Category Archives: Trying to figure things out

Trying to find a muse

I have a few strengths and a lot of flaws. I try to work on some of those flaws. It seems like even strengths can be flaws 20% of the time. “Attention to detail” is probably one of the best strengths someone can have, but then maybe you sometimes forget the forest for the trees. Maybe you’re a great leader, but then do you work well with others when you need to?

The interview question “what’s your biggest flaw?” becomes turned on its head, because flaws can become strengths. So, I like to reinterpret the question and answer with “Well, what I am working on now is X, because there was a time when that didn’t go so well for me. So now I am working on overcoming that by doing A, B, and C, and I’m tracking my progress.” I think any other answer would be a bunch of unhelpful BS. Why do they ask that question? To see how you deal with stress? Maybe, but I have interviewed a lot of candidates throughout my career, and I have better ways to tell how people deal with stress. The question should be more about self-awareness.

But, as usual I digress (one of my flaws, but also a strength when brainstorming). What I was thinking about this week was about muses. A muse is an external input that can help us overcome our flaws, and bring out the best part of ourselves in a way that allows us to do our best work. A muse makes us more creative, and we can communicate our message more clearly. Sometimes a muse might not be a person, but the most famous muses are people.

Take a look at this list of famous duos. It’s irritating that they included so many fictional characters in the list, but that’s the nature of the internet. So, ignoring the fictional characters, there’s still quite a long list. And they are missing Matt Stone and Trey Parker! It’s hard to keep up. One could also argue that Scott Walker was David Bowie’s muse. In fact, I’ll bet most successful individuals likely have a muse that we just don’t know about. Going back to Matt and Trey, I highly recommend watching the South Park documentary to understand how muses work. Matt is Trey’s muse. There’d be no Trey without Matt.

Are you okay without a muse? Sure, but it’s better to have a muse, right? A muse makes the creative process go more quickly with a more inspired outcome.

So, I’m trying to find a muse for music. Do you have a muse? Find your muse.

Update: After writing this, I talked to my writing muse, Susan. We chatted about this for a while, and we realized that a muse can be one sided. There are other relationship types–roll model, influence, mentor, and others??? What are we leaving out?

Update 2: In the comments, Walter pointed out that I’m probably not talking about a muse as much as I’m talking about an artistic partner. I have to agree with him. A muse is probably better described as an emotional conduit for artistic output. Thanks Walter, I stand corrected!


Trying to estimate the cost, part 3

This is a continuation from part 2.

So previously, I ruminated on how valuable costing is with planning. As you gain experience in calculating the costs of time, resources, and money, you can be more trustworthy and more productive. Your ability to calculate costs improves your ability to make quick decisions and act on them.

But there is one more benefit from costing, and that benefit is personal growth.

When you are well versed in how long it takes to do something, then you can start thinking how to do it faster. Or you can think about what it would take to do it better. You can start asking questions about why it went so quickly or so slowly, why it cost more than you thought, or why you needed more help than you expected. Thinking about these things can reveal some of the basic assumptions we tend to make or some of the details we forget to think about.

In Shiplosion, we learned that we can record 2 or maybe 3 songs in a session, end to end. But we only expect 2 songs. We are a special case because we record everything (but the vocals) live. Then we finish up the vox. It just takes another session to mix it all down. But we know that we have to be able to play the songs flawlessly, and so that becomes a checkpoint before we can go in and record. But we learned this process by trial and error. When we started, we went in and recorded one track at a time. It took several sessions to get everything recorded for a single song. So, we had that baseline. Then we asked ourselves, how can we improve on this? How can we keep the quality of music that we want, but reduce the amount of time in the studio? So, we were in a lucky situation by being a three-piece. This resulted in a pretty major gain in productivity, and we didn’t have to sacrifice quality. And it’s a great feeling to know exactly how long it takes to record a song, and how much it will cost–without having to think about it.

In my previous post, I brainstormed some questions to ask when thinking about what it will take a learn a song. There are a lot of factors! But armed with this information, I can start asking myself how to be more efficient with song learning. For example, one thing I do is get a recording of the song and then listen to it on repeat everywhere I go. It takes a certain amount of patience, but I subconsciously learn the song while I’m getting other things done. I also work on the specific techniques on a practice pad while watching hulu. But other improvements may not have obvious benefits, and so that’s why it’s good to always be measuring your time and resources. You need to know if there’s a real benefit to a new strategy. For example, I learned that I can learn material faster if I just play each song on repeat one at a time, instead of an entire playlist on repeat.

