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Focus on Fundamentals

“Fundamentals will save your [butt] every day, and twice on Sundays.” Bob Reynolds

With the proliferation of videos and online courses for musicians over the last decade, it’s easier than ever to find something new and exciting to study and practice. While it is exhilarating to have all this material to add to our routines, it is crucial to still make time to work on the basic building blocks of musicianship.

The fundamentals lay the groundwork for everything else we learn, allowing us to understand music deeply, as well as to create and perform at our best. These might include technique, time feel, transcription, theory, and ear training. An effective practice routine will support further development and refinement—or at the very least maintenance—of these skills, to allow us to express ourselves freely, comfortably, and confidently.

To further develop our musicianship and well roundedness, we can extend the definition of fundamentals to include a wider range of skills. In Victor Wooten’s book The Music Lesson, Victor and his fictional teacher Michael brainstorm ten equal “elements of Music.” These are: notes, articulation, technique, feel, dynamics, rhythm/tempo, tone, phrasing, space, and listening. Many musicians miss out on most of these elements, but they are all important to develop if we want to reach our full potential. As Michael explains to Victor: “The elements of Music are the individual parts that make up Music as a whole. Many musicians like yourself struggle because you are not familiar enough with all the elements. You rely mostly on one or two of them when you play. Doing that is a great recipe for frustration…Actually, it would be nearly impossible to become a great musician without using all of these elements.”

Although focusing on these elements of music might feel too rudimentary to be useful, there is always something to be gained from returning to old material with fresh and more experienced ears and minds. As you improve at your craft, your perspective changes, offering you a chance to go deeper with something you already know. This strengthens your musical core, which allows you to develop even further so you can work on even more challenging things. The relationship between the basics and becoming a higher skilled musician is symbiotic: the more advanced something is, the more it relies on having a strong foundation of fundamentals, and the better we become, the more we can appreciate and improve on the basics.

Every art and craft has a set of rudimentary skills that not only need to be developed, but also maintained. Pushing ourselves to become better musicians—to build more advanced skills and deepen our understanding—requires a reliable foundation. Every musician will benefit from making fundamentals a regular part of their routine.

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