Thrashing through bad ideas

One of the interesting things about teaching composition is that it requires students to get used to exploring sounds, options and ultimately dealing with the fact that initially a lot of what they try isn’t going to work straight away.

There is a criteria you can set, you can work within parameters and music theory and other knowledge can certainly help in making choices that are suitable, but with that knowledge is also the willingness to take the rulebook and throw it away as that leads to innovation and originality.

Some students are so fearful of this, that it is requires a Herculean effort to put anything down. To create, we need to get used to putting down bad ideas and then thrashing through them.

Almost always, there is potential to find something worthwhile amidst the ideas that are laid down, that is where thrashing can happen. What is worth keeping? What can we develop here? Will this work better if we get rid of this part or save it for later? What if we try this or that approach? How can we make this better? A myriad of questions to ask and plenty of creative possibilities.

Being open to the creative possibility is key and it comes when we give ourselves an environment where we can thrash through what we have without any judgement from the outside world. Just you and the work, and maybe some trusted people to advise you along the way.

Feeling like doing the work

One of the key distinctions to tell if someone is professional or not is whether they are willing to show up and do the work, immaterial of whether they feel like it or not.

There are plenty of reasons to be distracted, tired or emotional enough not to feel like doing the work but when opportunity is there to contribute, it’s good to learn to put these feelings to one side (for the time being) and commit to getting ourselves over the line.

There will of course be times and specific circumstances where it’s really important to take time out but more often than not, once we get stuck in to the creating, we can actually end up feeling better for it.

Any worthwhile path

Any worthwhile path will probably involve risk, discomfort, adversity, suffering and pain.

It is the reason why people don’t write a novel.

And systems have made sure we avoid that pain, that we stay comfortable, avoid risk and stick to complying, showing up and doing what we are told and expected to do without finding our own path.

I see it happen all the time. I hear people say they won’t do something because they are setting themselves up for disappointment, I’ve seen children denied a pathway because they parents are scared stuff of the risks involved.

The pain is real and it’s only natural to avoid it.

But the things that that part of us dares to do, feels compared to create is hard to ignore when we dig deep and listen to our desires. And I think it’s worth leaning into the tension to pushing ourselves to do it. There are choices to be made.

And one choice we have is to build the skills necessary to achieve what we want. With that comes the acceptance that if we want to write something good, we are probably going to spend significantly more time writing stuff which is bad. It’s only through the ongoing process of attempting, failing, failing more, failing again that we find ways to make things better. It may take years or decades to achieve your best work, but it can happen if you’re willing to pay your dues.

I thoroughly dislike the way ‘talent’ and ‘genius’ are used. As if a scarce amount of people are blessed by external force. Nonsense. This kind of limelight success story is more a tangled web of exceptional hard work, a supportive environment, benefit of the doubt, luck, being in the right place at the right time and often privilege.

You have the potential to create and make something. You just need to decide whether taking the path with many dips is the right choice for you.

The edges is where it is at.

Now and then I check the Spotify top 50 charts and my gut reaction is a wince.

I approach the music without prejudice and will always be fascinated by what makes a hit a hit, but other than my musicological curiosity. The music more often than not, is not for me.

I’ve come to learn that there is are fundamental reasons why the chart music does not work for me.

One reason is that my musically trained ears usually require something with a bit more sophistication.

Another is maybe that the production is a bit run of mill. Super loud, super compressed and sound choices that are being used at the time simply because their fashionable.

The most important reason is that my values as to what music means to me is rarely aligned with what is in the charts.

As a result. If I mentioned my top favourite albums to anyone around me, it is unlikely they have heard it.

I choose music that speaks to me in a way that is more personal, weird and interesting.

That is okay.

We are an era where hits mean very little. TV especially seems to be going through an extraordinarily exciting period of creative development where shows are coming up that are unique and tailor made for an audience with a specific taste.

If you aim to target only 1% of the population of the U.K. with what you create, that’s still 660,000 people.

