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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

For the Ones Who Will Succeed

Topic: Methods of success.

"The night was hot... wait no. The night... the night was humid. The night was humid. No wait, hot... hot. The night was hot. The night was hot and wet, wet and hot. The night was wet and hot, hot and wet, wet and hot... that's humid. The night was humid. The night was dry, yet it was raining."

That's a quote from a funny scene in Throw Momma From The Train where author Larry (Billy Crystal) has a case of writer's block and spends days trying to come up with the opening line of his new book. It's not too far from the truth though. Staring at a blank canvas and trying to come up with the next work is a bit like the zen student trying to understand zen. One must capture little bits of their fleeting imagination in a real and finite form, and once the first line of music is written or the first brush stroke is applied to the canvas everything else must come from that. Moving toward a finished piece is a series of diminishing possibilities the last few notes are placed which fit only into that one work and no other.

In my last blog, I wrote about how and why musicians and bands often fail and quit. In this article I want to discuss the other side of creating music, and that is to discuss some methods and tools for success and staying motivated.

It's important to know that music is and has always been written by ordinary folk in their own place and time using tools that were readily available at their disposal. Our point of view and the starting materials that we use are a product of the world we live in. For example, the temples of Angkor Wat would not have been created if the 12th century Cambodian's didn't have a knowledge of sculpture and masonry and a strong passion in Hindi Buddhism, and and the Death Mask of Tutankahman would have not been made if early Egyptians had no belief that it wouldn't be needed in the afterlife, didn't have a large supply of gold, and hadn't developed the necessary skills to create it. We are not compelled to build similar things today because our set of beliefs and level of technology have changed. What the modern form is to us comes from our own realities and personal frame of reference. Todays 12-bar blues form of music would have made as little sense for Bach to write into his secular music as it would be for us to try and write a six-part fugue into a blues song today.

Furthermore, it's quite rare for a musician to invent a new music form right out of thin air. More typically a new or perfected form of music is born out of existing styles from the present day. For example, John Philip Sousa wrote military marches mostly because he grew up in a military environment and his father played in a military band and he later joined the Marine Corp and conducted his own marching band. His life experience taught him the marching band style and how to write in it, and hence the majority of his musical output was writing in this form and he ended up defining the style for future generations. By the same token Chopin didn't invent the marzurka but he perfected and defined it by writing 58 of them. History is full of cases of people who start out by following an existing style and then later breaking out of that mold to create a new style or form. It's the great ones who make the next set of rules for the generations that follow, and follow they do. There have been countless modern progressive rock and metal bands today who have followed in the footsteps of Dream Theater because they are inventers of the modern form we use today. There are a handful of other bands that are heavily borrowed upon which I won't name here. This strategy helps us gain a foothold on what we want to accomplish and where we take it from there is up to us. One of the problems with this is, as I addressed in my last blog, is that many bands end up quitting before they find their own voice so we are left with a lot of bands that are unoriginal copies of others.

Up to this point I've made the case that music is written by ordinary people and have refrained from using the 'T' word... "talent". We've all probably seen the videos of the 5-year old drum prodigy or the 10-year old who can play 64 notes a second on a guitar, but how many times do we hear of them going on to become productive musicians? I want to state right here and now that talent is indistinguishable from hard work. There's always going to be the rare band who can put out an amazing record on their first try or the musician who comes along once a generation who is far away superior to everyone else. But for the rest of us talent only goes so far. Think of the race between the turtle and the hare. The hare got a faster time off the starting blocks but in the end it was the turtle who dedicated himself to task at hand and ended up winning the race. I once read an interview with Al Dimeola where he said that when he wanted to learn how to play the guitar the first thing he did was to memorize every scale at every position on the neck. It's said that the difference between an amatuer and a professional is that the amatuer practices until he gets it right, and the professional practices until he never gets it wrong.

I've mentioned before that it's very difficult to write music or produce art in a vaccum. For this reason it's a good idea to become involved in peer or critique groups or to make friends with people who share similar interests. These groups not only give you a venue for your work, but also valuable critique on your progress. Fortunately today there are many different groups available widely on the internet via MySpace,, forums, and many other places where feedback can be almost instantaneous. Porcupine Tree and Ozric Tentacles both got started by distributing free cassette tapes of their music for people to hear. Of course, having a record deal in hand can be a great motivator. But most prog labels want to hear the finished product before they commit to anything.

