Ok, first off, I want to say that the longer I study music, the more convinced I am that thinking correctly about what you’re doing is an essential element to doing it well.  That might be obvious in other vocations, but it seems like typical music education stresses doing and not thinking.  Both are necessary, but thinking is probably more necessary than is often acknowledged.

I wrote a post a few months ago about the various stages of the artistic pursuit, which is a broad topic for sure, but definitely aims at the thinking side of things.  Today’s post revolves around the more specific world of an instrumentalist, but is also aimed at the thinkers.  I’ve heard the following analysis elsewhere, but only recently, and it really blew my mind…

One can basically boil down the levels of technical accomplishment on an instrument into these four stages:

1. “Incompetent & Unaware”
You suck.  But, you suck so bad that you don’t even realize it.  The elements/components/characteristics of quality musicianship are so far out of your reach that you don’t even know they exist, and are therefore unaware that you lack them.  Normally, a teacher is needed to get you out of this stage.

2. “Incompetent & Aware
You still suck, but your knowledge of what that means has grown enormously.  You disappoint yourself because you can’t do what you want to do, but at least what you want to do is clear to you.  I suppose this is just another way to phrase the whole “knowing is half the battle” cliche.

3. “Competent & Aware
For this one I prefer the phrase “with effort” instead of the word “aware.”  The idea is that you have some skills on the instrument now, but, the skills are very taxing to you physically and mentally.  You can play, and you can even play pretty well, but you have to give it your all in order to make it happen.  You get tired quickly, and your mind is not free to think deeply about what you’re doing – the execution alone requires all your attention.  That’s why “effort” is a better word… because we’re not talking about some Zen sense of awareness – we’re talking about very specific and intentional mental and physical effort.

4. “Competent & Unaware
Again, I’d like to substitute the term “effortless” in place of “unaware.”  In this 4th and final stage of development, you realize that your skills are simply tools in a toolbox.  It requires no more effort/focus to play your instrument well than it does to lift a wrench and use it to tighten a bolt.  For example, I often try to think of my drums the way I think of my speech – that’s the goal anyway.  When I talk, I don’t dwell on the way my mouth needs to move in order to pronounce the words that I’m speaking.  Instead, I just think about what I want to say.  My mouth is just a tool, not an end in itself.  The reason I prefer again to avoid the word “unaware” is to avoid the conclusion that good players don’t think about what they’re doing.  This is a common misunderstanding it seems – the idea that the goal is to not have to think.  While I’m unaware of the specific movements my mouth makes while I speak, I am definitely still using my brain in specific and intentional decisions on what I’m saying.  Good musicians do the same thing.  Listening carefully to and analyzing what other musicians are playing, making decisions about what to play, and being intentional about executing what you play with precision – these are all very worthwhile tasks for your mind while playing music.  You’re not supposed to just zone out.

Ok, so…

The benefit of using these categories to identify where you’re at on your journey as an instrumentalist is being able to see what needs to happen next.  For me, it was that 4th category.  Once I arrived at the third category (which is where most 10-or-more-year-experience musicians are), I thought I had reached the final stage of being a musician.  I then just spent time trying to broaden my horizons, instead of further ingraining what I already could do.  Crossing from the 3rd to the 4th category is probably the biggest jump in ability and musicianship on the whole journey, and it seems to me to be the biggest difference between “the men and the boys” of the music world.  Striving to “speak with my instrument” as effortlessly as I speak with my mouth has really opened my eyes to the possibilities that the drumset offers, and I imagine I’ll be on this part of the journey for the rest of my life.

The end.