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Mastering Musical Techniques-The Art of Learning

Mastering Musical Techniques

The Art of Mastering Musical Techniques

Mastering Musical Techniques is something I'm asked about frequently from students. I thought I would shed some light on this subject because it is a question that I'm asked a lot. Although I'll be mostly related related this to music I think the conclusions I come up with could be applied to any discipline.

Something I notice when surfing around the internet is that there are all kinds of people offering advice on techniques, but very few actually tell you what to do to master any of them. I was fortunate to study with great teachers like Charlie Banacos, Jerry Bergonzi and Mick Goodrick. Of course, they had plenty of advice about techniques, but more importantly they told me how to practice and how much to practice a technique to make it musical. Usually this level of info is way above the common advice you get on the internet.

I think one of the first questions you want to ask yourself is: can this person who is teaching you actually play the technique they teach. Sometimes that is hard to discern because musicians might learn something in one setting but be unable to apply it in another one. I always go to the source, i.e. the CDs that they have recorded and specifically the live Videos or CDs. This will tell you volumes about the advice you are getting and whether it is something to emulate.

How your Background effects Mastering Musical Techniques

That said, there is an art to learning and mastering musical technique. One of the biggest factors is how much do you need to practice a technique until you will remember it and can play it in any key. This will vary drastically based on the instrument you play. Charlie Banacos used to tell me that he thought guitar was the hardest instrument to learn because of all the possible ways and places to play anything. I would agree that any stringed instrument player has to practice much more that any other instrument because the same note appears in different places on multiple strings. So that tells you that the amount of time needed to master a technique depends on your instrument.

Next you have the variable of your overall musicianship. Simple things like:

  • Do you know music theory like a language? in other words, can you instantly name the notes in any chord in any key? If not, that will affect your learning.
  • How is your technique? Some techniques require speed, and all techniques require a lightness of touch.
  • Can you read? Sometimes techniques are presented as written material. Can you read it?
  • How is your aural comprehension? If you need work in this part of your musicianship, it can seriously affect your ability to utilize a technique musically.
  • How is your time? If the technique has a “time” component, are your skills in this area functioning enough to apply an idea based on where it happens in time?
  • Is your rhythm comprehension and playing weak?
  • Is your articulation developed enough in a specific idiom so that you can make the technique sound musical?

This is just a short list, and does not cover everything, but you get the idea. If you are weak at any area that is required to musically apply a technique, then obviously background work is needed.

It is great to have goals but you need to be honest with yourself about your core skills. If your core is weak, then anything you try to build on top of it will be weak.

What Does Mastering Musical Techniques Mean?

By the way, "Mastering Musical Techniques" what does that actually mean? At this point I should say that no one truly masters a technique; they just get really good at it. I don’t think you will find any musician who will tell you they have mastered any technique. (But that doesn't mean you don't try!)

Taking all that into consideration, you need to find teachers who have taught many decades because only through experience will anyone who teaches understand how much time is needed for a specific student to incorporate a technique into their playing, so that they express themselves naturally with it. The teacher takes into account how much time a student practices each day, and if they are using the right technique on their instrument so that they will come out the other end with an ability to play without hurting themselves in the process or in the future. It takes a lot of time and experience to know these things and then pass them on.

When I put together a course I usually try to include all the information that any level of student will need to express a technique naturally in their playing. Typically a student doesn’t need all the information I’ve included, but I want to cover as many situations as possible. One of the reasons I give free email support with my courses is because I want a student to keep in touch, so that I can guide them with the course they are working on.

So What is the Bottom Line of Mastering Musical Techniques?

Finally, when mastering musical techniques most students tend to think they will take much less time than it will actually take to learn a technique and use it musically. Most this is from lack of experience. As you tackle techniques such as scales, approach notes, 23rd chords, pitch class set improvisation, you start to realize that each new technique you take on will have its own set of parameters that will be demanded of you. So how long will it take to master a technique? Probably a lifetime, but it’s a lifetime of playing and creativity so why complain?

The Historic Precedents Of This Kind Of Music Education

You might enjoy checking out the "Music Education Genealogy Chart" located on my artist's site. You will clearly see the historic progression of pedagogy that is the basis for Muse Eek Publishing Products. Great musicians throughout history have been studying the ideas presented by which derives its content from a a lineage that stretches back to Scarlatti!


Mastering Musical Techniques by Bruce Arnold for Muse Eek Publishing Company

Berklee Banacos Bergonzi Music Education

Berklee Banacos Bergonzi Music Education

With my latest release of “Approach Notes” I started to talk about my own history as an aspiring musician. It occurred to me that you might be wondering “who is this guy, and why is he writing all these intense books?”

So I thought I’d talk a bit about my experience as a South Dakota kid moving to the big city of Boston to go to the Berklee College of Music. Talk about green!

