Whether you are making music, art, playing sports, inventing the next flying car, or building a business it is important to have a solid foundation in the fundamentals of each activity. Just like a house with no foundation is easily blown over, musicians with weak fundamentals are limiting their potential. As a musician, this is why the more solid your fundamentals are the quicker you can adapt to writing, recording, and collaborating with other musicians. In todays highly competitive music industry, with over half a million records released per year, it is more important than ever for musicianship to be top notch to allow the highest quality and most consistent output of music possible.
So what are the most important fundamentals to focus on to eliminate barriers to becoming a high output musician?
Sight-reading The written language of music - The human race started to accelerate exponentially once they could document their learnings and share them with future generations. First it was cave drawings, then it was writing, and now recorded music and film. The reason I think sight-reading music still gives you an advantage in addition to listening to music is because less people are able do it. Since the supply of people that can read and write music is smaller than the number of people that can listen to music there is naturally a higher demand for people that can read music. To illustrate, here are some opportunities, with a few exceptions, that are available mostly to music readers: playing music in a symphony, theater music ensembles, some studio session work, many teaching gigs, many accompanist gigs, and most classical music gigs.
Notating and writing music - Primarily a huge advantage if you are a composer, notating your music ideas is necessary for organizational and documenting purposes when writing for large groups and hiring professional musicians. Organizing your compositions with notation gives you more control as a producer and helps to identify potential theoretical mistakes in your melody and harmonies. The amount of world class musicians that read music is higher than those that cannot, and the number that can notate the music is even smaller. Opportunities available to composers of notated music: scoring for film and television, producing complex arrangements for studio project, composition grants and scholarships, transcribing to sheet music (aka being a music hack), and creating sheet music of original compositions for copyright and resale.
Technique Consistency, accuracy, agility, flexibility, endurance all have to do with technique - They are all measurable and can be improved with practice. In music, by playing scales and working with a metronome you can make marked improvements. In a world where time is money, having the best technique possible will save you both. Whether you are in the studio or playing on stage, one millisecond or millimeter multiplied over the course of a project can be what separates an amateur from a professional. Hone your craft and whittle down the marble. The more you practice slowly and deliberately, the more fine-tuned your senses will become. Reevaluate your progress regularly as well as the quality of your learning resources with mentors.
Music Theory - Music theory is the how and why music works. Through our lives of listening to music many people have developed instincts for music and what sounds "right." There are many patterns in music and our ideas of right and wrong are normally based on our gut reaction of how dissonant or consonant something sounds. Music theory has given names to the dissonance and consonance we hear and everything in between to help us gain a birds eye view of the music at hand. With this clearer outside perspective we can then react to the patterns in any given piece of music allowing us to integrate/play with other musicians, and/or compose new music. The better you becoming uniting your knowledge of music theory with your subconscious instincts of right and wrong the more successfully you can play music in different styles with different musicians and create your own new and interesting combinations.
"just a house where nobody lives" - Tom Waits
Remember, you can build a strong foundation and a beautiful house, but if you don't fill it with inspiration, love, laughter, and dreams all you have is a house where nobody lives. The amazing thing about the subconscious instinct is that it not only affects the music you create from your memory of music; it also includes and incorporates your entire and infinitely unique life experience of joy and suffering. Think of Myles Davis, Robert Johnson, Louie Armstrong, Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Tom Waits and the emotion, energy, and vitality that permeates their music. Music that moves us is always something more than just technique, notes on a page, or music theory. Subconscious music memory is the most important aspect of music and the fountain where creativity is born. It's easy and important to put yourself on a practice grid but important to remember that real truth in your music is going to come from LIVING in the house once it's built. Listen to music that turns you on, smell the roses, love your neighbor and foster relationships, and all of those positive experiences will seep into your music. When suffering comes to your door, embrace and learn from it.