Here at Melodics, we believe it’s never too late to get started on the journey of learning music. We also know that when you start learning music later in life, it’s easy to feel discouraged by what you need to catch up on or frustrated with your progress.
Today, we’re sharing a story with you about someone who came to music later in life, pushed through discouragement, and changed the sound of popular music.
“There are some very happy people who top out playing in the lobby at holiday inns. But the they’re playing music, and they’re happy… So it’s supposed to make you happy. Don’t value your gift according to where you fall on the scale of ‘commercial’, ‘professionalism’: enjoy it! If you can lock yourself up in your closet and just groove, don’t cheat yourself out of that!.”
— Bill Withers
When the great American soul man Bill Withers released his signature song ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ in 1971, he was an unknown 31-year-old singer-songwriter and musician who worked a nine-to-five job assembling toilets for an aircraft parts company in Southern California. That year, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ ascended into the top ten of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart before becoming the first of three gold records in the US for Bill.
Even as his star rose, Bill initially refused to give up his day job, to the extent where the cover of his debut album, Just As I Am, was shot at his workplace on a lunch break. As ‘Ain’t No Sunshine was followed by ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and ‘Lean On me’, Bill became a ubiquitous star within the great pantheon of American music. Seemingly overnight, he was the toast of the country.
In reality, Bill was anything but an overnight success, and actually, coming to music later in life became a source of strength for him. By the time he bought his first guitar in his late 20s, Bill had spent just under a decade serving with the United States Navy. He left school at 17 because of a chronic stutter which left him withdrawn and socially disconnected. In the navy, Bill received speech therapy, which built his self-confidence.
Growing up as an outsider gave him a sharp observational eye, and coming to music at an older age gave him time to think about what really needed to be said in songs. In 1967, he garnered his first opportunity to show off his skills through releasing a single titled ‘Three Nights And A Morning’ through the New York-based Lotus label. Although the single was produced and arranged by the great Mort Garson, it sank without a trace at the time.
Undeterred, Bill continued performing in nightclubs around Los Angeles, writing songs and recording demo tapes with money earned from daytime assembly jobs at IBM, Ford and Douglas Aircraft Corporation. In 1970, Clarence Avant, the owner of Sussex Records, heard one of Bill’s tapes and signed him up for the first of three albums through the label, Just As I Am (crediting none other than greats Stephen Stills, Booker T Jones, Jim Keltner, Al Jackson Jr., Bobbye Porter in musical personnel).
‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ turned nostalgia for something that was hurting you into a top ten hit, and ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and ‘Lean On Me’ placed affection for family and friends on an equal footing to romantic love. Song by song, Bill drew from his life experience and observations to establish a new emotional vocabulary for popular American music. If he had started writing music earlier or hadn’t had challenges to overcome first, Bill wouldn’t have had as deep a wellspring to draw from as a songwriter and musician.
The story of the first stage of his career is a telling reminder that it’s never too late to start pursuing something you love, and actually, if you’re willing to work at it, starting later can be a deep and enduring source of strength.
Bill Withers left the public eye just as he arrived: quickly, and on his own terms. “The business came to me in my 30s. I was socialised as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me… When somebody asks ‘what have you been doing?’ the answer is ‘living’,” he reflected in 2003. “I have no bitterness. I just live and whatever happens, happens.”
“So if you feel like you have the gift, and you want to find out. Make yourself available, and the world will let you know”
What’s our most precious resource and something you can only spend once?
If you didn’t guess already, the answer is time. It’s rather ironic, that given its fleeting nature, we still tend to spend our time quite casually…
A lack-of-time, however, is the #1 reason people give for abandoning their dreams of learning or mastering an instrument. And yet time is the one thing guaranteed it will take to get there!
In reality though, life is filled with plenty of high-priority things — so in our quest for finding that perfect balance, we say that even 5 minutes of music every now and again is better than never at all.
So in the spirit of prime numbers, here’s 7 things the time impaired can do in Melodics that’ll fit in and around just about any other life commitments, ready any time you find yourself with a spare moment or three.
1. Do a quick session with one of our Daily Warmups or workout exercises.
The point of these isn’t about learning anything specific, or playing the notes right as you’re not playing a whole lesson or course. The main thing here is that you’re using your brain differently than you do at other points of your daily life.
You’re limbering up, building your muscle memory and dexterity. You’re just passively getting used to being confident on your instrument, and importantly: you can stop doing a warmup just as easily as it is to start one: whenever you feel like it.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but playing a lesson a few grades too hard for you means that your expectations really aren’t going to have you beating yourself up about the inevitable score! Even for seemingly impossibly fast songs, you can slow the track down using Practice Mode to a point where it’s playable.
So what’s the point of this then?
It’s amazing how much simply getting the lay of the land helps set a benchmark for future attempts and how you improve with time. You don’t even have to complete a lesson to benefit from this.
