My last blog post was 10 Secrets and Shortcuts to Improve Your Skills. Number 7 on that list was to “Visualize Success.” For this post and the next few posts I’m going deeper into the visualization process.

I want to spend time outlining everything that makes visualizations so effective. And, I want to give you steps to take to make visualizations a regular part of your quest for musical mastery.

“Visualization” is a funny word. It makes you think about seeing. About looking. About eyesight. Maybe about watching a movie.

Like a successful movie, visualizations go far beyond what you can see. Visualizations need more than sights. They also need sounds, tactile sensations, emotions, and a plot.

And, your visualizations need a lead character or hero. That hero is you.

Visualizations tell your story. It’s a story of a successful performance, audition, rehearsal, or lesson.

In this story, you enter the space where you’ll be playing music. You feel what it’s like to be there. You picture everything in the room. You hear whatever sounds are there. You feel the heat of the lights or the cold draft of the air conditioning.

As you prepare to perform in your visualization, you know that you will play your best. You fill your mind with positive thoughts and picture yourself at the height of your skills.

When you are full of confidence, it’s time to play. Start performing your music.

As you move forward, take complete control of every aspect of your playing. Your technique, tone, and intonation will all be flawless. Every note, phrase, and section will be shaped exactly as you’ve always wanted them to sound.

If you feel you’re starting to lose your musical battle, mentally adjust your feelings and keep moving forward. Make yourself feel great. Continue performing perfectly.

You’ll take control of the visualization and get the exact outcome you desire. After all, this performance is in your mind. As the hero of your musical story, you can do anything you want.

In the end, you emerge from your visualization successful and triumphant. You’ll know what it feels like to taste victory.

What would happen if you made this process a regular part of your practicing and performance preparation? Do you think you would feel better about your playing?

In my next post, I’ll talk about why visualization is such an effective tool. It’s something that should be in every musician’s arsenal.


What’s your answer when someone asks you, “How can I get better as a musician?”

I hope you don’t say, “Spend more time practicing.” Most people don’t know how to practice. So, if they spend more time practicing, it won’t actually help them.

Here’s what will happen to them instead:

  • They’ll keep making mistakes, but more mistakes than normal since they’re spending more time practicing.
  • They’ll keep feeling frustrated, but now they’ll feel frustrated longer than before.
  • They still won’t know the answer to the question, “How can I get better?”

I’d like to answer their question.

Here are 10 proven secrets, shortcuts, and strategies to improve musicians’ skills.
Every item on this list will speed up your learning:


1. Listen, Listen, Listen
Don’t even practice a song until you know exactly how it sounds. Know how the song or the riff or the melody actually goes, note by note. Be able to sing it. Be comfortable with it in your mind. This will wildly decrease the amount of time it takes you to learn to play the song on your instrument.

2. Break Everything Down
I mean everything. Pitches. Rhythms. Phrases. Breathing. Fingering. Song Forms. Note Lengths. Timbre. Everything. Work everything down to the smallest unit that you can work on. Fix small, specific problems and stop worrying about the big picture of performing.

3. Go Slow
Go really slow. Go really, really slow. So slow that there is no possible way to make a mistake. So slow that you can feel and fix details in your technique that you didn’t even know about at “normal” practice speeds.

4. Don’t Perform
Don’t spend your practice time performing or running through entire songs. Runthroughs are not helpful until the final phase of practicing. That final phase only happens when you are actually ready to perform. The earlier phases of practicing are about problem solving. Doing a runthrough before you’re ready can actually be harmful.

5. Narrow Your Focus
What would happen if, for just a few short minutes, you put all of your energy and concentration into fixing one musical issue? Just one. What if you were so focused that you didn’t even notice things going on in the same room? If all you see, hear, feel, and think about is the one issue you’re fixing, you will make amazing progress.