I was hungry for information about music. Kind of interested in jazz, but more interested in applying jazz to rock, blues and funk; what they were calling at the time Fusion. That was about it. I had listened to some jazz, made the rounds through Bird, ‘Trane and the rest, but really knew nothing about what they were doing; the history of the music or what special significance that Boston might have to all of this. I just thought all the jazz guys who lived in New York were probably from there and had very rough lives living in a racist culture and trying to make a living playing music that wasn’t so popular.

I found an incredibly vibrant music scene in Boston. I thought that was normal and I had no idea that it was a special time, that I was surrounded by the students who would become the next wave of major musicians in most styles of music. In comparison to most of my classmates, all I felt was “boy do I suck.” In some ways that was good, because it made me practice like crazy. I was up at 6am and going to bed at 1am. Back home I used to sleep at least 8 to 10 hours so that was a big adjustment. I’d never been in a big city, never seen a homeless person or a hooker and Berklee at the time was only a few blocks from some very shady neighborhoods. Not that I knew that-- at least the first year, I was mostly in the practice room shedding.

There is much more that could be reported about my time at Berklee but let’s just say things improved. I had a lot of great teachers and mentors and tons of jam sessions and gigs. Over time I became a much better musician and got to play with or at least hear many of the great musicians that were there at the time.

What I didn’t realize until recently was the history of education and development of improvised music that had taken place in Boston since the early 50’s through the sixties, and the reason Berklee was Berklee. Many seminal figures in the development of jazz, free music, experimental music had their roots in the Boston area or were there for some time. Of course where there are great musicians, there are usually great teachers in the background somewhere. Boston was no exception, with people like Madame Chaloff who taught everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Keith Jarrett --the list goes on and included my teacher Charlie Banacos. There was also Mick Goodrick who took me under his wing and I’m forever grateful for that. But amazing teachers on all instruments were there. Some taught at Berkelee and many, like Charlie and and his close friend Jerry Bergonzi had their own private practice.

I first started with Jerry Bergonzi because my roommate David Askren said he was “the shit.” He was right. Every week was a massive study of some improvisational concept. Jerry was and still is a great teacher. He was serious but could be very funny at times. Always positive and encouraging but again the level of improvisational concepts he was laying on me was mind boggling. It was like Berklee on steroids --and I had thought Berklee was hard! After a few years I got to study with Charlie. At my first lesson with Charlie I played for him and he said “You sound good but you are doing everything wrong.” Then he proceeded to tell me all my problems. He was dead on. I couldn’t hear, I had bad technique, --the list goes on. But I left with a feeling of pleasure because he was going to fix these problems but also with another feeling --like “what the hell have I been doing for the last 10 years!” I had been practicing 10 hours a day and I had been doing it all wrong! That took some time to get over, but as I progressed I realized just how lucky I was to have Charlie, Jerry and Mick along with the great teachers at Berklee to steer me in the right direction.

I was studying with Mick Goodrick for a while and at one point he said to me “Bruce, I’m passing the torch to you.” I was flabbergasted but also realized that that was what had been happening. All these great teachers were passing the torch to me so that I could help people in the future. As I ventured out and moved to New York and played around the world, I realized that most of the things these great teachers had taught me was hardly being taught anywhere.

Since I had had such a hard journey to get the right information to fix my own problems I felt obligated to “pass the torch” to my students --which I had plenty of, working at many of the great universities in the New York area. I also needed teaching materials and in my last few years with Charlie I got an apple computer and started inputting many of his lesson ideas and ideas of my own. But now with a computer, I started printing these things out for students. They loved it. It gave them direction and totally kicked their behinds because as Charlie use to say. “Learn the hard stuff; then everything else will be easy.”

Over time this developed into the Muse Eek Publishing Company. At the same time I was in New York and getting to play with amazing musicians so I was developing my creative side and digging into using Pitch Class Sets as an organizational component to improvise. So now I had a personal artistic direction and a burgeoning music publishing company. I dug in deep writing 9 CDs of original music using pitch class set improvisational ideas. I started publishing all the information that I had been given by these wonderful teachers with in Boston and adding in some of my own ideas. I could see that no one else was doing it, and I didn’t want this invaluable information to be lost because I knew how much it helped me to improve my musicianship.

I continue to this day doing exactly that. Writing and playing music with terrific artists, and putting out education books, and interacting with students all over the world. I hope that by “passing the torch” I help others to become the best musician they can be.

The Historic Precedents Of This Kind Of Music Education

You might enjoy checking out the "Music Education Genealogy Chart" located on my artist's site. You will clearly see the historic progression of pedagogy that is the basis for Muse Eek Publishing Products. Great musicians throughout history have been studying the ideas presented by which derives its content from a a lineage that stretches back to Scarlatti!


