Musicians are a unique bunch. We spend a lot of time working hard, but that’s not all we do! Here are ten ways to be a real musician that you may not have thought of!
1. Make the classics new.
John Cage is a 20th-century composer known for his style of taking away control from both himself and the performer. This type of music can be called “aleatoric” (a.k.a. “chance”) music, but he preferred the term “indeterminate.”
4’33” (“four minutes thirty-three seconds” or just “four thirty-three”) is commonly referred to as a song of silence. The performer sits before an audience and remains quiet. Cage argues, however, that the music is in the sounds of the room itself: the creaks of chairs, the buzz of stage lights, the inevitable coughs of that person who is present in every concert hall, or even the sad ringing of a cell phone.
It’s divided into three movements (a traditional number). Many pianists carry a timer to the piano and close the lid to signify the beginning and end of each movement. See such a performance here. Although the performer in this embedded video doesn’t use a timer, it is a cheeky performance that reminds us to find ways to revive the classics.
It’s actually still under copyright (published in 1952), so if you’re interested in what the sheet music actually looks like, you can buy the score here.
2. Make the best of things you can’t control.
Eliane Rodrigues is a Brazilian international concert pianist and professor of piano at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp (Belgium). In this recital at De Doelen in Rotterdam (Netherlands), she quickly finds a mechanical malfunction with the pedal that makes the notes continue to ring regardless of whether or not her foot is on the sustain pedal. This is why pianists are the real daredevils of classical music—we can’t take our instruments with us!
Instead of panicking, she makes it a fun experience and experiments with the piano as she rides below the stage with it. My favorite part of this video is when she comes back up with the new piano: what an entrance! She chooses to have fun, so the audience does as well.
3. When in doubt, make it your own!
Ella Fitzgerald, “The First Lady of Song,” “Queen of Jazz,” “Lady Ella,” is known for her innate understanding of the jazz lexicon, evidenced in her improvisational skill, particularly scatting. Her popularity gave her roles in cinema and on television, and she even collaborated with other jazz greats, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
In her 1960 show in Berlin, she forgot the lyrics to the standard “How High the Moon” (lyrics by Nancy Hamilton and music by Morgan Lewis). Instead of just not singing, she handles it with grace and changes the lyrics to fit her situation.
How high the moon is the name of this song.
How high the moon, though the words may be wrong.
We’re singing it because you asked for it,
So we’re swinging it just for you
How high the moon, does it touch the stars?
How high the moon, does it reach up to mars?
Though the words may be wrong to this song,
We’re asking how high, high, high, is the moon?
She includes quite a few more surprises in addition to the scat she’s so well known for. Although the recording is around 7 minutes long (normal for jazz), it is a delight to listen to it in entirety.
4. Find your own style.
American contemporary classical composer Andy Akiho wrote a triple concerto around the use of a ping pong table. The world premier of Ricochet featured Ariel Hsing and Michael Landers, two American table tennis olympians, and David Cossin and Elizabeth Zeltser on percussion and violin, respectively.
We can actually thank John Cage and his contemporaries for the inclusion of “odd” instruments in music. Or even going to Tchaikovsky who included hammers and cannons in some of his work.
This is only a short segment that features the bass drum, but you can watch the entire work here. Just remember, if you think your work is unconventional, don’t throw it away. It’s your style; stick by it!
5. Give people a reason to smile.
“The Clown Prince of Denmark,” “The Unmelancholy Dane,” “The Great Dane,” Victor Borge is one of my favorite pianists of all time. Even before I played piano, his comedy held a place in my heart. With well-known skits like Phonetic Punctuation, it’s impossible not to smile.
I’ve always admired him not only for his beautiful playing but also for his skill in playing pieces backwards, like in this video, and cracking jokes at the same time. For a sample of a more serious recording, you can listen to a performance of a soft lullaby here.
6. Be yourself, always!
There are some real bangers out there in the realm of classical music. This girl loves some Mahler. This piece in particular is from a larger cycle called Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German poetry set by this nineteenth and twentieth century composer.
The beauty of sharing “silly” videos like this is that it shows her love for the music, and it makes people want to listen to the rest. If you’d like to (like I did), you can check out the entire song cycle with sheet music here.
Just…make sure you practice too.
7. Put those theory and orchestration classes to good use.
The Wind Symphony from Liberty University got their professor good. Admittedly, the Mii theme isn’t the most difficult melody to hear and notate, but this group had some real teamwork to pull this off. Not only did someone write out parts for each person, but the group as a collective whole had to decide when to do this.
Their director seems to be continuing a thought when he steps up to the podium, so it seems this happens in the middle of a rehearsal, so I’m really curious how they pulled it off.
Just remember to use your powers for good, not evil!
8. Honor your favorite musicians.
These two guys often cause me to spend too much time on the internet. They run the Youtube channel, TwoSet Violin. It resonates with musicians because it’s about life as a classical musician: school troubles, how parents treat you, teaching, and other funny videos like this one.
In this particular video, they remind everyone that violin is hard enough standing still, but trying to dance at the same time? Good luck. Lindsey Stirling pulls it off with incredible grace and agility. Whether or not you like her music, this parody video makes people smile. And bonus points for the cameo at the end!
9. Create community wherever you go.
Pianist Dotan Negrin took his upright piano on a world tour. In the process, he met tons of people and had the opportunity to collaborate with extraordinary artists. In New York, he ran into Ada Pasternak, a violinist who does covers and some really cool improv. Check out both their channels by clicking their names!
They continued to collaborate after this meeting, so remember you can make lasting connections wherever you go. Just keep playing and invite others into your fold.
10. Don’t forget to feel it!
Beethoven’s not for the faint of heart, but this kid nails it. My conducting teacher showed us this video to encourage us to loosen up and just feel the music. If a kid can do it, you can too!
Musicians can sometimes get caught up in getting all the notes right, but when it comes down to it, performing is about feeling. So summon your inner child and go get ’em!
There you have it, ten ways to become a real musician!
- Make the classics new.
- Make the best of things you can’t control.
- When in doubt, make it your own!
- Find your own style.
- Give people a reason to smile.
- Be yourself, always!
- Put those theory and orchestration classes to good use.
- Honor your favorite musicians.
- Create community wherever you go.
- Don’t forget to feel it!
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About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.