Paying attention to costing can teach you valuable lessons about time buffers. They’re really important! We get so optimistic about what we can do, that we start to feel invincible. But things can and will go wrong. At one Shiplosion recording session, I already knew how long it would take to drive to Guitar Center, buy some new heads, and then drive to the studio. And I totally nailed that, and even showed up 30 minutes in advance to change out the heads. But what I didn’t plan for was the Guitar Center chaos effect. Sure, they gave me the number of heads I wanted, but then by the time I was ready to take them out of the boxes… I discovered that I was given the wrong heads. So, I had to kill that 30 minutes to race back and get the right heads (which actually, they didn’t have, so I had to settle for a mixed set of heads). Obviously not enough buffer.

In Bucharest Drinking Team, when we recorded our first album, we did a lot of planning and baselining to estimate how much material we could record. Those kinds of estimates are important when you’re recording live, because you have to rehearse the material in advance. And you have to rehearse in a very special way, knowing that you will have an unusual setup (unlike any show), and may not have any visual queues. We came up with a range of songs to record, and were able to get through the bare minimum. But we didn’t record everything we wanted, and we had to leave some things out–because we didn’t account for the Herding Cats Syndrome. When you have 12 people in a room, totally having a blast and amped up with energy, it’s very difficult to stay on schedule. But fortunately we had planned time buffer for the “unknown unknowns”, and we had prioritized the work so that we could just skip the lower priority things.

I’ll end with another brainstorm. Do you know the answers? I’ll actually need to figure some of these out for myself. :)

  1. How long does it take to break down your equipment? And to set it up?
  2. How long does it take for the whole band to break down equipment, load it, unload it, and set it up? What if someone is missing?
  3. How long does it take to record a song? How much does it cost?
  4. How long does it take to write a song? To learn it? To have it ready to perform? To record it?
  5. How long does it take to do a line check? Full sound check?
  6. How long does it take to drive to the next city over?
  7. What does it cost to play a show? To play a show a city over?
  8. What’s the monthly cost of being in a band?
  9. What’s the monthly cost of playing your instrument?
  10. What could go wrong with any of this?
  11. How can you improve on all of this?

Trying to estimate the cost, part 2

This is a continuation from part 1.

So, last week I got a little distracted, in my stream of conscious writing style, with listing out a bunch of things that my band, Hidden Number, did for a record release. My intent was to show that there was a lot to do, and how it really helped to know how much time, resources, and money took to do each task. We likely could have done some things differently when it came to the promotional side of things, but I try not to get into that stuff with my blog. And so I want to follow up again with some more ruminations on costing in reference to art.

So here’s an example. If you were considering taking on learning to play a new song, here are some things you might consider:

  1. How complex is the song? How many grooves, how many stops, how complex is the voicing, is there a tag at the end, etc.?
  2. How complex are those parts?
  3. Do I have the technical ability, or will I need to first learn how to technically pull something off?
  4. Can I just sort of wing it in places? How much improv is there?
  5. Are charts provided for me? Or will I need to transcribe charts? How much of it actually requires transcription?
  6. Is there reference audio? Does it actually match the form of the song?
  7. Is there a rehearsal? Regular rehearsals? Sectionals?
  8. How much travel is required to rehearsals and performances?
  9. How much time do I have free?
  10. Will I have to be ready before the first rehearsal? What level of quality is expected from me at various parts of the project?
  11. What level of quality is expected during the performance(s)?
  12. Can I have sheet music at the performance(s), or must it be memorized?
  13. What’s the compensation for all of this? What’s the benefit for doing it?

The more of a beginner you are, the more conscious you need to be about these questions. Conversely, I’ll bet the priorities of these questions change over time, as you gain experience and as your impact changes. I rarely think about this entire specific song-learning process all the way through anymore, so just now I was surprised as I kept thinking of more factors to consider. There are a lot of factors! What did I leave out?

Anyway, sometimes you have to make a quick decision about this kind of thing. You’ll want to trust your intuition on this. But let me warn you: you can only trust your intuition if it’s backed by conscious experience. Otherwise, intuition is just a wild guess. As for myself, I know I forget about some of these 12 questions sometimes, and I’ll bet I even left some off. I trust my intuition on this quite a bit. But I play a lot of live shows. What if someone asked me to compose a soundtrack? Well, back to square one–I’d never trust my intuition for costing that. I’d ask friends about how long it took them to compose a soundtrack, and then I’d double or triple the estimated time so that I can deliver something that I’m proud of. So, I should probably start preparing for this opportunity in advance so that I can intelligently make a good estimate!

