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10 Principles for Learning Music for Beginning and Amateur Musicians

Instructional Video Series Now Released!

You Too Can Play Music! The Ten Principles of Learning Music That Most Teachers Don't Teach, by Joshua MacCluer and TransVolve

To enroll, click here!

I love amateur musicians.

While I enjoy a great playing and the artistic heights that a top quality professional musical performance can bring, I have a special place in my heart for amateur music making. Amateurs bring a love and joy to music making that feels great to be around. Examining the root of the word “amateur” finds the root in the Latin “amator” which means “lover”. So a musical amateur is first and foremost a music lover. While many professional music performances turn music making into just a job, the amateur brings a freshness and enthusiasm to the experience that is refreshing and inspiring.

Amateurs have had a strong impact of the history of music. Many great and important historically classical composers were amateurs. Charles Ives sold insurance. Borodin was a chemist. Gustav Holst was a schoolteacher. Many important historical figures played music. One of my favorite musical amateurs was Albert Einstein who was a dedicated violinist, and he never went anywhere without his old battered violin case. Later in life. when he received yet another honorary doctorate from a university, he would often play a little violin recital instead of giving the customary traditional lecture.

The King of Thailand is an amateur jazz saxophonist. Through his love for jazz over the years, countless numbers of the world’s jazz greats have traveled to Thailand and performed for the king and court and people of Thailand. When I asked a friend of mine (a serious jazzer) who has heard the king several times about if the king is good, my friend replied, “Pretty good for a King!” This is actually a good compliment when we realize how many kings have been amateur musicians.

Here’s a very interesting article about famous amateur musicians in history, including Charlemagne, Nero, and King Louis of Bavaria, without whom Wagner may never have been able to produce several of his biggest world changing operatic masterpieces.

For non-king amateur musicians, musical life is not always easy. They have to work other jobs and then find time to play music in their limited free time. They endure looking down from some pros and they often do not have access to good teachers and playing opportunities. Often they are self taught. Operating with minimal resources, training, and time, amateurs can have an uphill climb to reach fluency.

I meet many intelligent people who love music and have tried to learn to play an instrument often more than once yet have achieved no or only limited success. I also meet many people who have studied music for years and who have all the diplomas, and still play stiffly and without fluency of real expression. Many have a estranged relationship with music due to years of going about the musical process the wrong way, enduring a pile of rules, lots of criticism, rote learning, and priorities that only hurt their musical development.

My love for amateurs make me want to help them get the most out their relationship with music. There is a much better way of learning music than most people are trying right now.

Teachers and players, we want to improve how we connect the love of music inside with the music outside. This is true for all of us. From the music lover who wants to take the first step playing to the student struggling to find their voice, from to the pro sitting down to another gig to the most accomplished soloist exploring the heavens, we all can benefit greatly from connecting our love of music with our instrument and our experience of playing.

I have been shown these ten principles, which if employed regularly will be of great help for amateur musicians who want to get more of what they want out of the amazing world of music. Much credit and thanks goes to Victor Wooten, James Morrison and many others for helping me see the way.

These principles are explained here with beginners and amateurs in mind. However, these principles can apply to musicians at any level. These principles can also be closely adapted to all of life as music and life are just two manifestations of the same thing. Without further ado, here are 10 rock solid principles for amateurs who want to successfully learn how to begin playing and then deepen and expand their relationship with music.

10 Principles for Learning Music for Beginning and Amateur Musicians

1) Start with the “Why?”

When we decide to start playing music, most of us immediately start asking “How?” “How do I play this guitar?” “How do I play in a band?”, “How do I win this audition or pass this test?” or “How do I get a gig and meet groupies?”. This is not the best idea. Instead the most important first question is “Why?” “Why do I want to play music?” “Why am I playing today? Why am I standing on stage?” That’s is a much better place to start an exploration of music.

Our true answers to “Why?” are usually good ones, like “I love music” or “I want to express my musical ideas” or “I like the way that playing music makes me feel and I want more of that.” These pure and true motives are where we want to put our focus when we learn music. If the “Why?” is answered well, the “How?” will be easy.

