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Practice Like a Pro part 2: Mental Practice

Part two in a series of articles on personal musical practice, last time I gave an overview of my MoPToP framework describing what I see as the four main aspects of developing as a musician: Mental, Physical, Technical and Performative. Now it’s time to look at these in more detail, starting with:

M – Mental Practice

Mental practice happens 24/7 and is the process through which you figure out who you are as a musician, where you want to get to and how you’re going to get there. This is about developing an overall frame of mind where you can critically evaluate your own music, identify and overcome any issues holding you back, develop your knowledge and expertise and process and prepare the creative ideas you will realise as actual music.

There are three aspects to mental practice:

1 – Review and Resolution

The motto of this blog is the MABNO creed:

  1. Make a big noise.
  2. Make it a better noise.
  3. Repeat.

It is important to realise that steps 1 and 2 are different activities, and if you are doing one you are not doing the other. When you perform music, either live or recorded, it is in the moment and to express a feeling – everything you have learned to that point is relevant only in service of that. Any technical knowledge employed has to be in your subconscious – there simply isn’t time to be thinking about musical theory, where to put your fingers, whether this or that chord will work, how clever all your formal poetic structures and alliterations are, the reciprocal of pi or the meaning of life. No, when the time comes to make a noise you just get on with making it as loud and proud as you see fit and don’t be mucking about with anything other than your expressive response to the job at hand.

The objective quality of the noise you made in step 1 is what you then take away and work on in step 2. If your last work sucked, you figure out why and do whatever you have to to make it not suck next time. If it went well, you figure out the next step in making it even better going forward. And all the while you are looking to develop your experience and knowledge so that all of your future big noises will be supported by a detailed subconscious that will instinctively know exactly what to do when you have something to say or express or need to fulfil a particular role. There is nothing worse than having a great idea and not being able to realise it, or having to settle for “close enough”.

When we get to performative practice, part of it will involve recording yourself playing/singing – these recordings, along with your past demos and releases and live performance footage, will be invaluable in taking stock of your current level and figuring out what needs fixing. You might well be shudder at the thought of watching or listening to your own music, this is completely natural and the case for pretty much everyone while they’re building confidence (for some, it never stops being horrible), but it is something you will need to get used to for three reasons.

First of all, you should be making the kind of music you want there to be more of in the world, and if you yourself don’t want to hear it how on earth can you expect anyone else to? Secondly, breaking the disconnect between rose tinted self image and cold, hard reality will be vital both to avoid plateaus (points where you get stuck at a certain level with no clear way to progress) and soften the blow when setbacks occur (which they will – any pro who says they’ve never had a bad gig, poorly received record or disappointing response is either lying or hasn’t done much).

FInally, you need to get into the habit of constantly revising your work in the context of your peers and current level. Music always was a competitive business with many more called than chosen, but with more music being released than ever you cannot afford to stick in the mud or indefinitely ignore issues that will make you compare unfavourably to others at your level. When you’re at a demo level you can get away with rookie errors and some rough edges will end up as part of your style, but when you’re competing for radio play and festival places, laziness and bad habits will come back to haunt you. Worse, they can hold you back without anyone ever telling you why, leading to frustration and negativity that has sunk many a career.

Exactly what musical competency looks and sounds like will vary between individuals and is about perfecting the right performance for the job at hand rather than ticking off boxes like in a music exam – in vocal training, for example, I draw a distinction between “session voice”, which is technically precise, neutral and able to be adapted quickly to whatever is required, and “lead voice”, which is primarily about creating a distinctive character and often involves exploiting so-called flaws that would make traditional singing teachers quit in protest. But you need to learn the difference between the rough edges, quirks and happy accidents that make musical identity and recurring mistakes that are holding you back. Such things must always be a decision and never an excuse.

2 – Listening and Research

You are a musician because you love music, so you’ll probably be doing this anyway. If not, take note.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice on this blog, the universe of music is vast and has been getting bigger ever since the internet both removed barriers to entry for fledgling artists and made it really easy to access just about anything you want to listen to. Much as I sometimes get nostalgic for my youth spent vinyl diving in damp, dusty basement record stores in backstreet shopping centres, I love that I can now hear about a new or classic music recommendation, check it out and find detailed historical information about it all within an hour.

There really is no excuse now for any musician not to be an experienced listener. Yes, the sheer amount out there can be daunting, but start with your influences and work outwards. Also pay attention to what your peers are doing on your level – apart from keeping an eye on musical trends and artists you might be able form alliances with, you’ll get to see what other acts are doing that you aren’t and spot common errors that you might also be making without realising it.

Curated playlists and specialist radio DJs are great for this, and as a member of the team it would be remiss of me not to mention as an example . Listening, voting and commenting on the 25 tracks we select each week will raise your game immediately (it did mine, before I was asked to become a moderator) and if you want to go even further, you can even take a stab at the full inbox we listen to and whittle down each week (an average of about 210 tracks a week these days).

To encourage your own active listening and think like a DJ, become a playlist curator yourself – apart from the listening aspect, including your work in well put together playlists containing other music you know your prospective fan base will enjoy is a tried and tested DIY promo trick that is as old as independent music itself, despite the current generation of Spotify gurus claiming to have invented it. Set yourself a theme and put together the best, most entertaining and distinctive playlist you can, and if one of your own tracks happens to fit neatly into the flow, so much the better.

Finally, read interviews, reviews, stories and facts from music history, all the contextual stuff that sheds a light on why certain music is what it is, what inspired it and what it led to.

Be the type of musician who loves music and wants to be challenged, rather than type that thinks they are music and shuts out anything difficult.    

3 – Writing and Scrapbooking

If you are a songwriter, you should never be without a notebook (even if it is a digital one on your phone). Ideas for songs can come at you at any time – everyone’s way of working is different, but I’m always thinking of lyric fragments, hooks and riffs to note down freeform in case I can work them into something later. Sometimes they even develop fully formed into song ideas I hear in my head long before I can get somewhere to do something about it. There are phone apps that will let you scrapbook musical ideas too – if you’re an iOs user, the mobile version of Garageband is the best couple of quid you’ll ever spend. But whatever you do, be in the habit of noting down ideas constantly.

Not all of them will be good. I have written loads over the years that felt like gold at the time, but which either went nowhere or was actually just not that good in the cold light of day. At some point, you will probably taste the embarrassing experience of proudly “composing” something you had heard elsewhere and forgotten about. But the reverse is also true (crummy ideas that grow into great material) and you never know which is which until you follow the process through. By getting everything down, not only do you increase the chances of having ideas that develop into something great, you never know what might prove useful in some as yet unforeseen set of circumstances in the years to come. I am always revisiting ideas I shelved years ago, as hitherto useless material suddenly turns out to be relevant to my life now.

By constantly being open to and ready to take note of ideas, when you enter the studio or practice room your will never be short of material to work with. While by living your journey as a passionate citizen of the musical universe you will have some idea of the direction you need to move in and what you need to do about it.

Now comes the challenge of putting it all into action.


Published by qskerryjk

Musician, misfit.

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