"I think the thing I would most want to convey is everything is learnable for you and the specifics for me at the time in music would have been around ear training and playing by ear and improvising, but really like you alluded to earlier. So much of what we do in music is transferable to everything in life." ~Christopher Sutton

Successful Musicians Podcast Episode 28


Interviewee: Christopher Sutton

Interviewer: Jason Tonioli


Hey, this is Jason Tonioli. I’m a piano player that grew up believing it wasn’t possible to earn a living and support a family with music. I’ve proven that idea was wrong, and I’ve met hundreds of other people who have found success with their music. This podcast features stories of musicians who have found their own personal version of success and fulfillment in both music and life. This podcast is meant to inspire musicians and help them believe in their abilities and motivate them to share their talents with others. This is the Successful Musicians Podcast.




Jason: Welcome to the show. Today we have Christopher Sutton all the way from London, England, joining us. So excited to have you here, Christopher. Christopher has a very interesting story that we’ll have him share here in a minute. He’s a software developer and programmer who is also a hobby musician. 


You kind of came up through the software world and you’re teaching people how to do music and train their ear. It’s kind of just a great story. My guess is you never expected that you would be in the music industry when you went to school to be a computer programmer, right, Christopher?


Christopher: No, exactly.


Jason: Also, I met him actually at Funnel Hacking live. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that, we use a program called ClickFunnels and it basically teaches us how to help and serve more people. You were at one of the award groups that we had as a Two Comma Club winner. So for those of you who are curious about that, definitely look up what a Two Comma Club award is and you’ll have a lot of respect for our guests today. 


So Christopher, thanks so much for joining us. Let’s start out. Tell me a little bit just about how you ended up as a kid, maybe starting with music, and tell us a little bit about your path and becoming more of a computer programmer, not a touring musician like we all think we want to be as a kid. If we were on that path, for sure.


Christopher: Thank you so much for having me on the show. I’m a big fan and a listener and so it’s a real pleasure to be here with you today. I found it funny a minute ago hearing me described as a software engineer because I guess that is true, that is my roots but it’s been 13 or 14 years, I guess, since I thought of myself like that at all. It’s definitely been a different trajectory than I originally expected. 


So, I grew up as a very nerdy, geeky kid. I was the first kid in the neighborhood to have a computer in their bedroom and that was a really big deal. We were the first to get the internet. I grew up writing computer games, writing code, and at the same time, music was always my passion. It was my hobby. I was playing recorder and then cello and then clarinet and saxophone. I went through my high school years kind of juggling those two things, my passion for computers, my passion for music, and later came to kind of meld the two but certainly all of my more formal training was on the computer side, and I would have assumed I was going to be a coder professionally. Maybe I’d go work for a tech start up, something like that.


It definitely was a surprise when actually my work ended up being on the music side. It was a really pleasant surprise but not something I would have guessed and partly because honestly, I didn’t think I was good enough at music to do anything with it seriously. I thought I was a good hobbyist and a dabbler and certainly in terms of my school participation in bands and choirs and orchestras and all of that, I was fine, but I was not the talented kid who was dreaming of Grammy Award ceremonies at age twelve. That just didn’t seem to be the trajectory I was on at all.


Jason: Awesome. I think probably that dream gets shattered real quick for most of us, but I think what’s really interesting that you’re doing now is helping people to realize they are good enough. This can be a learned thing. For most people, it’s not like you’re just born with that gift. 


Christopher: Yeah. Not to sound too pretentious with it but it’s my life’s work at this point to try and communicate that message that it’s really not about talent or a gift. It’s not about whether you were born with what it takes to win that Grammy or do whatever you want to do. In fact, I don’t know how nerdy we want to get but 38:00 the scientific research has proven at this point that pretty much anything we associate with talent, including in music, is learnable. So, all the stuff I grew up feeling really sheepish about not being able to do, like hear a song on the radio and then just pick up my guitar and play it or someone calls out a song at a party and I could just play it on the keyboard or being able to just sit down and play something from the heart without needing sheet music and just make it up as I went along, none of those things were things I could do, and I could see other musicians who could do them, and I just kind of assumed they had something that I didn’t. So, for the longest time, I just thought of myself as not a real musician.


