Working with focus

I had a collaborative songwriting session with my bass guitarist and it lasted 45 minutes.

It was an insanely productive and exciting session where we got two ideas down sharpish. He had to shoot but we were happy with the outcomes.

When I talk to my students about practising, I usually go through a process of negotiation with them to discuss what practice means for them, how can it be interesting and how long is a reasonable time to practise each day. One of my younger students said 15 minutes and we agreed to see how they would get on. Turns out they can do rather well.

Our time is precious, but when looking at sessions that can be hours long, it can appear like it’s a mountain and we can easily fritter time away by the abundance of option.

However, 15, 20 or 45 minutes can force us to focus on one particular thing and achieve it.

When we are working on our own, or with a variety of a projects, it’s a good idea to segment processes into smaller chunks, because the result of that is most certainly some much needed focus.

Following Zeitgeists

‘Shape of you’ by Ed Sheeran used this hook that some call ‘3-3-2’, it’s syncopated and features heavily in the song. The track is a massive hit with colossal streaming figures and gargantuan radio play to the point where it was hard to avoid.

I’m going to be honest, I’m not a fan of the track at all, the lyrics especially irk me and the fact I heard it ad infinitum and involuntarily really made me start to dislike it heavily.

What was an even more irritating after effect was what I call a case of following the zeitgeist. Producers around the world saw the success of this track, so what did they decide to do? Write songs using the 3-3-2 rhythm. I remember a radio station in France that played track after track with this rhythm to the point my ears were so fatigued, I asked the person driving to switch it off, but beside my irritation, there’s more to consider here.

Seeing something that is successful and plagiarising the formula that was responsible for it’s success may bring you success as well, but it could very likely be short term thinking and a soulless chase for approval. This is not the same as being influenced by something.

Is it not better to follow your own tuning fork? Even if it isn’t considered trendy at the time. It may lead to more innovation.

Either way, whatever you choose to do creatively, I’d like to think that we are steered by reasons that are more authentic and aspirational than simply following a zeitgeist.

Leaning back into it

I’ve had several conversations recently with people who express the fear of going back to certain things, post Covid era. These certain things could be a profession, such as live music or the close social interactions that will take place again.

This is all perfectly understandable. We are creatures of habit and not having been able to do these things would have certainly have had their impact on us psychologically.

There will undoubtedly be fears of doing certain things that have manifested as a result of lockdowns and a resistance towards being able to commit to these things will be a mental barrier for many, but we overcome these fears by merely leaning back into the action of doing these things.

If it so happens that you are playing a live show for the first time in a while, breathing it all in, taking in that moment where you there providing music in front of people and not judging yourself too harshly if there are a few cobwebs to brush off is a good place to start.

The magic of things

When I teach music, one of my key values going into every lesson with a student is to tap into the magic of it.

Because when you really think of it, music is really magical. The fact that emotions, drama, narrative, representation and impressions can be achieved through the combination of frequencies and silence is pretty phenomenal.

And that is only the start!

The symmetry of some certain musical patterns, the circle of 4ths and 5ths, the harmonic series, scales are mind bogglingly beautiful in their design.

The combination of elements, both simple and complex, the axes of sound and textures over time, the different sonorities that can be achieved through one instrument, let alone another, I could spend another 10,000 words going on.

If you put yourself in the shoes of a child who is new to all of this, there is a wealth of information that you can be infinitely curious about. When we become adults, I fear that we sometimes lose that sense of curiosity and become jaded. I am privileged to teach because it reminds me of the magic of music, keeps me curious and makes me a better musician yourself.

When I think about the moments where I felt truly engaged in school or in a lesson, it was when a teacher was fully enrolled into the idea that there is magic in what they are teaching.

This is not limited to education.

Within many disciplines, I believe there is an opportunity to create magic.

And if the people you are working for experience that, you are on to a winner.

Showing up

This is seemingly more difficult than people realise.

Writing a book, making a record, starting your own business, it all starts with showing up and we all deserve an environment where we feel like we can show up.

And when you have a talent, a skill set, a chance to contribute, it should be your duty to show up when you commit to something.

Because failing to show up when you say you will damages relations, damages reputation and damages yourself.

You can have all of the potential in the world, but it doesn’t mean anything if your not willing to follow through on your promises.

Practise your craft by all means, but if you want to make a living from it, practise showing up too.

CPR and split second choices

Watching the footage of Christian Ericksen yesterday was so distressing.

Euro 2020 is a sport many of us have been looking forward to but yesterday’s event really puts a perspective on the importance of life and the fragility we are all subject to.

