Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How I Became a 'Real' Musician (after a decade of feeling like a fraud)

I learned five instruments at school. Six if you count singing lessons.

I never felt like a musician.

I took the grade exams prescribed to me, reaching Grade 2 in cello, right up through Grade 8 in singing. I practised, I improved, I passed my exams. As far as my classmates, family and friends were concerned I was a musical guy.

Still, I never felt like a musician. Not a real musician.

I didn't really understand what I was playing. I didn't know how to improvise or play songs by ear.

All those "serious" musicians, it seemed to come so naturally to them. So I figured if I couldn't do it, it was because I wasn't really "musical".

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EasyEarTraining Founder, Christopher Sutton

Now, over a decade later, I finally do feel like a musician. I know I am as musical as anybody, and I have a confidence in playing music that I never felt back then - even if my fingers are slower now than they were at the height of my instrument learning.

What changed?

Technology. And through technology, my ears.

If you're reading this blog, you probably already know how fundamental a change music education is currently going through as a result of modern technology. I probably don't need to tell you about the incredible impact which inventions like the Internet, live video chat using services like The ZOEN, and app-packed iPads have had on what it means to be a young music student now.

But maybe I can tell you a bit about something that's often overlooked, even as we take advantage of all this technological wizardry to empower music teachers and students: Listening skills.

The Power of Your Ears

To put it plainly: Listening skills were the big discovery which transformed me from feeling like I was just pretending to be a musician, into someone who loves music, feels musical, and loves studying music more than ever before.

"Ear training", the process of improving your ears for music, is a vital part of musicianship. But somehow (like the oft-maligned music theory) it tends to get left to one side, or taught badly - if at all!

My school had a stellar music department, but even there, "aural skills" were given a half hour, the week before your grade exam. And that was it.

I rediscovered listening skills in my early twenties, and since the exercises were a little dull and I'm a geek at heart, I started using technology to help me learn. I wrote some programs to quiz me on interval recognition, and the EQ frequency band skills I was trying to improve for my day job.

I got excited about the iPhone when it was released, and naturally my ear training programs became ear training apps. The more time I spent developing my ear and using technology to make it easier, the more I enjoyed music and felt empowered as a musician.

Fortunately these days you don't need to be a geek like me to accelerate your ear training with technology. Whether you're at your computer, on your smartphone, or in a live video lesson, there are any number of ways to improve your musicianship with modern ear training.

Ear Training on the web

You can play ear training games with Theta Music Trainer and develop a variety of essential musical skills like interval recognition, figuring out tunes and chord progressions by ear, transcribing rhythms.

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Of course it helps to understand a bit of the theory behind what you're trying to learn to hear. If you find your grasp of music theory isn't quite what it should be - you're not alone! But the down-to-earth tutorial videos from daveconservatoire.org will get you up to speed in no time.

And if you want to improve your music theory and your ears at the same time? The innovative tools and lessons from HookTheory offer some fun ways to learn to play melodies and chords by ear, using songs you know and love.

Ear Training On the Go

You don't want to be strapped to your computer though. If you have a smartphone like an iPhone there's are countless ear training apps you can use on the go.

The one I mentioned earlier, RelativePitch, which I first developed for my own use teaches the fundamental skill of interval recognition. There are plenty of others to choose from as well, like Karajan (perhaps the "granddaddy" of iOS ear training), or the more recent arrival, GoodEar.

And don't forget the power of a simple audio recording! Whether you load up useful practice clips onto your phone as MP3s or use the audio recording functionality of your phone to practice more actively, the smartphone is a formiddable tool - even before you cram it full of music ed apps!

Demand the Trifecta

The best music education combines three elements: Instrument Skills, Music Theory, and Listening Skills. Any musical learning which neglects one of these will ultimately produce a lopsided, limited and frustrated musician.

You already know that The ZOEN are pioneering convenient expert video teaching of Instrument Skills. And hopefully the suggestions above give you some ideas about how you can benefit from technology for the Music Theory and Listening Skills aspects too.

Making sure you cover all three aspects will powerfully accelerate your musical learning.

I want to push it one step further: don't be satisfied with studying these three elements in isolation.

• Find an instrument teacher who can incorporate the theory and aural skills into your lessons, and relate them to your instrument.

• When you study the theory bring it to life with audio clips and examples to play on your instrument.

• Make sure when you train your ears to hear something you truly understand what it is you're trying to hear, and why - and that you can directly relate it back to your instrumental practice.

So I'll leave you with my recommended steps to reach your full musical potential:

- Step 1: Incorporate all three essential elements (Instrument Skills, Music Theory, Listening Skills) into your music education.

- Step 2: Use technology to accelerate your progress and make the learning convenient and fun.

- Step 3: Find a teacher who can inspire and motivate you, providing that essential one-on-one human interaction so essential to music.

Follow these three simple steps... and you will never again have a day when you don't feel like a true musician.

This article was written by guest contributor Christopher Sutton,  founder of Easy Ear Training, a company developing innovative products to make it easy and fun to learn the essential listening skills of music. The Easy Ear Training website has over 200 free articles and tutorials to help you get started.

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Need a hand getting started? Visit Easy Ear Training to get a special ear training gift for The ZOEN readers!


  1. Absolutely stellar article Christopher. I wholeheartedly agree with the philosophy and foundations. Teaching humans to truly listen is a labor of love. Getting a human to the point of being able to recognize aurally a correct tone (or an abstract sound they may never have thought existed) is priceless. Nicely done.

    1. Thank you!

      "Priceless" is a nice description of how impactful aural skills training can be.

      To anybody who passionately loves music, that moment of hearing *more*, or *understanding* what they're hearing in a new way really is incredibly exciting.

  2. Completely agree with this article, particularly about the importance of finding a teacher who incorporates ear training into their lessons and doesn't leave it til exam time as a separate exercise. The latter is how I was taught - but I teach the former!

    1. Excellent! I'm sure your students really benefit from this.

      Looking back, it was definitely the instrument teachers who incorporated a bit more freedom and ear-guided playing that taught me the most and helped me stay enthusiastic and motivated.

  3. Loved this post. Your story is so relatable.

    I took a stab at learning 4 instruments in grade school and found my formal music training to be very limiting. I had no idea how to play music on my own terms and for that reason I never felt like a real musician...but, to your point there's hope and technology makes a huge difference!

    1. Thanks! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

      I think there is always hope - as long as you have a passion for music you can find a way to become the musician you want to be. And technology can really facilitate that!

  4. this is a very useful site.
    this site is very useful for us because we learn many things from this site.
    thank you for this awesome post.


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