Learning the Music World: How to find your groove in a world with so many choices

I get this question all the time: How do I REALLY learn to play an instrument, learn how to play with others, learn to be in a band, etc.? There are SO many choices and options and nothing seems to help. It was a question I had at one time as well and I know options were much more limited then. We live in a world of information and sometimes the information is overwhelming. Just the process of learning an instrument these days gives you a withering array of choices. Is this YouTube instructor the best? Is YouTube the place to learn? If I decide to buy this method for my chosen instrument, is it going to help me learn? How can I learn how to be in a band and play in a band if I’m not actually in a band? How do I find others to play with? If I play with people of just my skill level, how will I ever get better?

I understand all of this. I follow a lot of singers, guitarists and harmonica players on YouTube and Instagram. All of them focus on particular things and it is hard to know IF that is actually important, if it is just their personal take on things, how I start to learn that thing from where I am right now, etc. Are they REALLY sharing (as is often claimed) the “secret sauce,” the keys to effortless mastery,” etc.? There are lots of good nuggets being shared on these sites. It is at least interesting and gives you inspiration often and something to work for. I think there are also some usable pieces of information shared and sometimes it is in a usable and accessible form for the average player—but sometimes not.  Things can be confusing and sometimes contradictory, and there is just SO much. How can the average player even know where to start?

I was on this search before there were such things as YouTube and Instagram. I do respect those platforms and sometimes wish things like this were available when I was learning. I do think there is value there—up to a point. However…

There is no substitute for personal coaching and mentoring in most regards. Learning to be a musician, especially if you are looking to find mastery in particular genres, is best done person to person.

My big focus for years was the blues world. Blues is an art form. There is a history, a catalogue, language, and culture surrounding this music. I remember being coached on something as specific as how to play behind a harmonica player and all the right ways to play shuffles. Just that one groove has a range of subtle approaches and you can really learn it in the context of working with someone else who can guide and mentor you. There is just way too much involved in this process for it to happen any other way. I know for a fact that this is true for most any genre of music that you may want to really live and go deep with.

No method or video series, regardless of the knowledge and skill of the person doing it knows where any other person is on this journey NOW. This is important. I have coached and mentored several players over the years. It was the relationship that partly contributed to the success of our work together. Also, when I have taken on students in a more structured way, I was able to assess where they were, what they knew and could plan out a process of tailored lessons to help them meet their goals and learn the subtle things that can make a difference and contribute to the next aha moment. No video series can do that really. In my experience you can also spend a LOT of money getting video series after video series and, at best, have a bit of a knowledge base and some pieces to the puzzle. This can be helpful, but I have always found it incomplete and sometimes incredibly frustrating. I also think players who have only learned this way are missing critical experiences and information that help things to fit together.  

Lastly, I want to talk more about formal mentoring relationships—their importance and the necessity of these relationships for the future of many music genres. It is a part of our history. As just one example, the legendary stories of how players in the London music scene mentored and supported young and up-and-comers are incredible. There was literally half a degree of separation between most of the great players you recognize as as legends of British blues and rock–Clapton, Beck, Page, Green, Richards, Frampton, etc. Peter Frampton has great stories of relationships with older players like Keith Richards and later George Harrison. One of my favorite stories involved the great Rory Gallagher when a young kid named Brian May (later of Queen) asked him what the secret to his guitar sound was. Brian literally built an entire career from the information he got in that meeting and Rory was only to happy to help.

This same thing has been true in my own life. I made connections with and asked for help from key players in the music scenes I was around and got a real education about everything related to music, being in a band, instrument and amp set up, etc. It requires that sometimes you are a bit (to put it nicely) persistent. It also may require that you approach people and formally ask for help and be prepared to do a lot of work and pay something for the privilege of being around the music. I humped a lot of gear for other people’s bands, cleaned beer bottles up from practice spaces, etc. just to be around the music, learn what things were and see how pro players approached this work. I helped set up and watched band rehearsals and was part of pre and post gig conversations. This is invaluable experience. I am not sure this is as common today as it once was, however, for me personally I see this as a mission– to pass it on to others in the same way it was passed on to me. I know for a fact that this is how these good things will continue.

For in-person or virtual lessons, coaching and mentoring with Mark, contact him at: imwiththebandmz@gmail.com and visit his website at: www.im-with-the-band.org

Mark Zanoni

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