6. Know What You’re Doing
Never practice for the sake of practicing. Always have something you’re trying to accomplish – a small, specific goal just for today. Accomplishing a small goal is addictive, leading to more goal setting and more achievement. Before you know it, these small accomplishments will make you a better musician!


7. Visualize Success
Most musicians worry that they’re going to do something wrong. You’ve got to turn this on its head. Spend some time each day doing a multi-sensory visualization of yourself playing flawlessly and loving it. See it. Hear it. Feel it. Be it. You control the visualization. After all, it’s in your mind! Visualize perfection.

8. Stop Stopping
Nearly every musician naturally practices in such a way that they teach themselves mistakes. They play until they make a mistake, abruptly stop, go back, barely fix the mistake, and move on. All this teaches you is to include mistakes, stops, and fixes in your performances.

9. Be Hard on Yourself
I don’t mean to tell yourself that you don’t sound good or that you can’t play something. I mean:

  • Pay attention to the little things you usually let slide.
  • Play exactly in tune. Exactly.
  • Be extremely precise with your rhythms and tempos.
  • Always be as exacting as possible.

10. Know Who to Listen To
Don’t pay attention to other aspiring musicians – some with less experience than you – who will try to tell you how things work. This information will be based solely on their own experience and may not have anything to do with you and your needs.

Instead, learn from experts who truly know what they’re talking about. Pay attention to these people. They understand how things really work. They won’t just give you their personal opinion. Their ideas will be based on proven methods backed up by research and by the top people in their area of expertise.


Musicians are always looking for constant improvement in their skills and in their performances. This is no different than what athletes go through. You’ve got to dedicate yourself to some sort of daily workout, keep your eyes on the long-term prize, and be persistent.

I coach a lot of musicians, and I make sure they focus on a set of activities that will lead them toward success.

Here are ten rules that top musicians all follow:

1. Accentuate the Positive

There’s a constant stream of negative thoughts running through most people’s brains. This is like a static of white noise you’ve got to tune out. When you filter out this negativity and focus on positive thinking and positive wording, you get closer to achieving your musical goals.

2. Motivate from Within

Be clear on why you’re on the musical journey. Know what’s really important to you as a musician. Do you want to master a single song? A certain genre? Do you just want to see improvement day to day and week to week? It’s pretty hard to stay motivated if you’re looking for outside sources to keep you going. Audiences, the general public, and the music industry are all fickle. Search inward for what really keeps you going to do the daily work needed to improve your music.

3. Get Gritty

Grit is the willingness to persevere and overcome obstacles no matter what is thrown at you. It’s a combination of passion for a long-term goal and motivation to achieve all of the short-term goals that eventually lead to that long-term goal. Successful musicians know that each day they’ll need to do whatever is necessary to stay on the path that will lead them to achieving their long-term dream. If you want to cultivate grit, you’ll need to fully commit to consistently practicing – no matter what.

4. Have Specific Goals

You’re always better off when your daily goals and plans are as specific as possible. Put these plans in writing, including specific strategies that will help you achieve your daily goals. One important strategy for successful musicians is to know what you’ll do when you face frustration. The most common frustration for musicians is not being able to play something you really want to play. Improving your skills is a long-term endeavor, and you’re bound to have days when you just can’t play the notes you want to play. So, you need a strategy for this. Here are a few to try: (1) Slow way down and play one note at a time, (2) Stop playing the music that frustrates you and play something else instead, and (3) take a break and come back to the frustrating music later in the day.

5. Visualize Success

This rule is probably the most intriguing of my Top Ten Practice Tips and the one that is the most neglected by musicians. It’s especially neglected by musicians who aren’t seeing any improvement in their playing, the very people who need this strategy the most! Before you play something, see, hear, and feel yourself playing it perfectly – exactly as you want to play it. Then, try actually playing it. You’ll be amazed at the results.

