From Good to Great: What Separates the Pros from the Rest


What makes a musician worthy of being called “great”? 

For the longest time, I associated it with technicality. I was impressed by guitarists that could shred effortlessly, drummers that could nail complex fills, and vocalists that could belt wild runs across many octaves. I would practice for hours trying to play as fast as possible or learn complex theory thinking that would help me advance in my playing.

As I’ve gotten older, developed my skills and have been able to play with some great musicians, I’ve actually come to see those things as more of a red flag than anything else. 

Why?

Well, the most obvious common denominator between the best of the best musicians is this: balance

Everything in Moderation

I tend to follow the motto of everything in moderation. It doesn’t fully apply to every concept in life, but in general, I find that outcomes begin to suffer when something is taken to an extreme. I believe this applies to musicianship significantly.

Typically, when I listen to musicians I can quickly identify them as someone who is “too much” or “too little”. If they are experienced and polished, the thoughts that come to mind are “Wow, they came in strong there,” or “That was really tasteful.” 

I bet if I asked you who comes to mind when thinking about someone who is “too much” or “too little”, you can probably immediately identify someone from your team. Even if we’re generally balanced, we all lean towards one side more than the other. When I first started playing guitar in the church, I probably erred on the side of “too little” because of my lack of confidence. Now, I probably err on the side of “too much.” When I’m writing parts in the studio, I challenge myself to remove notes to make it better.

Weighing-in on the Scale of Balance

I want to give you a few examples to help conceptualize this concept. Below are some scales to use when looking at our musicianship. The goal is to find the sweet spot between the two extremes.

Inactive <—> Active

Hesitancy <—> Boldness

Timid <—> Overly confident

Safe <—> Lack of taste

Plays nothing <—> Plays too much

Unmemorable <—> Draws too much attention

Too selective <—> Plays anything/everything

Where do you weigh in? This isn’t an exercise to make you feel defeated, but rather help you begin to develop awareness – something every good musician continually has. I don’t think enough musicians are practicing balance awareness as much as they should. Many would rather spend the time figuring out what delay pedal to buy. Choose your time wisely.

How Do I know If I’m Balanced?

The easiest way to develop balance is to study how the pros play. Learn the songs and parts, but also take note of what types of moments those parts and tones fall in or where the musician leaves space. Worship Online gives you a great perspective because the lessons are founded on the specific parts of the record. Once you develop your skills and ear by learning the songs, it will become natural for you to make balanced, wise decisions in your unique church context.

Fail Well

The last thing I will say is that to become balanced, you have to learn from failing. If you’re more of a timid player, you are going to have to try some bolder things to push yourself – sometimes things that are too bold. 

That was more of my journey. One of the first times I played with Kari Jobe, she stopped in the middle of a talk because what I was playing was distracting her. It was a bit embarrassing, but I didn’t let that cause me to back down in the long run. I just took it as a place to learn her personality and better support her in the future. 

One of the compliments I get most often is how well my playing supports leaders and preachers during the down moments where many other players will stop playing altogether. If I let that failure define me, I wouldn’t have developed balance in that area.

You just have to learn and move forward. 

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