Use the filter settings to search by lesson grade, and pick something a couple of grades higher than where you’d comfortably sit. Give it a quick crack!
3. Jam over a track on a lesson you’ve nearly or recently completed.
Look for the unlocked Playground Mode icon on any lesson’s completion screen.
Heaps of musicians record themselves jamming, or free-playing over their compositions to get creative, listen back and evaluate their playing, or to find some sweet-sounding gems they might save for a rainy day.
So mix it up! Don’t feel that using Melodics is all about practise, learning or getting feedback on your ability. It’s really important to just be playing music for the sheer joy of it — and prove to yourself and no-one else that you’ve got a couple of tricks in the bag.
Playground Mode is the perfect way to remove all script, structure and rules and just play whatever you feel like. And the cool thing is you can record and listen back to your last attempt.
You unlock this mode on any lesson you’ve already passed (i.e. getting 1-star or more on it), so check it out!
It’s easy to get caught up in doing something new — but what about those lessons you probably did ages ago and passed? We’re not A+ passed — we mean the stuff you might’ve just scraped by on… But we bet you’d totally smash them out of the park if you tried them again now.
Go on, let’s put a bow on some of those 1- or 2-star lessons with a 3-star performance (or… more?), and show us all that progress you’ve made!
Use the search filter to browse by 1- or 2- stars to find a good lesson.
Remember when you’d spend hours agonising over creating that perfect compilation? Choosing songs to fit on 23-minutes a side, whilst perfectly capturing every nuance of your personality, every agonizing detail of your teenage complexity?
Yeah, na, me neither. These days it’s done in a heartbeat on Spotify anyway. And you can do this in Melodics too: just think of the favourites button as a hot-key for your personal Top 25 (PRO TIP: it doesn’t have to be at your normal workstation, you could even download the Melodics iPad app and make a playlist from anywhere you feel like!)
So one of the best ways you can make your practices faster and more productive is removing the obstacles and being prepared!
Do yourself a favour, and pick some favourites now for practising another time!
Lessons and courses are all divided up into component steps.
Not only is it not required for you to complete the lot in one sitting, rather, it’s often better to just stop after the first step, and come back to continue or redo the rest at a later date. Think of it less like a marathon, and more of an enjoyable hike — you’ll still end up going the same distance either way. And hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day…
That’s right, we’re telling you not to finish a lesson — just do the first step.
Spreading lessons out over time helps build habits better — it reinforces repeated behaviour with multi-session structure, rather than 1-offs, doesn’t overload your brain or drain you of energy, and above all bite-sized pieces makes the prospect of success easier to achieve and less labourious.
Hands up if when you think about practising, you tend to focus on the effort of setting up instead: clearing off your desk, opening up the app, plugging your instrument in and turning it on, thinking about what genre you want to play, scrolling through and previewing endless lessons? It’s a motivation killer! Remember what we said about 5 minutes every now and then is better than never at all? Let’s make sure then that it’s time well spent: fun, simple and effective.
So here’s something different: you can still play in Melodics without even plugging an instrument in! Regardless of whether you play keys, pads or drums, or what your favourite genre is: rhythm, timing, and dexterity are universal traits foundational to musical confidence (so it’s not just ‘ok’ to try play a different instrument or genre when you’re practising — it’s great for you!)
1) Open up the Melodics app;
2) Choose any simple and easy lesson (tip: browse by low grade), and;
3) Use your laptop’s keyboard or the onscreen UI if you’re on iPad.
Here’s some handpicked lessons you can do on a computer keyboard or iPad UI:
Playing any the instrument-parts from one of your own musical compositions;
Recording tracks in a realistic, less robotic fashion than you would from “drawing” the notes in a DAW’s piano roll;
Be a confident player in performances or live shows;
Be able to sit down at a keyboard, pads or drum kit and play a beat or progression like you hear in your head;
Learn a new instrument, and play it good simply for the sheer joy of it!
Do any of these resonate with you personally?
Learning anything, especially an instrument, requires plenty of dedication. Not everyone is prepared for this, and can at times find themselves overwhelmed. If this sounds like you, we’re here to say: don’t give up! This article is here to show a path that can help you progress towards any goals you have. How? By rewiring your habits.
Habits present a way to demystify how some people are seemingly on an effortless trajectory for success. Though there is always a degree of effort required (regardless of how apparent it may seem), luck certainly doesn’t factor much, if at all.
There is a lot of info in this article, but if you take the time to think on what you’ll learn in these 5 steps from time to time, you’ll be able to translate any aspirations you might have into habits: the actionable, bite-sized steps you can use to achieve success.
Think of your own personal goals as you read this too. It’d be interesting to note if how you define them changes!