6. Don’t Do Everything

Soloing or warmups? Scales or songs? Long tones or rhythm exercises? You can overwhelm yourself if you don’t have clear priorities. Every day, define what your top goal is and spend much of your playing time achieving that goal. Sure, you’ll need to practice other material too. But, stay focused on one thing you can really accomplish today.

7. Burn Your Ships

There was once an invading army landing on the shore of the country they were invading. The general had their ships burned at sea so there was no possibility of retreat. They would either be victorious or they would perish. The best musicians live their lives this way. They don’t give themselves any possibility of retreat. Never say, “Oh, it’s okay. I’ll practice tomorrow” or “I’m going to skip that really tough music today and get to it later in the week.” To put it bluntly, these are lies unsuccessful musicians tell themselves. Do not give yourself an out.

8. Be Flexible

Inevitably, there will be days when you can’t get in the practicing you want to. Work schedules, rehearsals, and life in general can get in the way. When this happens, you can’t worry about it. Just put in 10 minutes of something having to do with your music. Even if you never made it to the practice room, just do a visualization before you go to sleep. For today, that’s what will keep you on your musical path. Cut yourself some slack!

9. Believe in Yourself

If you believe that you can become a master musician, you will automatically do little things and take small steps that will lead you toward mastery. If you have negative, self-defeating beliefs, you are less likely to take helpful steps. You can’t focus on criticism from other musicians, from critics, or from family members. You’ve got to be strong. If you’re having difficulty building up this mental strength, ask your music teacher or performance coach for guidance. Together, the two of you will create a belief system that will propel you forward. This is a major part of what I do with every musician I work with, and the results are astonishing.

10. Celebrate Good Times

The most successful musicians recognize and reward their small accomplishments. Each little benchmark or milestone gets some sort of reward attached to it. If you don’t appreciate the small victories, you run the risk of getting bored with the process of daily practicing and even getting down on yourself and turning negative. (See Rule 1.)


In ancient times (pre-Internet, pre-broadband, pre-SmartPhone), musicians really only had a few choices for learning to play their instruments, figuring out how music theory works, understanding music history, and grappling with the music business:

1) Go see a private music instructor
2) Read and study a lot of books
3) Take a class at a local college

Luckily, those days are over. Sure, you still have all of those choices (though instead of reading books, you might now be watching online videos or reading text on your Kindle), but a whole new world has opened up with the invention of MOOCs.

What is a “MOOC”? MOOC stands for “Massive Open Online Course” and it is taking the world by storm. You now have the opportunity to enroll in college courses online and take self-paced lessons online. Some MOOCs are free, and some cost thousands of dollars and earn college credits toward a degree.

Colleges, universities, and companies have all climbed aboard the MOOC bandwagon, and there are many, many offerings for musicians. Here are some of the possibilities for you to improve your music knowledge and skills:


This company has over 100 music courses, from free to $300. Some courses are designed by experts and some by musicians who want to share what they know.


Coursera specializes in making college courses available to the public online. You follow the instructor’s schedule and get access to all of their materials.

Berklee College of Music

Berklee has many online offerings and has taken the lead among major schools in making their courses available worldwide via the internet:
BerkleeShares: This includes free sample courses.
BerkleeX: In partnership with edX, free online courses, but limited subjects right now.
Berklee Online: Berklee’s courses offered online for college credits and continuing education credits. Most of these courses are over $1,000.

This is a stand-alone website that is offering its own courses in music software and music recording as well as online lessons for guitar, piano, drums, bass, and vocals.


Like Udemy, a leading company for online learning. Currently Udacity has no music offerings. It seems inevitable that they will expand their courses in the future.

Education Portal

This website has listings and links to free online music courses.

If you’ve been thinking that now is the time to improve your music knowledge and skills, you have many ways to get that knowledge quickly and efficiently.

Let me know if you have other sources of online music learning.

There’s nothing more frustrating for musicians than trying to learn a song from a recording while the music is going by so fast you can barely keep up with it! Luckily, there are now many tools out there that slow down the music without changing the pitch.

