How often have you watched someone play an instrument you play, and wondered how they are doing something that’s beyond your present ability? It’s to be expected that beginners and intermediate players will have this experience, but it happens to advanced players and professionals as well!

That’s because almost no one masters all the skills that are possible on any given instrument. Advanced skills often develop selectively, rather than in a broad-spectrum way. When we listen to an advanced or professional player, we get the impression that since the skills we are hearing are obviously in place, so must be all the rest. But if you asked any musician to do well every skill he or she “should” have for his instrument at his or her level, many would prove to have only the skills you’ve already heard.

Some folks automatically assume that whatever skills an advanced musician does not have aren’t necessary. After all, we might think, they haven’t needed them thus far. But the truth is that we just find niches where we don’t have to use the skills we don’t have. (One obvious example is sight-reading vs. ear-learning; those who sight read often believe they have no reason to need ear-learning skills and vice versa, but in fact each of those skills is only half of a full glass.) There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve met very few. It’s only fair to acknowledge that this kind of limitation is not necessarily a bad thing. It takes so much work, time, and effort to become good at the skills we do have that our ability to perform well would be compromised if we also had to work at perfecting the whole range of advanced skills we “should” have.

However, for those at beginner and intermediate levels, such limitations are, well… limiting. Not learning and practicing well everything that should be in your skill set will negatively affect your musical development.

Before you think I’m letting advanced players off the hook, I’ll explain that few would ever get to advanced levels if they had allowed themselves limitations at their previous levels. You can tell who has been lazy and who has not; those with “selective skills” from early on have a very limited style of playing – all their music sounds pretty much the same.

So, being honest with yourself, how do you assess where your skills are? Some of us are acutely aware of our shortcomings. But aside from what we’re aware of, if you missed something along the way, how would you know? After all, you, uh, missed it.

Therefore, use your learning opportunities. I notice that after a certain level is reached (in the estimation of the player), they tend to stop going to classes, workshops, and lessons. But every musician can benefit from further education. Getting a fresh point of view is tremendously helpful at any level. Besides studying at your own general skill level, also take advantage of how much help it can be to study at a level that is lower than you perceive your skills to be. Letting someone take you back to a more basic level and show you what you missed is a really good idea. It’s likely that some of the information will be new or at least remedial.

In such cases, it’s considerate to refrain from trying to show the class or the teacher that you’re a better player than everyone else. Doing so intimidates the other students, and puts the teacher in a compromised position; usually they’ll assume they need to teach to your level to keep you interested and challenged. Teaching to disparate levels in a group is not beneficial to anyone. You can keep your skill level to yourself and just be a really good student. Don’t be insulted when you’re treated like everyone else.

The opposite also applies; you can sign up for a workshop or class that is beyond your skill level, and if nothing else, you can get a great deal of inspiration from it. If you remind yourself not to become discouraged, such an experience can propel you forward by light years. (It’s a good idea to inform the teacher that your skills are not up to the class standard, and tell them not to hold the class back just for you.)

After a workshop or class you might remember only a few, or maybe even just one, thing that was presented there. If that happens, it may seem like you’ve wasted money and time, but in actuality that one thing or few things do make it worthwhile. It takes time to master even one new skill. If you don’t consciously remember everything you hear in a workshop or class, rest assured that it’s in your brain somewhere, and next time you hear it you’ll be closer to being able to remember and use it. The brain works behind the scenes when we’re not aware that it’s doing so. It’s amazing how much we learn without knowing we have.

Although it may be nearly impossible to master every skill that your instrument is capable of expressing, it can’t hurt to keep learning no matter how good you get. There is no “there” to get to   – it’s an endless road, and that’s one reason playing music is so satisfying.