Emily Dolan Davies, Becoming a Better Musician

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

I’ve been looking back over the years and taking stock of some of the greatest bits of advice I’ve been given and the greatest lessons I’ve learned in forwarding my ability as a musician and thought that I’d share some of my findings.
Here are my top 5 ways to better yourself as a musician.

1. Record, Listen, Repeat

This is the single most important lesson I ever learned and the thing that sky rocketed me in improving as a player. Anyone that’s seen me talk at a clinic or masterclass will have heard me rabbit on about this cause it’s SO IMPORTANT!

This concept was first introduced to me by the brilliant American drummer, Billy Ward when I was 18 (it took me a couple of years to actually put it into practise cause I was such a scaredy cat!)

The concept is so simple, but so profound :

Record yourself playing
Listen back
Make adjustments

I found for me, this was the quickest way to improve my playing, and initially gave me a very stark and shocking realisation; as I was playing, what I heard in the moment, and how I actually sounded listening back was completely different!

For instance when I was playing with a click, and I thought I was completely locked in and on the money, it turned out i was sometime on the money but sometime coming up a bit short, or even overpaying! The inconsistency of my playing was magnified tenfold!

If I was playing with a track, I thought I was in the groove, deep in the pocket and locked in with the rest of the band. In reality, not only was I none of these, sometimes I didn’t even have the right feel!

It was really painful at first, I mean REALLY painful and embarrassing, and because I was so new to it, I didn’t know HOW to adjust my playing to make it better, but this is where I learnt something else:

So the more you do this recording and listening back, the closer you’ll get to your goal!

Also on a side note, you can’t use the excuse of not being able to afford to record yourself… I’m not talking some fancy studio setup here. I used to use a tape dictaphone, but these days any smart phone can record you.

2. Play with lots of people

This is something I’ve done since day 1, and still do! Play with whoever will have you! And more than that, play with people who are much more advanced than you (notice how I used the word advanced… they’re not better, just further up the road with more experience than you have – it’s all coming your way too)! There’s nothing that makes you up your game more than been thrown in at the deep end!

If I get asked to do something, and my initial reaction is fear, then I inevitably will say yes to it! Challenge is the best way to grow.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I’ve said yes to some things that I maybe shouldn’t have, and gotten myself into some less than desirable situations, but at the very least, I’ve always learnt big lessons from them!

Speaking of lessons…

3. Take Lessons

I’ve had drum lessons pretty much from the day I picked up my sticks, and continue to have them to this day, currently with the wonderful Mike Dolbear(it’s been 12 years and he still can’t get rid of me!). I think lessons an integral part of my learning, and although I have so much genuine admiration for self-taught players, for me, it’s a staple.

The reason for this is two-fold

I get to have someone take a look at my playing and really target my weaknesses. ¬†As much as I love playing things I know, the best way to learn is to practise things you definitely can’t play, and try to get competent, comfortable and confident with them. Sometimes it’s really hard not just to asses your weaknesses, but to attack them in the right way. This is what a good teacher is great at doing!

Something to work towards

I find that taking lessons is also great because you constantly have something to focus on a work towards. In this world of constant bombardment, it’s so easy to look at everything and feel like you want to do it all, but can’t do any of it, leaving you with an overwhelming sense of… well, overwhelm!

The other thing to consider is that lessons aren’t necessarily just one on one these days. You can do masterclasses, attend clinics or seminars, or get lessons off YouTube.

However you decide to take lessons, be careful in who you choose, as they will have a huge influence on not just the technical side of your playing, but on your attitudes and approaches, which is just as, if not more valuable.

4. Listen to the music

Sounds so simple, but let me explain a bit further. So the obvious point is to immerse yourself in music you want to be playing and love. But there’s a second point to this that I feel can be overlooked by many musicians and that comes when learning music.

I know a lot of players when they’re learning a song, they’ll listen to it a few times, play along, and that’s it, learnt. They fail to do the next step, which is listen again to gain all the smaller nuances that they may have missed when listening to the overall song.

Imagine it like, you’re looking at a photograph of a flower, and it’s beautiful, it’s a flower… great! The more you look at it, the more detail you begin to see, like the individual petals, and then that tiny little aphid on there too. All the bits make up this beautiful big photograph, and music is exactly the same.

I find the musicians I love the most, have so much detail in their playing. At first listen you would hardly hear it, but the more you listen the more you realise, most of their sound is in the detail. So learn the detail!

5. Practise

I have real love/hate relationship with practising. Hate starting it… Love it once it’s done!

First thing I’ll say is, if you’ve ever looked up what to practise, you will find as a general rule of thumb, to practise things you don’t know, because there’s not much point in practising what you do know. That’s just called playing. Which is fine. But it’s not practise.

What I’m more interested in is how to practise

I think I’ve been practising in the wrong way up until very recently. I’m a lady of extremes, so when I’d decide to practise it used to be for 4 hours straight, no breaks, no nothing, then a quick lunch (and loo break) then another 4 hours, and I’d keep doing this until complete burnout! Although I was progressing, I was so exhausted that it made it difficult to keep up the momentum the next day, and the next, and next, and so on.

Now what I’ve been doing is very short bursts of concentrated practice. They say you can’t really keep quality focus on something for more than 30 minutes, so I took this idea and started using the Gero time management app on my phone for my practise routine!

Now I do 25 mins of concentrated practise (usually working on what I’ve been doing in my lessons) followed by a 5 minute break where I walk around a bit to clear my head. When I come back to start a new round, I feel fresh, enthusiastic and ready to continue tackling what I’m working on.

I do 6 rounds of this so it adds up to 2 1/2 hours practise, and by the end of it I feel just as fulfilled, if not more, than the torturous 4 hour solid session, and a bonus, don’t feel like my heads going to explode! This is a very new feeling to me, and very welcomed!

I feel my playing has come on so much, learnt quicker and with a lot less stress and burnout than ever before, so I’d highly recommend giving it a go!

Of course I’m always learning new ways to progress. It’s a never-ending process (which is both the blessing and the curse of learning an instrument), so I’m sure in the future there will be a part 2 to this post (and 3, 4, 5… etc, you get the idea).



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