Having this ability is a HUGE time-saver. And, it eliminates the frustration so common when learning from recordings. Whether you’re learning to play a part, transcribing a line note-for-note, or getting the chord changes, listening at a slower tempo is the best!

Here are some technologies to check out, and – as always – if you have suggestions or would like to discuss your experience with this technology, please comment here or on the MoltoMusic Facebook page.

Amazing Slow Downer

This was the first software with this functionality that became widely known among musicians several years ago. It’s still going strong.




This software, from Seventh String, has a lot of features to help with transcribing, playing along with the recording, and other things musicians will want when they slow down the recording.



Other Technologies to Slow Down Recordings

This website has a forum discussion about other technologies that musicians are using to slow down recordings. I haven’t seen any reviews that absolutely, positively say that one of these is the best for musicians. Let me know what you think.





Knowing music theory helps musicians learn songs faster, recognize chord progressions, understand everything they’re playing and more. If you’re looking for ways to make learning music theory, there are more tools available than ever before in human history!! Tools, books, software, online courses, apps – you name it and it’s out there for you.

Here are just a few. And, please comment on this post if you’ve got a favorite tool for mastering music theory!

Bradley Music Rule

This looks like an old-school slide rule that’s designed to help musicians learn piano chords, guitar chords, read basic pitches in treble and bass clef, and more.


Theta Music Trainer


This website has a bunch of games for learning music theory and more. A wide variety of games to choose from, depending on just what you need to learn.




Music Theory Apps for your Phone or Tablet


This site recommends some apps for learning music theory. And, there are many, many more apps out there to help you conquer music theory – some free, some paid.




GamePlan1The title of today’s blog is a quote from Dr. Barry Rovner, a psychiatrist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. He says to “follow the plan” to help his elderly patients who are losing their sight. It turns out that patients who have a specific plan to work around their difficulty with seeing are able to remain positive and move forward with their lives.

Patients who just spend their time thinking about how difficult their life is often suffer from depression.

What’s all this got to do with musicians?

Well, I’ve long felt that the typical way that musicians practice can cause mental difficulties for them. While it might not lead to full-blown depression, the wrong practice routine will certainly have a negative effect on musicians’ moods.

Here’s the Typical (UNHEALTHY) Practice Process for Most Musicians:

(1) You go into a room by yourself to practice.

(2) In your practice room, you do a bunch of repetitive things.

(3) While you’re doing these repetitive things, you tell yourself – over and over – everything you’re doing wrong.

(4) You start to wonder why you’re doing so many things wrong. You get to the point where you’re not sure you’ll ever do them right. Maybe you even think something is wrong with you!

(5) You repeat this process every day for 10 years…

After a while, you’ll look like this:


There’s Got to be a Better (HEALTHY) Way!

Like Dr. Rovner, I think there’s a better way. And, it all starts with a plan.

Every day before you start your practice session, here’s what you need:

(1) A specific list or practice priorities (What you’ll practice.)

(2) A specific goal for each practice priority. (Why you’ll practice.)

(3) A predetermined amount of time to spend on each practice priority, so that it’s ok, really, to walk away from that item at the specified time. (How much you’ll practice.)

(4) A starting time and an ending time for your practice session, so that you make practicing a priority and so that it’s okay to stop practicing when you reach your end time. (When you’ll practice)

Your Plan Eliminates Negative Feelings

success-signHere’s what this process does:

  • It gets rid of guilt.
  • It frees you to simply work your plan for today and then walk away from playing music.
  • It lets you know that you did exactly what you intended to do today – and that’s a great feeling.

If you work your plan – no matter how you feel while you’re practicing – then you did what you were supposed to do today. That’s all you can ever ask of yourself.

Just show up, put in the work, follow your plan, and congratulate yourself.

