7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Playing Music

I don't have a lot of regrets in life, but I do wish I could go back fifteen years and explain to my sixteen-year-old self what I was doing wrong and how to make it right with regard to becoming a better musician. Here are seven insights I'd be sure to deliver to that awkward, gangly kid in the band room.

1. Don't blame your equipment

Remembering back to the early years of my music career, I shudder to think of all the time and money spent on new gear, convinced it would compensate for my shortcomings on the saxophone. Spoiler alert: no piece of gear has ever come close to results produced by hard work and practice. Save your money and save your time pining after gear that won’t make any real difference in your playing.

2. Time matters more than pitches

Consider this: you can play all the “right” notes, scales, and arpeggios over a particular chord progression, but if your time isn’t happening, everything falls apart. On the other side of that coin, you can play all the “wrong” notes in the most random order, and, if your time, rhythm, and phrasing are on point, you’ll sound like the hippest cat around.

As a young saxophonist, I always prioritized practicing scales, arpeggios, patterns, and licks over working on my time. I managed to sound decent enough as a beginning improvisor, but once I went on to play with other people who were more advanced rhythmically, I started getting lost. It was frustrating and embarrassing. It was the kick in the butt I needed to realize that it was time to work on my time.

3. Dexterity deserves practice time

When I started learning how to play both saxophone and piano, I despised practicing technique exercises. I found them incredibly boring, and all I wanted to do was have fun messing around with songs I’d learned by ear. Unfortunately, this shortsightedness led me to develop a slew of bad habits, like uneven technique, that took a long time to unlearn years later. Long story short: dexterity matters, so take practicing your technique seriously.

4. Anticipate the chord changes

This one is a real game changer, and I wish I’d learned it earlier on. One of the best ways of navigating through chord changes is by thinking about and even outlining the upcoming chord by a half a beat or even a full bar. When you force yourself to think of and hear a chord in advance, you remain in complete control of the harmony and avoid the experience of fumbling through the changes. It’s the difference between being proactive and reactive. Try it out!

5. Secrets of Sight reading

I always dreaded the sight reading portions of auditions. That is, until I figured out a few tricks that made a real difference.

The first, and most basic of strategies, is to look ahead whenever possible. Holding a long note? Look ahead. Counting through a half a bar of rests? Look ahead. Playing an easy passage that you’re able to memorize on the spot? Look ahead. Just like with anticipating chord changes while improvising, looking ahead while sight reading keeps you in proactive control rather than reactive panic.

Another sight reading strategy I started utilizing in later years is chunking, which, in cognitive psychology, is the process by which individual pieces of information are bound together into a meaningful whole. What does this mean for music? Well, whenever I’m handed a piece of sheet music, I immediately scan for chunks like, “oh, there’s a Cmaj7 arpeggio in first inversion” or “look, the first five notes of the F minor scale.” Sometimes I’ll even circle the chunks and write in CMaj7 or Fm to help me remember when it comes time to play. The fact is, you’re going to have an easier time focusing on one chunk versus four or five notes. Trust me, it’s science.

6. Easy does not equal bad | hard does not equal good

When I was looking into music schools for college, I took a trip into New York City to meet with saxophonist and clarinetist Victor Goines who was on faculty at Juilliard. I brought my horn with me in case he wanted to hear me play. Next thing I know, we're in a Juilliard practice room, and he’s asking me what tune I want to play. I called “26-2” - John Coltrane’s contrafact and reharmonization of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” It was the hardest tune I knew - and the most impressive, or so I thought.

I played like I was hanging on for dear life. What was I thinking? Calling “26-2” in a duo session with Victor Goines, whose main instrument is not piano, was jive as hell. But I learned my lesson: just because something is hard to play doesn’t make it better or more impressive.

The ego gets in the way so often in playing with and for other people. Yes, taking risks now and again is worthwhile, but playing what you know well is a much more reliable path to making good music. In sum, keep it simple, stupid.

7. Lay back...waaay back

I’ve worked with hundreds of students, and when it comes to rushing and dragging, almost everybody naturally rushes rather than drags. This was my tendency as well, until I realized I needed to consciously lay back on the beat in order to play with good phrasing. The rushing I’m referring to here is not so much a speeding-up-of-the-tempo issue as it is playing too far on top of the beat all the time.

Think about the difference between someone who is cool, calm, and collected and someone who is constantly over-eager. Who’s going to be perceived as cooler? Jazz and R&B music generally sound better with a laid-back feel. The best way I’ve found to improve this aspect of playing is to record yourself and listen back with a critical ear. Also, see how far you can push the envelope—lay so far back that you are at least a half a beat behind. It might feel uncomfortable, but again, record yourself and listen back to hear the result.

So, what do you wish you knew when you were first starting out? Comment below!