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What is "Musicianship"?

By Dave Isaacs

It seems effortless when the performer is fluid and natural and completely in command.

We all understand the amount of work it takes to achieve that level of skill. Great technical ability comes from commitment and dedicated practice, and when you watch a great player you can see the results of that effort. But there’s another aspect of making music that the audience doesn’t see so easily, because it goes on inside the musician’s mind.

“Musicianship” is the set of thought processes that take place in a musical performance, consciously or unconsciously. It has to do with the ability to listen, evaluate, and respond to what you’re hearing in the moment. It can’t been easily seen by an audience, but we feel its effects. Great skill as a player or singer is obvious, but great musicianship is the thing that makes that technical display into something powerful and moving. In other words, it makes notes into music.

You’d figure that everyone who plays music practices “musicianship”, and almost everyone does to some extent. Performing a piece of music requires a combination of skills, and the first few of these are probably obvious to everyone:

  • 1. Technique – how to produce sound in a controlled and deliberate way.
  • 2. Vocabulary – having a variety of sounds you can produce.
  • 3. Fluidity – this combines technique and vocabulary. Let’s define this as the ability to maintain a smooth flow from one sound to another.

So far, all of this is mechanical, a series of motions that can be repeated and mastered. You might start off practicing “pure” technique – exercises to build control of your fingers, for example. If you’re serious about developing your skills, pure technique is something you might continue to practice as long as you play. But before long, often immediately, we add vocabulary – after all, no one ever picked up an instrument to learn to play finger exercises. So vocabulary starts with the first chord you ever learned, and progresses into building a repertoire. The combination of technique and vocabulary develops fluidity. This is where the music is, right?

Yes and no. This is only the foundation…the basic skills you need to be able to play a song. Everything else falls into the category of what we’re calling musicianship: the mental processes that make a series of mechanical motions into music.

It’s a big topic with a lot to delve into, and before we break it down I think it’s important to add this caveat. This might seem at first to be deep, esoteric stuff that only applies to people with a “serious” interest in music. But that’s really not the case. Even if your goals are modest…say, to be able to pick up a guitar and strum through a song at a party or in your bedroom…you’ll still use these skills. These ideas apply to everyone that plays or even wants to play music. Not only that, developing musicianship opens the door to continued, even lifelong, development. It removes the ceiling, and ensures that there’s no limit to what you’ll be able to accomplish when you make the effort.

In my private teaching I work with a lot of people who come to me frustrated that they aren’t improving. They may feel they’re stuck in a rut and repeating the same ideas over and over. Some of these people have played for years and may even perform regularly, but they don’t feel like they’ve grown as much as they could have. Because so much of musicianship is mental, learning to apply it requires a change in mindset that isn’t dependent on what you can do with your hands. At the same time, it makes what you do with your hands more expressive, flexible, and powerful, and it makes learning new things easier. Sound good? Let’s break down what it actually means.

The single biggest aspect of musicianship involves two interrelated ideas: listening and reacting. Listening in the active sense means that you are paying thoughtful attention to what you hear. This can happen on an unconscious level, and the more accomplished you become the more unconscious the process can be, but just as often it’s a deliberate process. A musician hears, comprehends, and reacts.

Reacting means that what you play and how you play it is affected by or even depends on what you’re hearing. Ultimately, it’s that simple: great musicianship means being aware of what you’re doing and what’s going on around you, and being tuned in enough to shape what you’re doing in the moment according to what that moment demands.

This is a key point. The moment DOES demand something of you, in every instance. It demands that you feel the rhythm enough to play in time and with the right energy. It demands that you understand your role in the music, and that what you do fulfills it. Ultimately, though, it gives as much as it demands. You might sometimes hear musicians say that they don’t think when they play, or even that they don’t even feel that they themselves are making the choice of what to play. Lots of players will tell you that it just happens: intuition and pure feeling take over, and the music goes where IT wants to. This is the magical part…when a group of people playing together all get the same idea at the same time and everyone executes a move they’ve never made before, in perfect sync. It’s one of the most satisfying things in music, and while it might seem mysterious and out of reach of “ordinary” people it really isn’t.

Any piece of music, from a pop song to a symphony, is a result of a series of choices. Songwriters and composers know this. The path from conception of an idea to completed song is a series of decisions, starting with the wide open question “what am I doing?” and choosing from progressively fewer and fewer options as the work progresses. This is because as aspects of the song become solidified, each choice needs to be more and more specific to fit the theme or framework you have established. The end result is a composition that has a character and personality of its own. At this point, the musicians playing the song have an obligation to be faithful to that character, therefore limiting their appropriate choices. Knowing this is part of musicianship, and so is knowing which choices are the “right” ones.

Of course, many if not most good players will tell you that there are no “right” choices, or at least no single right choice. Making music is a dynamic process, and even when nearly all the parameters are fixed there are still variables and choices to be made…ask any classical musician or stage actor. But even the most flexible framework sets up a musical world the players need to inhabit, and as your skills develop the intuitive ability to make good choices grows stronger and stronger.

We haven’t left technique and vocabulary behind. You need to have a large enough vocabulary to have choices when a choice is required. You need to have the physical ability to execute those choices. But there are aspects of this that work on a sliding scale, if you will. If you play a specific style of music, especially one with some history behind it, there’s well-established precedent for what the “right” thing to play might be. Genre is defined by the choices a group of creative people made in the process of making their music. Sometimes this might start with one person that paves the way for others, and sometimes it arises out of a synergy between creative minds. Either way, once those choices have defined a style then the artist needs to limit their options to those that fit the blueprint. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for new ideas. Nothing in art is absolute. But even audaciously new ideas have some underlying relationship to the context they arise in. Nothing appears out of nowhere, but out of an endless font of creativity filtered through the mind of each individual.

Again, don’t make the mistake of thinking that these ideas are too advanced to apply to you if you’re just beginning your journey in music. While the ability to have many choices and to execute them on the fly may be a ways down the road for you, having the idea in the back of your mind will change the way you see what you learn: instead of a series of absolutes, each new thing you learn presents a range of possibilities. And that’s pretty exciting.

Dave Isaacs

There’s no shortage of guitar teachers in Music City USA…they don’t call Nashville “Guitar Town” for nothing. But Dave Isaacs has earned a reputation as one of the best: not simply a guitar teacher but a musical trail guide, leading young artists,...


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