Spring (2019) – Semester Wrap-up.

This semester I took Songwriting II, Musicianship II, Practicum in Music Industry, private guitar lessons, and Concert Attendance.  I had a lot more on my plate this time around, but I only had to commute to school two days a week.

Songwriting II was my favorite class.  We learned mixing techniques, made demos,  and got lots of feedback.  Class was split pretty equally between the classroom and the studio; the main way we learned was from our own projects.  A student would bring something in and we would learn to edit, track, or mix whatever it was.  I found it helpful because a lot of what I learned was stuff I didn’t know I was doing wrong.  For instance, when recording bass, you want the initial sound to be kind of thin and not have a lot of low-end.  The reason is that it’s easy to add bass frequencies later, but more difficult to take them out, and once you start taking frequencies out it messes with the tone you had going in.  These are things you wouldn’t know unless someone told you.

Musicianship II was an ear training and sight singing class.  We learned to sight sing solfege in major, minor, melodic minor, and harmonic minor.  If you don’t know what solfege is, it’s a system of syllables relating to scale degrees.  You’ve probably heard this song from the Sound of Music that explains it.  Class was okay, but our time wasn’t utilized all that well.  It felt like we didn’t have a lot to go through, so about half the class was the teacher joking around.  I’m not criticizing him necessarily, we were well prepared for finals and all that, it’s just that the curriculum wasn’t demanding so we had time to kill.  The most useful part for me was getting a better understanding of modes and how to use them.

Practicum in Music Industry was like a weekly TED talk.  My professor was always enthusiastic; he talked about current trends, music news, and volunteer opportunities.  He is a firecracker of optimism, and has the stories to back it.  He’s worked with Prince and has taught countless successful students, so his fervor is earned.  This class wasn’t hard, but it was uplifting and I looked forward to it.  The only assignments we had was to usher two times, and volunteer for 16 hours.  The volunteering could be done with more ushering or with other music events.

My private lessons were all right.  Not very challenging, but still useful.  Concert Attendance was kind of a hassle to get done, but that’s mainly because I live out of town.  All in all, a pretty good semester.  Here’s my final EP for Songwriting II.

I’m having a bit of an identity crisis with my music, so I decided to write two electronic songs and two singer-songwriter tracks.  I’m happy with how these turned out, but since this was finished around the same time as Chasing Ghosts, I haven’t been promoting it.  These songs are more about exploring sounds and finding out what I want to be musically, whereas Chasing Ghosts was a defined statement.  That being said, I like these songs, and I’m happy to share my journey through them.  I titled it Mankato Tapes, Vol. 1, and I plan on making successive volumes.

 

How Do You Define Success?

When I tell people I’m going to school for music, they often assume I want be a rock star, or at the very least a full-time musician.  For a lot of students that’s the case and that’s fine, but it’s not what I want.  In his book, How to Make It in the New Music Business, Ari Herstand writes, “It all depends on what your idea of success is.  And no one can define what success is but you.  Remember that.”  (Herstand 29).

Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, puts it like this: “We all grade ourselves by different measures.”  For some people, success is making a lot of money.  For others, it’s about changing lives.  According to Sivers, “It’s important to know in advance, to make sure you’re staying focused on what’s honestly important to you, instead of doing what others think you should” (Sivers 37).

For me, success is finding work I value and consider meaningful, making a positive impact in my community, and raising a family.  I feel strongly that creativity is for everyone, and I want to do my best to encourage it in the people around me.  I’m still deciding what I want to do with my life, but these are my guidelines.

When I’m looking at a long-term career, there are some jobs I simply would not take.  They may be great, well-paid, amazing experiences, but if they don’t align with my goals, I’m out.  If my ultimate goal is to have a family, I don’t want a job where I’m constantly away from them.  If I want work that’s meaningful, I’m not going to take a job just because it pays well.  For other people, it might fit perfectly, but it all depends on what they value.

