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

PODCASTS!

Mainly been sticking to the SG straight through the Vox, dry--no pedalboard.

Mainly been sticking to the SG straight through the Vox, dry–no pedalboard.

I heard somebody say once that a musician in the studio should try to avoid outside influence in order to not let last minute influence negatively affect the work. Another way I understand it, is that the recording stage is the “end” of the musical creative process, and we deal enough with the unruly Crappy Valley. Have you heard of this? Malcolm Gladwell writes about a place between epiphany and validation where the artist struggles against toxic second-guessing.

Crappy Valley

Crappy Valley


I’ve been feeling that a little bit—however I will say that I listen back through my Spotify playlist of influence songs to help keep me on-track. It’s an inspiration board for my ears. As promised last week, thar she blows—->


So what do I do now that I’m not listening to much music? PODCASTS!
Here are some of my fresh selections; I’ve picked ones in particular that stick to the theme of this blog:
 
Excellent peer into the minds and craft of some much-beloved songwriters. Adam Schlesinger, Nick Lowe, Van Dyke Parks, Neil Finn, They Might Be Giants, Todd Rundgren, Al Jarreau, Mike Stoller, Neil Sedaka, just to list a few. With two interviewers you’d think things might become unruly, but the presenters are verbally conservative and know how to position the right questions to draw out golden juices from their subjects to satisfy audiences.
Stand-out episodes: Mike Viola, Stuart Murdoch (Belle and Sebastian)

A fun, shorter (10-20 min), episodic romp that features songwriters/composers going wide and deep on the inspiration, development, and production of a single piece of music. I appreciate how there is no outside presenter’s voice. It is purely the writer’s narration, interspersed with clips of their track. Recently the podcast has accessed a lot more of TV/film composers like Alexandre Desplat, Game of Thrones and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Stand-out episodes: The Postal Service, The Microphones, Converge.

Full disclosure: I’ve actually only listened to the first one with John Luther Adams, but a great listen. The editing feels more in terms of an NPR-journalistic style, which stands out from the rest of the efforts on this list. The interviewer is out-of-the-way and sounds more like a talk magazine. If the first episode is any indication, this is a solid listen.
Stand-out episodes: John Luther Adams (doy)

The singer/songwriter and Get-Up Kids frontman interviews various indie-rock friends and musicians, many time covering songwriting ground. Love this one because it feels really blue-collar.
Stand-out episodes: Chris Conley, Andy Hull, Kliph Scurlock, Rocky Votolato, Kevin Devine

Exceptional productivity advice from not-high-strung dudes Seth Workheiser and Bill Meis.
Stand-out episodes: #5 Project Management without Email
What other writing/craft/music related podcasts are you jazzed about that didn’t make the list?
Listening – currently tracking, I try not to listen to music that might influence me while I’m making records. I did really like the freshly-released. Low single. (link)
WatchingOrange Is The New Black S3
Reading – Back issues of Tape-Op, for the feels.
PlayingAlien Isolation – Xbox 360

Practical Magic

How do we use technology without it letting it use us? Been thinking about this idea lately, some recent films have thrust this theme to the forefront (like the superb Ex Machina) and smart men like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk’s implicit cries not to develop a high-level artificial intelligence give me gooseflesh. But has there been a recent shift in the way technology has been approached in filmmaking?

Maybe we’ve reached critical mass?

Maybe we’re learning to use technology and not let it use us–letting every action movie smear into a Michael Bay-brown?

Tech used to make us feel like we could do anything, now it has its own trademark, which becomes limiting.


Each one of Mad Max Fury Road’s vehicles was a functioning car. Maybe the functioning cars were from the mind of a demented 8-year-old’s Cirque de Solie fever-dream, but all the vehicles ran and stunt drivers actually drove them! Director George Miller wanted the grounding of practical FX to anchor his far-fetched future.

Going to Zaxby’s


And then there’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As a Star Wars devotee, I was guardedly optimistic about the new J.J. Abrams-helmed trilogy. The prequels gave me buyer’s remorse (although if you are a serious fan, this “Ring Theory” has been making the internet rounds this week and it’s worth a look) and I believe in Abrams so so much, just based on his previous cinematic history, both on the silver screen and the small.

Here’s a passage from Vanity Fair’s SWTFA production observations that beautifully surmises this “grounded” approach:
The several minutes of footage I saw backed Willams up, as much as any several minutes from any movie could. Case in point: At the effects session, Abrams was demonstrating his commitment to the more retro, more tactile filmmaking Kasdan had talked about. One scene featured an alien creature that abruptly pops up out of the desert landscape with glowing, flashlight eyes that make it look like a distant cousin to the Jawas of A New Hope. Abrams later called it “a classic, old-school seesaw puppet. We just buried it in the sand, and Neal Scanlan, the creature guy, pushed down on one side and the thing came up on the other side.” At the session, the scene, with the alien suddenly sticking its head over a dune, got a big laugh. Some perfectionist suggested a few digital polishes, but Abrams was wary. “It’s so old-school and crazy,” he said. “We could improve this thing, but at some point do we lose the wonderful preposterousness?” – VF (ht i09)

Family reunion at Zaxby’s


Also working on the films is screenwriter Rian Johnson, who puts it this way;

“I think people are coming back around to
[practical effects]. It feels like there is sort of that gravity pulling us back toward it. I think that more and more people are hitting kind of a critical mass in terms of the CG-driven action scene lending itself to a very
specific type of action scene, where physics go out the window and it becomes so big so quick.”

