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.

 

 

Is The Song Even Good?

It’s a good question to ask, and the answer isn’t always obvious.  When compiling songs for Chasing Ghosts, I was constantly changing my mind about which songs to include.  I had about ten songs I liked, but wanted to release five.  One of these songs was “Maybe Next Time.”

When my roommates heard it for the first time, it instantly became their favorite.  They regularly requested it at shows and were very encouraging, so I decided to record it.  When I released the EP, a lot of people mentioned that one, and it became my most played song on Spotify.  And to think it was almost a reject!

This lesson is this, we’re not always the best judge of our own content. We see our art in a way no one else does, and what might seem to us like a lame idea could resonate with others.

Did you know that Slash from Guns ‘n Roses originally didn’t like “Sweet Child ‘O Mine”?  In an interview with Loudwire, Slash says, “I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t fond of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine.’ And that gives you a good idea of how credible my opinion is…”  When Ed Sheeran wrote “Shape of You” – currently the most streamed song on Spotify, ever – he wanted to pitch it to Rhianna.  It was the head of his record label who convinced him to keep it.  “I don’t know what it’s like to choose a hit,” Sheeran said during an interview,  “I just like writing songs.”

Basically, our job as songwriters isn’t to judge art, it’s to create it.  There’s going to be a certain amount of self critique and creative decisions on our own, but we can’t neglect the importance of community.  I can become biased for or against a song based on the amount of time I spend on it, how musically complex it is, and how personal the lyrics are.  A person giving me feedback won’t have these biases and can give me a different perspective.

At the end of the day, we are the artist and we make the final decisions, but getting outside viewpoints is useful.  Sometimes we need a kick in the pants that the house track we produced is actually pretty bad and a cheap imitation.  Other times we get the good news that someone connected with our lyrics in an unexpected way.  Whatever it is, take the note and keep working.

.

 

Works Cited

Childers, Chad. “Slash ‘Wasn’t Fond of’ Guns N’ Roses ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’.” Loudwire, 15 Apr. 2014, loudwire.com/slash-initially-not-fan-guns-n-roses-sweet-child-o-mine/.

New York Times.  “Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’: Making 2017’s Biggest Track | Diary of a Song,” YouTube, 20 December 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpMNJbt3QDE.

Krishna, S. (2019). Spotify reveals its most-played music for its 10th anniversary. [online] Engadget.com. Available at: https://www.engadget.com/2018/10/10/spotify-10th-anniversary-decade-of-discovery/ [Accessed 2019].

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.

The Importance of Making Demos

When I thought about demos, I used to imagine a shittier version of the final song: badly recorded, unedited, and with a sub-par performance.  I used to label tracks “demo” when they weren’t up to snuff.  It was never planned; f I was embarrassed to share something I made, I used “demo” as a qualifier, thereby excusing all mistakes.

Nowadays I have a better grasp of what a demo is.  It’s a rough take of the  finished song, not intended as a final product, but a necessary step in the creative process.  All the essential elements are there, and the arrangement is done (to the best of your ability).  When you listen to the demo, you’ll hear how all the parts work (or don’t work).  You’ll discover what sections feel too long or too short, if the drums are meshing with your guitar, if there’s enough contrast from verse to chorus, if the bass guitar is boring, or any number of issues.  

There are some things you simply won’t know until you hear them in context.  These are changes you want to identify before final tracking.  When making a demo, you’re not concerned with guitar tones, what the best mic is, getting great takes to edit, or editing at all.  Your goal is to get the idea down, have it sound good enough, and learn from it.  How will the final song sound?  Once you have a better vision of what the song is about, going into the studio is fun because you know exactly what you’re going to do.  It takes a load off your mind, and then you can spend more time experimenting with tone, knowing you won’t need to come back and re-record.  

Even if the song is just guitar and vocals, I still recommend making a demo.  You’ll be surprised at what you hear when it’s playing back.  It’s counter intuitive, but while you’re playing you don’t notice everything, and the demo can reveal what to fix.

I’ve recorded songs with and without demoing first, and I highly recommend it.  There’s always the occasion where my original demo was spot on and I don’t need to change anything, but that’s usually not the case.  Most of my demos have been pretty bare bones, but I’ve found that the better the demo, the more you learn from it.  That being said, don’t be a perfectionist.  Make the demo, make it pretty good, and move on.  Keep finishing.

Dave Simonett (of Trampled by Turtles) came to my school!

If you’re savvy to Minnesota music, chances are you’ve heard of Trampled by Turtles.  Hailing from Duluth, this blue-grass and folk band has released 8 albums and 7 music videos. They’ve played countless festivals, performed on David Letterman (twice), and held a Top 10 spot on the bluegrass charts for 52 weeks.  David Simonett, guitarist and vocalist for the group, visited MSU Mankato and sat down with some classes.

I hadn’t heard of Martin Zellar before he came to school, but I’ve been a Trampled by Turtles fan for awhile now.  I forget when I first came across them, but I remember “Wait So Long” being their smash at the time, so it was after 2010.  I’m mostly familiar with their work after Palomino, my favorite album being Stars and Satellites.

I was fortunate to get one of my songs played for Simonett.  This version is pretty bare, but I’m planning on adding more instrumentation.

Simonett liked it!  He said I have a “beautiful, unique voice.”  I could hardly believe getting that kind of praise from someone who’s made multiple albums that I own.  It felt great.  He had kind things to say about my classmates, too.  I guess we’re a pretty talented bunch.

Unfortunately, Dave Simonett’s concert for the Minnesota Story Tellers Series sold out, so I wasn’t able to attend, but I can offer some insights he shared in class.  One thing I found interesting was what he said about collaboration: “I’m limited by my own imagination… Get someone else in there.”  I’ve talked about the importance of collaboration before, but I never thought of myself as being restricted when I write alone.  He talked a lot about the importance of other people’s input.

When asked how often he plays shows with bluegrass bands, he said, “Almost never.”  That came as a surprise.  I assumed that most shows or festivals they play would be very genre-specific.  He said, “We spent most of our time touring with friends, because we have more fun with friends.”  That ties in well with the theme of community championed by my teachers.  Who do people want to work with?  Not the most talented or the most similar, but people they get along with.

Although I only saw him for the one class, Dave Simonett attended several, played a show at the performing arts building, and was part of Minnesota Story Tellers where he spoke about his songwriting process.  This was really cool and informative.  I hope we host more artists in the future.

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.