Rockstar, hobbyist, what-have-you, it doesn’t matter to me, as long as you’re honest about it.  Speaking for myself, I want to create work seriously, whether or not it’s a source of income.  But however you define success, it’s important to follow your values and not someone else’s.  What’s most important to you?

 

Works Cited

HERSTAND, ARI. HOW TO MAKE IT IN THE NEW MUSIC BUSINESS: Practical Tips on Building a Loyal Following… and Making a Living as a Musician. LIVERIGHT PUBLISHING CORP, 2019.

Sivers, Derek. Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur. Portfolio Penguin, 2015.

Big Turn Music Fest – 2019. My Volunteer Experience.

I was already planning on attending Big Turn.  Their lineup boasts some of Minnesota’s most well-known acts: Charlie Parr, Dessa, Gaelynn Lea, the 4ontheFloor, Dosh, Chris Koza, and Lydia Liza, among others.  I’m required to do 16 hours of volunteer work for school, so I decided to kill two loons with one stone.

Red Wing is a cool town.  They’re famous for their shoes, the first established bar in Minnesota, and (now) the Big Turn Music Festival.  The festival involves 23 venues, and over 100 bands and performers.  It’s small enough that it doesn’t suffer from the corporate saturation of SXSW, but big enough to host a lot of artists you’ve heard of.  Nearly all the bands are Midwestern, and there’s a distinctly Minnesotan vibe to it.  Fans of all ages attend, and the crowds remind me of a local bar in a small town.

I had never volunteered at a festival, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  When filling out my volunteer form, there was a checkbox to be considered for Venue Captain.  I checked it because I wanted people to salute me.  I was assigned to 223 Barrel House (the first established bar I mentioned earlier).  We had to check wristbands, answer questions, count guests, and stop letting people in once we reached capacity (75).  My role as VC was to be the main point of contact between the volunteers, the sound guy, the venue owner, the bands, and the volunteer coordinator.  I had to make sure people stuck to their set times and ensure it all went smoothly.  It was a lot of fun!  It was a great excuse to introduce myself to bands and talk about music.  Due to the snow storm, I only volunteered the one night, but it was a good experience.

Before my shift, I had the opportunity to check out some shows.  I wandered into Artreach, a visual arts non-profit, where singer-songwriter Sterling Haukom was performing for about five people.  I took a seat in the back.  Among the attendees, I spotted Charlie Parr in the front row.  Earlier that day, I overhead Dosh introducing himself to someone at the Artist Check-in Hub.  I couldn’t go to their shows because of my shift, but it was exciting to catch them out in the wild.

I only got a small taste of Big Turn, but it was a good time.  Talking with the bands, listening to music, and hanging out with the other volunteers was great.  The community of music lovers was alive and well, and it was an honor to be a part of it.  I recommend volunteering if you get the chance.  It’s a fantastic way to support the arts, and it’s not hard.  You get to meet a lot of cool people and be part of something meaningful.

 

Notable Acts (that I actually saw)

Savannah Smith Singer-songwriter.  Dope vox.  Telecaster.  Former Ukulele-star.   Soundcloud.

Spaceheaters – Brass-based funk rock.  Great for dancing.  Groove city.  Bandcamp.

Sterling Haukom – Singer-songwriter.  Folk.  Powerful, high voice.  Dynamic.  Had Charlie Parr watch his set.  Spotify.

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.

Finish Your Songs

A few years back, I had a ton of musical ideas floating around my head.  I wanted to write it all: hip-hop, EDM, singer-songwriter, lo-fi, dubstep.  I wanted to release albums in every genre I loved, multiple albums.  I wanted to be as prolific as Andrew Huang and Steve Aoki.  Songs for days.

This, of course, takes a lot of work, and I used to be pretty ADHD when it came to writing.  I’d finish a singer-songwriter track one day and be working on a house song the next.  I’d think, “I’m so versatile!”  Before that next song was finished, I’d be messing around on another beat, and after that a third one.  Eventually, none of these got finished and I’d start something else.