Or, imagine you agreed to do a bunch of different things over a period of time. Now the errors in your estimates are compounding. The more you sign up for, the more of a chance that you are biting off more than you can chew, and the more sleepless nights you end up busting your butt. The more varied things you are doing, the more of a chance that you goofed in costing. So, add buffer. In the software industry, I learned to first estimate the cost–and then double the estimate. Make sure you leave room for the unexpected, including unpredictable external factors. And make sure to account for your unrealistic optimism about the difficulty of the project. Because, come on! You want to do it so bad! You want to tell people it will be easy! But it isn’t actually easy, is it? At least be honest with yourself.

Costing impacts what you can sign up to do, but remember this: if you want to have a big impact with your art, then it is almost certain that others are depending on you–and you want to deliver more than you promised, right? Especially when it comes to your fans.

ABC: Always Be Costing.

(Next week, I’ll talk about other benefits of costing, beyond just being trustworthy. And maybe tell some personal horror stories.)

Update: Here’s part 3.

Trying to estimate the cost, part 1

Two years ago, when Hidden Number released our second album, Burn Alive, we wanted to have a bad ass release party. But that meant lining up some good bands, confirming with a good venue, and finishing the record in time. Not so easy, especially considering we were thinking about this before we had finished mixing and mastering. And we didn’t even have artwork. Getting all the moving parts to fit together at the right moment would turn out to be brutal.

We started regular weekly meetings, and we started tracking everything that had to be done to reach the goal. We found an artist, Chris Unruh, who agreed to do an amazing piece of artwork… for free. That meant, he was doing it on his spare time. The best we could do was get a guess from him when the art would be ready, so we doubled that amount of time. Then we worked out how long the album would take to get mixed down. Dean was working tirelessly on the tracks, and so we worked out how long one track took and multiplied that out by the number of songs… and then doubled that number. Both dates aligned. So far so good. Next, we estimated how long it would take to actually raise the funds so we could pay Morphius in time. It seemed doable. Then we worked out when we could schedule mastering, and how long it would take for Morphius to press the records and deliver them. Lastly, we set to work on finding a venue and some bands to play with us.

But there was more. We wanted to sweeten the pot for the pre-orders. So, we decided it was time to release the rules and dice for the Hidden Number board game, which we would include with purchase. More scheduling of how to hand-make the scrolls and dice. And we wanted to include a poster as an insert. Luckily, Calla Donofrio was kind enough to provide a stunning collage. Oh, and we needed to start a mailing list, so that we could have a drawing to give away a free record. Plus, estimate when (and how) to offer up pre-orders with a sample track. Plus, we needed regular updates to the website, on the progress of it all.

Still not enough. How much could we pack into the schedule without going insane? We wanted to give our fans free download codes on purchase of the record. So we called up Morphius yet again, to work out all the custom work to include our inserts and our unique codes. The milestones had to change again. And there were only four of us to manage it all.

Here’s what I’m getting at: All of these costs (of time, money, and resources) were estimated, and there were dependencies. How could we be sure that any of this would work out?

Because we had been practicing. This was our second record release. We already learned the hard lessons of having unknown costs, and so we were paying attention. And when it was something new or unknown, we doubled our estimate. And we checked in weekly on the status of every moving part. Everyone in the band had a job to do.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to pay attention to the time it is taking you to do the important things in your life, to pay attention to the resources that are required, and to the financial hit. For you will be called upon to make predictions. If you are ever in doubt, make sure to build in checkpoints where you can re-assess everything. And don’t create dependencies until you are sure that your margin of error is low. Practice estimating now, so that you will be good at it when it really matters.

Yeah, it turns out that we goofed on some of our estimate for how long it would take to make the record, but we had already built in padding in the schedule and we knew we should wait a little before booking a venue. And then the night arrived, and we had our records just in the nick of time, and we got to play with Smooth Sailing (who did us a major favor there, by the way) at the Comet, and it was an awesome party. We even had cupcakes.

They won’t teach you how to estimate costs in school. So, you need to get started now, before it’s too late. Your job and your art will depend on it.

Update: This is a popular topic, so I’m going to add a part 2 next week. Stay tuned! Thanks for the discussion!

