Listening to new and unfamiliar music can really stimulate your playing, even if you don’t actually try to play it.
Many people only listen to music they already know. Sometimes it’s simply the comfort of the familiar, or nostalgia of some kind. And old song can be an old friend and a reminder of things past. When I was younger, listening to a song I loved was a rush. A good song was something to get lost in, and of course this is why most people stay so attached to the music they loved as teenagers. I’m no different, and I love music that brings me back. But that’s not always why I listen, and when I hear to music I used to love I tend to have one of two reactions. Sometimes I find that it doesn’t speak to me any more. I might appreciate what it was that attracted me then, but it doesn’t touch me now.
Often, though, I find new appreciation for the music. It’s exciting to hear details and nuances I wasn’t able to pick up on before. The rush of the new is gone, but in its place is a mature perspective on the songwriting, arranging, production, and the feeling and message itself. A craftsman’s admiration for good craftsmanship, and recognition of why my heroes spoke to me the way they did.
But I also listen to new music to put some new sounds in my ears.
This is what I’m finding myself doing right now. Some of it is new music in styles I know well, but a lot of it is challenging and different. I’ve always been open to new sounds, and when I was a student I tried to soak up everything I possibly could even if I didn’t understand it. New York City in the 1980’s had a thriving avant-garde music scene, and it was exciting to explore it no matter how weird things got. (And they got pretty weird). I may not listen to music like that very often, but it opened my ears and mind to sonic possibilities I never would have dreamed of.
Nowadays, I find that listening to more challenging music pushes me out of my familiar routines as a player, and that’s a very good thing. The fact is, if I get complacent I’ll start to get bored. You may have experienced this yourself -in fact, I’m sure you have. As with any other relationship, sometimes we need to shake things up to revitalize our feelings. And if we’re too comfortable, the music loses something important. The skills don’t suffer, in fact they might be better then they ever were. But if you’ve ever seen a favorite band later in their career and felt like something was missing, you know what I’m talking about. No matter how much I may still enjoy playing in familiar styles, I don’t want to lose the spark. That means making sure it doesn’t become mindless.
When we’re just learning to play or absorbing a new style, we want to get comfortable and be able to play without overthinking.
When we’ve fully absorbed a song (or style) we’re able to play it without thinking at all. But not using the conscious mind doesn’t mean being unconscious. The goal is to be un-SELF-conscious. We want our playing to be effortless, to achieve a flow state where the music just happens. We don’t want it to be automatic.
Listening to new music that makes you think can make you think differently when you play. New ideas create an expanded vocabulary and new sounds from your instrument. This is essential for growth. We practice so we don’t have to be at the edge of our ability all the time, but then reach a point where we need to push ourselves back to that edge. For an experienced player, that edge is way ahead of where it was early on, but that doesn’t matter. The thing that matters is that being on the edge stimulates growth and creativity. Being comfortable doesn’t open new doors, but willingness to be uncomfortable can lead to magic.
Every great step forward I’ve ever taken in my musical life has started with a blind leap.
Sometimes that leap means a challenging song or musical environment. And sometimes it’s as simple as putting on music you don’t fully understand just to see what’s going on. That doesn’t have to be a dramatic move. It doesn’t mean enduring something you really don’t like because it’s “good for you”. But it does mean recognizing that your musical vocabulary should always keep growing, and that reaching outside your comfort zone as a listener can do the same for you as a player.
The process doesn’t have to be conscious. There’s a lot to be said for copping licks: listening and imitating. Don’t rely on tabs, although you can use them as a reference. Use your own ears too. It’s a big part of how I learned and how I built my vocabulary. But we can absorb unconsciously just from listening. You might pick up other details than specific notes: details of phrasing, tone, and articulation. Even if you don’t imitate exactly what you heard, hearing someone else’s different approach might stimulate you to look for something different yourself.
Remember that sameness and stagnation are root causes of the perpetual beginner syndrome. Recognize when you’ve let yourself get too comfortable as a listener, not just a player. Sometimes all it takes to revitalize your growth is to open your ears.