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10 Steps to Master Any Musical Instrument

In a former life, I played the saxophone. I studied for 15 years, received two university degrees in music performance, regularly performed as a professional musician, and taught many students how to play the saxophone.

From my experience, here are the ten steps to master not just the saxophone, but any instrument.

    1. Fall in love with the music.

    If you're trying to force this to work for whatever reason, it won't. If you want to play classic rock, fall in love with classic rock. The same goes for any genre. If you don't love the music, you probably shouldn't start trying to play it.

    2. Select an instrument you're excited to play.

    Don't pick the piccolo if you're excited about the guitar. Get an instrument that makes your heart beat faster. Anything else and you'll struggle with all the work that needs to be put in to get good.

    3. Find a quality mentor/teacher.

    It's fine to be self-taught, but you'll learn far more quickly and with better command of the instrument by starting immediately with a good teacher. It's worth the investment. Nowadays, there are so many teachers around that it should be easy to find someone, even if it's someone virtual. The web also makes it far easier to select a good teacher these days compared to when I was coming up.

    4. Embrace daily practice.

    Like anything else you want to be good at, learning an instrument - and definitely mastering an instrument - requires daily attention.

    Not ready for that kind of commitment? Quit or be prepared to be mediocre. There is no wrong answer, but this list is about mastering an instrument, not just getting by learning a couple of guitar chords that you can use to impress people around the campfire.

    5. Embrace the boring fundamentals.

    I'm going to tell you right now, if you want to get really good at an instrument, then you better love learning thousands of little details that aren't going to be nearly as exciting as just pulling out your instrument and jamming out to "Stairway to Heaven."

    Here is a very, very short list of things you'll need to learn to master your instrument:

      • Perfect physical command of the instrument (ex: embouchure for wind instruments)
      • Major Scales
      • Minor Scales and Variations
      • Chromatic Scale
      • Pentatonic Scales
      • Diminished Scales
      • Major Chords
      • Minor Chords and Variations

    6. Always strive for a beautiful sound.

    It doesn't matter how well you master the melodic and harmonic complexities of a piece of music if your playing sounds like nails on a chalkboard.

    7. Listen to the masters.

    Find out who the best performers are on your instrument within your preferred genre and beyond. When I played saxophone I listened to classical, jazz, rock, blues, and R&B performers. If someone is great, it doesn't matter what they play - there is always something to learn from them.

    8. Learn every scale and chord inside, outside, upside down, and backward.

    Scales and chords, at least in western music, must be mastered. They are the foundation of everything you will ever perform. You need to know every scale, every variation of that scale, every chord, every variation of the chord, up and down the entire range of your instrument. Remember when I said you need to embrace the boring fundamentals?

    9. Memorize the standards.

    Every genre and instrument has its standard literature. These are the tunes or pieces of music that everyone who plays the instrument is familiar with. That means you need to know them as well.

    10. Get out and play.

    Finally, the fun part! The best part about mastering an instrument is getting to play with other musicians. Find a local jazz club that allows for musicians to sit in or check out local ads for bands looking for players. Form your own group. Look for gigs. Find a community band or orchestra for which you can audition. There is an abundance of opportunities to play, especially if you live in or near a big city.

    For a long time, I was intimidated to go out and play with other musicians. It was classic imposter syndrome. Eventually, I learned that if you're putting in the work and doing the right things to get better, you're unlikely to be the worst musician out there. Go out, meet other musicians, play, and have fun!

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