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.
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.
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.