Singing (the way out)

As explored in an earlier post (see Chopsless), when writing/producing music I often end up with an instrument in hand that is not one that I feel particularly adept on. Guitar is one example. I've spent time with guitar over the years but as Leonard Cohen said, "All guitar players have chops. Especially professional ones. But I have only one chop." Marginally convinced I have even "one chop," I want to share one solution that might counteract the frustration brought on by a lack of instrumental fluency when composing music. Sing.

It does not matter if you are a singer although this approach is perhaps most relevant with composition that happens through some type of recording set-up. Sing along with the track. If there's a beat, a bass line, a melody, or chord changes, record some sketch of those and put that recording on repeat. Improvise vocally until you find the part you want to hear, and then translate that part to the instrument on hand. You do not need perfect intonation as a singer; you do need to be able to find the notes you are singing on the instrument at hand. 

Singing bypasses some of the "I can't play it" chatter and cuts directly to a musical statement. I find it also makes for interesting musical ideas as the ideas are not based on muscle memory, however limited. This approach is more challenging for the first instrument in a composition (i.e. no other parts to sing along with), but it can still work. Alternatively, you could lead the composition with an instrument you feel more confident with and then circle back to one that is less comfortable. 

Time your time

Consistently scheduling time for creative work can be challenging. I've found this is especially true when there is no known real world application for the work (e.g. a commissioned piece, an upcoming album, etc). And yet it is through consistent practice that creative work evolves, not to mention numerous intrinsic rewards that come from sustained engagement with the process. I want to avoid the personal topic of schedule management to focus more generally on one specific approach that has helped encourage consistency in my practice.

Years ago (a few decades even) I started journaling. The process emerged as a sort of life raft amid a particularly challenging phase of life. Writing provided a way out. For years I wrote from a place of total stream of consciousness. The format was spot on with what I needed. The practice stuck. And yet increasingly over the years an obnoxious dissonance kicked in as I felt conflict around the time spent writing vs. its "real world application" (*). I've never focused on writing as a career path, and I'm a man of relatively meager means, so how could/can I justify the time spent?  

One answer I have come up with is to time writing sessions. Set the stopwatch for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, whatever minutes make sense in your schedule and go until the alarm sounds. Then move on. When establishing consistent practice routines, little inner gripes about wasted time seem ridiculous if we are talking minutes. Those same gripes can feel more substantial when the sense of time spent is ambiguous or seems like a haze of hours. It is of course worth noting that some days I decide to forgo the stopwatch after the first round, or other days inspiration shows up more like a wave to surf and that has very little to do with minutes. 

Because the net gain of timed sessions has been so positive, I now apply this approach in music practice, studio experimentation, writing, reading... it somehow contains process-oriented time, time that is not about making X for the sake of delivering Y. The time limitation has made the practice less in need of schedule justification and thus more sustainable. There is also a side benefit of learning how to streamline focus in a relatively short window. A parallel type time limitation can work wonders for musicians recording in the studio, but more on that later.

*This idea of "real world application" is highly suspect in creative work but it's also an inevitable force to reckon with for we the people operating in an efficiency-driven world. No small feat to overcome. 

Perspective in music

We cannot buy a sense of perspective. It's hard to teach/learn perspective as well. And yet no matter what skills or tools you have or don't have, how you perceive those skills and tools will define how your process goes. If your perspective gets distorted then the sense of prioritization can get off track - tiny details take on tremendous (unworthy) weight. Or a certain part that took so many takes to get right feels essential to a mix even though it may best serve the song by being muted.  

This often happens with playing too, where musical athleticism (chops) can get confused with musicality. One contributes to the other, but achieving greater fluency with one does not guarantee the same fluency with the other. A sense of perspective must be continuously infused into the process of creating, recording, and mixing music. And it's so hard to do, to maneuver between various contexts while keeping a sense of perspective that may challenge what you already know or believe. 

Working solo, I try to come back to basic questions...What am I trying to communicate? What is the mood or tone of this piece? What is within my facility at this moment that will help me to meet those goals? When working with someone else, I try to set aside outside my own certainties so that I can better hear where he or she is coming from and pick up the thread from that point forward.  

Confidence & Comparison

Confidence is a currency that relies upon accepted standards to gain its value. These standards are personal, cultural, historical. As you feel confident or lack confidence, you're comparing yourself to someone or something. This can be a deal breaker for musicians, many of whom revere artistic heroes, predecessors, or ideals that may never be outdone. So why? And then what? It takes a certain quality of character to play a game you know you're not going to win. Unless you don't care about winning. 

We discover our heroes and set their accomplishments as pillars against which we can measure our own. "She writes better music (than I do). He packs more emotion into a vocal (than me)." That sort of thing. Your heroes and my heroes may or may not be the same but that does not matter relative to this process of confidence & comparison. The greats have done greater. 

Get back to ground level. You're working with sounds in a room for a moment. For a lifetime.