If we forget our real “Why?” while we are playing we might start thinking the answer is something like, “I want to not make mistakes” or “I want to get it right” or “I want to not embarrass myself” or “I want to win this audition” or one of many ego-based desires that make music making much more difficult. Instead, we should figure out our real personal “Why?” and remind ourselves regularly, especially while we are playing music. This is very important.

2) The goal is to learn to speak music, not to learn how to play an instrument.

Music is a language. Therefore, like any language, the foremost goal is communication. If we want to learn how to communicate with music, it is much more important to learn what music is and how it works and how to express ourselves with it. Technique is necessary but only as much that it serves the musical communication. If we have an unfamiliar instrument in our hands at first, our lack of technique can easily get in the way of this communication and feeling. We then will focus on technique or notes and forget what we are trying to say.

Instead it is better to make the technique easier and focus on the musical idea we are trying to express. Therefore I believe a lot of music can be more easily learned away from the instrument, or using other instruments like our ears, imagination, voices, hands, feet and bodies. By taking the most important elements of music and developing them away from technical limitations and into our minds and bodies we will learn to speak music and using a particular instrument to speak music with will be easy.

3) At the beginning, there are no mistakes or rules.

Many of us, especially of those exposed to too much education, are paralyzed by intellectual needs and concerns. It’s unnecessary, especially in the beginning stages. Look at children learning their first language. They don’t know anything about grammar, writing, or other rules for their language for years. Nevertheless they are very effectively learning to speak and understand the language. They learn easily because they are only trying to communicate and understand and they are not afraid of mistakes.

Imagine that every time a child made a mistake with grammar, pronunciation, etc, we scolded the child and told them they were making a mistake and they should get it right. How would that child learn? Probably much worse as fear, shame, and fear of making mistakes shuts down the learning process.

Children learn much faster than most adults for a few reasons. One of the biggest is that they don’t face criticism while learning. While a baby learns to walk, he falls down many times, but there is no self criticism, just getting up and trying again. Conversely when adults try to learn they are always self-judging, fearing mistakes, and trying to “get it right”. This is a terrible strategy. Self judgement closes down the mind and kills learning.

The principle here is don’t worry about mistakes. It’t not about “getting it right” it’s about expression. Just play and have fun, and learn quickly and easily like a child. For teachers, having too many rules at the beginning only will slow down your student’s learning. Let them expand without limitations at first.

4) All hail the groove! Find and feel the groove before you play.

The groove is where the magic lives in the music. It’s a combination of many factors in the music but especially the rhythm and general feel of a song. The groove belongs to all the musicians in the group, and is the magic flow along which the music travels. When we are in the groove, everything fits and music becomes magically easy. When we get out of the groove is when we get in trouble.

The first step of playing music is to connect to the groove. How to do that? Quiet your mind and try to feel it. Focus on the feeling of the music and getting that feeling into your body. You will know you have found it when your body starts to want to move with the groove. Let your body move with the groove. Only when you can easily and with joy feel the groove should you play your instrument. Practice this skill many times until you can easily and quickly locate and feel many different kinds of grooves.

5) Don’t worry about the notes! Make it feel right!

Here’s a secret about music: people don’t listen to music, they feel it. In music the feeling is the most important thing. If a song has all the right notes but doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t work. Conversely we can play many “wrong notes” but if we stay in the groove and make it feel right, it will probably work for the listener. Conversely, playing the “right note” with bad rhythm can upset the entire groove of the music and give the listener a bad feeling. Right notes with bad rhythm are wrong notes.

Most musicians get way too caught up in playing the right notes and they lose their focus on the groove. This is contrary to Victor Wooten’s Rule #1, “Never loose the groove to find a note.” Instead don’t worry about playing the right notes. Put all your intention on to making the music feel right, especially playing with perfect rhythm. If you play a wrong note with perfect rhythm, in most cases most people will not even notice. It will slide right past their ears because the feeling is right.

6) Listening is at least as important as playing.

Listening is 50% of communication and maybe more. Yet most musicians do no intentional practicing of their listening abilities. Instead many musicians live inside their own little worlds, with only a dim awareness of what the other musicians are doing. This seriously hamstrings their development.

