You Are Your Own Instrument

Recently I’ve been checking out a book called “You are Your Own Gym: The Bible of Bodyweight Execises.” The author, Mark Lauren, is a former instructor and trainer for elite special forces soldiers. The central premise of his book, geared toward your everyday civilian, is that you don’t need all those fancy high-tech weight machines or even an expensive membership to your local gym to get in shape.

According to the Mark Lauren, what most people don’t realize is that you already have all the equipment you need to completely transform your body.

You are indeed your own gym.

At first glance, it seems like a concept that’s too simple and too obvious to work let alone create elite soldiers. However after a few weeks of sticking to his program, the results speak for themselves. More important and far reaching than his workout program though, is the concept of intrinsic improvement.

This idea of self-engendered personal growth may not be a revolutionary concept in the realm of physical fitness, but in the world of music it is surprisingly rare.

Fitting the mold of the musician

In music, we constantly define ourselves and our musicianship by external factors: the instruments we play, the style of music we perform, the records we listen to, and the groups we play with. Classical musicians are supposed to play a certain way, jazz musicians have to play another way, string players play a certain way, drummers should focus exclusively on rhythm, horn players have their own role and quirks, etc, etc.

These outside factors have a big influence on the musician that we become whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. We become so obsessed with the instrument that we play, that we quickly forget about the person operating that instrument. Our focus turns to developing our instrumental technique and conforming to the role our instrument plays in the style of music we chose to perform.

After years of this, the idea of musicianship and the focus of performance begins and ends with that unyielding instrument. Thus, it’s a rare occurrence that we take a close look at the person behind this instrument.

Think of all the master musicians out there that you would pay money to go see live in concert. What separates them from the rest of us? Don’t look at the instrument they play, but look instead at that person, by themselves, as a musician. What do they have inside of them that allows them to perform the way they do? What skills have they developed internally, separate from the technique of their instruments, that set them apart from others?

Consider yourself for a moment as well. Take away your instrument and the technique you use to produce sound on it. What are you left with? A complete musician that can hear chords and melodies,  Or does this act reveal a person who, suddenly separated from their instrumental means of expression, can no longer think or express themselves musically?

Do you have the tools inside of you to create a solid musical performance or are you just using your instrument as a crutch? Asking yourself this question may be just the push you need to get to that next musical level.

The instrument is just an amplifier

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how great players sound the same regardless of the instrument they are playing. Take Charlie Parker for instance. He played and recorded with dozens of different instruments throughout his life, pawning some off, borrowing some at the last minute from fellow musicians, and even playing on a plastic alto at one point.

For most people, this would be disastrous to their sound, technique, and musicality. However, for Bird, it couldn’t have mattered less. Every time he put a horn to his lips, whether it was an alto that he just borrowed or one he had played for months, you immediately hear his sound. Regardless of any outside factors or instrumental barriers, that music inside Parker inevitably found it’s way out.

You may have even noticed this phenomena in your own playing. No matter what type of horn you pick up, what reed size you use, or how the action is feeling on a friend’s instrument that you’re testing, you still have “your sound.” This is no coincidence and is a big clue to cultivating your personal musical style.

“To the person who uses music as a medium for the expression of ideas, feelings, images, or what have you; anything which facilitates this expression is properly his instrument.”~Bill Evans

When it comes down to it, our instruments are really just fancy amplifiers; wooden, metal, and plastic devices that we blow through, pluck, strike, and bow to magnify our inner sound and concept of music. These instruments might look cool and each have unique tonal characteristics, but the truth is that these are just inanimate extensions of our inner musicality.

Without the player, the human behind the instrument, it’s just a useless tool. Our goal, as Charlie Parker actually realized, should be to make our instruments obedient servants of our inner musical conception, secondary to our intrinsic musicality.

The real instrument is you and if you want to improve, you must start with yourself. External tools like instruments or exercise equipment don’t determine the final outcome, it’s the inherent mental and physical aspects of a person that incites change and creates the final result.

As you practice, keep in mind that your instrument is just an amplifier. As with any amplifier, it’s going to exaggerate the musicianship that is coming from you, good and bad. If the tone, lines, or rhythms coming from the instrument sound bad, it’s not the instrument’s fault, it’s merely amplifying the weaknesses of the player behind it.

Bad time, undeveloped ears, and a poor sound begin before a player even gets to their instrument, the instrument simply makes these aspects of undeveloped musicianship immediately obvious.

