On Your Way to Brilliance

It’s the opening weeks of classes here at Visible Music College, and it’s my favorite time of year. Students come in with such sparks of brilliance, and I’m excited to lead them to the work—and in exchange, I’ll learn a ton from them.
Students are grabbing the important lesson of trying everything at once, and, at the same time, learning to say “no”.
We are all starting somewhere; some on our way to brilliance.
But we’re not there yet.
If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. ~Anaïs Nin
Some are artists, pushing genres and creative boundaries to their limits. They add beauty and wonder to the world, stretching our possibilities and our lenses. Art sparks our imaginations to ask, “What else could it be?”
 
EXAMPLE.
One of my heroes, James Murphy (Ex-LCD Soundsystem) is working on reformatting the NYC subway turnstiles to generate a harmonious cacophony of joy, called “Subway Symphony”. He’s got a corporate sponsor and moving forward with the Transit Authority. The video below outlines his vision and sets a high bar for his music-making. You don’t have to think of something ambitious as this—just ask yourself the question:

What else could it be?



But.
Some “content creators” don’t care at all, and are just adding noise.

Dave Allen talks about this in his (now legendary) article, “The Internet Doesn’t Care About Your Mediocre Band”. Maybe a more descriptive title might be: “Be Amazing or Get Out of the Way” (ht Never Was Podcast).
Allen encourages artists to make a decision to be great by doing great work.

It may sound like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth, as this blog has emphasized the necessary reality of putting in the hours in the woodshed, and just doing the work. I’ve written a lot about the noticeable gap between the work we’re doing and the quality of work we want to be doing. This can be an intimidating Law of Greatness to follow and give up. Yes, the Internet could not care less about your mediocre band. I know I’m the worst offender. If a song doesn’t grab me, I’ll not make it 30 sec into a song without turning it off. Many times even a poorly-staged or over-earnest promo pic will prompt me to just say, “Pass!”

Yes, we’re not there yet.

But.

On your way to brilliance.

Keep taking steps.

Decide on the front-end to make your voice rise above the noise.

Close that excellence gap.

Go for it. blow it up. the internet is the great democratizer. Rise above the noise.


Listening: Low – Ones and Sixes
Reading: Huck Magazine’s insightful interview with Ian Mackaye
Watching: The League – S6
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A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

Great day in the Newton house today, the mizzus and I are celebrating a decade under the influence. TEN years of matrimony. I think that Nietzsche quote is probably the most applicable, “For anything great to happen, there needs to be a long obedience in the same direction”. It’s the long con, I’m playing. I landed the brightest fish in the school, and I’m daily fooling her into thinking I’m worth sticking around for.
Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 10.29.55 AM
Art and writing also come to mind when I think about the “long obedience”. Information is instantaneous in the Information Age—how has that affected our craft? Enlightenment balloons neural pathways and pixels fire our synapses but skill—true craftsmanship is built over time. Craftsmanship is a waiting game, a daily putting our hands to the plow and developing the scar tissue of experience. This is a difficult concept to grasp. There may be an inverse line relating the height of expectation to achieve with the younger one is. If somebody has grown up with instant information at their fingertips, patience is difficult.
I want to encourage you today to continually develop your body of work. Let your stream flow the world’s collective ocean of work. I again bring up that Jean Rhys quote:
 “Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake’.” ― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
This is the key for us. For me. I have these bi-weekly dips of insecurity. Did I choose the wrong career path? The music industry is collapsing under it’s own bloat, like Baron Harkonnen, and graphic design was where I originally started from. I see my peers excelling in that field and wonder why if it’s too late to restart.
Either way, I seek an obedience to the craft. To submit myself to those that have gone before, and the endless stream of constant work. Putting in the time separates the raw talent from the seasoned. There is a bushel-basket of difference between being a great songwriter and writing great songs. I’m confident that is true for any discipline. The former puts the crushing weight of identity and collapses itself under the entropy of every latest work. This one is as only good as her last song/poem/script/choreography/lecture. The other sees herself as one who loves and is beloved, and expresses out of that place, feeding the stream. We feed the stream. One fits himself into the mold of those who have (excellently) gone before, but that mold is an iron maiden, closing in over time. I see it every year with my songwriting students. I saw it with myself. We feed the stream.

No, not really what I meant.

There is a superb scene (below) in David O. Russell’s I Huckabees where Brad Stand submits himself to an epiphany. He had also been feeling a cognitive and soulish dissonance I’m speaking of. One stands on the outside of himself and looks objectively–a Descartes-esque fever-dream of mind-soul sundering. He began to see himself as one thing, devoid of a toxic shame stemming from over-externalized self-awareness, the 6th grader who, in the middle of her class, realizes she has b.o.

How can i not be myself?