Having a broad aspiration is great! After all, you can’t improve without challenge. But it’s at each step within the process of reaching that ultimate outcome where you should define multiple successes.
Why? Aspirations as goals are inherently lofty — they’re not dreams, because there is a real chance of you achieving them. But depending on how complex or ambitious your goals are, it can be difficult to see a potential path towards actually achieving them — so instead, the route you do end up taking is often met with frustration, feeling overwhelmed, or simply not making the progress you want. Treating aspirations as dreams is not a path to success.
Define success by your habits, not by your goals.
Defining your concept of “success” solely by an end goal isn’t necessarily an effective way to make good progress. It may even set you up for avoidable disappointment. To summarise Tony Robbins (love him or hate him), “that’s trying to eat the whale whole, without taking smaller bites”.
Instead, consider your system of habits: the required process as a whole of how to actually get to your end goal.
As an example, your end goal might be focusing on buying your dream instrument — so one chunk of that system of habits might be setting aside some of every pay cheque to start saving. A second habit in the system might be ensuring you don’t spend those savings elsewhere in the meantime!
“You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems”
— James Clear
STEP 2: How are Habits Formed?
This step is aimed at deepening your background understanding of habits and what makes them a recurring system: how they work, form or are broken. Let’s drill down.
“You are what you repeatedly do”
— James Clear
As animals we’re sort of wired in a constant pursuit of feeling rewarded. This behaviour not only satisfies us and satiates cravings; it evaluates which actions best satiate these cravings, so we can learn and repeat them. This is a 4-step perpetual cycle of learning we call the Habit Loop.
The 4-Step Habit Loop:
Which emotion, bit of information or sense triggers you to go on to engage in a behaviour which will resolve the cue and make you feel rewarded?
This could be something primal such as thirst, hunger, cleanliness; or more psychologically complex like dissatisfaction or boredom
Cravings are the motivational impetus behind habits. They impart a desire to change whatever has triggered you: How do you wish to feel or be rewarded?
A classic example is looking at the motivation behind cleaning your teeth: you’re likely motivated by craving fresh breath and oral hygiene; not the act of cleaning your teeth itself!
The response is your action — your habit itself per se. How do you respond to a craving?
During this stage you might consider several different potential actions, evaluate the pros & cons; the friction involved in doing each option, and your ability to ultimately execute them. What is your motivation to respond?
An example might be when you’re cued by boredom, your craving is entertainment, and your chosen response is to browse social media.
Reward is satiating your prior feeling of craving, but also your subconscious moment of reflection. Every time you’re rewarded, your brain reviews and evaluates how effective your response was at addressing your craving and feeds back into the habit loop for next time.
Continuing on from the previous example, the entertainment of checking social media can start to become associated with a means to resolve boredom, depending on how effective the reward was — but do you start to become bored with it as a means of entertainment after a while?
How are habits broken?
Habits break just as they are formed! Successfully-formed habits have an obvious cue, an attractive craving, an easy-to-do response, and a sufficiently fulfilling reward.
Your brain is constantly weighing up the benefit at each stage: evaluating friction and motivation, urgency or ability to respond against the ultimate reward.
If a habit loop can only occur if all 4-stages of the criteria are successful, then breaking the cycle and preventing habits could be done in theory as simply as removing or reducing one or more stages:
Remove the cue if possible (the habit will never be triggered);
Minimise the craving or make it unattractive (you’ll be less inclined to respond);
Make the response itself problematic or arduous (there’s too much friction or you won’t be able to do it);
Make the end reward dissatisfying (engaging in the habit wasn’t worth the effort).
Creatures of habit
This episode of Hidden Brain is a fun little podcast that might give you some good tips on behaviour! Here, guest psychologist Wendy Wood shares some of her research into habits; how to build good ones (and break the bad ones.) As an anecdote, she would actually sleep in her running clothes to reduce the friction of going for a run. Go figure…
“So there was a study that is quite amazing, I think – but it has been replicated a couple of times – on how far people travel to the gym. If people travel about 3 1/2 miles, then they are likely to go to the gym five times a month on average. If people travel 5 miles, then they’re likely to go only once a month on average…
The 5 miles presents friction. The 3.5 miles is much less friction and makes the behaviour more likely.”
— Wendy Wood
STEP 3: Tips for Hacking the Habit Loop.
So now you know about the habit loop, why you have certain habits, and how they’re broken — you might be considering your current goals, and how you could begin to harness knowledge of habits to create a different version of yourself.
Whilst the urge to enact sweeping, profound life-changes is natural, often it’s far more effective to alter existing habits incrementally, than it is remove or form completely new ones. Use the 4-stage loop of your current habits to your advantage!
“Small adjustments make a massive difference to your life”
— James Clear
If you use habits to make tiny 1% improvements to one small thing on a daily or recurring basis — over the course of weeks, months and years, you end up being multiple times better than where you started. No matter how small, every 1% change is a success, and something to acknowledge or celebrate.