Improving our listening abilities should be as important as improving our playing. We must develop the ability to listen to others and play at the same time. We must also learn what to listen to at what time. There are many great ways to practice this away from the instrument. For example, one technique is listen to a song several times, each time listening to a different instrument or element of the music. First listen to the bass line. Then the groove. Then the feeling. Then the drums, the woodwinds, the keyboard, the violins, then the dynamics. The choices are unlimited. The most important step at the beginning is developing the ability to move our ears away from our own playing to other players or elements of the music.

7) Don’t practice, jam!

Jamming is the way to learn any language. It’s exactly how kids learn. They don’t practice, yet they learn their first language easily and quickly. They also don’t learn from books or exercises. Imagine a little baby working through a workbook saying “ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, bee, bee, bee…” and memorizing little speeches, etc. What a ridiculous way to learn how to speak! Yet that is exactly how we teach music, with rules, repetition, exercises, and tests.

Instead the way to learn any language is to listen, imitate, and jam. Learning a language, we don’t recite speeches, we have improvised conversations. Every conversation we have with other people is an improvisation! Jamming in music is playing improvised music with other people, trying things out and learning to play with others in a way that works.

Make sure you play with people as much as possible. Learn to listen, reach and find new things, feel the groove together and talk about the same thing musically, in an improvised and relaxed setting. That’s the way to learn to express our true selves musically.

8) Play with other music as much as possible, even when practicing. Always keep a musical context when playing.

If there is no one to jam with you today, it’s best to find some music to play along with. Even if you are playing your scales, having a groove to play with is very helpful. Playing with recordings or drum tracks or loops is much better than playing alone.

It is also super fun and very educational to play along with recordings by great musicians of your favorite songs. Make it feel right when you play along with pros on the recording, and it will feel right when you play with people in real life.

9) Sing!

A main goal of playing music is to express ourselves. The ideas we want to express live inside of us, waiting to be expressed in the real world. However, the connection between our inner world and the outer world must be developed. The best way to do this is through singing. It removes our technical limitations and allows us to find our inner voice and ideas much more easily. Singing should be a daily practice for all musicians.

Singing crucially helps us make the all important connection between the music and sound in our minds and the real world. Once we know what we are hearing or trying to play, it is much easier to produce that in real life.

10) Learn to move with the music.

Along with finding our voice another primary goal of music is to feel and live in the groove. The groove does not live in our heads but in our bodies. Therefore, dancing and playing drums is also very helpful. If we dance and feel the music in our bodies or maybe with a small percussion instrument, we will truly be in the flow of the musical experience and the music will flow easily and happily through us.

I have seen many people who have advanced diplomas in piano playing that struggle to find or keep any groove and fit in with other people. That may be because the music is only in their heads. Dancing gets the music in our whole body, and makes for much closer connection with the musical energy.

So dance! It’s fun and feels great. If you’re embarrassed, do it in private, and dance your way through the music you want to play. The rhythm and groove you get from that will make the instrumental playing much easier.

I also have all of my students play small hand percussion instruments to practice their rhythm. With a percussion instrument, there are no wrong notes, just rhythm, so it frees them to focus on this all important skill.

Instructional Video Series Now Released!

You Too Can Play Music! The Ten Principles of Learning Music That Most Teachers Don't Teach, by Joshua MacCluer and TransVolve

To enroll, click here!

I meet many smart passionate people who love music and want to learn how and start playing, yet they think it is too difficult or they don't have the "talent". I meet many people who have tried to learn to play an instrument, sometimes several times, yet have not succeeded because they or their teachers did not understand these principles. I also see far too many kids and music students whose great inner love for music is gradually killed by mainstream music education. I want to help these people. That's why I made this course.

This E-learning course on Teachable will teach you how to learn to play music using ten essential yet rarely taught fundamental principles of music.

Joshua MacCluer

Joshua MacCluer

Joshua MacCluer is a musician, coach, philosopher and explorer committed to the pursuit of excellence, true artistic expression, self and universal discovery and the greater good.

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10 Principles for Learning Music for Beginning and Amateur Musicians
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