Musical Advice I’d Give My Younger Self

Let’s pretend for a moment that time travel exists. Besides disrupting the space/time continuum to visit the dinosaurs, joust with knights, or see Mozart perform (all high on my list!), I assume you’d also want to visit your former self to give them advice about the future (or maybe just leads on popular stocks).

I was practicing the Francaix Clarinet Concerto earlier this week and was thinking how awesome it would be if I could transfer my current technical abilities to a past version of myself (if only, if only!), which got me thinking about what I would tell past-Jenny. What would I do differently if I could restart my clarinet career with the knowledge I have today?

Below are music-related tips I wish I had known from a younger age. Some are specific to my musical path, but many are general tips I hope will benefit all musicians: Here are a few of my words of wisdom:

You will fail far more often than you will succeed. The classical music scene is highly competitive, and there aren’t enough jobs or opportunities for every musician. Failure does not make you any less of a player, so keep trying until you get your lucky break.

Everyone must find their own path. I used to get so jealous when I read the latest wunderkind’s biography. “Recent seasons include solo tours with Berlin, Vienna, and Chicago before the precocious age of three.” (an exaggeration, but I’m sure you’ve read some biographies along these lines). I would wonder what I was doing with my life and feel guilty when I felt I didn’t measure up. There are many roads to success, and you must find the path which is meant for you.

Music is not a competition. Ok, so maybe it’s a competition, say, at an actual competition. But even then, only a few winners can be chosen. That doesn’t mean you are better or worse than the other musicians. That just means the judges bought what you were selling (or maybe they didn’t!) on that particular day. It is impossible to accurately quantify and measure musical abilities, so don’t beat yourself up every time you don’t win an audition.

Practice your scales! (If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you probably knew this was coming.) Past-Jenny knew and “practiced” all her scales in middle and high school…but just in All State Band pattern. Newsflash: it’s not enough to simply know a basic scale (especially if you are relying on muscle memory alone). Learn your scales in every possible variety and pattern. Buy scale books and practice them religiously. Here are 52 ways to practice your scales if you need some inspiration. Start slowly and increase the tempo. Your future self thanks you for their solid technique.

Pay attention in music theory and music history. Sure, learning about Neopolitan chords or how Lully died after a freak conducting accident might not help you play the Francaix Concerto any faster, but that doesn’t mean they won’t make you a better musician. Music is not just about technical execution of your instrument. Truly well-rounded musicians are able to identify their repertoire in a historical and theoretical context. Stuck with an uninspired phrasing for a particular passage? Analyze the musical structure to identify high and low points of the phrase. Not sure how to play a musical ornament (mordent, trill, turns, etc.)? Refer to your music history textbook for authentic practices of the time. Music is such a comprehensive field that any extra knowledge you have will benefit your abilities as an instrumentalist as well.

Go to concerts. Take advantage of live music. I am extremely fortunate to live in Paris, where world-renowned artists perform every day, but you don’t have to live in a big city to enjoy concerts. Research local orchestras and community bands for their concert schedule. Don’t be afraid to talk to the musicians afterwards – congratulate them on a job well done. Ask questions. Musicians (no matter how talented they are) are normal people and enjoy getting to know other musicians. Make connections. You never know who you may meet at concerts.

Score study. When I was younger, I made the mistake of never reading scores. Despite performing countless concerti, band, and orchestral works, I never cracked open the score. I thought it was enough to just know my own part. WRONG! Not only does score study teach you important information about other instruments (reading in various clefs, instruments’ ranges, etc.), but it also teaches you how your part interacts with the other instruments. This is important to know when to bring out your line or when to play softer to support the melody.

Learn the piano. You don’t have to be the next Liszt, but know enough piano to make your life easier. Knowing basic piano skills will help with music harmony, theory, composition, and analysis.

Most importantly, enjoy the journey. There will be failure, rejection, criticism, heartbreak (who hasn’t been heartbroken when you didn’t win that important audition or made a mistake during an important performance?). You will spend a good chunk of every day for the rest of your musical life locked in a room alone with your instrument. There will be times you want to quit. You will get jealous of your non-musician friends who can escape their jobs after work. But you must remember to enjoy your musical journey. You will meet the most incredibly quirky, sympathetic, and truest friends in musicians. You will get to travel to places you’d never otherwise visit for performances. You’ll get to experience some of the most historically significant works of art when you play Beethoven, Mozart, or Mahler. You get to work with close friends and complete strangers to create something more powerful than yourself. You can express yourself without uttering a single word (unless your instrument is your voice). Living a musical life isn’t only gratification from grandiose public performances – it’s the magic you experience everyday when you notice new details in your music, nail that tricky passage, listen to a new work, and just have fun creating sound out of pure air. Musicians are the magicians that turn nothing into music.

While time travel may not be possible now, I hope this article helps you (especially my younger readers!) forge your musical path to the future. If you could travel back in time and give your younger self musical advice, what would you tell them? Leave a comment below!

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