03 Jan You Say You Want A Resolution
Cliche though it may be, this is the time of the year when we feel the familiar tug of a fresh start. Even if you’re not the type to force New Year’s resolutions on yourself, you probably still sense that a new set of numbers on the calendar brings with it a certain opportunity to shake off some of our bad habits, and hopefully replace them with better ones.
Now, I’m not here to lecture anyone, or lay down any guilt trips, but I do feel some personal sense of optimistic self-admonishing when each January rolls around. It seems to me that New Year’s resolutions typically seek to achieve one or more of the same basic objectives: quitting bad habits, being more proactive, stepping outside of your comfort zone. And even if we do disagree on the whole resolution thing – and I know there are plenty of cynics out there – I don’t think there’s any doubt that these same objectives are incredibly valuable when applied to our practice as music makers. So here are a few simple things you can do to step into 2017 with a new approach to your art:
Well yeah, this one is super obvious, but we all still need reminding, because we could all play more than we do. So practice more by yourself, practice more with your band, play more shows, find new musicians in your neighborhood, show up to an open jam session, snap your fingers, tap your toes, sing in the shower, sing on the subway, sing in your sleep, study the acoustic properties of your kitchenwares, harmonize with the dogs barking in your backyard, play walking bass lines with rubber bands, buy a pair of drumsticks and hit everything with them, put blades of grass between your thumbs and blow, and treat every silence as if it were a whole rest. No longer can we afford to be part-time musicians.
Listen to Something You Don’t Think You Like
I hear it all the time: disco sucks. Country sucks. Rap sucks. New music sucks. Blah blah blah. Some people seem so fixated on the genres and bands they think suck, I wonder how they have any time or energy left to actually like anything. Well, I hate to break it to you, but if you’re the kind of person who spends all their time talking about how much everything sucks, it’s far more likely that there’s something wrong with you, and not with the music you hate.
Of course, you aren’t required to love everything, but being closed-minded about music that you simply aren’t familiar with is a surefire way to stunt your own creativity, and find yourself at an artistic dead end. The artist who progresses is the one who is able to challenge his or herself to explore unfamiliar territory – to confront and to learn from other artists even if their ideals and approach are on the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum.
Instead of miring yourself in the same albums you’ve treasured since middle school, try something you never thought in a million years you’d listen to. If you’re a doom metal fan, listen to the Isley Brothers. Hell, listen to ABBA. If you’re a top 40 kinda guy or gal, see if you can sit through a whole album of grindcore. If you’re dead set on the idea that hip-hop peaked in the early 90s, give some new rappers the benefit of the doubt. Or Brahms. You don’t have to sell your soul, and your old favorites will still be there for you when you get back. But you’ll be amazed at how much inspiration can be found in a little change of perspective.
Record Yourself More
Giving form to our thoughts is an incredibly important, but often overlooked, part of any creative or intellectual process. Good writers write down every thought that comes into their head. Good artists draw every mental image. Not every sentence is a novel, and not every doodle is a painting, but it’s not always about the finished product – it’s about getting your ideas out, instead of letting them fester and fade in your own head. Whenever you are playing music, by yourself or with a group, new ideas should go to tape (or on your phone) immediately.
The benefit is twofold. First, there is the practical concern that new ideas you don’t record will be quickly forgotten. Yet there’s also a more abstract reason to constantly record your ideas. The minute you listen back to something you recorded, it’s with a different set of ears than the ones you had on when you were playing it. As you take that crucial step back, you’ll begin to notice things in your playing that you didn’t when you were, well, playing. Immersion is important, but so is detachment, and assuming the vantage point of a spectator will put you in a better position to evaluate your work, and to separate the keepers from the scraps.
I know, I know – I hate that word just as much as you do. Feel free to call it something else, like “meet new people”, or “be an active participant in the real world instead of thinking you’re gonna make it behind the warm, glowing protection of a computer screen”. The internet has afforded a host of wonderful resources and opportunities to new and independent artists, and I fully encourage you to use them to every possible advantage. But there’s more to life than that, and in a world of increasing digital isolation, it’s more important than ever that we recall the value of real, face-to-face interactions.
Whenever somebody new comes into the studio, I ask them how they found out about it. And of course, a handful of them found me on Google or Yelp, but you’d be amazed at the majority of new customers who found a flyer in a nearby coffee shop, or got a word-of-mouth referral from a friend. There are a lot more people on the internet than there are people living in my neighborhood, but it’s not just about numbers – it’s about impact. Introducing yourself in person to a band you enjoyed watching, or a talent buyer, or a sound engineer, or just some guy who you always see at shows will go a heck of a lot farther than you might think. People still like putting faces to names, and a real-world interaction could make the crucial difference between being remembered and forgotten. You never know when you’ll meet someone who can really help advance your career, teach you something you didn’t already know, or make a valuable introduction on your behalf, so get out there and start shaking some hands.
Impeccable technique is certainly not the be-all, end-all of music. Nor is music theory. Plenty of great artists over the years have made incredible music without taking a single lesson, without knowing how to read music, and in some cases without playing their instrument the “correct” way. Fast fingers and an encyclopedic knowledge of scales will never replace emotion or inspiration, and the entire history of innovation and creativity has been largely driven by people who’d rather break than follow the rules.
That said, it’s easy to fall into a counterproductive refusal to ever learn anything new. It’s a natural phase once we feel we have a solid grasp on our instrument – we start to develop our own style (which is a good thing), but taken too far it might mean that we end up stuck in our own bag of the same old tricks (which is a bad thing). Taking up a new instrument, studying composition, or even just learning a couple new scales can make your fingers and your mind start to work in whole new ways.
And it doesn’t have to stop with music. Learn something new about philosophy, or architecture, or different cultures. It might not feel like you’re doing anything musical, but new ideas are potent in more ways than one, and things might feel different when you do finally get back to your instrument.
Onwards & Upwards
Again, these are just some suggestions. I don’t have all the answers, and neither will you unless you’ve exhausted all your options. And while exhausting all your options would take a lifetime (or longer), it’s no excuse for resisting growth, either musical or personal. You don’t have to hop aboard the resolution train to push yourself in new directions; simply keep an open mind and your eyes forward, and some big bright new thing will eventually find you.
See you in the stood!