Your Comfort Zone, and How to Leave It

Lately I’ve been reading some good blog posts by Chad Shanks, who owns C-Sharp Productions. Most of his blogs deal with the art and craft of songwriting, but I’ve been able to find some gems in them that I can apply to practice, performing, and composing as well.

Of special note is “Get Out of Your Songwriting Comfort Zone.” The title immediately reminded me of a metaphor once used by Stephen Covey, who said that we were only able to walk on the moon because some brave men were willing to leave their comfort zone here on Earth. Shanks feels that songwriting is the same way; it’s easy to get into a rut and do the same old thing over and over again simply because you have had some measure of success with it. He offers some good suggestions to go boldly where you haven’t gone before: copy a chord progression from a song you probably wouldn’t write, or start from the end of the song.

As I was reading his suggestions, it dawned on me that I could use some of these techniques (with some adaptations) to get out of my comfort zone and practice, play, or compose as I haven’t before. So with a nod to Chad, here are a few of my own:

  • Practicing and Composing
    • Transcribe a song, then transpose it. I found that different keys can suggest alternate melodies or solos. Don’t ask why, they just do. Bonus points for transposing it into a key with more than 4 sharps or flats.
    • If you usually write in major keys, write one in a minor key.
    • If you usually write one bridge, write two. Make the second one very different from the first.
    • Really listen to some music you normally don’t listen to. If you enjoy classical, try dubstep for awhile (try “Elements,” by Lindsey Stirling for a smooth transition). Try to find something in it you can take away.
    • Invest in a copy of The Keyboard Grimoire or The Guitar Grimoire. Learn the modes and practice them often.
  • Performing
    • Take a gig that’s just a bit more of a challenge than one you’d usually play. For example, I had never played the piano for a chorus competition before, but my middle school’s choir was going, and that meant that I was going, too. Not a strong sight reader, I nevertheless sat down and conjured up everything my piano teacher, Ms. Gilmore, had taught me. Not only did I learn the music, I found out how much fun it was to actually sit down and read the music. I grew as a musician as a result, plus I picked up a few nifty composition tricks in the process.
    • Play with some different musicians. Just because you’re in a band doesn’t mean you can stop learning. Find some different musicians and jam with them from time to time. It’s even better if they don’t play the same material you’re used to or if they’re an original group. If nothing else, you’ll sharpen your listening skills.

There you have it – my two cents worth. Hopefully you can take some of the suggestions and use them to help you leave your own comfort zone.

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Updated May 26, 2013

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Post-Op Opera: Music Helps Surgery Patients Recover

My second post on the relationship between music and the mind deals with how music can speed up the healing process after surgery. This article by Tom Jacobs describes two separate studies that suggest that patients recover from surgery faster if they are allowed to listen to relaxing music.

Cardiac bypass patients who listened to soft piano music got out of ICU about 5 hours faster than those in the control group, and hip replacement patients experienced less confusion if they were allowed to listen to 4 hours of music per day during their recovery. Both groups initially listened to soft piano music but were allowed to select a different genre once they were awake and alert.

Jacobs also notes (and I heartily concur) that these findings suggest new opportunities for musicians in terms of music CDs directed at this market.

Middle School Music Lessons Enhance Algebra Skills: Study

Can studying music really help students increase their SAT scores? Here’s an interesting study that seems to lend at least some support to that conventional wisdom. It points out that middle school students who received instrumental instruction scored the highest on a high school algebra assessment exam.

Researcher Barbara Helmrich conducted the study and concluded that algebra scores were influenced the most by “formal instrumental instruction.” She added,“Choral instruction also affected scores, but to a lesser extent.”

Hopefully that’s news that will keep middle school music programs off budgetary chopping blocks.

Lang Lang Seeks New Challenges as 30th Birthday Nears

I ran across an excellent article in the Chicago Classical Review about world-renowned pianist Lang Lang. In it, author David Fleshler discusses a variety of things that occupy the artist’s time, such as how Lang Lang goes about selecting a Steinway piano for the performance from among the 3 or 4 usually at a venue. It is an intense process for him: beautiful tones are not enough. He also evaluates the candidate pianos for tonal color in order to select the instrument with the largest personality.

Fleshler also makes note of Lang Lang’s philanthropic work, especially the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, which sponsors worldwide efforts to encourage children in their piano studies. He also is an ambassador for UNICEF and works with the World Wildlife Fund. On top of all that, he releases new recordings on a regular basis and maintains a rigorous performance schedule.

Hard to imagine what Lang Lang could possibly do for an encore!