How to Know If You’re Any Good at Music

The purpose of this article is to equip the reader with effective strategies for self-evaluation and to eliminate “chrono-waste” (save time). While the underlying ideas here are applicable throughout all fields and areas of life, this bit of writing attacks the problem of self-evaluation as it relates to music and music performance.

Before you read any further, I can practically resolve and hopefully sate your quest for an answer with two words: work hard. If you find this answer unsatisfying, you may or may not enjoy the rest of this article.

First, I want to start with a word of advice to those with delicate artist hearts. For those of you who are scared of the pain that results from unappealing feedback, let me help put you at ease: none of these people know what they are talking about.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get to the good part, the positive folks with nourishing feedback! Except the unfortunate thing is, none of these people know what they are talking about either, which leads us to our problem.

How can you utilize feedback to the benefit of your development when nobody knows what they are talking about? That’s a great question. I’ll attempt to answer it by starting with an admission that I wasn’t.. wholly truthful. I told you nobody knows what they are talking about, but the truth is some people do know what they are talking about more than others. Well, and some people exaggerate to win favor with you. And some people just don’t want to offend anyone. And others overestimate self-competency. And some are just so nervous in social situations that they don’t process what they are saying. And some days a person is sharper than others. And some people may have incredible insight into you personally that they are hesitant to share. Well at this point in what I’m saying, you might think you should just give up because interpreting feedback is close to impossible.

Let me tell you a few short stories to show you what I mean.

There was a day, almost a year ago, that I played the worst guitar solo I’ve ever played for a live audience. It was so bad that the scrappy thrown together band I was playing with was personally offended and I spent the next two songs trying to play not-bad enough to open the door to making amends. And yet, moments later an audience member came up and shook our hands telling us how great we sounded.

Second story: I used to play every Sunday for six hours at a small wine bar. Every Sunday I would start out playing to an audience of zero. Getting the first person to sit down could take minutes or hours, but once the first person sat down, the place would fill up. On the days it took longer, it could be easy to start to think that no one was sitting down because my music was bad, but seeing the place always fill up after the first people sat down told a somewhat unrelated story about people just generally being followers.

Third story: I once sang Happy Birthday to someone at a bar I was playing at. The audience refused to participate with me even after I asked them twice and sang it a second time a cappella. Despite giving my all and singing my heart out for three hours, someone sidestepped me to immediately turn on the jukebox the moment my gig was done.

Fourth story: These days I get paid well to play for weddings and private events and get showered with compliments every time. The very next day I may be disrespected and ignored at a small open mic.

I’ve brought people to tears, induced laughter, induced dancing, and also apparently hatred. So when feedback is so varied and complex, how can you know if what you are doing is actually any good?

I will make some recommendations.

(1) Attempt to understand the context of the feedback. In my first story, the musicians I played with are probably a better source of feedback than the audience member who was drunk.

(2) Take feedback more seriously from those who you know well, especially those who care about you.

(3) When taking feedback from an audience, don’t put too much weight on any one audience member. Try to get a sense of the overall response.

(4) Realize you are there to entertain and lead the audience.

(5) Learn how to understand the infinite meanings of applause and audience interaction by playing for thousands of audiences and listening carefully.

(6) Live and die each day by your intuition.

(7) Look up the word prosody.

(8) Record yourself and when you listen, be honest.

(9) Every venue has grown its own culture/climate.

(10) Be a good person. Your character is intimately tied into everything you create and your stage presence. Hopefully whenever you take the stage you are leading people in a good direction.

(11) And lastly, WORK HARD. Just like anything else, the more focused work you put into it, the better you will be.

I hope this helps you and I hope you enjoyed reading this. My recommendations are by no means comprehensive and they may not work for everyone. Thanks for reading, and happy musicking!