Reading: Just Do Something, Kevin DeYoung
Watching: The Hunt with John Walsh – his face/voice is a familiar comfort to me. Saturday nights as a kid watching  COPS with a chaser of America’s Most Wanted.
Listening: Automusic – Brian Reitzell
Playing: Alien: Isolation, Xbox 360

Writing…Getting Things Done!

“Writing is not difficult, what’s hard is sitting down to write”
– Stephen King
Getting things done is hard. Writing is hard. And no, it’s not the actually doing, it’s actually sitting down and writing. It’s the active decision to alter our brainwave patterns into a different state. I’m good. My current Alpha Waves are pretty comfy. Those Betas are harshing my mellow.
Today I’m going to throw out some tips and tricks to help you get more done with your writing/songwriting.
Take A Bite Outta Crime
I love the 10 Minute Rule—when I want to put off a task, simply begin it for 10 minutes, then abruptly stop.

There.

We get over the hardest hurdle which is simply having started. Originally, I heard this from a student of mine who used this method to get a jump on her assignments. The paper no longer hung over her head, cramping her style, but she had already had a bite taken out of it. It became easier now she just had to “finish” the project.

Take a bite outta crime

Tomato/Tomahto
A more fleshed out version of the 10 Minute Rule is the Pomodoro Technique. In fact, I’m using it right now. Here is a great rundown of it. When I’m procrastinating and have an afternoon with an open block of time, elves run out playing flutes, and it’s suddenly a great time to do laundry, bathe the dog, or chip away the honey-do list instead of the thing I need to accomplish. I become yellow and squeamish and it’s hard to begin, knowing i’m going to be locked in the task’s prison all afternoon. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato. The technique originally encouraged a little red kitchen timer to “chunk” out your big task into smaller, fun-sized bits of 25 minute increments.
1) 25 minutes of hard work
2) 5 minutes break

3) Every third break should be 20 minutes long



I personally love the free app FocusBooster—it’s free, really customizable, and already on my computer. There is even a built in “break” that will auto-sound so that you can lift your head out of your prairie dog hole and know when it’s time to go back. I do happen to have a personal reward system for that “break” time—my mind is jumpy and creates ideas and distractions and things I want to Google and songs I want to hear RIGHT NOW, so i just jot them down on a “parking lot” on a separate sheet so my toddler mind knows it won’t forget them. It is a great way to juggle projects. I’ve had buddies tell me that starting a new Netflix show intimidates them in the same way. They don’t want to watch Daredevil or Kimmie Schmidt because the feeling of multiple seasons slogging thru is intimidating.


First Things First
One common trend in most of the people’s lives in Daily Rituals is that almost all the men and women start early. They get their work done first before the rest of the days’ tasks. Not everyone, but most people. Ever since reading that book I have decidedly awoken an extra 90 min before I need to and have that time to write, meditate, and read. I literally crank out 750 words before breakfast. I start with Morning Pages, and most people agree that the mind is better able to handle tasks involved with critical thinking early in the morning. (esp once the caffeine bean kicks in). I personally try to disregard email (not very good at this) and jump right in to writing projects of different kinds, scheduling conundrums, and critical project management. The afternoon is saved for emails/correspondence, meetings (read re:work), grading, and editing. I have dear friends that swear by their late night workloads, and that does have it’s own magic, but that’s a blog for another day.
Lastly, don’t try and do it all in one sitting.
The outstanding remainder will compel us to complete. Hemingway said the secret to his workflow was that he stopped at a point where he knew he’d obviously know where to pick up the work the following day. It created a forward momentum to help him continue a kinesthetic workflow.


Watching: True Detective S2 (Anyone else see that the lyric’s to the Leonard Cohen intro tune changes every time???)
Listening: Brian Reitzell – Auto Music
Reading: Law & Gospel – Mockingbird Press

How Hoarding Can Help Your Songwriting/Writing

I tell people my twins are “thirty-three months old” because, duh, it’s hilarious to watch people’s faces while creating living satire. Maybe I’m getting older and suddenly I’ve devolved to that 8th grade history teacher that quotes Simpsons references just for their own amusement. Well my thirty-three-month-old/two-year-old daughter bojangles behind the whole fam when we take walks. She’ll find rocks, dandelions, forgotten lego pieces, and teeth from drifters she’s murdered and tries to bundle them all in her hands and pockets (with cumbersome success). My wife says this is a typical girl phenomenon called “collecting”.
I call it “hoarding”.
I walked into her room the other day and next to her My Little Pony collection there were five stacks of yellowed newspapers yay-high, a pile of old phone books, and 8 black trash bags full of McDonald’s-limited-edition Beanie Babies. Gotta get that toddler an intervention.


When it comes to songwriting/writing how can it be to our advantage to collect and hoard? The more you have, the more you have to draw from. Don’t sit there and try to brainstorm ex nihilo. We descend from the Information Age and with the world’s collected knowledge at our fingertips, our songs and prose should be savagely different than the last couple of centuries.

