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.

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.

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.

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.

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.