I think that is constantly reinforced by society. We idolize the rock stars and don’t get me wrong, nothing against the musicians we admire and hold up on a pedestal. They’re incredible. They deserve every ounce of respect. At the same time, society is constantly saying, you’ve got a one in a million shot of having talent in music. You’ve got it or you don’t. You’ve got The X Factor and the Pop Idol and the Britain’s Got Talent and all of this stuff going on in society that, honestly, in our experience at Musical U, leaves probably 95% of musicians feeling really rubbish about themselves, feeling like they’re doing okay, but they’re kind of bumbling along and never really feeling true ownership or fulfillment in their musical life.


I love what you do with the show here, that you’re always inviting the guests to define success for themselves. It’s not the Successful Musicians podcast in terms of winning a Grammy Award or in terms of making six figures as a musician. It’s all about what is success for you, and I know that in our community at Musical U, a lot of what makes them feel successful is starting to put in place some of those skills that we associate with talent.


Jason: I think it’s interesting that the success that you might have ten years ago has probably evolved into a whole different thing as you look back and I think as you mentioned, defining that success, I think as musicians the sooner we can realize you are good enough but if you want to get better, it can be learned. Apparently, there’s some really cool, nerdy scientific facts that we can prove that but I absolutely believe that.


My experience when I came up through music was I was taught to read off a sheet music and I was the kid that didn’t practice piano a lot and so I didn’t get near as good at sight reading sheet music as I wished I would have and I never expected that I could play music by ear because I just wasn’t very good at it but I did work at it. I’d sit with my cassette tape, (and this will date me), but I’d sit with my cassette tape and rewind it and hit play and rewind and hit play and I’d try to write out notes. I remember doing a Boyz 2 Men song back in high school that I wanted to have my choir group sing and there was no sheet music.


You couldn’t just go online and Google. It just didn’t exist before the Internet. Working through that and the struggle the first time is really hard. The second time is still hard, and even 50 times in, it’s still hard but you get better at whatever it is, whether it’s music, I’m sure, or even coding, you know, it got easier the more you did it, right?


Christopher: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the traps musicians sometimes fall into and particularly I’m talking about, I guess, amateur or hobbyist musicians. They may be very devoted, don’t get me wrong, but nonprofessionals can’t spend all day every day doing it. One of the traps they fall into, like if they get past that thing of its talent, I’ve got it or they don’t, and they have the gumption to sit down like you did with a tape deck and play it 50 times and try and figure it out. Unfortunately, that brute force write approach is what we’re told is how we learn things. Even in the sheet music world. If you want to play the piece, play it a thousand times. Just do it again and again. The jazzers refer to it as like, shedding. They’re just going to put in their 10,000 hours in the shed or whatever and eventually they’ll get it. That’s really rogue headed and it’s really unfortunate and we know much better ways. So like with playing by ear, for example, there are building blocks you can very quickly learn for your ear to recognize everything that’s going on, and then you don’t need to listen to it 50 times.


Your ear just kind of understands and dissects and gets there very quickly or with the instrument skills like the science of accelerated learning has proven there are particular techniques you can use. Instead of playing the bar 20 times and hoping you eventually get it right, as if by magic. There are very clear methods you can use to break down that bar and practice it in a certain way that gets you the result five to ten times faster and so you can probably tell I get excited about this stuff because it can be so much easier and so much more rewarding for average everyday musicians than we’re ever led to believe. I feel like we’re on the cusp of a really exciting step change in how people learn music as this stuff becomes more mainstream and instead of the slightly disappointed hobbyist, musicians slaving away in their bedroom and always feeling a bit disappointed with the results, we’re going to start seeing these rock star superstar learners just breaking down the barriers and learning these skills very quickly.


Jason: So this morning, I have a seven year old daughter, and she’s in first grade, and right before she left for school, she was pulling out and showing me her math test and her older brother was giving her a hard time, and she’d drown all these pictures to do. I guess they’re working on ratios. We honestly don’t know exactly what it was but her brother was given a hard time saying, why are you doing that? You should just do it this way. She looked at him and said, you have to work smarter, not harder.


