Deciding is Creating

I’m the type of person who wants to do a lot of creative projects, so many in fact, that the vast majority never get done.  A lot of times I just don’t know where to start, so I don’t.  What I’m learning again and again is that you need to be decisive to be creative.  Creating involves making a choice, and if we find ourselves unable to choose, we’re unable to create.

In my Music Promotion class, we were given a video assignment.  We had to make weekly videos, three to five minutes long, based on a prompt.  The prompts were short and open for interpretation.  I was excited to make some videos, but wasn’t quite sure where to begin.

If this had been a self-imposed project – like writing a song – I would have procrastinated and taken a lot of time to get the “best idea.”  Since this was for class, I had a deadline.  It forced me to make a decision and run with it.  It wasn’t so important what I chose, so long as I chose.  This resulted in me actually finishing projects in a timely manner.  As the saying goes, “Done is better than perfect.”

One of the best parts about music school is having assignments that push you to create.  Being graded is a great incentive, and you’re left with a product you’re happy you made.  Unfortunately, we don’t have similar incentives for projects outside of school, so we’re left to our own devices.

I wrote before that I have a lot of ideas, but it’s easy to have a lot of ideas and do nothing.  It’s the easiest thing in the world.  You get a false sense of satisfaction, thinking of all the great things you will do – someday.  In his book Anything You Want, Derek Sivers writes “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed.”  I have more unfinished songs than I can count,  but when I do finish one, it’s always a win.  Whether or not the song is good is less important than the fact that I’m finishing songs.  It’s practice for creative decision making.  

This is something I’m still working on, but if you want to write more songs, pick one tune and finish it.  It doesn’t matter which one, what genre, or whatever.  Make a decision, then it’s easy.

Getting Back Momentum

I haven’t posted in a hot minute, and it’s pretty clear I’ve lost traction.  I used to post once a week, but it’s been months since I’ve done anything consistent.  I’d like to put the blame on the fact that I’m taking a heavier load this semester, but the simple fact is I could be doing better.

One of the reasons I’ve failed is because I broke out of my routine.  Last semester I had a large amount of free time every Tuesday, and I spent it in the library working on my blog.  It wasn’t hard work – I liked writing and looked forward to it.  I would fill up my tumbler from Jazzman’s Cafe, find a lo-fi playlist, and hide away in a corner of the library.  I’d do my best to articulate my latest discovery or inspiration, and in doing so better understand it.

It’s hard to know why we stop doing things that make us happy.  You’d think we wouldn’t need to worry about it, but we do.  There will always be days where it’s easier to watch Netflix than work on a song, and even though songwriting will bring you joy, Netflix is easier in the moment.  In the short term it’s inconsequential, but in the long term it makes you miserable.  When I go a long time without creating, I’m just not as happy.  Sometimes that unhappiness can cause me to sink into the things that caused it in the first place, but the cure requires an effort on my part.  I have to get to work.

 

 

Why You Should Make To-do Lists

I’m a big fan of to-do lists, making a list of what needs to be done on a daily basis and holding myself accountable.  It does wonders for my productivity and stops projects from falling through the cracks.

Every week I’ve been trying to post a video and a blog post.  Since school ended, I’ve been missing weeks.  Somehow, with more free time, I’m getting less done.  I attribute this to the illusion of more time phenomenon, a phrase I just made up.  Basically, when you have a ton of free time, you don’t think you need to plan things out because you assume what needs to be done will happen eventually, given all the available hours.  But time has a way of slipping through our fingers, and only in retrospect do we notice it was wasted.

When I’m working on a project, I break down what little bit I can do each day.  For instance, when planning a video for a song I already know, all I have to do is practice it a few times daily.  It’s the same when I’m planning to record.  I just practice my part to a metronome every day leading up to the day I record.  It’s incredibly easy to do, but greatly improves the outcome.

Make To Do List

In his book, Keep Going, Austin Kleon writes, “A little imprisonment – if it’s of your own making – can set you free.  Rather than restricting your freedom, a routine gives you freedom by protecting you from the ups and downs of life…” (20).  My advice to anyone starting a to-do list, start small.  It can feel great to write a bunch of stuff down – imaging yourself as an unstoppable, productivity machine – but don’t overdue it.  It’s better to have a small, completed list than a large, unfinished one.

That being said, don’t be discouraged when you fail.  You may find that you “weren’t modest enough in your estimation,” to steal a line from Jordan Peterson.  A good strategy for me is to put down the bare minimum of what needs to be done, but then make a secondary “If there’s time” list.  Anything on the “If there’s time” list is strictly optional, and considered extra.  That way, I accomplish more if I’m able to, but if I’m not, I won’t lose momentum.

