12 Essential Habits for Smart Musicians

Strangely, one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received is, “You’re such a nerd.”

I know, kind of weird for me to say that. But the truth is, if you can’t geek out over something, you’re too uptight. You have to dive deep in order to get the most out of life.

And we musicians can be a nerdy bunch. I’m here to tell you that is a very good thing.

When it comes to music, I’m a nerd. I’ve spent most of my life hanging out with nerdy musicians who have taught me what it takes to be effective, in demand and influential.

So I wanted to go big with this post, listing 12 attributes I’ve learned from great musicians over the years. I’m sure there are more. That’s why your thoughts in the comments are much appreciated.

May this inspire you to become a musical nerd—one who cares, believes and communicates from the depths of your soul.

12 Essential Habits of Smart Musicians

Smart musicians:

1. Never Stop Learning—What I’ve noticed about my favorite musicians is their insatiable desire to learn. They learn everywhere and from anyone. Older, younger, experienced, amateur—they are never “above” the place of learning. Matter of fact, this is what makes them great.

2. Listen to Many Genres—Sure, smart musicians like to keep up to date with what is fresh. But fresh isn’t always better. They are in tune with many genres and sounds. They realize that this is what gives them their unique edge: combining influences that no one is used to. They make connections between hip-hop and rock, shoegaze and classical, country and reggae, top 40 radio and the bands no one has ever heard of. Everyone has their preferences, but great musicians don’t allow themselves to be completely boxed in. They are open—seeing the beauty of music in all its different forms.

3. Practice Awareness—A great musician is more aware of other musicians than himself. Her only place is within the pocket of what the rest of the band is creating. He listens more than plays. She adds only when it contributes to the feel.

4. Focus on Feel Over Flash—I have a friend who can play drums with the best of them. The most technical, intense tune isn’t beyond his reach. Yet when we’ve been arranging songs, I realized his passion wasn’t to show all that he could do. It was more about how the music felt—how his part felt. Music is more about feeling than it is flashing all of your technical prowess.

Here’s one way to determine if you’re working with an immature musician: They negatively talk about how simple the music is. They are bored with the simplicity. A great musician steps into the simple and sees the beauty, feels the beauty and contributes to make that simplicity even more beautiful. It’s not about showing all that you can do all the time. It’s about making the simple sound like the best thing in the world.

5. Serve the Song—Great musicians don’t force their agenda on a song. They don’t approach a song based on what they can do, they approach it based on what the song needs. The song is “king.” That’s why a great musician is OK with not playing sometimes. That’s why a great drummer doesn’t complain about a “four on the floor” groove. Smart musicians know when to go big and when to simplify.

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David Santistevan
David is a Worship Pastor at Allison Park Church in Pittsburgh, PA.