As you’re telling me that, I’m thinking, I can just picture Lindsay saying, you got to be smarter and I’m sure there’s all kinds of things that we’ve learned that brute force, it was painful doing that on the tape recorder deck. As I look at kind of my evolution, I am able to play by year now, but until I was probably 22 or 23 years old, I’d never heard of what a fake book was. I thought it was like an imaginary book that they wanted me to go buy this imaginary fake book that didn’t exist.


I kind of laughed at the person when that happened. When they first told me and then when I finally saw it with them, I was like, oh, my gosh, this is the chords in the left hand. It’s like the cheat sheet that I wished I would have had, and it was a game changer. So absolutely, I think there’s probably all kinds of things that the younger generation is going to just leapfrog us so fast and I think anybody who’s willing to figure out how to work smarter and not harder is probably capable of more than we realize.


One of the things that you were also talking about, that musicians sometimes feel like they’re not good enough and I think with anybody who’s been successful or people that we think are successful, if you actually have a conversation with them as they’re on that journey to find that fulfillment, I feel like they always have moments of imposter syndrome. I can’t do this. I’m not as good as this person. Maybe describe what imposter syndrome is for you? Then how do you break that barrier so you can be successful?


Christopher: It’s such an important topic and it’s one we’ve really learned. We need to address head on with our students at Musical U. To be clear, these are typically 40- to 80-year-old musicians who they might have been doing it a few months or a few years or a few decades, but there is so much psychologically that accumulates for a person and can really get in the way of the success they deserve. We actually one member of our community, Hugh Mckelveen, has studied imposter syndrome in great depth in the academic setting and so we had him come in and give a masterclass and I actually did one to one coaching with him for a while because, like you say, this was a thing for me. It was a thing for me in music and then it was a thing for me in business. What we’re talking about here is really that feeling that you’re just fooling everyone around you. So for me in music, what that looked like was, I’d get the solo part in the choir or I’d pass my exam with flying colors and I’d kind of feel like I cheated and I didn’t cheat, I didn’t do anything wrong.


That voice that said I wasn’t a real musician and I wasn’t a good enough musician meant that anytime I did accomplish something, I kind of devalued it and I didn’t think I deserved it. Similarly, in business, like whatever you achieve, there’s always more you can achieve, and that entrepreneurial ambition is a good thing, but it can also bite you in the butt when it means that you don’t really respect yourself for what you have accomplished and you’ve got that voice saying you fooled them for now, but they’re going to find out you’re not the real thing. So it can be really insidious, and it can really trip us up in a myriad of ways but in particular, we find it stops musicians from dreaming as big as they ought to because they might get a little taste of writing a song. They might dip their toe in that water and quite enjoy it but then that imposter syndrome kicks in and says something like, oh, but if you were a real songwriter, you would have done it by now or the real songwriters, they write lyrics in their childhood. You never did that, so it’s not for you.


You’ve got all again that kind of society messaging around music and talent and what it takes. It is all there for all of us at the back of our mind and it unfortunately means the imposter syndrome can kick in really strong and quite quickly make people shy away from what could be an incredibly successful path for them.


Jason: I think that applies to not just music, but just life in general. I heard a quote the other day that said that most people die when they’re aged 22. They just don’t bury them until they’re in their 70s or 80s. If you think about it, you’re taught as a child, you can do anything, but now you get through, you finish your university or college or whatever your schooling is, it amazes me how many people just decide, well, I’m done learning now, it’s time to go to work and there’s definitely been a revenue. It’s become much easier to learn all kinds of skills with the Internet now. Still to this day, I’m amazed that my son is spending $1,000, $1,500 probably for a three-hour course at the university. When you look at all the costs of what you pay, lots of people pay to go to these universities but as soon as they’re done the idea of spending $1,000 on something you actually wanted to learn from somebody who’s actually really smart in that thing, they’re like, oh, that’s so much money. It really isn’t and I feel like people owe it to themselves to really explore what they love doing and whether that’s music or whatever it is. There are so many interesting things to learn in this life.


