The ups-and-downs of a creative lifestyle
I’ve got the problem. Really, like THE problem. The artist’s problem, the one that stops us all dead in our tracks, probably the most deep-rooted, stomach-wrenching, ulcer-inducing confidence-crushing disease that I call the PROBLEM. I don’t know if I believe in myself right now. I don’t know if what I have to say is worth hearing. I don’t know that what I write was written well enough. Every mistake is magnified and suddenly VERY significant.
We all go through it, I know. It usually manifests itself in some sort of stage-fright, or performance anxiety. I know guys that have been playing for as long as I have, in the same capacities, that take medication for it – legal medication, even!
How many of my friends have I helped through this? How many times have I watched you play, tell you what you did well, what you needed to improve? How many people have asked for my help – or just expressed this kind of fear to me? How many times have I played coach, and who’s gonna coach me? I don’t know. I probably just need my own advice, my own experiences and my own medicine to get through this – I’ll work it out here, but you gotta promise that this stays between you and me, ok? I don’t want it getting out that I got performance anxiety… Happens to everybody, right? Right?
When I take a casual look at my personal creations, my writing, my live performances, I typically feel fine about them, but when it comes time to take the critical look – I only see the cracks. I see the pressure of production schedules, budgetary concerns, the minutia of arrangements, the details and nuances I’m trying to capture in my guitar work – and that nuts-and-bolts kind of stuff is one kind of pressure – when I look critically, I have to be honest with myself. I don’t put in the necessary hours. I don’t feel deeply connected with the material. I don’t feel… like myself? Is that how I should put it?
In the end though, a lot of it comes down to a few things that I say to people who come to me with these problems.
Once you’ve decided to (I hate this phrase) “put yourself out there”, you have to come to peace with the fact that this is happening. If you falter slightly along the way, you’ve got to push through and keep going forward. In a three-and-a-half minute song, you have plenty of opportunities to miss a note, blow a phrase or forget a lyric. It’s going to happen, and what will separate the amateur from the pro is whether or not you can recover on the fly, and not let it affect the rest of your performance.
The most common trigger I encounter with self conscious musicians goes a little something like this: “I only played two shows last year, and one of them SUCKED. I have a 50% failure rate. SADFACE.” If you rarely play, each performance is a huge percentage of your body of work, which has a major influence on what your general attitude is going to be toward your self-image. I play a minimum of fifteen times monthly, so if a song doesn’t go off the way I wanted, I have another chance. If a whole gig goes south, I’m not bouncing off the walls, but I’ll be ok. If a bad pattern develops… well, I haven’t had to go there recently, but one can still fall into a funk – hence this post.
Learn your triggers and respect them. If I’m not rehearsing regularly, I lose connection with my material, become self-conscious and very sensitive to criticism. If I’m not keeping up with learning new business practices, I become dull-witted and have trouble tracking ideas and it really stresses me out when I’m con fronted with them. If I’m not actively recording, I end up with a slight fear of microphones. See where I’m going? Not doing breeds not wanting to do. Getting out of a spiral is very important, and sometimes very difficult. Understand what you perceive to be your failures to be and address them – ask for help, if necessary. Having a close support structure for your emotional stability could be the fix for what ails you. Other times, you just gotta go play.
Failure is part of the job. If you’ve never failed, you’ve never had to try sufficiently hard enough at something to make it worth your while. Safety is for scrubs. If you screw it up, take some notes and figure out how to do it better. Sometimes we’re going to take long-shots, and when we do, we need to take them boldly and proudly. If you can’t get #3 taken care of, you increase your chances of failure.