We are perhaps more fragile than we’d like to think and reminding ourselves of this is a bittersweet reminder to really seize the moments in our life.

The way everyone responded to the situation, the surrounding of the player, the teammates attending to him, consoling each other, and the quick actions that medical staff and the referee took were all thoroughly commendable. Those quick choices saved a life. The respect for each other from the fans from both sides in attendance was also lovely to see.

I think everyone should learn CPR and first aid basics. It’s a mandatory requirement for many jobs but for those moments where tragedy strikes, being as prepared as we can for dealing with those moments is of upmost importance.

Let’s hope we don’t see this again as the Euros entertain us all and may Ericksen recover swiftly.

Surfing

I went surfing with some friends today. Sports such as cycling, surfing and skiing possess a wonderful quality that in many ways plays a fundamental part in our wellbeing.

The physical exercise is of course a huge beneficial pay off from doing it but there’s also a mental one as well.

When I go surfing, I gain a sense of many things that are there, pure and in the moment. The sea air, the first impact of the water as it touches my feet, the waves crashing against my body, watching the swell carefully as I attempt to catch a wave, feeling the move of the current underneath me and the ecstasy of riding with a wave and standing on the board. There’s also the cathartic quality of the sound of waves as they move in and out, an ebb and flow where tides are connected to the movement of the moon. It’s phenomenal when you think about it.

As all of those things happen to me when I surf, I am there in that moment in the here and now.

It’s easy to spend our lives thinking about where we are going or what directions we are steering towards, but when I surf, all of that disappears and I ride the waves.

Technicality vs. Personality

Thinking about the former too much can lead you into a trap.

I was recording vocals yesterday and it’s the best vocal session I’ve ever done, simply because I felt I had mixed technicality with personality in a way I’d never achieved previously.

Besides having figured out ways to use my voice technically in a way that suits me over the last few years, I’ve written songs to that as well and yesterday I was able to engage with that rather well, courtesy of the guidance of my engineer. (Always record vocals with someone there who can get the best out of you).

However, one trap I fell into was thinking far too much about diction and pronouncing words correctly. If I was reciting something that needed to be heard clearly, I would be correct in needing to consider this but in the instance of my songs which needed some genuine feeling in it, I had to sometimes disregard diction for sake of expression.

It’s a constant, careful balancing act involved in knowing what is needed of you technically but that’s in service of achieving what you need to do artistically.

There’s no exact right way, but there are ways to make it better.

Mark Hollis of Talk Talk mumbles his way through words so convincingly, it pulls me in.

Whatever it is you are trying to express, the question should be, what do you need to do to express it in the best way?

Technique plays a part in it, but so does, context, interpretation and sincerity.

Several ways to do one thing.

When you are in a creative environment, it’s always good to give yourself variables in terms of approach.

For instance, if you are creating a sketch, the colour schemes, fonts, layout and positioning of certain areas of interest all provide a myriad of options.

When I’ve rehearsed with bands and writing music, we’ve had a lot of fun exploring one idea or the other and fleshing out what approach works best.

Giving yourself creative options allows you to explore the deeper potential of an idea and collectively decide whether one approach is better than another.

And ultimately, you might just find the one best way to execute that particular idea.

The power of small talk

When I lived in Dubai, there was a Cafe Nero in a street about a 15 minute walk away from my flat.

I loved going there on the weekends (and sometimes on the weekdays if I had had a long day) and treat myself to a coffee or an iced tea.

I often did this in solitude, with a book, music or my laptop and would sit there for an hour or so.

But thinking back to those times, I was always uplifted by a small but simple interaction with the barristers who worked there.

There was one particular guy from the Philippines who was the most well mannered and friendliest person you could imagine, he’d always ask how I was, engage with genuine interest how my day was, what musical things I was up to and where I’d been if I had not been around in a while.

Such a simple but lovely chat with someone who’s job was to make coffee elevated my day, and I hoped my interaction elevated his day too.

Making that effort to engage with someone encourages the social connections we all desire as human beings, (even if I was in the cafe by myself). Upon a quick search, there has been psychological research that has started to show that small talk can increase wellbeing and boost mood levels.

I’ve always admired people who can be so friendly to people they barely know, and whatever our status, discipline, profession or age, we have the chance to make every interaction positive and feed that energy to others.

I think of those barristers who used to serve me fondly, and they added a lovely bit of interaction to what could otherwise be solitary weekends.

I thank them for making me coffee, and making me happier.