Something that I think would have been helpful to me in my musical journey, was some sort of validation of where I’ve been, where I am, and a hint of what is ahead of me.
This handy chart that I created is one way to break things out, and it’s the way I hear many folks describe their musical journey.
The First Stage is really the beginner stage- when you first pick up your instrument and don’t know a thing about a scale or a chord or a time signature. It’s about acquiring those basics.
The Second Stage is the “doing your homework” phase of musical progression, where you put in your time – maybe even most of your 10,000 hours – to gain proficiency on your instrument. If you don’t love your instrument by this point you get out.
The Third Stage represents a paradigm shift. It’s the first time you start focussing not on what you’re playing, but on what you’re not playing. It’s about creating space for others and responding to what is going on. If you’re copying the record at this point, that’s where your eyes get opened up to what session players are actually doing. They’re not the busy little doodlers we are when we play by ourselves. There is an economy to what they play. This is when we get knocked back by the significance of The Edge when he says:
Notes actually do mean something. They have power. I think of notes as being expensive. You don’t just throw them around. I find the ones that do the best job and that’s what I use. I suppose I’m a minimalist instinctively. I don’t like to be inefficient if I can get away with it. Like on the end of “With or Without You”. My instinct was to go with something very simple. Everyone else said, “Nah, you can’t do that.” I won the argument and I still think it’s sort of brave, because the end of “With or Without You” could have been so much bigger, so much more of a climax, but there’s this power to it which I think is even more potent because it’s held back… ultimately I’m interested in music. I’m a musician. I’m not a gunslinger. That’s the difference between what I do and what a lot of guitar heroes do. —The Edge (1991)
The Fourth Stage is when you’ve moved past trying to copy your influences and you prefer your own voice. This is when you can apply your sound to original material without second guessing yourself. This is also when you might listen to the record, but you don’t need to, because you understand how to serve the song. This level represents the true expert, the specialist in music.
The Fifth Stage is reserved for the very few who are willing to be extremely brave and vulnerable and who continue to distill their voice and find something so new as to be thought of as original. Very often this occurs across genres or it is art that transcends genres. This stage of musicianship is reserved for those who change the way we hear music, and we’re never the same after that.
Once we move forward, we still may step backwards at times so that we can again move forward with a different vocabulary or improved skill set. I think of Rush’s Drummer Neil Peart, already a world class drummer with 14 Albums under his belt, using a traditional rock style of hitting the snare (clearly at the Fifth Stage), who decided in 1994 to back up (to the Second Stage) and learn the looser jazz style traditional grip of playing to find some fresh inspiration, the result of which can first be heard on Test For Echo.
What do you think? Do these stages help you think about where you are in your own musical journey? Are they helpful as you think about the musicians you play with, produce, or direct?