Making lists, modifying them over time, and finding what works is helping me know myself.  I’m not great at it, but I’m getting better.  Even when I fail miserably, I still get more done than I otherwise would have.  Failure is a part of the process, and shouldn’t be discouraging.  We are still moving forward.

 

Works Cited

Kleon, Austin. Keep Going : 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad. New York, Workman Publishing, 2019, p. 20.

Are You Too Old to Make Music?

  It’s pretty common for people to believe that there’s a time limit when it comes to making art.  “If you haven’t done it by x, then it’s not gonna happen,” as if these things had expiration dates like milk or something.  We romanticize the past, particularly when it comes to what we didn’t do that we should have.  It’s painful.  Rather than cut our losses and do it now, we believe in a magical time that no longer exists.  “Well, it’s too late.”

I’m not talking about “making it” in music, but that could be a separate discussion.  I’m talking about someone who wanted to play guitar, write, or draw their whole life but never took the chance.  They were too scared or too busy to start, and now they’ve reached a point in their life where (in their minds) it’s too late.

When I was 26, I started piano lessons.  All my brothers took lessons when they were younger but I never did.  I could’ve gotten a book for “older beginners,” but I picked up a kid’s book instead.  It was filled with cartoons and short pieces like “Let’s Go to a Party” and “Dinosaur Stomp.”  It was pretty fun, actually.  I definitely wasn’t too old, but you might be wondering about someone who’s older.  We’ll imagine they’ve never played an instrument before and today is their first lesson.  They’d have to learn their notes, practice fingerings, and talk about boring stuff like tuning and posture.  It can be daunting to begin and the slow process is why so many quit.

Adults haven’t had to deal with the growing pains of learning a new skill in a long time.  They’re used to being capable, so to fumble over a piece of music intended to teach children can feel embarrassing.  Who wants to struggle at something most people master at twelve?  That being said, it’s absolutely worth the trouble, and I believe anyone who’s physically able to, regardless of age, can be creative.  As Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.  So do it.”

My advice for the older beginner is to put in the work, and be humble.  No matter your age, it’s not too late.

 

 

 

Rhythmic Conflict

I had the opportunity to share one of my songs in class and have it critiqued.  The song was pretty much done; I just needed to re-track the vocals, add some layers, and finish mixing.

As soon as he pressed play, my teacher noticed some issues that I hadn’t.  The acoustic guitar and drums were not vibing.  Everything was performed on time, but they had opposing feels.  Basically, I had written a guitar part without drums in mind, and when drums were added they didn’t fit.  Rather than change the rhythm of the guitar to be more drum friendly, I just dumped drums in.  (I could also have changed the drums to accommodate my guitar, but at the time I didn’t notice the issue).

This is common for singer-songwriters.  We outline a song with guitar and vocals, and just add everything else on top.  Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t.  What do you do if you like the drum part, but it isn’t working with your guitar?  You change the guitar part!  As obvious as this sounds, it’s never something I try.  I tend to be attached to the first iteration of a song, and changing strum patterns or rhythms isn’t even considered.

You might think of the acoustic guitar and vocal version of your track as the main dish, whereas other instruments (bass, drums, synth pad) are seasoning, but that’s not the case.  The song is the sum of the parts.  All the parts have to play together nicely, and if they don’t, they have to be changed or removed.   Just because a part is cool by itself doesn’t mean it’s right for the song.  How does it sound in context?

If you’re writing a song and you know you want to add drums later, write with drums in mind.  Just like with mixing, you want to be thinking ahead to the next step.  My teacher said, “Writing is mastering.”  If you wrote a song without drums in mind, but later decided to add drums (like I did), be flexible about changing parts.  The part doesn’t necessarily need to be changed, but if it does be open to it.  It’s all about what’s best for the song.

Here is the second version of my song.  I didn’t have time to re-record the guitar before it was due, so I opted to change the drums.

It’s not there yet, but it’s better.  I’m finding out that the more I write, the more I learn.  I’m always uncovering these issues that I didn’t even know I had.  For my next song, I’m going to write with percussion in mind.

First Do It Badly

Lots of people are afraid to start something on the grounds they won’t be any good.  I’m that way.  We’re usually right about it too, but the problem is that if you don’t start you won’t get any better.  There’s a quote attributed to Carl Jung (I couldn’t find the source), “The fool is the precursor to the savior.” If you’re not willing to be bad, you’ll never be great.