Christopher: Absolutely. Yeah and if I may, I want to just come back to something you said a couple of minutes ago that with all of the exciting breakthroughs, the younger generation are going to leapfrog past us. I’d almost say the opposite to be honest. The young ones, they often don’t have the discipline and the dedication to get anything done and we really find with our adult learners at Musical U, there are incredible things they can accomplish very quickly when they’re given the right tools and the right methods and when we’re able to remove some of those limiting beliefs around what’s possible. Again, the science is on this side of it that says for every disadvantage you might feel you have as someone who’s old or learned slowly or has a bad memory, there’s at least as many methods to overcome that and reasons why you actually have an advantage as an adult. So we see every day 60, 70, 80-year-olds in our community playing by ear for the first time, improvising, writing songs, going to a jam session for the first time and they kind of inspire each other,because once you see someone your age do it, you’re like, oh, maybe it’s not too late for me. I like this.


Jason: So you’re telling me if anybody between 40 and 80, they can still do this?


Christopher: I feel bad for saying 80. We have had older than 80. There really is no limit and not to take us down a tangent but the science of accelerated learning is so powerful.  It drastically outweighs any hang ups you might have about being over the hill or being too old for it or not learning quickly anymore. That just kind of pales in comparison which is really exciting when you see these people get hold of these methods and feel like they’re young again.


Jason: That’s awesome. That makes me feel better about myself. I can still learn. That’s amazing. Most people don’t go into that subject. What drove you in that direction?


Christopher: Yeah, it was really inadvertent. So you can probably tell I’m pretty passionate about it at this point but it was not a conscious decision or a choice at any point. It really was that I was working in audio technology and having spent, I guess at that point, like 20 years learning instruments, learning music, I had literally never been told there was such a thing as ear training. So I had done instrument exams and the week before the exam, I would be prepped for the oral skills section, and my teacher would be like, what’s this interval? I would be like, what is an interval? What are you talking about? I managed to pass the exams, but literally no one ever told me there was a process I could go through to train my ears but in that audio technology job, I was doing a kind of ear training for recognizing frequency bands for ear, like a studio producer would and that led to me discovering, oh, there was ear training I could do to recognize note pictures and to recognize different rhythms and to learn to transcribe, write things down in notation. As I dipped my toe into that, for the first time, I was able to go back to these instruments I had learned how to play, and for the first time, play them without needing to be told note by note what notes to play.


That was just mind blowing for me. It was a whole different world of music making. Depending on how cheerful I’m feeling, I’ll tell you, that super inspired me and I went off and I dived into it. Or I’ll tell you, it made me really angry because it did make me pretty angry to realize I had spent 20 years learning music. I’d had really good teachers, and I’d put in the effort, but there was this massive piece of my music education that no one had ever filled in for me and so I definitely got a little bit of a b in my bonnet or a chip on my shoulder, thinking, like how is it possible that we’ve ended up with a music education system that leaves musicians so lopsided in their musicality? We get good at the instrument technique, and we learn the music theory, but no one ever tells us we can develop our ear to the same extent or greater and they don’t tell us that that ear is what can unlock all of these seemingly magical musical skills for us.


So I guess that to come back to your question, that’s what drove me is that kind of, I wouldn’t even say anger or resentment. It was more just like disbelief. How is this how it works? How is this what people are given as learning music? Again, not to disparage my teachers, I have so much gratitude for the music education I received and all that was really good about it but I still find it crazy to this day that when someone comes to us at Musical U, they’ve often been learning an instrument for decades. They’ve been putting in the hours, they’ve been putting in the practice, and no one’s ever opened the door to this part of it for them and so, yeah, that just kind of gradually became my life’s mission.


I started making iPhone apps to help me with it. I put them on the App Store to help other people. Clearly, there was a need, and it kind of snowballed from there. We started making eBooks. This was back in like, 2010, 2011, and training albums where you could listen to them and they would gradually train your ear. Then in 2015, we rebranded the company and launched a big membership site devoted to this topic and that was when we branded as Musical U, the current name of the company and that membership site has been the heart of our community and everything we’ve built ever since.