I’ve been accumulating ideas for years, My Evernote is Smaug’s horde, huffing around as a dragon amongst seas of gold doubloons. Where do these ideas come from? This list about sums it up. I read once that every quarter or so we should go through our backlog of ideas to see if our psyche can make the coveted connections that we call “inspiration”.
I did this very thing recently. So I I had an original (failed) song draft of that was more a noir crime story, but the plot wasn’t compelling enough. I re-wrote with aggression, digging into my steamer trunk of “good” and “inspired” ideas, dumping as much as I could into one song. I guess it was an event of spring cleaning. The song evolved into more of an impressionistic owl pellet of ideas. You ever have to dissect one of those in grade school? We did in 6th grade in northern-lower-peninsula Michigan. The owls eat mice, rats, and bowls, digest the usable proteins and cough up the unusable bones and hair in a compressed pellet. Yes, another dissection story. My mind seems to absorb inspiration and ideas over time and eventually combine them into an owl pellet of finished work.

Here is the result:

Superbowl Sunday
It was this Superbowl Sunday
I took a jawbone of an ass
I went in to the house of jackals
Took a deep breath of laughing gas
Walking through a thicket of antlers
I thought I smelled somebody telling truth
Then you flashed your Cold War glamour
And said “We’ve been expecting you”
I was fumblin’ thru the wreckage
Thought ’bout Jesus and his dad
It was last Super Bowl sunday
The best that I ever had
It was this Super Bowl sunday
“Dharma bummed” in your parlance
You were my burnside companion
A friend of friends of friends
A man born under hunches
I fought up into welterweight
Though I retired in the Winner’s Circle
But caught the Legionnaire’s Disease
Autopsy showed no foul play
But I know something had
On last Superbowl Sunday
With Jesus and his dad
I’ve continued cleaning out my personal inspiration horde/hook book because I feel like my mind has become stagnant. My boat is waist-high in grouper, why would I need to cast my nets overboard? I’ll put my mind in a place of need for more, and my subconscious should begin collecting the items I need for me to write down in Evernote. Why Evernote, you say? Well, that is a post for a different day…

Does anyone know of any studies done on the the fact-gathering/holding phenomenon that our brains have?


Listening: The Descendents – Everything Sucks
Reading: The Voice of the Heart, Chip Dodd
Watching: Netflix’s Bloodlines

Rube Goldberg Songwriting


As I’ve written about many times before, I like the idea of creative systems.
I think I first picked the idea up on my radar from Brian Eno and his work with Peter Schmidt on the Oblique Strategies card deck, and he’s spoken about the subject at length in his published journal A Year With Swollen Appendices. The late poetry professor Richard Hugo speaks about a this phenomenon in his essays on creative writing, The Triggering Town. For a poetry final exam, he gave his students a poem project with an insane amount of restrictions, and then says that, without fail,
Too many beginners have the idea that they know what they have to say–now if they can just find the words. Here, you give them the words, some of them anyway, and some technical problems to solve. Many of them will write their best poem of the term. It works, and I’ve seen it work again and again. While the student is concentrating on the problems of the exercise, the real problems go away fro a moment simply because they are ignored, and with the real problems gone the poet is free to say what he never expected and always wanted to say (pg. 31).
IMG_9035

This week, I also gave my students an assignment with an hearty number of restrictions. The idea is to put your inspiration through the system of your craft, rolling around the creative restrictions. Think of a Rube Goldberg Device (funny name, serious sandwich). I first saw one when I was a young lad on the opening to a moralistic show about a boy with a cartoon friend only he could see.


The assignment: Choose one of Kyle Thompson’s photos from his online gallery and stare at it–generating a large amount of unconscious inspiration. Start with your gut feeling and describe the emotion you are feeling. Keep the emotional content heightened for your chorus. Maybe take out another piece of paper and free-write words and other images evoked by the photo. Form: Must follow this order:
V1
V2
C
V3
C
1/2 VERSE
C2
Special instructions -Must include an instance of contrary motion between the melody moving against the opposite direction of the harmony. (i.e. There She Goes, by The La’s)
Must also include an internal rhyme in the penultimate chorus line, leading to the final title line. Ex. You thought it was fine/to take what was mine
But now you’re just — killing time

I liked this series NPR did called Music Project Song where they’d bring in songwriters—sometimes individually (as in the case with The Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt), sometimes a team (Moby + Kelli Scarr), and sometimes a couple that have never even met before (Chris Walla (ex-Death Cab) and Jawbox’s J. Robbins). They’d let them choose from a series of pictures and a series of words, and then write an record the song in two days. The stuff of thrills.




Reading: The Voice of the Heart – Chip Dodd
Listening: Fugazi – The Argument