It’s good to have a space in your creative output where you maintain a full sense of integrity, stay true to what you want to achieve and work in your niche.

Everyone else is already taken.

P.S. If you might like the music I like, below is the playlist. There is no better marketing tool than word of mouth.

A day at a time

Matthew Kelly said in his book ‘The Long View’ that ‘we overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year’.

As we progress through each day, a lot of our feelings are driven by the story we tell ourselves and I am really good at telling myself I have not achieved enough in the day. In some ways that can be a good thing, because it is driving me to make forward strides towards my goals and other times it can be not so feel good and leave me feeling tired and defeated.

This is a mini battle of perception and goals can be outlined into longer term, medium term and short term goals. When I start telling myself I am not getting very far I find this writing these down helps me put a perspective on where I am, where I am going and what I can do next.

Sometimes it is important to take the pressure off. Especially now, when there is so much uncertainty and disruption going on. For the struggles many of us are having to go through, it can and should be considered an achievement enough to have gotten out of bed, gotten dressed and taken in the surrounding area or appreciated something like the simple delight of a hot drink.

It is important to monitor our energy levels, accept that what we can do in a day may be enough for today and tomorrow, we can build on it. We may surprise ourselves when reflecting over a longer period of time how these far these little drips of progress got us.

Looking outwards vs. looking inwards

A lot of the problems that are occurring in the world today are because of the latter.

The way in which our media works intertwined with the swift evolution of our survival instincts makes looking inwards quite an understandable condition. The need for acceptance and approval, the need to feel loved, appreciated or the security as a result of wealth and or privilege.

The problems start occurring when those inward needs get in the way of others accessing theirs and when the decisions we make are motivated by fear. From my experience, this leads to a deep sense of unhappiness.

Looking outwards however creates possibility, instead of looking at what we can do for ourselves, we start thinking about what we can do for others, what can we create for others, what collaborations we can make happen and what contributions we can make and what communities we can bring together.

We have the choice, and by lifting up others, it is likely that you will be lifting yourself as well.

Positive habits for each day

Since the lockdown, my routine has gone flying out of the window. In response to that I have since incorporated habits into my daily routine that would allow me some sense of structure and help me achieve some thing positive each day.

Here are some of the habits I have steadily included in my day:

Drinking water at the start of every day

Doing some form of exercise each day (Running, cycling or full body at home) for at least 20 minutes with one rest day a week.

Going for a walk each day

Eating food and vegetables and cooking most of what I eat from scratch.

Doing some form of creating – time span ranges from half an hour to 8 hours depending on my day.

Writing an article each day

Reading for at least half an hour a day

Allocating specific times to check social media, news feeds, emails etc.

With the exception of creating, which is essentially my vocation, everything listed above are small and incremental. Most things are half an hour long in duration. I can confidently say that these have really helped me maintain a positive outlook during what is an otherwise uncertain time.

* I really recommend ‘Zen Habits’ by Leo Babauta. It is a great little book that offers great insight into making positive transformations. One of the reasons so many people cannot commit to their resolutions at the start of every year is that they are expecting too much change in too short a period of time. What we should be instead looking for is small incremental changes gradually over time.

‘Perfect’ Recordings

I listen to a wide range of recorded music. In fact, I would go so far to say that I have listened to music that spans the history of recorded music. From Vinyl to Cassettes to CDs and now streaming.

What is interesting about recorded music is just how fast the technology has advanced. You can hear real stark differences in the recording quality of music so much that you can hear incremental advances through each decade. One of the most particularly fascinating period was during the 60s to 70s where artists such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix were making records alongside the evolution of mixing desks having more inputs, as well as the development of electronic equipment.

The turn of the century did see a turning point with the development of computers and software. Namely through mixing in the box, via software and then the egalitarian way in which everyone could essentially record music on their laptops via DAW and plugins. It is really great that everyone has access to this technology now and create for themselves.

