Playing an instrument takes dedication and hard work. And like any discipline, measuring a person’s skill can sometimes feel subjective. This explains why you really have to hear someone play in order to assess what they mean when they say, “I can play the piano.”

Over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of musicians and I have concluded that there are some very distinct qualities that separate the good from the great. There are always exceptions, but here are 3 of the main differences.


1. Good musicians can learn music quickly with little practice. Great musicians can sight-read just about anything on the spot.

musiciansOver the years, I’ve had the privilege of playing with a number of high caliber musicians including symphony players, professional jazz players, studio musicians, and more.

What always amazes me about these players is how well they can perform in the clutch. Musicians at this level don’t even flinch when you have to make a last-minute change in the music, even when it’s a big change like having to transpose the music to a different key.

During my high school years, I had the privilege of playing the trumpet and the piano at a national level. These opportunities were always preceded by an audition and every audition included sight reading. The players that could sight read the best almost always got the higher score.

One of the difficult aspects of getting better at sight reading has always been finding enough music that you have never seen before to practice. Thankfully, the internet now has a wealth of music for such a task.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran across a site online called Sight Reading Factory. For less than $3/month, this site generates original music that can be customized by the key signature, time signature, and every rhythmic combination possible.

I highly recommend this site to anyone who wants to improve their sight reading ability.


2. Good musicians can play the right notes. Great musicians not only play the right notes but communicate the meaning behind the music.

musiciansWhen I was 16, I had the privilege of studying the trumpet with a guy named Dave Larson who played the trumpet in the New Jersey Symphony. Up until I met Dave, I had never rubbed shoulders with a musician of this caliber.

One of the things that impressed me about him was that he knew the “back-story” behind the pieces he would work on with me. He knew about the composer and what was happening in his life around the time he wrote the music.

Dave opened my mind to the fact that composers didn’t just write music to achieve a certain sound. Many artists were trying to convey a message through their music.

In fact, one of the things that Dave Larson taught me was to use imagery when I was playing a musical piece. I would imagine that I was in a field on a summer day or even a soldier in the army fighting for my country. Without question, musicians who understand this have an edge over those who just mechanically play the right notes.


3. Good musicians are satisfied with what they know about their craft. Great musicians never stop learning and always want to know more.

musiciansPhillip Glass, the famous musical minimalist once said, “You practice and you get better. It’s very simple.”

I have always admired the fact that great musicians are always pushing themselves to learn more. They understand what Aristotle once stated so eloquently, “Quality is not an act. It is a habit.”

How do you keep learning? You hang around people who want to keep learning.

This was probably one of my favorite parts of studying at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. As I think back to my days there, I can’t help but remember my fellow students and even my professors who were constantly trying to learn more about their craft.

While I’ve always been a self-starter, my desire to get better was only strengthened as I rubbed shoulders with many learners. To this day, I am constantly trying to learn more about the piano and music in general. I also push myself to keep up with new technology that comes out and is music related.

There are more characteristics of great musicians that I could share with you, but in order to keep this post somewhat short, I will leave them for another time. I’d love to hear from you. What are more characteristics of great musicians?  How does this compare to good musicians? Feel free to write in the comments below.


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