If you’ve got problems getting motivated, putting pen to paper, or picking up your instrument, this is the best advice I can come up with right now. I arranged the list in order of external to internal problems – but if you want a more action-oriented, causally connected list, take this:
Play more often – This will ease your fears, and give you a larger body of work – your success rates will increase, giving you a chance to learn how to work through small mis-steps along the way. Do not dwell on mistakes along the way – this will be a direct result of playing more often. The last two (do not fear failure/know thyself) become intertwined with playing more often and reducing the effect of small mistakes. Throughout your performances, pay attention to how you feel. Pay attention in between gigs to what slows you down spiritually. What makes you lazy? What makes you afraid? Being self-aware throughout the writing/rehearsal/performance process will teach you how you need to interact with yourself and others, so that you can feel empowered and energized by engaging in your art.
Hope this was helpful! I’ll let you know if it works for me!
Check this out:
Now, I don’t typically form too many opinions on music immediately after I hear it, or while I’m listening, so I won’t do any real music criticism on the song itself. If you’re a Dream Theater fan, I figure you’ll immediately like the song.
But would you look at that guitar!! It’s freakin’ gorgeous!!!
John Petrucci has the sweetest guitars, I swear. They play forever. And I mean it. You can play on these things for hours and not get tired. Seriously I don’t have much else to say. I just needed to get my fanboy on.
I do a lot of things. I love a lot of things. One of those things is Magic the Gathering, obviously. I write about it on Mondays. What’s up with that?
Well, from what they tell me, a personal blog for an artist should be a place where he should express himself however he naturally does, about things he’s passionate about. Some of you may apparently care about what I do in my free time – or maybe we have a common interest.
So there’s the reasoning. Here’s some resources:
The Limited Resources Podcast is where I learn the most about my favorite formats to play, which are the limited formats. Sealed and draft are the most skill intensive way to play, whereas constructed formats are far more controlled.
Limited formats involve you starting with sealed product – that is, unopened packs of cards, then you end up with a deck. 40 card minimum, usually 2 colors, 23 spells and 17 lands or 22 and 18. The game becomes one of evaluation, deliberation, and attentiveness to what you’ve got, what you need, what you’re opponent had access to, and what each turn might mean for each player’s overall strategy. Super deep.
Anyhow, if you like the game, I highly suggest you check out the show, buy cards at cardkingdom.com and follow the hosts on twitter. They’re good guys who respond to their email more often than I do!
Lately, a couple times per week I have a morning exactly like this one: Wake up at the crack, Nikki’s asleep on the couch with Abby, I get Addison ready to roll, and drop her at school. Aiden isn’t up yet. I got probably 45 minutes before things go off. So I grab a guitar and start writing.
Fitting in some creative time in between tasks is a great way, I find, to keep my wheels greased. Not every Idea is good, not every song gets completed, but that’s how we get a gem – put out a buncha crap until there’s something worth keeping, focus on it, then work it to completion.
In the last couple weeks, I’ve probably run through about ten new song ideas. So far I think that 3 of them will become one new Something Beautiful song (all heavy ideas in related keys that could work well together) and 2 of them will be new Dale Tippett, Jr songs that I’ll need to demo out and teach to Tin Lolita – after I can get a good lyric set together at least.
All this while working on some studio tracks for Angel Anatomy. And directing for 5 active accounts, AND keeping 3 kids from starving/freezing to death. I’ve been asked how I do it, and really the most important thing is having a partner like Nikki, who can trade parent/creative shifts, depending on the situation. She knows how a project can take over a night, and is always accommodating to my work – but I’m not always accepting of it.
There’s a ‘feel-bad’ that I get when she’s willing to take all the kids so I can woodshed on a track or write for awhile. I can intellectualize it, but I tend to make myself rush, and sometimes even push out sub-par work just so I can get back to helping. I’m getting it under control, but I personally need to remind myself that she does that so I can succeed, not so I can just get by.
That’s enough for now – Imma go be a daddy for a while. Stay out of trouble you guys.