Cultivating the three inner aspects of musicianship

The point where many musicians run into trouble is the moment they start looking to their instruments to solve their problems with musicianship. Issues with hearing melodies and chords, feeling time, and understanding music theory have little to do with the instrument that you play. These are elements of musicianship that relate directly to your inner musician and must be solved by focusing on your innate musicality – not by running exercises on your instrument over and over again.

You already have all of the tools you need to become a great improviser or musical performer, you just need to develop them.

There are vital areas of musicianship that directly affect your ability to improvise and perform that have nothing to do with your instrument. I’m talking about your inner musician, the you that is your true instrument. Developing this inner aspect of musicality is essential to succeeding as a musician, but it’s one aspect that is continually ignored by a number of people in the practice room.

Your inner musician can be divided into three basic parts: your ear, your mental conception of music, and your physical connection to the music. By developing these three aspects of your inner musician when you practice, you can completely transform the outer musician that everyone hears on the stage.

Remember, every musical performance begins in the mind and body of the performer and is translated to the audience through the external means of the instrument. By focusing on that inner musician you will be more connected to the music you’re performing then ever before.

I) Ears

Your ear is central to everything you do as a musician. The more you develop this aspect of yourself through focused ear training exercises, the more connected you’re going to be to the music that you perform. You can practice technical exercises out of books and run through chord progressions on your instrument as much as you like, but until you get down to business and improve your ears, you’re not going to see the results you’re looking for.

When practicing ear training exercises, be sure to cover the following areas essential to any improviser:

  • Interval recognition
  • Chord type (ii, VI, V7) recognition
  • Chord quality (Major, minor, dominant) recognition
  • Hearing chord movement and progressions (V7 – I, iii-VI-ii-V7)
  • Identifying melodic movement

II) Mental conception

Another vital part of your inner musician is the sound that you are envisioning for yourself in your head. Your sound on your instrument begins in your mind and the style with which you play is partially ingrained before you touch your instrument. Consider these areas of the mental aspects of music when approaching your practice sessions:

  • Develop a mental conception of your ideal sound and tone quality
  • Develop a mental conception of your ideal musical style
  • Visualization of chords, melodies, chord progressions, etc.
  • Listening for hours to your favorite recordings and performers

III) Physical connection to sound

The third aspect of your inner musicality is your physical self, your body. Hearing music and thinking about it is necessary, but without a physical connection to those sounds, you are missing the picture completely. The quickest way to make this physical connection is through our voices and the physical marking of time and rhythm.

Here are some practice ideas to develop this part of your inner musician:

  • Feel/tap the tempo of a song
  • Feel the time in quarter notes, in half time, in whole notes, on 2 and four, etc.
  • Tap or clap the rhythms of lines you’re transcribing or tunes you’re learning
  • Practice singing pitches you hear on the first try
  • Sing melodies and solos
  • Sing rhythms while marking the time with other parts of your body

Musical phrasing begins inside of you, time starts in your mind and body, harmony and melody go back to your ears, tone starts with a mental and aural conception. All of the major elements of musicality that we search for externally, actually originate in our inner musician.

You can practice technical exercises or interval exercises or rhythmic exercises all you want on your instrument, but until you develop these skills in internally, you are merely scratching the surface.

Stop hiding behind your instrument!

It’s easy to hide behind your instrument or to mistakenly rely on your instrument for musical qualities. You can ignore your ears, you can pass by unaware of chord qualities or progressions, you can ignore time and rhythm and still perform adequately well on your instrument. However, lurking beneath the surface, these musical problems still exist inside of you.

The sooner you start paying attention to your inner musician, the sooner you will start overcoming your musical problems. It will be like an unexpected landslide of all-encompassing improvement. Everything that you do musically comes from your inner musician, the instrument that is you. The hard part, however, is remembering this inner instrument when you’re in the practice room.

Just like the idea of a book on getting in shape using nothing but your own body weight initially seems too simple to be effective, the idea of improving musically by focusing inwardly on the basic building blocks of musicianship seems too basic to be effective. Why bother?

Well, the reason is that this actually works, unlike the countless other methods people are unsuccessfully trying. Ignore your inner musician as much as you like. You can dive into technical books and etudes, you can study advanced harmony, and you can tackle the hardest tunes you can find, but after hours of frustrating practice you’ll still be in the same place you started.

Instead, take a long hard look at the instrument within. If you spend the time and develop those three parts of your inner musician, you can be sure that it will be amplified ten-fold through that external instrument you practice and perform with day after day.

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