The P.O.P. Approach to being a Well-Rounded Musician

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A few years back, I was in a discussion with my buddy Ted Tretiak.  We were talking about what seems to separate good musicians from mediocre musicians, and what someone can do (besides just practicing your instrument) to get to a higher place musically. The result was a hypothesis of a “3 pronged” approach to learning everything you can about your craft.  This is a topic that I love talking about and have been integrating into a lot of my clinics and masterclasses.

In an effort to remember this concept a little better, I came up with the acronym P.O.P. which simply stands for Practice, Observe, and Perform.  Now hang with me for a minute, because at first, this concept is going to seem extremely elementary.  Yeah; it is.  However, as simple as this concept is, many of us continually break the rules of this mantra – myself included.  I really believe that if you adopt this concept into your playing and practice habits ultimately you will become a much better musician.

Let’s first examine what the P.O.P. principle is.  Take a look at this diagram:

Think of each one of the circles (represented by a different primary color) as a separate entity that we all have as part of our lives, musically speaking. Although these are separate tasks that we must perform, the three need to be placed at the same level of importance.  I’d be willing to bet that in your case (mine too), at least one or two of these normally takes a higher precedence over the others at some point in time.

Let’s break this down even further:

Practice: Simple, right?  This is your woodshed time…time to get out the books, videos, metronomes, etc. and work on problem areas.  ALSO practice can mean other things besides the physical act (check out my blog “Unusual Places, Unusual Paces” which discusses some unconventional ways to practice outside of the woodshed).

Observe: Quite simply, this means listening to music.  Reading about music.  Watching Videos.  Analyzing CDs (or these days MP3s).  Going to see live concerts and shows.  It can even be as simple as having a conversation with someone about some music that perhaps you’ve never heard of or getting turned on to a new group or artist.  It also means studying; perhaps learning about a particular style or genre that you’re unfamiliar with.

Perform: Just what it says – public performances.  It really doesn’t matter if there are 2 people in the audience or 20,000 people.  The value of a public performance is immeasurable.  It can also mean other things as well; producing a video, recording, sitting in on a gig, etc.

Hopefully at this point, this is starting to get a few light bulbs going in your head.  I’m not producing any ground-breaking thought here folks.  This is not a new concept, yet I’ll bet a lot of you haven’t looked at learning music in this way.  Here’s where the fun and I think the genius of this hypothesis really comes out…

1st Grade Science Lesson: There are 3 primary colors: red, blue, and yellow.  Red and blue make purple.  Red and yellow make orange.  Yellow and blue make green.  Just like these three colors meld together to make a harmonizing principle, so does the P.O.P. principle.

In order for this whole thing to work out, you need to be working on all three areas.  Sometimes they might be individually (as listed above), sometimes together and sometimes you will execute all three at the same time.  In fact, in my opinion, that’s really the goal.  For example; it’s totally possible to practice while performing.  Miles Davis encouraged his bands to do just that.  I’ve done it – we’ve all done it in some sort or fashion.  What about performing while practicing?  Absolutely – anybody that’s spent a bit of time in marching band knows that you try to practice as if you’re performing so that you’re fully prepared when performance time comes.  In addition, Observing may be one of your biggest assets.  Of course you’re listening while watching a performance.  You’re listening in rehearsal, whether it’s to what you are doing during an exercise, or listening to other players if you are in a group ensemble.

You can see how there are a myriad of examples that could go on and on of how these three important concepts work together in perfect harmony.  Like I said:  it’s a very elementary concept.  However, I know for a fact that there’s times that people ignore one and sometimes two of these concepts.  Think about it; we all know the one guy that has spent his life in the practice room.  He’s got chops for days, but no experience.  When that rare performance time comes, it’s evident.  It sounds like he’s sitting at home with the metronome working on exercises.  How about the person that never practices?  Even worse to me is the one that I think most people are guilty of: Observing.  You have to expand your musical horizons.  Whether it’s listening to other people doing a similar style of music or opening your ears to a whole new experience, the concept of always learning more about your craft is completely invaluable.  I’m not saying that you have to listen to Indian Ragas over and over.  I AM saying that you should be familiar with what an Indian Raga is and have at least listened to a few examples.

So the goal is to find that sweet spot; the point where all three of these concepts live together in harmony helping each other out. Find yourself living in the orange, purple, green, and black spots(If my photoshop skills were better, that sweet spot would be black, as the three primary colors typically produce black, or a dark color near to that).  Hopefully this concept can be helpful to someone the next time you’re practicing or wondering if you’re spending too much time listening to music or attending concerts.  I think any good teacher should integrate all of these elements into a well-rounded curriculum as well.  Hardly anyone questions the value of practicing.  Therefore, it is my charge that no one should ever question the value of observing and performing, either!

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