Update 2: Here’s part 2.

Trying to know when to stop

Stopping is lame. And the more we pour our souls into the art, the harder it is to stop. I’m not talking about knowing when to finish a song–that’s hard enough. But knowing when to end an entire project is agony. Looking back, there even were times when it was like I was brainwashed in a cult.

And early on in my life as a drummer, I let some things wind down rather than try to keep them going. I probably shouldn’t have let that happen, but I lacked perspective. And that was painful too. I look back on it knowing that things were actually better than I thought, and so I let others down.

There are so many things to consider. The art, the fans, the business, your own happiness, the happiness of others…. And so I come to the point where I feel like I must quit Shiplosion. This is some uncharted territory for me, because I think that I need to clear up some time for future paying gigs. And I wasn’t feeling like I was inside the music. I love playing the drums on these songs, and have a blast at shows–so, yet again, this is painful and I am second guessing myself. Am I giving up too early? Is this the right long term choice? Am I quiting something on the verge of blowing up? Well, I think they need a drummer who is more at home with the music, so I hope it was right for me to step aside to give them a better chance. Frankly, I think I was holding them back.

I’m just grateful that they took it so well. We had a really good talk about it, and it seemed like we all understood what was what.

Well, I’ve been through this pain enough times now, having played in quite a few different situations, that I really hope this will turn out okay for everyone. As for myself, I hope this recent set of one-off paying gigs will continue to be a regular thing! And I hope that really is the right situation for me. Time will tell…

So the lesson here, is that I think that you need to play in a lot of situations with a lot of different people before you have enough perspective about what projects are really the right ones for you. And then the idea is that you will be able to justify walking away. Otherwise, you’ll leave far too early and regret it later, or you will just be spinning your wheels and wasting everyone’s time.

You are being replaced by a robot

There’s a really interesting article about how robots will continue to take our jobs. Basically anything repetitive is a target for being replaced by robots. The author points out that a robot doesn’t have to be as good as a human. It can be “good enough”, because it’s cheaper in the long term. For large corporations, this is how you compete. In software, automation is what separates good engineers from great (and lazy) engineers.

In the 1980’s, drummers were hit by the automation of digital percussion. A real cowbell was replaced by the 808 cowbell. A more human shuffle feel was replaced by abstract straight time with digital drums. Those changes were good enough for the gate keepers of the major studios and radio. The revolution was not only a new aesthetic of music, but it had the promise of cheaper music production. These days, we look back fondly on much of that as retro. Well, I certainly do. ;)

There are some good lessons here. For one, the digital revolution of the 80s was an example of how anything repetitive will be replaced by automation, i.e. robots. If it’s repetitive, a robot will learn to do it eventually. Today, even bands like Captured by Robots have actual physical robots replicating analog music in a live context. The songs are written, so why not automate them? It’s human nature to solve challenges to free our minds for more difficult ones. This is no different. Nothing wrong with that.

So we drummers have to remember what it means to be a human drummer. What sets us apart. What cannot be automated… yet. So let’s not fool ourselves: the shuffle feel is back in EDM. We’re starting to figure out how to automate the “soul” of a good drum feel. And at the moment, rock music is dying. Jazz has leveled out. Drums are turning into a folk instrument. EDM is the new reality, where one or two DJs automate all of it. We are becoming folk musicians.

We have to be smart now. If we want to play drums, we have to stay ahead of the robots, or differentiate. But how?

Do we learn to play like them? Probably. We certainly can’t be as technically proficient. So then what? Embrace chaos, randomness, entropy? Learn a song quicker than it takes to program for a one-off event? Become amazing performers, showing off feats of strength, coordination, and endurance? Become great improvisers? Write and perform music on the spot? Become seductive in both our looks and personalities? Have interactive performances? What else?

Or we evolve, and become drum robot managers.

Lessons from Louis

So Louis CK is one of the great comedians of our time, and probably other times, too. I just ran across this recent interview with him, that you should definitely check out.

Some things that stood out to me…

This guy is wise. He’s put in his time, he’s learned a lot, and now he’s finally doing well.

Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.

He’s not so much in it for the money. I mean, I’m sure he knows exactly how he’ll spend it. But he’s fine with selling specials on his own website. Times have changed. TV doesn’t really matter so much if you have a bunch of fans who know about your website. So he doesn’t need to sell out, to cash in.

