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Music

How to Become a Better Musician in 2010

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In a compelling article at Scorecast Online, founder and composer Deane Ogden challenges his readers to take their work and their music to the next level. He essentially asks the question "If you want your business to do better, what are you going to do to have a better business?".

While some people might be worrying about improving their weight or ending their bad habits, the new year is a perfect time for all of us in the Audiotuts community to take a serious look at our work and determine how we can grow and develop as artists. In this article I'll discuss many actions that you can take right now to improve yourself as a writer, producer and musician.

The topics we'll cover:


Write More

The number one way to improve as a writer is to write more. It's frustratingly simple but absolutely true. In her book 'Page After Page', writer Heather Sellers stresses that the most important habit you can develop as a writer is to get your butt in the chair and keep it there.

Take a look back at the amount of music you produced in 2009. Are you satisfied with your level of output, or could you have spent more time creating music and less time on meaningless tasks?

There are several reasons that developing a habit of writing every day is the best thing you can ever do for yourself. The first and most obvious is that the more you write, the better you get at it. It has been noted many times, perhaps most famously in Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller Outliers, that virtuosity requires 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. When you think about it, the fact that Mozart was a child prodigy has little to do with divine intervention and a great deal to do with an intense and strict practice schedule from the age of 3. So if the average skill requires 10,000 hours to become a master, how many hours do you think you've put in to becoming a master musician? How many more hours do you need to spend writing this year to make your music more compelling, more interesting and more meaningful?

The next great reason to write every day is the honest fact that most of what you write is not going to be your best work. It's sad but it's true. For example, if you were extremely proud of one out of every ten songs that you wrote, it would follow that you would need to write 100 songs before you had 10 great ones. 10 songs that you felt were truly reflective of your abilities and vision. If you want to have 100 amazing songs, you'll have to suffer through 900 mediocre ones.

The Beatles had 27 number one hits in America, which is an astonishing amount. But what about all of those songs that didn't make it to number one? There are an estimated 310 songs in the Beatles' catalog, which means that what many consider "the greatest band of all time" still only managed to nail it one out of every 9 times. Similarly from a different angle, Babe Ruth famously held both the record for most home runs and the record for most strikeouts during his career.

Think back again about your music output from the past year. Did you ever find yourself procrastinating or avoiding writing for some reason? Identify the fears and excuses that are holding you back, because you don't want to learn the hard way that you can never get those hours back.

There are many fantastic articles and books about how to develop and maintain the writing habit. Merlin Mann of 43 Folders is particularly obsessed with the subject and one of the books he highly recommends, 'On Writing' by Steven King, is an excellent and inspiring resource.

As Danny Elfman once said in an interview for Electronic Musician, "As a composer, you have to write every day. Period."

Next Action Steps:

  • Count the actual minutes of music that you wrote in the past year.
  • Based on this number, set yourself a concrete goal for 2010. Don't go crazy. If you wrote 30 minutes of music in 2009, try for 45 to 60 in 2010.
  • Achieve this goal by making a habit of writing something every single day, wether you feel like it or not.
  • Read a few good articles on how to establish this new habit and keep it.

Waste Less Time

If you need to spend more time writing, it follows that you need to spend less time not writing. So if music is so important to you, what are you doing in all that time that you're not creating music? Take a good look at your day to day habits and schedule and try to identify those areas that are inefficient or wasteful. Is your life getting bogged down by e-mail, RSS feeds, social networking sites and Twitter updates? Are any of these things really helping you prosper? Eliminate the unessential and find more time for what really matters.

Some excellent free resources for learning how to ditch the clutter and time-wasters in your life and focus on what really matters include:

I am a dedicated disciple of David Allen's book "Getting Things Done". Although the skeptics among you might think the book is intended for "corporate types", not us creative and expressive artists, you're quite mistaken. The book outlines a simple but brilliant system for keeping your life under control and freeing your head from mental clutter. With a "mind like water" you can write freely and openly without being interrupted every three minutes by worries like "Did I remember to e-mail that director? Was that jingle supposed to be sent out by now?". If you're looking for a way to keep your life running smoothly and confidently, GTD is the way to go.

Besides cutting back on the time you waste outside of writing, what about the time you waste when you actually are writing? Audiotuts is a great resource for learning how to be as efficient and effective as possible with your software and gear. For example, Joel Falconer has an excellent series on "Saving Time with Logic 9". I've previously written a tutorial on "How To Set Up Your Workstation Template" which can save you hours of valuable writing time.