In addition to peer support and critique, all artists need a good and constant dose of self-editing. When Van Halen recorded their first album they recorded something like 20 songs and only used the best 11 for the album. Unfortunately many artists feel that every idea they come up with is a good one and should be slapped on plastic and sold to the fans. But even with critique and self-editing artists might feel misunderstood when there is a lack of interest in their work, and some have even taken on the faulty notion that lack of interest in their work is a necessary form of self-persecution for the sake of their art. But the truth is that artists must produce a large amount of mediocre work that nobody really cares about much in order for them to produce those few works that really soar.

Another popular technique to get yourself started and maintain momentum is to work within a theme. For example, pianists will sometimes try to write one work in each key. In photography one of the popular trends is to do a "photo a day" project or a Photo365 diary. Another example is photography groups that set up themed contests with a different subject each week. There are many variations to this, but the general strategy is to avoid writer's block and stay motivated by always leaving a little bit of something unfinished to come back to. You can set measurable goals such as writing and recording one complete song each month such as what Mindflow did recently with their "365 project". Also, artists who remain students of their medium are often more motivated because they experiment with the new things that they have learned.

A musician or other artist must at some point come to terms with making music for themselves as opposed to making music for others. Consider what happens in a "sophmore slump" which is a common occurance for bands. A band might begin their musical career with a sense of self-purpose, taking their time and enjoying what they do for just themselves. After they reach a level of notoriety they might to begin suddenly taking themselves "seriously", or worse yet freezing up because now have a whole new audience of fans that they must write music for. After the success of their first album they are now under pressure from their management or label to produce more of the same work as before, but different. Try making a conscious effort to do that sometime! All of the motivations have changed as a result and it's no longer a matter of creating for the sake of enjoyment. The only way to overcome this is to realize that good music comes out of making your music for yourself and nobody else.

Musicians are also constantly evolving and changing. There is the notion for them to believe that their past work is not up to par with their current work. This is a good thing and a sign of progression as an artist. An artist is a bit like a boat moving forward through the water and creating a wake in its path. The wake spreads out behind the boat and eventually disappears back into the water. Like the boat, an artist is constantly moving forward, speeding up or slowing down, changing directions, and the displacement of what they do creates a wake that remains and dissipates behind them. Another aspect of growth is that there are usually long periods of stagnation followed by rapid quantum leaps in understanding and inspiration. For example, as a photographer I started out pretty much like everybody else to learn the technical basics such as aperture, depth of field, dynamic ranges, flash techniques, etc. My first attempts would be to try to create photographic records of particular scenes. A short time later I came to realize that my pictures in print were never the same as what I originally saw. So my next leap in understanding came for me to learn how to predict how what I saw would look in print or view things with a "photographic eye," as they say. Later on I began to realize that my pictures weren't so much creating a photographic record of what I saw, but were in fact creating geometric figures out of subjects on a 2-dimensional space. After that I began and learning how to form these shapes in a visually pleasing way. A final moment of understanding for me came when I began to see how the borders of the print were also creating geometries within the image. Once those kinds of revelations have been realized they cannot be "unseen" and I from each point forward I could never look at a photograph in the same way as before. I'm sure there are probably other insights coming down the road too that I have yet to understand. But for each leap there was also a diminished sense of pride in the work I had done before. My point is that growth as an artist is an inevitable and desireable result of totally immersing ourselves in our work. We should take that path wherever it leads us even if it means acknowledging that we have already created our best work, because it may very possibly lead to even more growth and understanding down the road.

I mentioned communication in my last article. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to get a handle on because an individual artist often has little control over the actions of his peers and is totally dependant on them. Very often the pool of potential bandmates are fairly limited within a region, so people get stuck with one another for lack of any better options. Success in this fashion often comes down to luck of the draw. The one recurring theme to success I've seen over the years is that bands make it clear to eachother that they must have a strong work ethic and must each bear a share of the workload. Set certain times during each practice session to just work on new material, share new song ideas and critique them. Make it a rule that each band member must bring a new song idea to each proactice session, etc. Band members must be able to critique eachother in an open forum without creating conflict. Very often one band member grandstands or tries to control the others. This is not conductive to a good working relationship. Good communication is really the key to success. Band members can be a great internal source of motivation, though it's also still a good idea to seek critique from outside groups as well.

Creating the few works of ours that really soar are the result of a complete understanding of our medium, hard work, building on and correcting ourselves from our past failures, and most importantly staying motivated to continue in light of all the challenges in which we are confronted with.


guitarsean said...

Again, I don't have much to add, you've said it all. I do wish more people would understand that talent is mostly an illusion. It's all hard work.