Of course some days will feel better than others. Of course you’ll get more done on some days than others. Of course some days you’ll feel successful and some other days you’ll feel unsuccessful.

These feelings do not matter.

What matters is the plan. Set it up and follow it! Don’t practice only when you feel like it, and don’t trust those feelings that tell you that you’re not making any progress today. You ARE making progress!


Links on Memorizing Music

Following my blog post last week on memorizing music, I received requests for more information on memorizing. Here are some of the many ideas on this subject from teachers and experts:

Advice from Music Educators and Other Experts

Memorize-Head30+ Ways to Memorize Music from Chris Foley at the Collaborative Piano Blog.

Two Strategies for Memorizing Music from Robert Kelley, PhD.

How to Eliminate Memory Slips is an intriguing article from Noa Kageyama at BulletProof Musician.

6 Quick Tips for Memorizing Music from Paul Nazarro.

An interesting article comparing how folk musicians and classical musicians memorize music from Caroline Wright of the Memorising Music blog.

An article on Shadow Practicing from the Violin Site.

How to Improve Music Memorization Skills: information from the blog of online sheet music retailer SheetMusicPlus.

Information on Chunking

Here are a couple places to learn more about “chunking” or breaking large amounts of information in to smaller parts that are easier to remember:

Here’s a general definition of chunking.

An article on chunking from the folks at SkillsToolBox.

Take It Slow!

One thing all of these strategies have in common is that they are not “quick fixes.” If you’ve got to memorize a song to perform it tomorrow, you are definitely facing a huge challenge! Give yourself time, work on memorizing every day as you learn a new section of a song, and make it a normal – NOT a special – part of your learning process.


I’m on a mission to help musicians learn faster and better so they can practice more efficiently and effectively and perform more confidently and with more control.

To complete this mission successfully, I draw on many resources to make sure I’m giving sound advice to musicians:
• my decades of experience as a professional musician and teacher music-brain-15
• interviews with other musicians and music educators
• books, articles, journals, websites, and blogs that cover everything from teaching music to changing your thinking to a success mindset
• academic research on any topic that can be applied to learning and performing music

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on memorization, and there is a LOT of information available. In no particular order, here are some of the best tips to help musicians memorize more effectively:

1. Memorize Early and Often: Don’t make memorization something special to do at the end of the learning process. Memorization happens as musicians learn to play each short section of the song.

2. Avoid the SAD Syndrome: Practice slowly enough that you don’t continually make a mistake, abruptly stop, go back and fix the mistake, and then move on. This process upsets the learning/memorization process. (I call this process the “SAD Syndrome.” SAD = Stop And Do-it-again. All musicians must avoid the SAD Syndrome to memorize successfully.)

3. Slow Down: Learn sections very slowly, so the muscles learn correctly the first time. When musicians play too quickly, they make mistakes over and over again. What ends up getting memorized are the mistakes!

4. Break It Down: Learn just one section at a time. This is known as learning “chunks” and chunking is probably the most recommended memorization tool for musicians.

5. Build Backwards: Once the musician can play each section accurately, play the last section. Then, play the last two sections. Then, the last three. Continue until you play the whole song.

6. Keep Listening: Listen to recordings of the song many times a day, before and during the learning process.

7. Sing and Play: Sing one section, then play it.

8. Differentiate Similar Sections: Be able to describe specific differences in similar sections. For instance: “The third section is just like the first section, but it ends on the high A instead of the low A.”

9. Don’t Go Top to Bottom: Do not work on a song from start to finish every time. According to learning specialists, this will most likely result in memory difficulties two-thirds to three-fourths of the way through.

10. Randomize the Order: Play the sections in random order, just to make sure you know each one individually.

11. Memorize from Recordings, not from Sheet Music: The memorization process is easier if you know how the music sounds, not just how it looks on paper. memory-headphones

12. Describe the Sections: If you can describe all the sections of your song (what order they’re in, how long each is, something specific about each section that helps your memory), they will be easier to play. It may seem strange to describe them using language, but these ideas will help you when you’re performing.