Berklee Banacos Bergonzi Music Education Guitarist Bruce Arnold Experiences

Beyond Music Blog Discussions with Bruce Arnold

Beyond Music Blog by Bruce Arnold

This beyond music blog concentrates on ideas that any instrumentalist or singer can use to further their music education.  Often the blog will concentrate on matters that affect all musicians, whether they are a composer or an instrumentalist.  The overall focus is on raising one's general understanding of music and the many elements that contribute to excellence in musicianship and artistry.

Inspiration From Many Sources

If you take a look at the recommended reading list from my artist website you will find a wide array of books covering many topics.  One of my teachers, Charlie Banacos once gave me an assignment to go to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and write a piece of music based on a painting that I liked.  (I chose a piece by Manet because at the time I found Impressionist painting to be extremely engaging.)  He would often recommend books for me to read that weren't even music texts, such as Jack Flam's "Matisse on Art."  It made me realize that you could learn a lot from other arts and artists; and this exposure helped to enrich my own musical expression.

The Courage To Persevere

Being a musician is not an easy occupation.  Questions always arise like "Am I good enough?" or "How do I create an original voice in music?"  There are many other questions that preoccupy aspiring musicians and finding the answer is rarely easy.  The best teachers I have had never told me to be like them.  They gave me the tools I would need to find my own personal expression. Then it was up to me to do the work, use those tools. The work is a journey full of self discovery. Through this beyond music blog I will share some of the insights from that journey and hopefully they will help you too. 

Beyond Music Blog: A Balance in Life

One area that I know I struggled with, was balancing a life outside of music with the drive to be the best musician I could be.  The dilemma of when to detach from one's musical goals and go enjoy life often plagues many musicians.  If a balance cannot be found, it can ruin relationships and make you a very one sided person with not much to talk about except music.  Finding a life outside of music is important for many reasons but eventually you must participate in life because it will be your best inspiration. An added benefit is that it takes you away from your obsessions, so that you can return to your studies with refreshed perceptions.

Learning From Other Instruments

Most of the great musicians I know play more than one instrument, and its interesting how often that other instrument is drums. I think to varying degrees depending on genre, rhythm is one of the most neglected parts of learning music.  While this instrumental music blog won't teach you how to play drums, it will present quite a bit about different ideas associated with rhythm and how it can often be the key to unlocking new ways to play melodically.  I've written many books on the topic of rhythm and time.  You can see a list of these in the Time Studies  Section of this website.

Beyond Music Blog: The Importance Of Interaction

While perfecting technique and other musical skills may be foremost on your mind, never forget that music performance is a highly social activity. It's about communication. The interaction of artistry and emotion is one of the great joys of performing with a group, otherwise you are a tree falling in the forest. So listening is key. I am much happier playing with a musician of limited ability who listens, than one who is not listening, and in their own world.  Things like this are tough to teach a musician; we tend to be so self-involved. But neglect this at your peril.  It can determine whether people want o play with you or not, and negatively affect your creativity, too.


One of the greatest parts of being a musician is exploring the vast possibilities of music.  But there are always decisions to be made:  "When is a composition complete?  How do I improve my playing or break out of the rut in my composing?"  When you are feeling stymied and uncreative there are ways to troubleshoot the situation. Having walked a mile in those shoes I will be offering some things that have helped me remain positive and creative. Many of these tips come from interdisciplinary interests, like visual art and yoga.

The Importance of Ear Training

A good ear makes music easier and allows you to learn and remember music faster.  (Arguably the only thing more important than this is that you be sensitive and be a team player.)  Ear training can really help you to enter the music universe from a completely different perspective.  This perspective will show you new paths because your ear is much more intelligent than your mind.  This may sound like a wild concept but that's what this blog is for, discussing perceptions and how all of our senses and thoughts connect.

This Beyond Music Blog Will Be Going Beyond

You will see from looking at the Instrumental Books on this website that I've created many different kinds of books.  Quite a few of them are very forward looking and go well past the traditional approach to composing and improvising.  I hope over time you will seek out these books; you may find these approaches useful in creating new sounds in your own music. 

The Importance of Listening

I encourage you to listen to as much music as you can, and keep it varied. Jump across categories; get out of your comfort zone. Music is about more than entertainment- it can be spiritual or totally physical or intellectual. You can learn so much about music just from listening.  I also recommend checking out the Recordings Section of this website where there are many clips you can listen to for free and the price of the CDs is very reasonable. 

In Conclusion

As you can see this Beyond Music Blog will cover a lot of territory.  I encourage you to get involved, and create a community with your comments.  It is often very hard for musicians to find places where the subjects I've mentioned are discussed so I hope you find these musings helpful.

The Historic Precedents Of This Kind Of Music Education

You might enjoy checking out the "Music Education Genealogy Chart" located on my artist's site. You will clearly see the historic progression of pedagogy that is the basis for Muse Eek Publishing Products. Great musicians throughout history have been studying the ideas presented by which derives its content from a  a lineage that stretches back to Scarlatti!



Solarize-photo-of-Bruce-Arnold-playing-guitar-for Beyond Music Blog

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