Jason: I feel very similar. I had great music teachers who had the best of intentions and I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of piano teachers that I’ve come across and I really think they just don’t know. I’ve had piano teachers that still don’t know what a fake book is and they’ve learned their Mozart and Beethoven and Rachmaninoff and they can play better than I probably ever will be able to play but if you ask them to play Twinkle Little Star on the piano, they’d look at you like you were crazy. It’s really kind of sad because I imagine how much better they would be than with the work and the understanding. I’m curious.


So people ask me, how do you improvise? The best way to describe that is I tell them it’s kind of like when you sing a song. You can sing Happy Birthday or Twinkle Little Star and you know your voice and know exactly how to do those intervals. I’ve told them what it comes down to is you’ve got to teach your hand how to sing. I don’t know how exactly you teach that. Maybe you’ve cracked the code with what you guys are doing but essentially you have to force your hand to sing and be okay with messing up and singing a bad note because a lot of us don’t sing great either. Essentially, that’s how I’ve kind of described it to people. I’ve just taught my right hand how to sing and my left hand knows what to kind of sing along with it. Do I understand exactly how it works? No, but it does, and I can do some pretty neat things with the ear. I don’t feel like it’s something that people can’t learn but I think a lot of people convince themselves that there’s no way they could ever play by ear because they’ve never done it.


Christopher: Yeah, I think it’s interesting to hear you describe it and I love the way you put it. It’s beautiful to teach your hands to sing and I absolutely agree with your point about needing to be willing to make mistakes and figure it out as you go. When it comes to improvisation, the way we would describe it is those who teach improvisation tend to fall into one of two camps out there in the world today. One camp says it’s about rules and patterns. So if you want to get good at, say, blues guitar improv or jazz piano improv, it’s about learning the right scales to play and the right patterns on your fretboard or the keyboard and then that’s kind of the stuff you’re allowed to play. Another camp says it’s all about vocabulary. Particularly in jazz, it’s like, do you know the lines? Do you know the rifts? Do you know the licks from the grates? Memorize all of that vocab and then you can bring it out when you need to. What we found is that both of those camps have really big drawbacks. So the first camp tends to leave people feeling a bit robotic.


So I know that for me, for example, as a teenager, I was handed the minor pentatonic fretboard pattern on guitar. I asked my teacher how to improvise. He was like, use this pattern and then I was just literally picking notes at random from that fretboard pattern and calling it improv and it was more fun than not improvising but it really didn’t feel like I was making choices in a meaningful way or bringing out music from inside me. Then, like, the memorizing licks, rifts and runs, it has a certain appeal, for sure, but again, it ends up with the musician feeling like they’re just parroting back other people’s improv. I love what you describe because it is kind of, to me, true improv, like it’s coming from inside you. The only thing I would say is that I think you said yourself there, it can be hard to teach that, right? I think it took you a number of years to get there and so it’s fantastic when you get there but for the average student who wants to improvise next week, it’s a tricky route to follow, right? So the approach we take at Musical U is it’s a particular framework we’ve developed called expansive creativity.


I won’t go on and on about it, but I’ll give you the gist because I think it might be helpful for anyone listening. The basic idea is that the big challenge with improv is two things. One is the fear of making mistakes that you alluded to there, particularly if you’re coming from the sheet music world. We think in terms of right notes, wrong notes. Did I play it correctly? That’s really hard to get away from.


Jason: We’re used to sitting at a piano bench with the piano teacher who may even have a ruler whacking our fingers because we messed up. We are terrified to screw up. I think giving yourself permission to mess up is so important in life in general and just recognizing it’s okay to do dumb things because you learn from them. Just learn from them.


