It Takes Practice

This Summer, I started teaching guitar lessons. It’s been interesting learning guitar again through beginners’ eyes and hearing their perspectives. A variation of this question comes up again and again: “What’s the secret?” When they’re struggling, beginner’s tend to think that they’re doing something wrong; they want a quick tip or trick that’ll resolve everything.

The answer I give rarely satisfies them, but it’s the only answer that’s true. “There’s no secret. You just need to keep practicing.” Practicing new material can be frustrating because we’re constantly rubbing up against our own limitations: hitting wrong notes, missing rhythms, and having to work on the same parts again and again. It can be a daunting process, but it’s how we grow.

Audio production and mixing is one of those areas where it’s tempting to think you can just have someone explain it to you and you’ll be able to execute it perfectly. Afterall, mixing is more of a technical skill. You’re turning knobs; you just need to know what everything does and then you’re good to go, right? Wrong. It’s more of an art than people realize, and an ear for mixing needs to be developed just like a musical ear.

This concept also applies to genres. Someone can absolutely crush it at lofi, but when they try to make EDM, they struggle. This comes from a lack of experience in that genre. There’s definitely mixing and sound design skills that carry over from genre to genre, but when writing in an unfamiliar style, you’ll have a lot of new questions. I often hear people say that they are bad at a particular genre. They accept it as an unchangable fact about themselves, when in reality they probably just haven’t practiced it enough.

So whatever it is that you want to improve about yourself, there is no secret sauce that will make everything easier. I only have one tip to give you: it takes practice.

Creative Offloading

Today I’m going to talk about something I learned in music school. It’s called “offloading” and it’s one of the reasons I was able to write 50 songs in 2020.

In songwriting you have these creative tasks: chord progressions, melodies, basslines, drum patterns, lyrics, sound design, etc. Offloading means to take one of these tasks and rather than generate it creatively, you offload it to a different source. This happens when you take a chord progression from another song, use a drum loop or MIDI pack, or anytime you load a preset. That’s offloading too since you’re offloading the sound design.

This is incredibly helpful for starting and finishing ideas. When you offload a task, you free up time and energy to focus on the next step. If you’re feeling uninspired, a drum or melody loop can be the kickstart you need. Rather than trying to create every piece of your music originally, it helps to decide what parts you want to write and what parts you want to offload.

You might hate the idea of offloading if you haven’t heard it before. It might feel like cheating. I used to feel that way, too. One of my buddies used to Google “Awesome chord progressions” and write songs that way. He even stole a progression from a YouTube ad. He wasn’t afraid to take inspiration wherever found it.

Over the years, I softened to the idea. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my biggest problem was my ego. I enjoyed being “creative” more than I enjoyed making songs. Offloading to me is about letting go of my ego and realizing that if I want to make captivating art, I need all the help I can get.

If you haven’t offloaded before, try offloading your least favorite part to write. If you’re a drummer and you love writing drums, offload the melody. If you love melodies and struggle with drums, offload the drums. If you’re really focusing in on sound design, design the sounds and offload the chords. For lyrics, you can even borrow rhymes. There’s a lot of possibilities and room to experiment.

If you feel guilty or think that it’s cheating, realize that it’s a collaboration. Pretend that your friend sent you the drum loop. They want you to use it. That’s why they made it, and honestly, that’s not far from the truth. Producer Com Truise said that sampling is “Collaborating at a distance.” And the big difference between sampling and using a loop (other than the legal difference) is that the creator of the Splice loop wants you to use it.

If you try to be 100% creative in every area of your song, you’ll write a lot less songs. And honestly, no one cares if you do “everything yourself.” They’ll only know if you tell them, and if you feel the need to tell people, then maybe you don’t believe in the song to begin with.

My Musical Goals: 2021

I’m sitting in a room at my parents’ house right now, and I just finished a beat. I’m moving out soon and much of my stuff is packed. I’m listening to Tycho on headphones (Epoch). He’s been my go-to writing music ever since I started this blog in 2018. Since then, I’ve learned so much, and there’s a lot I want to accomplish. Here are my musical goals for 2021.

1) Be a singer-songwriter again. I started performing as a singer-songwriter in 2013, and because of the pandemic, I barely played in 2020. I found myself writing less for my singer-songwriter name and focusing more on beats and electronic music. I love writing electronically, but I want to come back to guitar and voice, too. There’s something personal and uniquely expressive about playing guitar and singing. In general, I want to sing more.