At first HBO was like, “We can’t do that.” And I said, “Well, let’s not do it then.”

And he worked with David Lynch?? Okay, now I’m going to have to find that episode immediately.

Then he becomes a zen master about dealing with press.

I don’t think you should ever say anything that you’re going to have to apologize for later. If the heat gets hot, just let them get mad. How did somebody make you apologize? Did they literally hit you on your body? Let them be upset.

Of course that’s easy for him to say. The rest of us say things we regret later. But on the other hand he’s saying to just be yourself. Say what you believe. If  people don’t like your authenticity, then maybe it’s too much work for you to be what you’re not anyway.

That’s the thing about these famous people. They’re super human. Really, they were born that way, and then they put in a bunch of time and hard work to seal the deal. For the rest of us, we’re just happy to make a living. Even Louis is happy to do that–except then he was destined for much more.

Capturing inspiration

The concept of Flow is a certain intoxication of attention that gives you a feeling of omniscience of your subject matter. Time slows down to a crawl, and you handle many things at once. Your mind is clear, and your productivity is maximized.

There are lots of online articles about how to get into Flow, and how to avoid breaking Flow. Flow is important for artists and engineers alike. It’s a state of mind that is difficult to acquire and easy to lose, but it allows you to create your own inspiration. We all go through rituals to achieve Flow, just like we go through rituals to sleep or to be comforted.

I think that intoxication of Flow is a huge lure for artists, and probably one of the reasons that so many never leave their studios or complete anything. Flow is seductive and addictive.

There are a few other, less common, instances where Flow can occur but may be ignored and lost due to stress or distraction. Namely: during a performance and during a recording session.

I usually blog about things I messed up, as learning lessons. :) But from time to time I get something right. Scary, I know. Not too long ago, I was in the studio with Shiplosion, and on maybe the second take of a song I played this bombastic tom fill with a ton of cymbals on a complete whim. In retrospect, I had finally achieved a Flow state, and the inspiration presented itself in a single second that felt like an eternity, and I made a split second decision to just flow with it, and dammit I’m proud of that drum solo–something I had never rehearsed. (Sorry, the song’s not posted yet, but I’ll let you know)

Most recently, I recorded on the debut Bucharest Drinking Team album, and had another Flow moment (I think it took several takes this time) in a tune where I switched over to the ride cymbal during a brief phrase where the violins play. Again, this was never rehearsed, but it felt like I had an eternity right there in the middle of the song to think about the idea and decide to go with it.

In both cases, I’m pretty darned proud of what happened, and they would have been impossible without Flow.

I’m totally going to work hard to set my self up for this next time, because it was largely on accident. But I think the factors probably include: practice, practice, practice, self-confidence, preparation (i.e. practice), being warmed up, joy, minimized distractions, focus, trust in others, and relaxation. I’ll have to think about what kinds of rituals I can perform to lead up to moments like this. But the key is, that yes we still have to work and work and work regardless of inspiration–but we also need to be prepared and ready to seize inspiration when it does happen.

If you have any Flow rituals, or other examples where Flow was a huge success for you… please share them!

Some good news about lyrics

While driving to the airport, getting ready to leave the big island of Hawaii after an amaaazing trip, I was dreading the inevitable long wait at an ugly airport (being in Hawaii does not do much to improve it) (As Douglas Adams once said, and I am paraphrasing, “In no human language can you find the phrase, ‘As pretty as an airport'”) and so I was already in a critical mood when I heard “One More Night” on the car radio for the zillionth time. That’s when it occurred to me just how really bad the lyrics are.

Like a river to the sea,

I will always be with you

And if you ever sail away,

I will follow you

These are not good lyrics. He rhymed “you” with “you”. And the metaphor is confusing, yet also cliche.  But seeing as I am no longer in the hating mood, let’s look at the good news: It did reach #1 in the US.

So maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about writing good lyrics.

In the meantime, Turn it On is a good song with a good message. And so is Land of Confusion. Good video, too. Really captures the height of the Cold War. Watch it to the end. Hopefully these two songs are how he’s remembered.

How to be creative

Having discovered this amazing, free PDF that charts out how to be creative, I feel like I’ll have nothing to add on the topic ever again. It’s an amazing read, and I highly recommend it. It is by Hugh MacLeod.

Every one of the 26 points has an illustration, so you don’t even have to read much if you don’t feel like it.

This is the kind of thing that should be part of the process within a consistent plan for integrating innovation into our art.