Christopher: So we talk about adopting the improviser’s mindset which is really about recognizing the value and those mistakes and the opportunity they create for expressing your own musical ideas. The second thing that makes it really tricky is what can be called the paradox of choice, or like the curse of overwhelm where we’ve said you don’t want to be trapped in those patterns or the memorized vocabulary but does that mean I just play any note? There are a lot of notes on that piano keyboard. Do I just pick at random? That tends to make people freeze up or do something very, very simple because they’re really scared to do anything else. So clearly there needs to be some sweet spot between the rigid rules and you’re allowed to play this and play anything. I hope it sounds good. So we use a system of what we would call constraints and dimensions where we give our students very clear constraints. For example, we get them started with a OneNote improv. So we’re going to forget about which note to play. You’re only going to play the C or whatever it is but see how many other dimensions of music you can explore with that C.


It’s always eye opening for them or ear opening maybe because they suddenly realize not only is there a whole world of rhythm to improvise with but there’s all kinds of nuances of expression and tone and tamra and depending on their instrument, all kinds of things they can still explore and so that makes it very unintimidating. They can’t play a wrong note. It also shows them actually, they do have an instinct there for improvisation and so we can start exploring, well, what sounds good to you? What did you like there? Can you play it again when it sounds good? So there’s all kinds of we call them playgrounds where we set up constraints and we encourage them to explore the dimensions and that lets the student really quickly get in touch with their instinct for improvising because you know as well as anyone, Jason, like, we’ve all spent decades immersed in music. Aria kind of knows what sounds good already. We just typically don’t know the right names to put on it, and we haven’t trained our ear to be disciplined about telling this from that and so what we find is actually their taste for improvising is already really great.


They already really know quickly what they like and don’t like and so as soon as you set them free in these kinds of playgrounds where they can make mistakes and not worry about it, and they can explore stuff without getting overwhelmed, actually they very quickly start playing stuff where they’re like, oh, that sounded really good. I like that. I’m going to record that. Yeah, it just proves to be a really nice middle ground in that world of improvement.


Jason: I’m just thinking of when I was a kid growing up, my piano teacher, I was playing some Beethoven and I even got to the hard some of the hard Rachmaninoff stuff and in one of my piano recitals, I would practice what was written sometimes but there were times that you’re playing through something, you’re like, man, this would sound better if it was this way and so I’d just play it that way and then I’d get the lessons and I’d play it the wrong way and get in trouble sometimes and was even told that dead composer will come back and haunt you if you change their stuff sometimes. I’m certain they were joking but I really feel like a lot of people that have come through that traditional piano learning, piano model feels like there’s one way to play it.


Even when I play at some of these festivals, you have a teacher there with your music and they’re marking up to tell you what you did wrong or what you could have done better and I guess I’ve always looked at it as like, who’s to say Mozart. If he was sitting down to play his piece, I bet he’d change up half the song because he thought he felt a different way.


I think it’s the same thing you see when really good musicians and bands, they’re at a concert, people love it when they just change it up and they’re just having fun. It makes the music real. I think the sooner musicians can recognize, look, you’re playing for you. Mozart’s been dead for a long time and he’s probably so tired of hearing his song played the same way. How cool would it be to mash up little Stairway to Heaven with Beethoven Fur Elise? He’d probably be giving you a high five if he could.


Christopher: That’s the real irony of it. If you look back in the classical tradition, improvisation was a huge part of it. These composers we revere. They were improvisers and they would change it on the fly to suit the audience and we somehow lost that in translation over the next couple of hundred years as we just got stuck in this rigidity. I think I just want to say, don’t get me wrong, there is great value in the traditions and there’s great virtue in being able to perform the music as written.


Jason: Absolutely.


Christopher: For all we’ve been talking about the ear skills, I know the happiest musicians are those who have the sheet music knowledge and the ear skills. It’s not that one is better than the other. It’s just that the vast majority of musicians are very lopsided, and I really love what the late Forrest Kinney taught about this. He taught the four creative arts, and one of them was improvisation but another was interpretation. He just kind of packaged this up and said, look, if you’re going to play Mozart the way it’s written, fantastic. That’s a whole art form in itself. But can we step back and recognize that’s just one of these creative arts and musicians are entitled to? They deserve to be introduced to all of them.


