Who should you listen to?

I am well into my first semester at Berklee and it has been a great experience so far. I have learned more in five weeks than I may have learned in the last three years. I have also gotten a wakeup call as to what I don’t know.

The class I am taking is focused on reharmonization and it goes way way beyond anything I typically do. Some of it is probably too sophisticated for church music but there is a lot there that is helpful. The teacher is quite an expert. I have had to do some remedial work just to get to the point where I am understanding the language he speaks.

Talking about my continued music education is a good segue into an important question that matters to you musicians: who should you let influence your music and who should you listen to?

There are musicians of course who don’t feel they have to listen to anyone. I know those people and you probably do too. They feel confident enough in their abilities to strike off on their own, blessing the world with their musical contributions. A few of them are even successful with that attitude.

That being said, you would likely not take medical advice from your restaurant waitress and it stands to reason that not is everyone is qualified to give musical advice either. Musicians should not fall into the trap of trying to follow all the advice they receive. That is the definition of a frustrating musical career.

Getting the balance right is tricky and while I am not sure I have it completely figured out, here are my general guidelines.

1) I enthusiastically listen to and learn from true experts.

For the past dozen years, there has never been a substantial period in which I was not paying for music instruction. I am very selective about who I choose to learn from but I always want to be learning. On top of that, if someone comes around that I know I can pick up a tip or two from, I take advantage of it. Not only do I want to learn from those people but I want their influence to change my music.

I don’t know how many times over the years that someone has asked me why I need to still study music. The answer is simple: I have a lot to learn. I doubt I will ever stop.
Getting high quality instruction is not cheap. I have invested tens of thousands of dollars in education over the past twelve years but the return on that investment is immeasurable.

2) I aggregate the advice of musical amateur enthusiasts and allow it to influence me.

 There are a lot of well meaning people who are going to have opinions about your music. Some of them will be musicians but not as knowledgeable as you. Some of them will just be music enthusiasts. Some of them will be your tribe (fans of your music).

I listen to those people and I value their advice but honestly, a lot of it is contradictory and not necessarily helpful. So what I do is watch for trends. If I start hearing the same thing over and over significantly more than I hear the opposing opinion, I am wise to pay attention.

3) I categorically reject extremes and certain other viewpoints.

There are certain influences that I just don’t want on me or my music. They come from the left and right of me. Saying no to some people’s attempts to influence your music is not a bad thing. It is a healthy thing. It may be possible to be successful in music while refusing to learn from anyone but I can tell you unequivocally that you cannot be successful if you allow yourself to be influenced by everyone.

One last word about this point: sometimes I have learned the hard way that you have to reject certain viewpoints even if they come from experts. In fact, this principle trumps the other two. Just because someone smart tells you to do something does not mean you should do it. It is a tired cliche that musicians need to be true to themselves but it is true. My guiding philosophies and theology about what my music should be, what is good and bad, and what my strengths and weaknesses are should trump all else. Every time I step out away from that, I tend to get in trouble.