Do you truly know the ins and outs of your software? Is your system set up to be as seamless and easy to use as the ideas that pop into your head? If you find yourself wasting time setting up tracks/sends/busses and searching for that one loop you "swear was in there somewhere..", it's time to dedicate yourself to becoming a master of your tools. The initial investment will become immediately apparent the moment you start writing your next piece of music and you're able to get the ideas out of your head and onto the screen with barely any effort.

A great way to learn your software in and out is to look at the Keyboard Shortcuts list. Not only will you pick up the shortcuts for tools you use often, you'll also learn about features you never knew existed. It can be a time consuming process, but so can being inept with your DAW.

Next Action Steps:

  • Identify the major time wasters in your life and take the necessary steps to eliminate them.
  • If you need a deeper time management overhaul check out a popular system such as Getting Things Done
  • Become so familiar with your software that you could have practically programmed it. This means taking advantage of great resources like Audiotuts.

Take More Risks

In order to grow you must push yourself beyond your current comfort level. If you want your music to stand out, it's going to have to be different in some way from anything that has come before. Take a listen through your music and make an honest assessment about wether you are expressing something new and interesting, or simply retreading material that's already been heard a thousand times before.

This is by far the most challenging aspect of being an artist, but it is also the most crucial. Think of your favorite writers/performers/producers and without exception I expect you'll find that they took bold risks to create a new sound or to express themselves in a completely new way. Jimi Hendrix didn't become a guitar god because he sounded like Chuck Berry but because he took risks with his playing and pushed the electric guitar to new limits.

On the flip side, if you go too far and become too eccentric your listeners aren't going to be able to connect with you. You need to find the balance between being on the cutting edge and being on another planet.

The great flaw of the atonal movement of the 20th century music was that composers took the concepts of new and modern too far. They abandoned tonality, and along with it threw out any sense of meter and traditional orchestration. Music become impossible to follow and alien sounding, causing the atonal movement to crash and burn. Successful artists are those who take music to the next logical step, guiding the audience along the way. It's hard to imagine that 'Meet the Beatles' and 'Abbey Road' are from the same band, or even Radiohead's 'Pablo Honey' and 'Kid A'. But if you listen to every album in between there is clearly a logical progression and development of style.

So what are some ways to take more risks with your music? Often the easiest route is to take the opposite direction of what you normally do, or what is currently in vogue. Do you tend to write very tonal and pleasant music? Spice it up with more dissonance and adventurous harmony. Writing with a traditional set of instruments such as guitars, bass and drums? Try incorporating an element from out of left field such as bagpipes or pan flute. Make one decision in your song that feels uncomfortable, such as replacing your guitar solo with a harpsichord solo.

Of course you don't want to be weird for the sake of being weird, but you do want to try out new and unexpected things in order to make your music say something new.

Next Action Steps:

  • Step out of your comfort zone by writing in a style that is completely foreign to you.
  • Incorporate one unique element in everything you write. It could be an unusual instrument, or even something more subtle like a polyrhythm.

Become Obsessed

Developing a level of mastery requires an obsessive level of intense focus and dedication. "Music" is too broad a subject to focus on, but there are thousands of aspects of music that you can devote yourself to. What kind of music would you produce if your sole interest and obsession was on how minor seconds interact with one another? Or if you become completely enthralled in subtractive synthesis?

Artists throughout history have benefitted from obsession. From the autumn of 1890 to the following spring Monet created 25 paintings of haystacks. You can imagine that by the 25th painting he had an inner knowledge and understanding of his subject far greater than number 1 or even number 17. Picasso is known for his various 'periods', in which he was particularly obsessed with cubism or with the color blue.

Musicians have similarly thrived from obsession. Steve Reich has made a career out of an obsession with rhythm and the intricacies of interlocking repeating figures. Philip Glass' music expresses an obsession with pulsing figures that develop by small changes in pitch over time.

Your obsession doesn't have to determine your entire career or even an entire week, but the narrow focus and diligence of become obsessed with one aspect of music can help you develop at a remarkable rate.

Next Action Steps:

  • Find one single aspect of music that interests you and obsess over it.
  • Try to identify the obsessions of the artists you love. Is there a particular chord progression or turn of phrase that your favorite musicians keep coming back to?

Listen

A creator of music needs to be in a constant state of listening. You need to listen to new music, to old music, and to your own music. We'll start with your own.