Jason: Yeah. So the more you’re talking about how you’re helping people, I’m just curious if somebody’s going to be curious and then go look up on your website, I’m sure but what exactly do you guys offer? You talked about this subscription program. I’m not trying to have this be a sales pitch, but I’m curious myself. So what exactly happens when somebody comes into your system or your program and what do you do with them?


Christopher: Sure. Yeah. So we have a core membership program, which would be our number one recommendation for anyone coming to us and that’s really designed to be a very all-encompassing program that covers everything from playing by ear to music theory, to improvisation, to songwriting, all that good stuff. What I would say is just we learned very quickly that you can’t be too rigid with adult learners online and so there are ways we could teach this stuff in person with children or in person for like, month long retreat with people. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Our typical student music is a hobby. They might have 15 minutes for a day. They might have an hour a day if they’re lucky. They might be retired. Many of them are and they have more time to spare but we learn very quickly. It needs to be flexible and it needs to be quite bite sized and so we have very extensive training on all of those topics but it’s really engineered so that it can flex around your lifestyle as you need, and B, so that you can come in and we’re not going to dictate to you. This is step one through step 1000.


We really value that musicians are coming in, having played all kinds of instruments, all kinds of styles, anywhere from three months to three decades or more and they may have done a bit of this ear training or musicality training before or zero. Likewise for music theory. So we by necessity have to make it very flexible so someone can come in, for example, being like, I don’t really care about playing by ear, I never want to write songs, but improvisation is where it’s at. They can spend twelve weeks going deep, deep on improvisation and learning in great depth how we teach that or contrary wise, they might come in being like, I want to learn everything, show me the fundamentals that are going to give me the best foundation and I can spend twelve weeks just what we would say like rebuilding your musical mind from the ground up with the mental models you need to instinctively understand pitch chord rhythms by ear. So it is very malleable based on your background, based on your goals, based on your preferences and we really just aim to make sure that whatever you’re most passionate about, we’ve got the material to help you get there.


Jason: I know we’re getting short on time, but if you could rewind the clock back and imagine yourself sitting in 19, 20 years old, you’re in a music class and you had the ability to go back and talk to that person in that seat and there’s probably 30 or 50 other kids in there. What advice would you have today that you wished you could have given yourself or the up and comers that are the 20-year-olds that are going to be the new music generation? What advice do you have, or would you tell them?


Christopher: That’s a really great question. 1:07:36 I think the thing I would most want to convey is everything is learnable for you and the specifics for me at the time in music would have been around ear training and playing by ear and improvising, but really like you alluded to earlier. So much of what we do in music is transferable to everything in life. Right? We certainly see that in our community at Musical U where they have a breakthrough or an epiphany in their music making and then they come back a few days later and they’re like, this thing happened to me out in the world and it’s because of the stuff I was doing in music. I know that for me at that age, just to try and start escaping from that imposter syndrome and start removing some of those limiting beliefs and just really know fundamentally that whatever I want to learn or whatever I want to be able to do is going to be learnable for me, that would be a game changer.


Jason: Awesome. One thing is I’m reading your motion on your face as you’re talking about these people finding those successes. I think you’re lighting up even more seeing their success. My guess is you feel more fulfilled and excited for yourself than any award you’ve gotten for yourself watching the others do it as the best payday ever. Right?


Christopher: 1000%. Yeah. The highlight of my day is always like, we have a win’s channel in our team slack. So where our team chats to each other. We have a dedicated room just for sharing the student successes and it’s phenomenal to see these lives being changed and the musical breakthroughs that happen and it’s a real honor to get to play a part in that journey.


Jason: Yeah. If you could fast forward now, let’s say 20 or 30 years, and you’re coming to the end of your life, what would you hope? I guess that you could look back and say, you know what, I accomplished this one thing, or what would make you feel like you had a fulfilled, successful life.


Christopher: Yeah, I’m hesitating because I don’t know how this will come across, but there is a very obvious, most odd answer for me. I am not going to be satisfied on my deathbed if we’ve helped a few hundred people or a few thousand people or tens of thousands like we’ve helped tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of musicians, depending on how you measure it already. That’s amazing. That’s great. I love each and every one of them and I’m delighted but honestly, it comes back to what you were asking about earlier in terms of what drives me.


