Is the music mountain too high?

I cannot tell you how many musicians I hear from that feel overwhelmed. Many of them know how to play by rote (from books) but they feel as though they have a huge mountain to climb to be a real world musician.

Let me explain what I mean by “real world musician.” Colleges churn out musicians by the bucketload that know how to replicate classical music but that is not real world music. Real world music is playing “Happy Birthday” at a party without music. Real world music is playing in church from a lead sheet, chord chart or hymnal where you have to improvise. Real world music is playing by ear sometimes.

As it turns out, learning to play classical music does not adequately prepare most musicians for the real world. Most of us know that additional skills are necessary. You have to know more. It seems like a lot more. It is just flat out intimidating.

I remember when I got an inkling of what was necessary. I was at college listening to the top piano teacher there play hymns and I was amazed at the time that he knew every chord he was playing. He could call them out as played them. To me, that was magic and I thought I would be fortunate to ever get to that level.

As it turns out, getting to the level where you know what chords you are playing is no big deal. It is sort of first base actually but I wanted to mention that to show you that I know the feeling of being overwhelmed too.

The truth is that there IS a lot to learn. But on the other hand, no matter how overwhelming it seems, learning what you need to know is very possible.

There are really just three keys to learning to be a real world musician. They all start with “T”: technique, theory, and time.

I don’t need to talk about technique much because technique is where classical music education excels. In fact, if you can plan Chopin, you can handle the technical requirements of almost any real world music with ease. So let’s focus on the other two.


If there is one thing I have been convinced of over the years, it is that theory is the missing ingredient that holds many technically good musicians back from being good real world musicians. They sort of know theory. In fact, some of them really know theory. But they don’t know it in such a way that it is useful to their music. There is a big disconnect there.

Just like great chefs can cook without recipes because they know how ingredients work together, good real world musicians know how to improvise music by knowing how musical elements fit together. An astonishing amount of musical decisions can be made logically based on a good knowledge of theory. That includes harmonic decisions (what chords are used) and textural decisions (the technical patterns those chords are played in).

So how much theory is there to know? Quite a lot but not an overwhelming lot. The key is not to just know theory though. The key is to know theory to the point where it is instinctively influencing your music. That is not easy and that leads me to the last “T.”


There is a proverb that goes like this: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…

If there is one thing I have noticed about music education over the years, it is that if you just get started and tackle concepts bit by bit, over the course of time, you improve dramatically.

Most of my real music education tool place over a four-year period. It wasn’t college and it wasn’t high school either. It was during my 30’s. Those were the years where I buckled down and slowly and methodically learned the theory concepts I needed to know.

The reason I am telling you this is to encourage you in your own musical journey. No, you won’t learn everything in a few weeks or a few months. It takes real time, but over the course of years, you will be surprised at how much you can grow. That is true regardless of your age. You don’t need to start this in college. You just have to be willing to put in the time.

When people purchase my courses and I get to talk to them, I always remind them to go slow. I actually tell people that buy my complete set to pace the material out over four years. Four years is what it probably will take and four years is a small price to pay for learning a valuable skill.

There is another old proverb that goes like this: The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

Yes, maybe you should have started learning earlier. I wish I had too. But you can’t change the past and it is not too late. Start now.