It’s pretty easy to get side-tracked if you don’t have a focus.  I’ve found it helps to have a goal.  For instance, over the Summer I made “Lo-Fi July.”  During the month of July, I had to write three lo-fi songs.  Having this clear objective helped me focus my time and actually get it done.  For the next month, I had a new genre to write in.

Whenever I was writing and came up with something cool that wasn’t in the genre, I would shelf it for later.  It did wonders for my productivity.

It’s great to be prolific, to write a lot and make a lot.  Just don’t fall into the trap of being a kid in the candy store when it comes to writing.  There’s a lot of great sounds, ideas, and styles to pick from, but don’t jump around so much that nothing gets done.  Be disciplined enough to finish.  One completed song will teach you more than 10 unfinished beats.

Show Your Work! – Austin Kleon. The Importance of Community.

I recently read Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon.  Austin is a writer who uses drawings, photos, and blackout poetry to illustrate his points.  Each chapter is a lesson on self-promotion.  Not only are the tips good, but it’s stuffed with helpful images.  I recommend it for creatives with no idea what to do after hitting “Publish.”

My big take away is the importance of community and relationships.  The obvious but not so obvious fact is that we’re dealing with people when we sell, individuals with interests and passions.  How we relate to our audience is very important.

I don’t usually post to social media, but when I do it’s to promote something.  Other than that, I’m silent.  I used to be proud of that fact.  Kleon, on the other hand, recommends sending out a “daily dispatch” (47).  Share your rough drafts, your current inspirations, what music you’re listening to, and what you’re working on.  Documenting your creative process allows followers to have “an ongoing connection with us and our work” (38).  He talks a lot about connecting with your audience, telling good stories, and being part of a community.

There’s a chapter called Teach What You Know.  “The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others” (117).  This ties into documenting your process: share your secrets and fans feel closer to what you do.  Another plus, they will want to pass on what they know as well.  I’ve heard of this “teaching as you learn” principle before, and it’s one of the reasons I started my blog.

IMG_20190129_205810500.jpg
Pg. 118.

This is a coffee table book: short, fun, and insightful.  There are a lot of great lessons and it’s a very easy read.  I’ve shared only a few here, but if you’re a note-taker like me, you’ll constantly be jotting down ideas as you read.

Rating: 7/10.

Being Your Best Self

I’m not the best guitar player, the best songwriter, or the best anything, really.  This is hardly news, but I bring it up because in the arts there’s a lot of sizing up that goes on.  People get their sense of self worth in how they compare to others and music is no exception.  Whether it’s shredding ability, writing chops, or local clout, we’re always comparing ourselves to our peers.

When I was at McNally Smith College of Music, I quickly realized how many guitar players are better than me.  Around this time, I started singing my songs for people.  You could get away with simple guitar parts if you sang, and although I couldn’t sing well enough to be a singer, I could sing well enough to be a singer-songwriter.  I could write and perform my own stuff and no one would think I was faking it.  This was perfect because at the time I just wanted to see if I could cut it as a music major.  As a guitarist, I could not.  As a singer, I definitely could not.  As a singer-songwriter, sure.

All too often, we quit because we think we aren’t good enough.  We see guys who have been practicing five hours a day since they were three and think, “Whoa, I could never do that.”  And while it’s true that if you strive for that level of musicianship, you do need to practice five hours a day, that level of dedication isn’t for everyone.  For myself, I never wanted to be a virtuoso; I wanted to write songs that meant something.  What I found at McNally Smith is that I didn’t need to be the best; I had to be my best.  What that means is different for everyone, but articulating what you want is the first step.  If you’re not sure what that is, pick something and run with it.  Action is at the heart of discernment.

Whatever kind of music you make, you’ll be tempted to compare yourself to others, but art isn’t a competition.  Nobody listens to music because they want to hear the best in the world (unless they Googled them for that explicit reason); we listen to music because we enjoy it and feel connected to it.  Keep moving forward, and don’t be afraid to share your art.