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I have been playing my instrument for almost 11 years now; I have mastered the technique, I can play my scales and chords forwards, backwards and upside-down, sightread most reasonable music, identify isolated intervals, scales and chords with reasonable fluency, understand the fundamentals of tonal harmony, and have played a large repertoire of music. In short, I have done everything I was supposed to do, although, of course, these things are not perfect.

However, I do not feel that I have 'real' musical ability - I feel that I still lack a 'natural' connection between what I hear, what I read and what I play. I cannot 'hear' real music on the page without playing it, I cannot naturally 'translate' real music that I hear (either aurally or mentally) into my playing, I cannot 'see' real music that I hear as music on the page.

Does an experienced musician have advice on moving past this phase, from ability in drills to 'real' musical ability? If this can be practised, how should it be done?

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    You are missing your heart. What do you feel? You didn't once mention what music makes you feel. If you cannot play it without looking at it, you don't know it in your heart. If you don't know it in your heart, you can't really feel it. If you can't feel it, you can't connect to it. If you can't connect to it, how is a listener going to? – jjmusicnotes Jul 6 '15 at 5:06
  • There's a thing, I forget what it's called, from psychology. It's basically people who think they are awesome at something usually aren't, and people who put a lot of work into something and still feel like they aren't that great are usually a lot better than they think they are, at least from the point of view of a naive observer. This might be part of your feeling like you're missing something in your ability. – Todd Wilcox Jul 6 '15 at 16:09
  • @ToddWilcox Dunning Kruger effect: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect – Dave Jul 6 '15 at 18:00
  • What styles of music are you playing? – Jay Skyler Jul 12 '15 at 23:24
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It sounds like you actually have quite a bit of "real" skill already. I'm not sure there's such a thing as "fake" skill. Are you sure you might not have a touch of Imposter Syndrome going on?

But beyond that, you mention that where you feel that you lack is in being able to translate back and forth between what you see on a page and what you hear in your head. So for example, you might see two notes on adjacent spaces, and recognize them as an interval of a third, but you can't hear a third in your head?

The solution to this is to learn ear training (and the related skill of audiation), which I notice is conspicuously absent from your list of technical and theoretical skills. There are a number of questions on this site about the topic, but here are two to get you started.

Personally, I would recommend learning to sight-sing as an excellent way to start learning this skill. Singing has a way of exposing what music is in your head, without the technical difficulties of playing an instrument getting in the way.

Once you learn ear training, you'll also be able to improvise better, because you'll be able to imagine a certain pattern of notes being played, and then be able to figure out which notes you should play to realize that pattern on your instrument.

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Whilst music, obviously, can be played and enjoyed on your own, it's a bit like communication. Needs someone else. Try to find someone or some two or three others to play with. Find ways to share/split songs up between you, so you become part of a jigsaw, part of a team. This will help to understand how the music is put together, how it all fits, without having to do it all yourself. It'll give some breathing and thinking space. It's also far more enjoyable ! Playing football/tennis/etc. is no fun on your own !

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I think you've misunderstood what technique is. Technique is a tool; it is a means to an end and that end is the embodiment of an 'artistic image'. Heinrich Neuhaus, defines 'artistic image' as "the content, meaning and poetic substance, the essence of music." Neuhaus advocates that the student should learn to grasp the artistic image in the very early stages of studying music as it is the "what", the artistic image, that will determine the "how", the technique. According to the great pedagogue Tobias Matthay, it is counter-productive to dissociate technique from its purpose. The routine hammering through an arbitrarily prescribed set of scales and arpeggios is not the most effective means of attaining technique. I'd say you've spent too many years being counter-productive and the damage is probably done but who knows...maybe you can turn it around. Watch some masterclasses with Benjamin Zander on youtube. If you don't find them moving, if he can't help you understand and connect with music, then you are probably a zombie. Stop "playing" the music like it's some artefact. Experience it.

  • There are precious few absolutes in music. Just because someone does not connect with what Benjamin Zander is teaching, does not mean that he/she can not produce great music. – Meaningful Username Jul 12 '15 at 23:09
  • @Meaningful Username der – user21280 Jul 13 '15 at 9:06
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I was in a similar boat, and for me, the mystery thing you're looking for is "aural awareness". If I could go back in time to little me, I would have me working on it much sooner, much more. What has worked for are the following:

  • ear training on your instrument: get good at playing back any random set of pitches. I use "GoodEarPro" on the ipad. It's great

  • play simple tunes by ear starting on random pitches. Start with xmas carols, beatles songs, and eventually you'll build up to tricky stuff like Duke Ellington and Cole Porter

  • transcribe by ear (without writing it down). Find recordings you like, learn it by ear, and practise playing with the recording perfectly, and by memory/ear only. This will help you "get inside" the music like nothing else.

Do that for an hour or two a day for a year and your "real musicianship" will skyrocket, given that you already have the other foundations in place. It's a tragedy of modern music education that the most important thing can be the least stressed for years. Part of the issue is that it's so simple there's not much to teach, just tons to do. If you read historical accounts from way back, it was normal to have tons of ear training early, and it's how all the old time jazz greats learnt. Hope that helps and good luck!

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