Behind the (Not So) Glamorous Life of a Musician
(Written By: Stan Shelnutt)
Most of what you see of a musician is the rare amount of time they actually spend performing. The rest of the time is, mostly, full of mundane details, which probably drive our significant others' crazy.
Here is a short list of the first few things that come to mind
Not all musicians have to deal with tuning as much as string players - and I can't speak for those who play violin or cello, but the guitar requires a lot of tuning. Each of the six strings needs tuning daily, sometimes more than once within the same practice session. And the more you play the more critical you are of your tuning. There are multiple ways of tuning a guitar - and some work better for playing in certain keys than others. A lot of practice time can be spent finely tuning each string of the guitar to make sure it's just right.
The basics of theory are evident in scales. We are taught from early on to "practice your scales, practice your scales, practice your scales". Regardless of the instrument, it seems to be one thing we have in common - daily scales. Major scales, minor scales, pentatonic scales, harmonic minor scales, chromatic scales, two octave scales, three octave scales… it never ends.
The only way to master a technique is to practice it over and over. And technique is best learned when you strip down all other musical elements that could be included. This leads to a lot of repetition between two notes, like when practicing hammer ons and pull offs. After twenty years of playing - you think I would be past that. Nope. I still practice hammer ons and pull offs with each pair of fingers.
Then, for classical guitar, there is right hand technique. Taking the time to set up your posture correctly before playing. Ensuring my hands are their right position before playing.
And then there are Guilianii's right hand studies. For those who are not familiar - the studies alternate between a C chord and G7 chord using various plucking patterns with the right hand. There are 120 of them. And I was taught to practice these daily. Once, when playing a set of these studies - my wife calls from the other room "What are you playing?!?". It sounded like a horribly written song. Nope - practicing technique.
Playing with a metronome is one of the things I dislike most about being a musician. I find it distracting and inhibitory to rhythmic expression. But you can't really learn a fast piece well without slowing it down and working up the speed. I tend to save my metronome practice sessions for when I am home alone; ,or I wear headphones - if only to spare my family from the constant "tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick" of the metronome.
Thankfully the most recent metronome I purchased has a tuner in it - so I can pluck a string and it shows if I'm in tune.. My last metronome just played A 440 as a constant pitch. "Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee".
Rehearsing the same piece over and over (and over and over and over)
Anytime you hear a musician play - chances are they have played that piece at least 20 times at home. This means their loved ones have heard that piece 20 times more than you have.
From the humble beginnings of a the first read-through, to having to slow down an entire piece because you can't get one difficult chord change, to playing that one chord change over and over with a metronome until you get it up to speed, to finally memorizing a piece. It is well off the top 40 list by the time it is ready to perform.
Memorization requires a lot of repetition. Then once it's memorized - well you then have to play it from memory to be sure it's actually memorized. By then your spouse knows the piece, knows how it is supposed to be played, knows when you make a mistake, and can probably anticipate the mistake.
So, like the piece that you hear once in a much anticipated performance, you mainly see musicians at their best. After every technique has been polished, every scales played cleanly, every melody played up to speed, and every piece played from memory. It was no easy journey to get to where we are, and it's not as glamorous as we might make it look. Countless hours have been spent with our instruments. But it is a labor of love and of passion. We wouldn't play if we didn't love it - and we are all grateful to be able to continue doing something we love.