The most important music for you to listen to is the music you are currently creating. It sounds like common sense, but are you actually listening to your music? While I was working under composer Michael Levine he would often comment that the number one mistake young composers make is imagining the music they've produced and the music in their head are one and the same. They program in a brass line, in their minds they imagine it is soaring and epic, but in reality it is thin and weak. But because they aren't actually listening, they fail to notice the discrepancy. How often have you thought you wrote 'BOOM' when really the listener was only hearing 'boom'?

Never forget to step back and actually listen to what you're working on. There is a tendency for mixers to mix the newest element loudest. For example if you've been working on a track for weeks and all of a sudden you have a new guitar solo, chances are you're going to crank that guitar solo up. You need to constantly be listening to your entire piece, not just listening to the elements that have your attention.

Without becoming vain, listening to your old music can be an incredibly educational experience. Not only can it be comforting to see how far you've progressed, but your weaknesses can become increasingly apparent after you've had time away from a piece. Every once in a while take some time to listen to your old music, preferably the older the better. Rather than remember the process that went in to creating it, try to actually listen with fresh ears. Is the mix muddy and unclear? Do you still mix that way? Is the writing static and repetitive? Do you still write that way?

Of course your greatest growth in listening will come from listening to other people's music. Pay serious attention to the music that you love. What are they doing right? Even harder to answer when you truly love something, but what are they doing wrong?

Try listening to the music from your favorite artists that you don't connect with. What's different about it that keeps you from being drawn in? What would you do differently?

Not only do you need to listen to you favorite artists and styles, but to artists and styles that you're not as familiar with. If you're creating music professionally and are expected to be familiar with contemporary styles, you have to be aware of what's current. It doesn't matter if you hate Britney Spears' music, if she has a new single at the top of the charts you had better be familiar with it.

Next Action Steps:

  • Actually listen to the music that you're creating.
  • Remind yourself to step back from your music and hear it in the same way that you audience hears it.
  • Head down to your local CD store (or click around on iTunes) and pick up two or three albums that you would never usually buy. Then sit down and intently listen, trying to figure out what people love about this music that never spoke to you before.

Invest in Yourself

One of the most incredible things about being a music creator today is the availability and affordability of software and gear that can bring your music to a professional level. Unfortunately the drawback is that you still have to pay for it. If you're a struggling artist barely paying your rent, the idea of buying a new Mac Pro and loading it up with Vienna Instruments might seem like a joke. But the reality of it is that you can't create a successful music career on a nice smile and a firm handshake. Your competition is fierce, and their music sounds amazing. If you're a film composer and your demo doesn't sound as good as the soundtrack to Avatar, or you're a producer and your music doesn't pop like the latest single from the Black Eyed Peas, you're falling behind.

One of my favorite things about Audiotuts is the general theme that it's not the gear you own but how you use it. Even an amateur producer, with the right set of skills and knowledge of their software, can produce amazing music. And I agree with that sentiment - to an extent. That still doesn't excuse you from fake sounding horns and lifeless strings. If you want your music to kick ass, you need to invest in the tools that will take it there. And if that means purchasing the woodwind library that simply blows you away, it might be time to live on Ramen for a while.

Besides the very expensive investment of your studio, equally important but far less costly is an investment in yourself. This includes music lessons, books, scores, CDs, etc.

Unless you're a virtuoso on your primary instrument (and be honest with yourself, few of us are), you can never stop benefiting from studying and practicing. And even if you are proficient at one thing, how much more will your music grow if you can tackle another instrument? If you're a guitarist why not take piano lessons? If you're a film composer, wouldn't it be amazing if you could play your own cello lines? And how much better could you write for the clarinet if you actually new the fingerings yourself? You are never too busy to prevent 15 minutes a day of instrumental practice from benefitting your career.

When was the last time you studied counterpoint, or read a book on studio acoustics? Constantly expanding your library of books on music means constantly expanding your skills as a musician. If you want to become a better musician in 2010, you had better be prepared to invest in yourself.

Next Action Steps:

  • Identify the weaknesses in your gear and software.
  • If you've been considering a new purchase, figure out what's been holding you back and then take the necessary steps to make your upgrade a reality.
  • Never stop investing in yourself. Take music lessons on an instrument you've never played before and expand your library.

Conclusion

From everyone I've talked to and everything I've read, there seems to be a general feeling that 2010 is going to be a good year and that the tens are going to be a great decade. Don't let that sense of optimism pass you by, but embrace it fully! Take the time to assess your music, your career and your goals and devote yourself to the necessary action that will bring you into a new class of musicians.

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