The knock on effect has been fascinating, and one in which recording quality and aesthetic has been a very interesting and highly debated topic. There are plenty of arguments for the fact that recording in earlier decades was better because generally more expensive hardware and microphones were being used in purpose built studios. There is the digital vs. analog argument and the listening of music has also been a fascinating topic. It is more likely that your average listener hears music in a car stereo or on ear buds than they do a decent stereo system. I remember becoming conscious of this when Steven Wilson started smashing Ipods in numerous ways and decrying the quality of Mp3s. He was right, Mp3s are awful but streaming in some ways has solved this due to the fact that most streaming services play songs at 320kbps.

When I teach, it is funny to see how aware the kids are of autotune and how blatantly it is used in tracks and generally, they do speak of it rather unfavourably. The choice to use it appears to be a timbral or aesthetic choice as opposed to one that merely corrects the singing pitch. The prevalence of it in genres such as Trap are significant.

If you listen to pop music today, the production of some tracks has been done with mathematical pinpoint accuracy to which everything could be deemed ‘perfect’. Quantising, pitch correction, rhythmic hooks – but the defects still occur, some of which could be considered significant. Over-compression being a big one or the lack of human authenticity in the performance. It is unlikely that you will hear a pop song today with anywhere near the same warmth and charm as a Frank Sinatra record.

During my ACM days, one of my lecturers got us to listen out for discrepancies in Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’. The vocalists heard about 12 in the first 90 seconds. That doesn’t make the song any less good, in some ways, it can be argued that they are enhancements. The same case could be made with some of Lindsey Buckingham’s vocal screeches in ‘Go your own way’ and the heightened emotion that comes as a result of them.

They fundamental thing that makes this such a fascinating area of discussion for me and one I love working within, is the subjectivity. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ record.

Ultimately, it comes down the intention of what we create, how we achieve that intention and doing our level best to get as close to that as we can.

Clearing out the attic

As a result of the pandemic, we have been staying home more than usual. During the winter, when temperatures have hit 0 degrees centigrade, we have had to have the heating on more regularly throughout the day. As a result, our attic became more damp than usual, because of the more frequent rising heat and the condensation.

We decided to clear out our attic before putting the Christmas decorations back. Small puddles had formed on top of plastic boxes and cardboard boxes had been essentially ruined. Within them all was a myriad of possessions we forgot that we owned. Some of the most interesting things were trinkets, or entertainment items I had as a kid, including Lego and Scalextric sets and my mother’s vinyl collection (the vinyl seems to be okay but some of the covers were a little damaged).

My brother cleared out my Grandfather’s house when he passed away, and he has gotten really good at getting rid of stuff rather objectively. When I moved back to Dubai I minimised what I brought back with me. Moving houses definitely forces you to make decisions as to what you keep and what you get rid of. There has been a therapeutic quality in exploring the nostalgia of the things we own and deciding what needs to go as we fix up the attic. Some things are worth keeping, some worth throwing, and other things that may be suitable for a charity boot sale.

It is always good to do this kind of clear out now and again. I sometimes need to remind myself that in the digital age we are living in, it is worth doing a similar process with our hard drives.

New routes

I live in South Wales U.K. and one of the things I appreciate about being home is how often I can go out and jump on my bike. There are plenty of interconnected national cycle trails and one of the most well known trails is the taff trail that runs all the way from Brecon to Cardiff (55 miles). I have cycled through the trail many times and it runs along woodland, forests and towns. One of the things I am always conscious of is the fact that I am able to appreciate details and points of beauty in a way I simply cannot achieve if I am in the car or train.

When I started cycling more extensively, I discovered so much more about the 50 square miles I live in. I love the sense of adventure allowed to me by being on my bicycle (disregarding the times I have fallen off). I have often decided to cycle with no particular destination in mind and go where ever my instincts take me.

Sometimes I have hit dead ends, and sometimes, I have gotten lost to the point I am fairly disorientated and have to work my way back to find out where I am again. Nevertheless there is many rewards in trying new routes and going beyond what you know.

I think this can apply to a number of things, the way we choose to make decisions, the way we choose to create or work. New routes or choices are always available to you if you are willing to take the chance.