perception into performance.  I have found that learning jazz solo’s off recordings phrase by phrase is a great way to sharpen those “musical reflexes.”

I’ve heard it said that rhythm is a “visceral“ thing.  That is to say, it is something that must be felt deeply to be employed.  Often music is meant to be danced to, and that connection of music to dance can be a very powerful force to propel the music rhythmically.  There are many levels to rhythmic perception.  Perceiving steady rhythm, perceiving multiple rhythms at once (polyrhythm), the ability to feel multiple meters at once.  There are again certainly studies and exercises that can be employed to develop this aspect of musicianship.  And true enough, some people just have an amazing intuitive sense of rhythm.

One can link the hand eye coordination aspect to the rhythmic aspect if one considers the skills required to become a master drummer.  Think about what a drummer must feel in his or her body rhythmically and then translate that to the hand drums or drum set.  That is what I mean, the connection of the visceral feeling for the rhythm with the ability to tangibly demonstrate that feeling through the drums or drum set.  To some extent instrumentalists also channel their feeling for the rhythm through their bodies and fingers through their instruments, making much the same connection.  I love the tabla Indian masters like Zakir Hussain for their amazing sense of rhythm and their awareness of time that they can transmit through their drums.  Surely the African, Latin and Carribbean musicians display a similar developed rhythmic sense.

While a great musician often inherits a great deal of natural ability, most have developed their talent through hard work and practice at their craft.  A lot of times a great work ethic can overcome some lack of talent in other areas of musicianship, and I know many a musician that has willed and practiced their way to an extremely high level of performance over many years of practice, dedication and preparation.

Whether formal or informal, through mentorship or just through close observation of a peer or close relative, no doubt some degree of instrumental and stylistic teaching often occurs to further one’s awareness and skill level throughout the learning process.  In the Western classical tradition we have formal private lessons, classes in harmony, formal analysis, ear training and the like.  This environment fosters development and attention to details that are important for a young musician to be exposed to.  Often the case with a jazz musician who values improvisation, recordings can serve as the inspiration and model for development, as can exposure to live music whether that be a jazz jam session or a club or concert performance.  And mentorship on the bandstand, such as in the bands of Duke Ellington or Art Blakely, has served a direct purpose to allow the younger talented prodigy to develop in the musical tradition under the elder musicians watchful eye.

So how have certain highly developed talents or skills manifested themselves in various musicians over the years?  Let’s take a look at some serious Musical Heavyweights who became influential musicians and see if we can draw some conclusions from their recorded legacy about what unique perspectives they brought to their music and ultimately to the world……

Bandlead and pianist Duke Ellington (, along with his right hand man Billy Strayhorn, elevated big band music to a sophisticated juxtaposition of jazz and symphonic music, with jazz improvisation as the essence of their work.

Alto saxophonist and be-bop pioneer Charlie “Bird “ Parker ( apparently had a photographic memory and had a vast repertoire of tunes that he carried around in his head.  He was universally regarded as a musical genius, but let’s not forget, he spent a period of time early on in his development practicing incessantly in order to realize his talent.  Along with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell, he invented and developed the be-bop language.

Alto saxophonist and be-bopper Sonny Stitt ( displayed an amazing technical facility and an uncanny ability to play jazz tunes in all keys at literally any tempo.  True virtuosity rivaled by few in the history of jazz.

Trumpeter and jazz pioneer Miles Davis ( and tenor saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young ( both developed and refined their unique gifts for melody.

Bassist, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus ( combined many styles of music in his work and mentored many influential musicians in his career.

Singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell ( developed her songwriting to near poetic perfection, combining her voice and unique guitar style to develop a singular and influential style in pop and jazz music.

Ornette Coleman ( used his talents to develop a style of free jazz that was rooted in the blues and Charlie Parker’s music.  His music was so influential that rock and punk musicians took something from him, yet Ornette continued to blaze a trail with everything from small group jazz to symphonic works that bore his unique and angular melodic and harmonic sense.

Jimi Hendrix (  From his Rhythm and Blues roots to his psychedelic guitar work maybe no other musician after 1965 had as much influence on modern music as Jimi.

Genius bassist Jaco Pastorius ( developed a totally unique style and sound on the electric bass that resonates to this day and beyond.  Truly and pioneer and original voice on electric bass, he single handedly showed the world what an electric bass was capable of.

So, ask yourself the question…..Are you a musician?  The truth is, you won’t know until you try.  You will need to commit a considerable amount of time and energy to developing and refining your craft, and pay some significant dues along the way.  You will need to discover your own musical identity, work diligently on your weaknesses, and find ways to exploit whatever talents and musical strengths you might posses.  You might have to overcome stage freight, develop confidence in your ability and learn to trust your senses.  But learning to play music is it’s own reward, and you may discover a better understanding of who you are as a person through your development as a musician.  And, when the elements combine and you play the perfect chorus, or discover the lost chord, or write a beautiful composition, you might find that you have tapped into a universal language that can convey deep emotions and connect with people in a unique way.  If you can figure that out, and find that it is food for your soul, then the answer might very well be yes, I am or have become a musician.  And the desire to express yourself will be fulfilled by the ability to do the same…

Thanks for your interest……Markos

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