Decorating Tips For Musicians (How To Learn Like A Painter)

I’ve been teaching bass now for almost 25 years. I’ve taught thousands of students, and given masterclasses and seminars to many more in universities and colleges all over the world. In that time, I’ve never stopped trying to refine my method, my process, my ability to help a student get where they need to be. And one of the things I’m always searching for is better metaphors for what it is we’re trying to do.

So, today we’re going to talk about painting and decorating, OK?

Imagine you were asked by someone to decorate their house – to paint all the rooms, the stairs, hallway, all the doors, fittings. Everything needs doing. There’s a lot of work there, and you’ve not really done any painting before…

There are a number of ways to approach it, so let’s break them down, then you can look at their parallels with learning an instrument:

The first approach we could consider is to do the undercoat on every wall in the house before moving on. We can prepare the walls, strip any paper that needs it, get many cans of emulsion, and start to put a single layer down all over the house. It’s a chance to try out a few different ways of painting (brush, roller etc.) to work on how we’re going to deal with corners, ceilings, etc. and get the lay of the land. At the end of it, we’re going to have nothing finished to show anyone, but we’ll have an awful lot of ground work done, and will have tried out painting a number of different ways in a setting where if it’s not perfect, it doesn’t matter that much because it’s going to have a second coat anyway.

Alternatively, we could as we go about the task of doing the undercoat, spend more time on the tricky bits – when we get to a corner, we could do multiple layers in those corners, we could look for other corners to work on. We could even go and find other houses to practice on. That’s not really part of the job at hand, but practice is always welcome…

Or maybe we could try a different approach altogether and try to finish one room. This might even be required because the person who owns the house needs to have a room usable pretty quickly. So we do the undercoat, then the top coat, then we try our hand at painting doors and pipes and radiators and window sills with gloss paint… We’ll have to work out how to do everything to an acceptable level pretty quick, and we’ll have to make damn sure we don’t get paint on the carpet. And if we’re particularly bad at one bit in that room, we can work on it. The whole thing will be finished, and we’ll definitely have something to show for our work, but we won’t necessarily have everything to the level of understanding we’d like in order to make a career of this… But, we get the job done.

Finally, we could obsess about one particular aspect of the job, about showing that off and getting some recognition for it. Painting radiators for example. That’s a tricky job and it requires some particularly focused brushwork not to leave them covered in streaks (trust me, my mum’s old house probably still has the evidence of me learning this lesson). So we paint the radiators as well as we can, we take a million pictures and we start submitting them to Radiator Magazine! We set up a radiator-painting Instagram page, and try to connect with as many radiator people as we can on LinkedIn. Meanwhile, the rest of the house remains unpainted. Awesome rads, bro. Shame about the walls/ceiling/sills/skirting board etc.

So, what’s the advice? How do we get better that this?

Here are a few things I’d suggest trying:

Keep looking at other houses: look close up at the details, the things you wouldn’t know about unless you did, but which people notice as being scruffy or unfinished… Look at the best work you possibly can, but also the closest to what it is you’re trying to do. You’re not about to reinvent the world of decorating on your first attempt, so get some clues from people who’ve been doing it a long time.

Practice: This might mean redecorating your own house in order to try a few things out. The great thing with your own house is you can do some crazy stuff too. You can go full Jackson Pollock on a room if you want to. It’s your house! Have fun! But if you’ve got a job to do, make sure a fair chunk of your time is focused on practicing those skills…

Ask for help: If you find the paint running whenever you try and do a door, call up someone better at it than you and get some tips! Have a look online for help – there are loads of YouTube channels and advice pages for how to use brushes, how best to use a roller and not end up with your hair full of paint, how to make sure the carpet stays clean, how to remove streaks or cover over bright colours… Tons of tips that while no substitute for actually practicing could help you bypass a whole load of sticky, messy mistakes. If there’s a class nearby for people learning how to decorate, go for it. Find other people who are starting out and talk over the things that you’ve learned and the stuff you’re finding difficult. That can be really encouraging.

You could then go on a course. Once you find out what your strengths and weaknesses are, you can start to get much more specific help with what you’re trying to do. Hopefully rather than just patting yourself on the back for finishing the job, you’re actually looking at your work as objectively as you can and while enjoying your progress, you’re trying to spot the areas that still need focus. Go get help with those things. Maybe the teacher will highlight other things you’ve not noticed. Maybe your fellow students will help you find new things to work on. It’ll all be worth it.

Buy good paint: You don’t need to get obsessed with the brand name, but if your paint comes from the Pound Shop, don’t expect it to do the job. Ask the pros what they use. Have a look around and see what the good stuff looks like, and check its environmental impact. But be prepared to pay a bit more to get the job done properly.

Work out what the end game is: A thousand pictures of expertly painted radiators are of zero use if what you’re being asked to do is decorate a house for someone to live in. Likewise, if some has a moving in date and needs at least one room to be usable in a couple of days, you can’t be spending ages practicing and learning a broad range of technqiues throughout the house. You’ve got to get it done.
But if you’re just trying to get more work as ‘the radiator guy’, those photos might help. It’s a long shot and will definitely result in less regular work than just getting on with the job and learning how to be a good decorator, but hey, if you’ve got a dream and you’re not too fussed about paying the bills… For what it’s worth, no-one has ever, as far as I can tell, made a living solely out of painting radiators. But don’t let that stop you.

Be the best decorator you can be: It may be that somewhere down the line you realise that your brush control could also be applied to fine art, to paintings, murals, public art… that’s not important right now. What matters now, for the sake of the work and your humanity, is doing a good job and taking pride in your work. So go and be amazing at painting. Keep getting better, learning new things and experimenting in your increasingly-bizarrely decorated house. 🙂


SO, the task now is to look for the parallels in your own learning – how do you paint a house? What’s the end-game? Where do you practice? Make a plan, and get painting :) 

One Reply to “Decorating Tips For Musicians (How To Learn Like A Painter)”

  1. Excellent metaphor. Strikes a deep chord in me. Painting the whole house in your own house then moving on to finish a room for that paying customer was a path that worked for me. I am enjoying the “looking at other houses up close for details” phase now. End Game? Maybe play my bass thru a color pallet and paint the room with light as I play!

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