I’m no luddite, but how can we use tech in music production, writing, etc. and not let it “use us”?

Deep, Deep, nerd stuff, but the DragonAge Inquisition characters quote this line all the time: “Magic was made for man, not man for magic”

I wish I could be John Vanderslice, only recording to analog tape at Tiny Telephone Studios, but it’s financially prohibitive and I need to use what I have. And that said—let it not use me.
I’m taking a break from trouble-shooting my M=Audio FireWire 410—my Mac’s not recognizing it and I can’t uninstall the software in order to re-install. I’m hoping that my day won’t be spent down-grading back to OS 10.10.1 (after I just went up to 10.10.3 yesterday). The demos for the new record are almost done, and they’re being sent to the geniuses involved in the project. Be very stoked.


Listening: New Tame Impala singles

Reading: Marvel’s Civil War 
Watching: The Staircase (RIYL Serial)

Write Smarter, Not Harder: Bro. Andy Paens the Praise of Evernote


My fourteenth semester at Visible Music College has concluded, and I’d like to roll out the time to plan and plot. However, a two-year-old bio-terrorist in the twins’ class brought a lice outbreak to their classroom, and now I’m just trying to keep cheese on the cracker.

But. On to this week’s lesson and musings. I know you’re excited.


Today I’m going to show you how the organizational process I use to write and save songs.
It’s crucial to write down and record every song I write. I audition scores of scallawags for the college’s Songwriting Division who simply rely on their own memory devices to recall all the songs they’ve written. Let’s give our brains a break. Our minds feel relaxed and open to new sources of information and inspiration when they feel they don’t have to “hold” on to previous data. That’s basically the scuttlebutt on one of the primary ideas behind Morning Pages.

Up until about three years ago, I’d transcribe chord charts in Word/Pages/Finale and save them in a “Music” folder within Documents on my laptop’s hard drive. Inside that there would be different folders corresponding to a bevy of bands, projects, or years (if they were songs-without-a-home). This helped with organization as far as archival, but not helpful when it came to quickly finding something I was looking for, or juggling in-progress ideas. As I normally work on two or more songs at a time, this weakness was crucial to fix. Also, trying to access the songs anywhere besides my hard drive was a drag. I’d need to print off on paper or email a file to myself in order to open it on my phone (where I do most of my work on-the-go).

Next, I’d sing musical ideas into the VoiceNotes app in iOS, or just throw down a rough take in GarageBand. As far as  on-the-go lyrical ideas, I’d use an iOS note feature like MagicPad, since it had more text editing features than Notes, (although the Notes feature of syncing-with-iCloud is really attractive).

I needed ONE primary source to aggregate all my inspirations, works-in-progress, and finished ideas. Not countless computer folders that I can only access on my Mac, not three different was of recording. Not even two. ONE.


ENTER: EVERNOTE
I’ll forever sing the praises of Evernote. All my files live in the cloud, so I never lose information whenever my computer or phone crashes, AND I don’t need to worry about re-copying material across multiple devices. Basically, you create documents called “Notes” that you can put in formatted text, photos, audio, etc. It is not limited by page breaks or tight margins, so I feel like I’m writing on a giant whiteboard, not a typewriter sheet. For some reason, that stimulates the ol’ Newton noggin. In fact, I write all of these blog entries in Evernote, then once edited, I upload them to the WordPress interface.


WORKCHAT
Since Evernote’s WorkChat feature has been added, the possibility of collaborative songwriting efforts right in the program are realized. I’ve used it a couple of times in teaching songwriting lessons, but not yet in something that I’ve worked on with somebody. (If you want to collab on something, email me!) The only thing I feel WorkChat is missing is a markup history, ala  GoogleDocs, that way I could follow who made which changes. It definitely decreases the amount of steps needed to share a saved file between people, whether it is a song chart or a saved web article.

NOTEBOOKS
On the organization/archival front, Evernote lets you create “Notebooks” that contain notes on a certain subject. For the topic of “Songwriting”, I actually have three: Songwriting Tips, Songwriting Ideas, and plain ol’ Songwriting, where I have works-in-progress and completed songs. Evernote’s tagging feature helps me further organize the minutia.
Here’s a simple songwriting workflow.

Sample Songwriting Workflow


Full disclosure: when I’m in a pinch, (aka driving) I’ll still open up iOS voice notes and quickly throw an idea in there, but if I can focus long enough, I depend fully on Evernote.

I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to the capabilities of the program, but I wanted to simply outline the way I use it for my songwriting workflow. I’ve chosen Evernote because hey, you can’t beat free, but ultimately I would encourage you to find some method that helps you 1. Record and archive every idea

Watching: Whiplash
Listening: The Delivery Man – Elvis Costello

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