Essential Music Books (age 14+)

I’ve read every practice book out there (most of them twice or more), and many other music-related books besides, as well as a raft of peer-reviewed research on practice. Here’s a compilation of the best of the best books. Great advice and excellent writing. If I’ve left out a favorite of yours, let me know in the comments. I’ve done extensive reviews of most of these titles. Look for the link, or go here.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Lots of food for thought in these books for players of every level. These books should be in your music library. The order in which they’re presented reflects my own loose ranking system. The first one is the best. All of them are good.

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Musician's Way, by Gerald Klickstein

The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness, by Gerald Klickstein

Pages: 343
Chapters: 14
Back Matter: Notes, Selected Bibliography, Index
Part I: Artful Practice
Part II: Fearless Performance
Part III: Lifelong Creativity
MY REVIEW

Klickstein is a classical guitarist who performs throughout the U.S. and internationally and is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He has an excellent blog.

My favorite 2 aspects of the book are the well-chosen quotations sprinkled throughout, and the use of solid research to inform and back up what Klickstein puts forth. The bibliography is solid though not comprehensive. The book covers the nitty gritty of practice and includes concrete things to actually do, which mostly means strategies for excellent practice, but there are other worthy tidbits, too. The second section of the book is all about performance and the strategies you can use to include performance as another aspect of your practice. Klickstein also covers aspects of the body that are important to good practice: physical warm-ups, injury prevention, resting. The final part of the book covers injury prevention and valuable advice for the student. More specifics on each section can be found in my original review.

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The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green, with Timothy Gallwey

15 chapters
225 pages

Barry Green’s book is based on Gallwey’s quite successful title, The Inner Game of TennisWhat is striking and admirable is that Green didn’t just write a knockoff cribbed from Gallwey’s book. After meeting with Gallwey about the project, they decided Green should live with (and teach) the principles and then write the book. Three years later, Green was ready and this book is the result.

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image of Dan Coyle's The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, by Dan Coyle. You’ll see another great book by Coyle further down this list. This little gem here is short, sweet, and just about small enough to fit in most instrument cases, and it’s a hardcover, so it’ll take a beating if necessary.

Though I personally don’t like the word “talent,” because it’s a loaded term that tends to mean “gifted,” or “you either have it or you don’t,” but Coyle’s superb book may convince you that “talent” isn’t a gift, it’s earned through  effort, attention, and perseverance. This book is chock-full of excellent advice on practice. Get it!

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Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within
by Kenny Werner

I have to make the disclaimer that reading this book resulted in a sea change that deeply affected my philosophy and approach to teaching, learning, playing, and listening to music. It came along at just the right time to make a big impact on me and because of this, I had to revisit it as I think about The Practice of Practice. In my re-reading of Werner’s book I see again a wisdom and a reverence for Music that still shines through. I still recommend the book highly.

Especially useful in this book are Werner’s thoughts on how fear can (and usually does at some point) affect one’s playing, and even the way one listens to music. Fear of any sort doesn’t result in good playing and it may well force you into quitting altogether. This is bad. If you can get a handle on fear early in your pursuit (or at any phase of your journey), you’re better off than most.

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Cover of "Free Play: Improvisation in Lif...

Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, by Stephen Nachmanovich

Pages: 197
Chapters: 22
Back Matter (10 pp): notes/sources, bibliography, illustrations list, bio
4 Sections: The Sources; The Work; Obstacles & Openings; The Fruits

(At the end of this review is a link to an mp3 of my improv group Meh! playing an improvised story with Nachmanovich.)

Free Play doesn’t deal directly with music practice, but it is nevertheless an important book for anyone interested in music (or other arts, or life). I strongly believe that improvisation benefits practice. To me, improvising is an essential musical skill, one possessed by musical greats (Hussain, Bach, Shankar, Beethoven, Duke, Mozart, etc.), and is practiced in musical traditions all over the world, as well as by young children who haven’t developed some of the fear associated with improvisation in those overly focused on the written notes. Remember when you drew letters over and over as a young child, taking great care (or not) with the shapes? Now imagine that despite all that practice time forming letters and sounding out words, that you never (ever) spoke extemporaneously. Crazy, right? To me, that’s about the same as practicing scales over and over until they’re memorized, but then never using that tonal material to improvise.

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Cover of "The Talent Code: Greatness Isn'...

The Talent Code by Dan Coyle.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; 1 edition (April 28, 2009)
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars (103 customer reviews)
This is one of the most engaging reads that tackles practice in general, and what’s happening in the brain. Coyle uses anecdotes and interviews with experts to help the reader understand how people get better and what’s going on in the brain. My review of the book goes into more details. Highly recommended. ~$15
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Music by Andrew Zuckerman Music by Andrew Zuckerman. This book is chock full of the voice of experience. Zuckerman interviews musical icons from many genres: rock icons like Ozzy, pop musicians like Lenny Kravitz, Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde, Ani DiFranco, Rosanne Cash and others; jazz luminaries like Herbie Hancock and Dave Brubeck; classical composer Phililip Glass; Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar and many, many, many more. A total of 50 musicians were interviewed for the project and nearly everyone has interesting things to say about music. The last I checked, this $50 hardcover book was going for less than ten bucks! The pictures are also pretty amazing, just the artist against a stark white background.

            • Hardcover: 300 pages
            • Publisher: Abrams; Har/Psc edition (October 15, 2010)
            • Language: English
            • Product Dimensions: 12.3 x 12.2 x 1.1 inches
            • Shipping Weight: 5 pounds
            • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars (7 customer reviews)
Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.
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