You have to be willing to fail until you succeed.  That’s all that practice really is.  I’m taking piano lessons right now, and when I’m learning a new piece, it can be excruciating.  Before I can play the song well, I have to sit there for hours and play it terribly.  I fumble over rhythms, hit the wrong notes, forget to take my foot off the pedal, and lose my place in the music.  That’s after practicing both hands separately.  I trip, stumble, and fail my way through.  And then I do it again, but this time it’s a tiny bit better.  I continue that process 20 or 30 times, and eventually, I can play it.

When talking to students hesitant to begin writing, Jordan Peterson tells them to “Write a really bad first draft.”  That gives them something to edit.  Once it’s out in the world, the problems are no longer theoretical.  They learn exactly what they are, and that makes them easier to fix.  Keeping ideas inside and worrying about them is death.  I’ve wasted a ton of time worrying about how I’m going to write songs, rather than just writing songs.  Once I’m doing the work, my objectives are clear.

I’m trying to have a healthier relationship with failure; by all accounts the arts involve a lot of rejection.  My teachers have been recently pushing the importance of content creation, even if it’s bad.  That’s harder than it sounds.  You think it’d be easy to just write something and not care too much, but it takes practice.  The issue is that once you have an inkling of interest in what you’re doing, it becomes a little bit precious, and that impedes the finishing process.  At any given time, I have two or three ideas that I really like, that I want to flesh out and perfect.  I’ll start a new song from scratch, a project with less at stake, but pretty soon that becomes precious, too.

Allowing ourselves the practice we need will help.  That’s why I’m learning to create on a schedule.  I’ve been been trying to release a video every week.  My first video took me the longest.  I had to decide where best to shoot it, how to get the lighting right, where to place my mic, and how to edit the video and audio together.  It’s been getting easier and faster every time.  It’s helped me realize how I look while performing, which isn’t something I normally think about.

Adventure Time’s Jake the Dog, puts it like this, “Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.”  Getting over the initial cringe of sucking is paramount, because it comes up again and again.  Every new piece of music, technique, or exercise, if it’s helpful, will have growing pains.  I remember taking guitar lessons at McNally Smith and my teacher gave me a difficult exercise saying, “This is going to make you feel like you can’t play guitar.” Eventually I want to get into making more elaborate videos; I can tell you right now that my first few aren’t going to be great, but they will give me an education I can’t get anywhere else.  Don’t be afraid to suck!

 

Works Cited

Peterson, Jordan B. “YouTube.” Biblical Series IX: The Call to Abraham, 2017, 58:30, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmuzUZTJ0GA.

“His Hero.”  Adventure Time, season 1.  Written and story boarded by Adam Muto, Kent Osborne & Niki Yang.  Directed by Larry Leichliter and Patrick McHale.  Cartoon Network, 2010.

You Don’t Have to Be First

Eddie Van Halen is famous for his tapping technique, but he wasn’t the first to do it.  In fact, hundreds of years before “Eruption,” Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840) used a similar technique on his violin.  Jazz guitarists in the 50s and 60s did it, and Italian musician, Victorio Camadese, tapped extensively on his classical.  Van Halen changed the game by applying it to distorted, electric guitar.

Skrillex is often called the inventor of dubstep, but the genre originated in London in the 90s.   Although the style drastically changed later, the characteristic sounds of wobble bass, subs, syncopated rhythms, and drops all pre-date Skrillex.  Skrillex’s flavor of dubstep (sometimes refered to as brostep) favors mid-range frequencies and aggressive rhythms.  This was hugely popular in 2011 and Skrillex’s interpretation of dubstep soon became the standard.

YouTuber, Andrew Huang, is known for found sound sampling.  He records sounds from random objects, processes them in his computer, and uses them to compose music.  He’s made songs from pineapples, Legos, radiators, candy, and lights bulbs.  As you’ve probably guessed, he wasn’t the first to do this.* What made Andrew special was the sheer amount of sampling he did and the absurdity of challenges (my favorite is carrots).

Facebook came after Myspace, the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, and Spotify wasn’t the first streaming service.  We get so hung up on the idea that we need to be innovators but the truth is that most of our ideas are not original, and that’s okay.  Working is 95% of it.  Don’t think you need to change the game to win at it.  Sometimes putting your own spin on a great idea is all that’s needed.

 

*I couldn’t find who originated the technique, but I remember seeing it on videos before Andrew Huang’s time.