13. Try a Performance: It can be useful to run through an entire song when you think you know it. Even if you play some mistakes, it’s a good experience. Then, you can go back to the sheet music or recording to help fix what was broken.

14. See the Music: If you are using sheet music to learn a song, it can be helpful to see the written-out notes in your mind. You can “see” the notes on the top of page 4 as you play from memory.

15. Write It Down: See if you can write out the song form from memory.

16. Practice Away from Your Instrument: Visualize. Visualize. Visualize. Can you picture yourself playing flawlessly all the way through the song?

17. Look for Patterns: Especially in very complex music, seeing related patterns can help you learn and memorize more quickly. Also, you may need to play patterns that you already know well like scales and arpeggios. Define these patterns as you come across them.

18. Give Yourself a Break: Don’t try to do too much memorization at once. Mix in some other items on your practice list. This is what psychology researchers call “interleaving practice.”

19. Tell a Story: Many musicians find it helpful to assign characters, moods, colors, stories, metaphors, and other ideas to specific sections of a song in order to remember them better.

20. Vary Tempos: Playing very slowly is best for muscle memory. But, it’s important to be able to play your song faster than performance tempo too. This gives you the control you’ll need in a performance if you find yourself playing faster than you planned!

I’ll be writing about many of these memorization methods in future blog posts. Stay tuned!

And, if you have some memorization tips I didn’t include here, please leave a comment with your tips.

Go-to-ElevenHow loudly, or quietly, you play has a huge effect on how effective your performances are. The same music played at different volumes has different effects on listeners.

If you play more or less at one volume all the time, your playing might sound flat and uninteresting.

The best musicians play different sections of songs at different volume levels, and they also work to shape individual phrases, licks, and sections so grow or drop in volume note by note. This is the type of playing that is the most interesting – for you as a performer and for your listeners!

Before you can have such a wide dynamic palette in your playing, you’ve got to have the technique to easily change your volume level while playing. Here’s a good exercise to work on that:

The One-Octave Scale Exercise

Play a one octave scale. You choose which scale to play. Just make sure it’s something you know well, so you’re not thinking about which pitch to play next.
Version 1: As you go up the 8 notes of the scale, each note will get progressively louder. So the first note is as quiet as you can play and the last note is as loud as you can play. Then, you’ll go back down the scale from very loud to very soft. Go slowly and be sure to change your volume level on each note.

Version 2: This is the opposite of what you just did. Start the scale as loud as you can play. Get quieter on each note as you go up the scale. On the way back down, you’ll go from extremely quiet to extremely loud.

The Eight Dynamic Levels

The one-octave scale exercise is an amazing way to take control of your dynamics when you play. It gives you 8 different volume levels that you completely control with your technique. The exercise is extremely powerful and introduces you to a way of thinking when you play:

You can actually plan out which sections of a song will be played at which level. Or, you can say that you’ll crescendo during one phrase from Level 3 to Level 6. This gives you clear targets to enhance your expressiveness.

If you who read sheet music, you’ll see these 8 levels written down with specific markings:


Level 1: ppp (pianississimo – very, very quiet)

Level 2: pp (pianissimo – very quiet)

Level 3: p (piano – quiet)

Level 4: mp (mezzo piano – medium quiet)

Level 5: mf (mezzo forte – medium loud)

Level 6: f (forte – loud)

Level 7: ff (fortissimo – very loud)

Level 8: fff (fortississimo – very, very loud)

Be Expressive

Expressive_Singer1Using dynamics is one way to be more expressive when you play, and controlling these 8 levels of volume is the first step in effectively using dynamics to be a more expressive musician.

Once you control these dynamic levels, start experimenting with combining changes in your volume with changes in your tone, in how you attack notes, in how you sustain notes, and in every other subtle change to your sound you can come up with.