Six years ago I took the post of Music Director at Irving Park Baptist Church. Lots of musicians have come in and helped me out from time to time, Jon and Auggie from Five Minus X, Steve Nixon from FreeJazzLessons.com and more recently, my buddy Alex has been doing some Sundays with me. But in all the time I’ve been at Irving Park, these three ladies – Nora, Vicky and Louise – have been part of my core support structure. I spend time with them almost every Tuesday night before Something Beautiful‘s scheduled rehearsals, and they teach me songs that they want me to teach them – I know that’s a little backwards sounding, but it’s a two way street.
Lots of people think church music has to be boring – and don’t get me wrong, it can be – but not if you make the right decisions along the way. Some regular pop, rock and even metal music can get pretty boring sometimes. Maybe I’m talking about Opeth, maybe I’m not. But either way, whenever I engage in a new piece of music, or a new kind of music, I try to figure out what it’s trying to say, how it wants to be felt, and how can I tap into that energy. Sometimes it means I have to reinterpret the song entirely, sometimes it’s super easy and we’re jamming in no time, but either way – choosing to learn music that you don’t have a vested interest in is one of the best ways to really learn your instrument. More on that later, but for now, I just hope you like our song. On Facebook, if you would, of course…
Songwriting is easy. Yes, really, but only sometimes. It can be a rare thing, and you’ll never appreciate it as much as you should. It’s not one of those things that you “can’t appreciate and easy thing until you’ve hit hard times” type of situation, it’s just that those easy ones are the ones you overlook. So much effort goes into a song like Something Beautiful’s Dreams About Your Skin that a song like Nobody told Me, or Not So Blues just doesn’t seem to come to mind when I think about what I’m proud of when I’m asked about what I write.
I wrote that song in pink fuzzy boots and mario pajamas after getting coffee at my starbucks, which is across the street from where I live. I was in a good mood, and it made me sing. Easy job, no hangups. Said something about being single, having it easy and living simply. It took about ten minutes to write and record, and spend very little mental energy on reminiscing on the ease with which it flowed out of me. Some people really like it, but I consider it merely a joke. How rude is that of me? Kinda, I think.
Some other songs can take years to write, and that ever-present feeling of “I’m leaving something unfinished…” in the background is what will make those tunes stick out to me. But you know how we’re always being told to stop and smell the roses? I’m finna do that once in a while. Thanks for indulging me.
Some of them 20 minute songs became some of your faves, or at least big hits… I’m not saying that mine was a knockout, but it certainly was serviceable. It was pure expression of an emotional state, and depending on the listener, it may convey the ease of the moment. Or maybe it’s just a quick dumb song. It may not be a steak dinner, but once in a while I’ll take a jolly rancher.
Count your blessings instead of sheep tonight.
Saw a Billy Collins’ TED talk which was so good I had to watch it again. It includes this poem:
Some days I put the people in their places at the table,
bend their legs at the knees,
if they come with that feature,
and fix them into the tiny wooden chairs.
All afternoon they face one another,
the man in the brown suit,
the woman in the blue dress,
perfectly motionless, perfectly behaved.
But other days, I am the one
who is lifted up by the ribs,
then lowered into the dining room of a dollhouse
to sit with the others at the long table.
but how would you like it
if you never knew from one day to the next
if you were going to spend it
striding around like a vivid god,
your shoulders in the clouds,
or sitting down there amidst the wallpaper,
staring straight ahead with your little plastic face?
Man, this speaks to all of us somehow I think. To me, as a writer, performer, frontman, sideman or punching bag… To you at your job, whatever it is. We got good days and bad. Sometimes we feel like we’re in control, and sometimes we can’t seem to get a handle on a single goddamned thing. I think ultimately, what matters is how we handle the adverse that teaches us the most about our character. As I write, I’m more or less trapped in my bedroom working out how exactly I’m going to be productive from here. Not unhappy, not super glad, but I’m at peace with the moment. Some Days, I’d be freaking out about whatever it was I couldn’t do today, but I’d rather ponder the possibilities.
Struggle through another day, everybody.