Habits also present a small chunk of changeable behaviour — but beware the temptation to “over chunk” and become overwhelmed by the minutiae of steps involved in enacting change.
Here’s some easy tips on slightly altering an existing habit’s cue, craving, response or reward, to make change and progress easy and achievable. You don’t have to do all of them, you can start as small as just picking one:
TIP #1: Make the cue obvious
“Habit Stack” by attaching a new habit to an existing habit or routine you already have. Find yourself an obvious cue.
e.g. Your daily after-dinner dishes: stack a small 10 minute practice session as part of your post-dinner cue or routine.
TIP #2: Make the craving attractive
“Temptation bundling” associate the action of a new habit to a craving of a reward you know you love, so to prevent it feeling like punishment.
e.g. You might love a daily wind-down beverage. You can bundle the temptation of a relaxing drink with completing your 10 minute practice session goal.
TIP #3: Make the response easy
Remove as much friction as possible, to make your new habit as easy as possible to do.
e.g. leave your practice gear out and ready to go, so you don’t have to spend time setting up right before hand.
Pre-plan your practices before so you hit the ground running when you start.
Don’t set your goals too high (remember the “1% change” or “2 minute” rule)
If you do better than your target, that’s awesome, but the main path to success is getting the obstacle low enough for you to easily climb over and change without struggling with motivation.
e.g. “Instead of practising for an hour, I’ll just practice for 5 minutes.”
TIP #4: Make the reward satisfying
You’ve already bundled your temptations, so you best make sure you reward yourself!
Another effective technique is to tie your reward back to your cue. Use reinforcements that also help remind you to act, motivate to continue, and provide immediate satisfaction for keeping up your new habit.
A common tool is maintaining a habit trackeror checklist, a blog, post or video diary, or using your Melodics Daily Streaks as a reminder. e.g. When you visually see your accomplishments, you’ll be motivated to continue acting in the same manner.
TIP #5: What to do when you fall off!
“Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
— James Clear
No-one is too big to recover. Musician and Melodics user Gretchen King perhaps describes it best from her own experience in falling off the wagon after having practiced for 300 consecutive days:
“One night at midnight, I realised that I had forgotten to practice that day. I was so bummed that I didn’t practice for a month! Then I realised that while a streak is amazing, it’s more about putting in the work and enjoying the process. I quickly got back on track again.”
— Gretchen King, musician
Habits aren’t all-or-nothing: habits certainly change, evolve or lapse with time, so don’t stress it too much if you can’t keep it up consistently. You can absolutely recover if and when a routine breaks down; if you can’t get back on the horse and continue from where you left off, re-evaluate your purpose and set new 1% goals to get back to where you want to be.
STEP 4: Start tracking your habits!
Ready to transform your own musical habits? Here’s a handy exercise to go through of everything covered in this article:
What’s your “big” goal?
What smaller successes build up to the big picture?
What frequent habits do you need to reach each success?
For each habit, what is your obvious cue, attractive craving, simple response and satisfying reward?
If you’re dedicated to updating your habits and working towards meaningful, personal success, consider what your responses to this exercise would be, and use your answers to set yourself daily or weekly goals in an obvious way.
STEP 5: Doing something with your Habits.
By changing your habits to be what you actively want them to be, you’ll find your own identity starting to evolve as well.
It’s a subtle distinction that might even sound obvious. But realising that clear personal identity helps you identify as part of a select community or a tribe; where you have the mandate to do all that other stuff you’d be expected to do. Stuff which also helps you on your way to reaching your goals. Is your goal to run a marathon? Great! You’re part of a tribe of “runners.” Is your goal to “be able to play the keyboard part all yourself from one of your own musical compositions?” Then your identity could be “I’m a keyboardist.”
Why join the tribe?
Nothing fosters motivation like belonging to the tribe does. Having fun together helps, but social reinforcement and obligations doubly so! If your personal goal is transformed into one shared by a group, your identity becomes linked to those around you, and you all work together to support and sustain each other’s identity. Development and progress is no longer your individual pursuit. Now it’s: We are musicians. We are a band.
“Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world.”
— Dave Grohl, putting it sincerely.
There’s a tribe waiting for you:
You like playing music live? Join a local band, association or attend open mic nights or just support the community and watch their live shows.
Melodics derives a lot of inspiration from the teachings of James Clear, both in how we’ve developed our music education app and the design of our curriculum, but also in how we conduct our every day lives as musicians — and hence the advice written in this article (it’s littered with his quotes!). We’d say that if you’re serious, his book ‘Atomic Habits’ is a must-read; and his blog provides some fabulous insights into the science of habit, motivation and productivity, decision-making and creativity.
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