If I go to my deathbed and music education is still being done in this really lopsided way and there are still like twelve-year-olds being taught that you just learn guitar, get the guitar technique, learn from the tab and they never discover there’s this whole musicality inside them just waiting to be let free. That’s a failure to me. If we cannot do something about that, I will have spent my life in vain. So, yeah, I’m going to spend the next 20 years or however many, trying really hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.


Jason: That sounds to me like that’s going really well so far. So for those that want to find out more, where would you tell them to go check out? I know you’ve got a podcast, you’ve got a website. Where should they go? Put the stuff in the show notes as well, but where would you like them to go first?


Christopher: Awesome. Thanks. So our main website is Musical-u.com. You’ll find all our stuff there. Anyone watching or listening to this is a podcast person. So absolutely check out our podcast. It’s Musicalitynow.com. That is a mix of shortish teaching episodes where we share kind of like the improv stuff earlier. We share the how to of all the stuff we’ve been talking about today and long form interviews with incredible musicians and music educators like Forrest Kinney that I talked about earlier, just sharing their deep wisdom and insights as well as their personal story through this stuff to inspire and inform and guide others in their journey.


Jason: Awesome. I got one last question for you, just popped in my head. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? You probably had mentors and people that have helped you over the years. What’s the best advice that maybe somebody shared with you?


Christopher: There are so many people I have enormous gratitude for their help over the years, for sure. I think what stands out is something my dad has always said and it’s not quite related to music but I guess it was for me, which was just like, he’s a firm believer that you’re in your 20s for figuring out what you want to do with your life. I think for me, that was massive because I was very academic growing up and I was on a trajectory to go to the good uni, do the master’s degree, maybe do a PhD, go into the research in that direction but that idea that I could spend a whole decade just figuring out what I wanted to do and not, like, in a dilettante, all your costs are covered kind of way, like, we’re talking about working but not feeling committed to a career, that was huge for me. I think without that, I wouldn’t have had the gumption to make iPhone apps and try that for a year or two and see how it went. I probably never would have wandered into the music side of things because I would have been too scared I was abandoning my credentials or whatever.


So I think that idea is expressed in your 20s but I think it goes for all our musicians at Musical U too, where it’s like life is not a straight line. If you’re not yet convinced you’re on the right path, give yourself a little bit of leeway to explore and try other things and see whether maybe the route to success for you in music might be over there and you might not know until you go and try it.


Jason: Yeah. Wow. Christopher, thank you so much. I so appreciate you sharing with people and I hope this impacts a lot of people. I know I’m a different guy now after talking to you, so thank you so much.


Christopher: Absolute pleasure, Jason. Thank you. Awesome.


Jason: Thanks so much.


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Finding success and fulfillment in the music industry is possible. Looking forward to seeing you in our next episode.



How to Connect with the Featured Guest:

Our special guest for today is Christopher Sutton, owner and director of UK-based Easy Ear Training Ltd. a London-based music education technology company. Their leading product is Musical U, a membership site providing comprehensive and fully-supported training for the “inner skills” of musicianship.

Originally trained as a computer scientist, he specialized in developing music-related software for desktop and mobile with the goal of creating cutting-edge training tools to help musicians develop their ear for music.

What You’ll Learn

In this episode, Christopher Sutton emphasized that anything we associate with talent, including in music, is learnable. He also talked about the traps musicians sometimes fall into and how imposter syndrome and how it can kick in really strong and quite quickly make people shy away from what could be an incredibly successful path for them.

Things We Discussed

  • Ear training for recognizing frequency bands

  • How music education system leaves musicians so lopsided

  • Musical U, a new and innovative online musical training system

  • Relative Pitch, a best-selling iOS app featured as “New and Noteworthy” by Apple and downloaded over 300,000 times

  • Expansive creativity

  • Musicalitynow.com – a mix of shortish teaching episodes podcast

  • All about improvs

Connect with Christopher Sutton

Website (Musical U) 

Facebook (Musical U)

Twitter (Musical U)


Connect with Jason Tonioli







Amazon Music

Apple Music

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