So You Want To Become a Better Musician
The advice provided describes two things: first, an ideal set of knowledge and skills goals for college-level applicants; second, competencies needed by musicians as they practice the various aspects of the profession in college and beyond or enjoy an amateur interest with music as a hobby. In brief, you should learn as much as you can as early as you can.
Take responsibility for your own development
Each musician brings a unique set of talents, aspirations, and abilities to the musical scene. You may be in school or maybe you are studying with a private teacher. It is important to take increasing responsibility for developing your particular abilities toward your specific goals. Ultimately, you are responsible for choices about how you use your time to improve your musical skills.
Practice, practice, practice
Whatever you do or intend to do in music, try to practice it as much as possible. This applies not only to your instrument and/or voice, but also to other types of musical work. For example, composers should practice composing, prospective teachers should try to observe and gain teaching experiences under appropriate supervision, those interested in music scholarship or criticism should practice writing and speaking on musical topics. No level of knowledge or skill that you can attain will be too high.
Perform alone and with others
Performance ability is essential for all musicians. You should be a good secure performer on at least one instrument or with your voice, whether or not you intend to have a performance career. Keyboard ability is important for the life work of most professional musicians but for the amateur even a small knowledge of keyboard harmony will help you understand more about the music you play. If you have keyboard skills you will have a head start as music student. Ensemble experiences of all kinds should be sought. Work in large and small ensembles develop different kinds of musical skills. Fine ensemble playing comes primarily through practice.
Master the basics
Be sure that you can read both treble and bass clefs, that you know key signatures, interval qualities, triad qualities, the major and minor scales, and how to write basic notation. Knowledge of musical terms and usage is important.
Develop your ear
Take every opportunity to train your ear by taking courses or studies in musicianship that include sight-singing, ear-training, sight-reading, rhythmic and harmonic dictation, and so forth. Developing the ear is a lifetime job. The earlier work is started, the better.
Hear as much music as you can
You need to be familiar with far more music than that which you perform. Try to hear as much music from as many historical periods and cultural sources as possible. Ask your teacher or a musical friend to recommend a listening list for you that covers the various solo, small, and large ensemble repertory in your performance area. Try to make sure that you have heard the major works of all types in the particular area of music that interests you. Listen more to learn the breadth and depth of the repertory than to enjoy what is already familiar. Whenever possible, follow the score as you listen.
Learn how music works
Take opportunities to learn the basics of musical structure, including studies in such areas as form, harmony, counterpoint, composition, and improvisation. Like so many other things in music, this knowledge is developed throughout a lifetime. Those who are able to get started early have an advantage. Work with your music teacher, join a music theory course if it is available where you live or work, take classes at your community music school if there is one, and otherwise explore opportunities to gain initial acquaintance with this material.
Study one or more foreign languages
Musicians practice their art internationally. You are likely to perform music with texts in foreign languages, and to work with musicians from all over the world. Significant musical scholarship and criticism are in foreign languages. If you seek advanced degrees in music, reading fluency in one or more foreign languages is often required. Since foreign languages are difficult for many people, you should begin acquiring knowledge and skills in at least one foreign language as early as possible. Consult with your music teacher about which languages are best for you.
Get a comprehensive 'high school' education
Music both influences and is influenced by other fields of study: the humanities, mathematics, the sciences, the social sciences, and the other arts architecture, dance, film, literature, theatre, and the visual arts. For entrance into college-level study, you are encouraged to gain a basic overview of ancient and modern history, the basic thought processes and procedures of math and science, and familiarity with works in as many of the other arts disciplines as possible. Most professionals who work with music comprehensively develop a particular sensibility about the connections among music, history, and the other arts. Understanding the basics of math and the sciences support future work in music technologies. Social studies are related to understanding the context for various musical endeavors. If you are too old to study at school, join local adult education classes or borrow or buy books so that you can read around these subjects.
Think of everything you study as helping you become a better musician
As we have already said, the best musicians continue to learn throughout their lives. They are always studying and thinking, always connecting what they know about music with their knowledge of other fields. Keep music at the center of your efforts, but accept and enjoy the challenge of gaining the kind of knowledge and skills in other areas that will support both formal studies at the college level or, if your interests are to be at a less exaulted level, your understanding of the culture from which the music springs.