My musical background is a mixed bag. Everyone in my family makes music to some degree, so it’s always been in my life. When I was younger, I played bass in bands with friends. This meant I had access to drums, guitars, and piano; and in high school I used to mess around with some basic music software, but I never felt serious about it.
I was used to playing with other people, so when I moved to New Zealand, I stopped making music. It wasn’t something I thought much of at the time, but after a few years I started to miss it, and I realized that it had been a privilege to have the opportunity always around.
I didn’t have a guitar here, and I wasn’t stoked about the idea of noodling around on bass by myself anyway; and after a while I started to think about my past experiences working with music software, trying to write MIDI Pixies covers and poorly editing demo tapes. I guess I just thought, I dunno, worth a shot. So I did some research and found a DAW to work in, downloaded some free software synthesizers, then invested in a beginner MIDI controller keyboard.
That was just over three years ago, and I’ve been making music steadily since then. Occasionally I feel like I’ve made very little progress in that time, so I decided to write this as a list of reminders to myself about how to set my expectations around my work, particularly for the areas in which I’m learning. I’m framing it in the context of music, but it applies roughly to anything. Mostly it’s in reaction to the impatience of wanting to be good at everything right away. That impatience is something I’ve always struggled with, and I want to write down some tips to help me just calm the hell down.
I feel it’s most appropriate to get into now, as I’m attempting to start making a video game, which is an even bigger can of snakes just lurking in the back of the cupboard. Animation! Programming! Sound design! Pop pop pop! Here we go, you big, masochistic dummy. Without some ground rules to stay alert, you’re liable to get bitten.
Keep It Simple
Try to define the feeling of what you’re working on, and stay focused on its primary purpose. Review every move you make, and always have a reason for making it. If you don’t have a reason, put it aside and come back to it. At the end of the project, if you didn’t use it, move it to a backlog if its good and throw it away if it’s bad.
Paint In Broad Strokes
Apply global changes whenever possible. Start at the top and work down. Don’t focus in on the details when one larger change can knock out a whole group of problems. Limit the amount of time spent on any one task — you can always come back to it later.
Reference multiple sources that are appealing. Check your work against them regularly as you go. Reference your own work as well as others’.
This last part is advice I got from a teacher once. Ever since, I’ve made it a habit to keep my own paintings and sketches visible in my work space. I now frequently listen to my own music as well while I’m working; in hindsight, it’s easier to be critical of your own stuff, both positively and negatively.
Apply References As Guidelines
Don’t try to make your work someone else’s — it’ll never happen. And remember that this is a good thing! The definitive and most important aspect of yourself as an artist is yourself. No one else is you, and you aren’t anyone else. Sometimes that can make you feel like shit, but it’s actually your greatest asset.
Throw Everything In
Let wild ideas in to see what happens. Use Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. All the best stuff happens when you’re working freely and openly.
Cut, Cut, Cut
You can get rid of the broken parts later on! This is the stage when you worry about tailoring the rough edges and pulling together the bits that work. Extra ideas hanging around too long can muddle what’s at the core of the project. In terms of composing music, basically don’t spend an hour EQing an instrument unless you’re sure you’re going to keep it in the song. Even then, don’t spend an hour!
Throw It All Away!
Be aware of the fallacy of sunk costs and avoid emotional investment in bad material. That track’s been muted for the last five revisions of the file you’re working in? Trash it.
Listen to Your Intuition
Don’t be dogmatic. Welcome change! If you’re following your usual process, but things aren’t coming together right, change tack. If you feel like a phrase needs that weird, sour note in it, don’t resist playing it. It might be awesome.
It’s Okay If You’re Not Good At It Immediately
Maybe it’s not awesome. Maybe nothing you’ve done today has been great; maybe nothing you’ve done this week has been any good at all. If you keep going, it will get better in time. It takes a long time to be proficient at something. It takes longer to be good at it.
Anyway, as I wrote, this is mostly for me. Getting it down and out of my head has aided my thought process, and it’ll be good for me to have it in writing somewhere. Here’s to making good work.