music business,  Performance Coaching

How to Move From Classical to Rock


Do you have any advice for a classically trained musician trying to break into more popular commercial formats? I have 20 years of experience, a Bachelor of Music, and am a very good sight reader and ensemble member, but I feel less competent and stiff trying to improvise on rock and pop. Any suggestions?

-Classical but Cool


This is such a common scenario, and one I even went through myself at one time long ago. You didn’t mention what instrument you play, however the strategy would still be the same for all instruments.

First, recognize and appreciate the many advantages you have hailing from your classical background rather than focusing only on your weaknesses. The benefit of a classical background is that what many non-classically trained musicians consider to be unglamorous, tedious staples of good musicianship are already firmly intact for you: counting, sight-reading, ear training, theory, and form. You‘ve paid your dues and conquered the most difficult challenges already. Now it’s time to focus on the fun part: unique creative expression! (They have the reverse challenge, by the way, which is certainly surmountable but requires more discipline.)

By nature, classical environments train musicians to emphasize conformity for the sake of the group ensemble as well as stage picture. This is seen time and again when choirs and band members are instructed to sit or stand in the same nondescript way in order to avoid garnering individual attention for any one member. (Think of Cassie in “A Chorus Line” getting yelled at by Michael Douglas for having too much flair!)

In classical music, the conductor and even the score alone is present to direct every nuance from dynamic range to overall expression to achieve a pre-determined aesthetic based on the composer’s score and music director’s interpretation. However, with rock and pop, each band member must be the interpreter and section leader for their own solo instrument. And that is the real issue – your classical training has probably trained you to be an obedient follower in music rather than a gregarious, irreverent leader, and wouldn’t you agree that rock is about anything but conformity!

So how do you tackle the issue? Usually I find that each client has one primary obstacle in their way as well as a preferred learning approach that works best for them. For classically trained clients, master classes in composition, jazz and/or improvisation can be an ideal bridge in the very beginning because they are already accustomed to a formal left-brained approach to studying music and this builds upon their existing matrix and musical vocabulary. Often I’ve witnessed classical musicians transfer their own personal intellectual snobbism onto themselves, and not feel confident with a new genre until they think they have mastered it “academically” by conservatory standards. This is such a shame in my opinion, because at some point emotional interpretation must take over in a more right-brained view toward performance. In fact, I would go so far as to say that many of the best trained musicians are those who can “fake” new genres by nailing the emotional flavor spot on.

Audiences will always be impressed by technical prowess, but what really touches their soul and makes an artist beloved is when a performance conjures up an emotion, regardless of however simple, awkward or imperfect it is delivered. After all, the 20th Century was really all about erasing the line between high and low art. From Liberace’s virtuoso rendition of “Chopsticks” to Rap samples of Fur Elise and Carmina Burana by Nas and Puff Daddy, what really matters to modern ears is that the music is entertaining. Absent that, you run the risk of being merely another skilled craftsman.

For a lot of artists, simple psychological social inhibitions are the primary obstacle much more than a lack of well-rounded musicianship. For these musicians, I’ve found that gently exposing them to basic theater and comedy improv exercises often achieves the end musical result much faster than formal musical genre-building alone. Sometimes thinking outside the box and cross-training in other artistic mediums can really open up your creative process in new and refreshing ways that music no longer holds for you because you’ve simply been doing it for so long and may have “forgotten” how to learn. Musically speaking, don’t be afraid of the extremes. Make your louds louder and your softs softer. Go for the spikes! Create 10 new shades of grey mezzo forte and mezzo piano! If you’re having fun and feeling the music deeply, chances are so will your audience.

Ultimately, being a classically trained rock musician can be one of the very best talent combinations in music. (Of course I may be biased here…) Keep working on your blues, improvisation, composition and ear training and you should be jamming confidently in no time. Remember, at the end of the day, it’s still only music after all. Good luck!