2) Collaborate with other artists. Working with people on Songs From Home was a really cool experience. I loved hearing my instrumentals come to life and the surprising directions they went. I haven’t worked with a rapper since 2014, and I really want to change that. I’ve been stockpiling rap beats and in February I’m going to start reaching out. I’m not trying to sell anything at first; I’ll be DMing talented locals with free beats and see if there’s any interest. In the future, I’d love to work with all kinds of singers and musicians.

3) Create consistent content. Every teacher, vlogger, YouTuber, and Gary V will tell you about the importance of content creation. I’ve done the random Instagram post, blog, or video, but it hasn’t been consistent in awhile. In 2018 I released a video and blog post every week for months and that was awesome; I want to return to that level of output. My goal now is to make a weekly YouTube video and take clips of it for microcontent on Instagram. I’m hoping to slowly build a following and get better at consistent creation.

4) Get an internship / volunteer. I graduated with my Bachelor’s of Science in Music Industry, and now I’m ready to be rich! And by rich I mean gainfully employed (but first, an internship). In my projects class I focused on the licensing side of music, but recently I’ve been interested in non-profits like Musicians on Call and the Harmony Project. I’m also excited for volunteer opportunities like working at Big Turn Music Festival. There’s a lot of people that need help and endless ways to get involved.

Whichever way I go, I’m excited to learn more about these fields and be part of a world I love. Thanks for following my journey!

Making a Lofi EP

This December I graduated college and I celebrated by releasing a lofi EP. I wanted something commemorative of the college experience, and what better way than by making chill beats to study / relax to? Not to mention, I love lofi. I dropped it during finals week in the hopes of attracting more student listeners.

I started the writing process in June. I know firsthand the annoyance of putting together an EP and not liking all of the songs. I usually handle this by releasing fewer songs or by writing more, but this time I tackled the problem upfront. I committed to writing 20 songs and only releasing the best. This helped me relax while writing since each song carried less weight. I wasn’t too hard about whether or not I liked what I had; my goal was to finish two demos a week, good or bad. This gave me more freedom to experiment.

After I had my 20 demos, I found several that I could eliminate instantly. They were good songs that didn’t fit the lofi aesthetic for varying reasons: too exciting, too high energy, too much dynamic range, and a few that I just wanted to develop into hip hop beats. Writing a lot of tracks made it easy to finish these ideas as they came along rather than scrapping them on the spot. Especially after I had a handful I liked, it was nice to write without any sense of needing it to be good or having it fit in a particular way.

I eliminated seven songs for genre reasons and one because it was a remix (Misty by Ella Fitzgerald). I wanted to have five to eight songs. There were some I planned to include from the start (Morning Dew, Breakfast Brew, Halloween Chillin), and for the others I relied on Instagram polls. I had eight songs selected, but as the deadline got closer I narrowed it down to five. I was on the fence about a couple and opted for quality over quantity. The project is only 9 minutes long, but I think I made the right choice.

I’m happy with the outcome and I hope you can enjoy these songs while studying, relaxing, drinking coffee, or watching the snow fall.

Finals Week Available Everywhere.

Covid-Class

I am in my final semester of college, and what a semester to go out on. I keep thinking that if I had graduated in the spring, I would have avoided a lot of hassle. At the same time, it’s a unique experience not everyone goes through. I have mixed feelings.

I’m a senior in the Music Industry program at MSU Mankato, and a lot has changed. Some classes are online, others in-person, but most are “Hyflex,” meaning students can decide whether to attend online or on campus. There are signs everywhere with slogans like “Maskup Mavs,” and reminders to social distance. It reminds me of propaganda from Fall Out or Bioshock (which makes it kind of fun).

Strangely enough, these guidelines are actually making my final semester easier. Because so many of my classes are online, I’m only on campus one day a week. This has allowed me to temporarily move back to Faribault. My expenses are down, so I can work less and focus on school.

While in Mankato I was working 30 hours a week and taking 17 credits. I didn’t have the time or energy for personal projects, so my creative pursuits took a backseat. Now that I have more free time, I can do well in classes and be creative. I know this year has been hard for most people, but for me it’s been a blessing in disguise. Since June, I have written more songs than I had in the past year, and this extra time has really forced me to prioritized what I want. There’s no excuses left for me, it’s either do the work or don’t.

I’m looking forward to what this final semester brings, and what adventures await me. I’m grateful to be where I am and I have a lot of hope for the future.

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.