Day 9: Fear and Challenge, Part 1

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.

Helen Keller

I feel it’s a good time to talk about this as it’s been a surprisingly difficult first week of the challenge, and it’s largely due to fear. I say part one, not because I have multiple posts planned, but because I expect this won’t be my last word on something this huge.

If you are staring down clear and present danger, fear makes sense. Most of the time the fears we grapple with are not clear and present danger. We feel fear for all sorts of reasons, and usually it isn’t because somebody has physically cornered us.


Sometimes we’re just watching it.

Most of the time the threat is something that is built of layers and layers, over years, until it’s a glowing, fearful pearl. Something that started out small. A little piece of grit that couldn’t be washed away, and in attending to it, merely grew the problem.

The fear I’m specifically looking at is fear of failure. Atychiphobia is fear of failure when taken to an extreme, i.e. when we allow that fear to stop us doing the things that can move us forward to achieve our goals. More about that here.

This topic is a tricky one, because no two people have the same parameters of fear tolerance, or failure. What I deem to be failure usually sounds ludicrous in retrospect. It doesn’t really matter as much as the end result.

The two most common triggers:

  • Frequent criticism, humiliation, undermining in childhood
  • Experience of trauma

How it manifests:

A reluctance to try new things or get involved in challenging projects.

  • Self-sabotage – for example, procrastination, excessive anxiety , or a failure to follow through with goals.
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence – commonly using negative statements such as “I’ll never be good enough to get that promotion,” or “I’m not smart enough to get on that team.”
  • Perfectionism – A willingness to try only those things that you know you’ll finish perfectly and successfully.

End result: small output. While that output may have all kinds of lofty theory and narrative behind it, it’s still something small.

“But the [insert painting/piece/sculpture/etc here] was small! This artist only did x and look at them!”

Fine, yes, but whether that’s due to a fear of failure or something else, I generally don’t know. Second, while that’s fine for other creators, I don’t want that. I already have a lot of fear at going into a lot of things I do. Certain things, like classical music in groups, I am callused to. Solo classical performance gives me so much adrenaline my hands shake too much to even hold a pen. The most nerve-wracking performance was at my  grandfather’s funeral, where I had had one day to learn Massanet’s Meditation from Thais. Afterwards, I was ripping up individual sugar packets to make smaller and smaller origami cranes to have somewhere to send the energy. It got weird.

I can’t point to many things in life and call them a colossal failure, yet. What I deem to be failure is not taking the initiative. In that sense, I never took enough of a risk to gain a greater reward. Even though the reality of that failure would not have been egregious. I have a support network, if I can get over myself enough to use it. I can’t control what people think about my choices or work regardless, and either way they’ll have opinions.

Last year I made a private resolution while watching an Art Battle. I decided I wanted to get rejected as much as possible. It was a start. I’ll talk about that more in the future.

I planned a challenge for myself this year that is different from last year in a few ways. Last year the parameters were simple: play violin for 15 minutes each day. That was not something I had done for a long time, and getting back into it was revealing in multiple ways –  not least in terms of my own standards. 15 minutes a day doesn’t seem like a vast commitment, on surface.

Fast-forward one year and I play better now. I’m not at the level I used to be at, but I know more and I am less neurotic about things related to playing. I can say that I’m a competent player, at least. Picking up a violin doesn’t fill me with apprehension because I’m not ashamed of the lack of work I’ve put in.


Well, so far, so obvious.

Doing 100 days more violin would certainly improve my standard more, and would be unquestionably beneficial. However, there’s another area of my work that is seriously below standard: production. That includes structure, arrangement, recording and mixing.

I work on Ableton 9. I had a lot of help for the first release, and I slapped together a release for last year, but only when an imminent departure lit a fire under me. I sent a mishmash off for mastering in The Cage, and embarrassingly, it was 28 individual tracks and about 5 minutes extra drum loops I didn’t have the know-how to move around. The original vocal recording was at the wrong level and had a crazy buzz before Martin worked magic on it. I couldn’t properly quantize the violin tracks.

My lack of knowledge of sound engineering, levels, envelope, instruments, recording technique, mixing and generally messing around with tracks is sloppy and to purpose. I have little visible structure in my work. These are all elements that can be improved.

The main fear is that I won’t be able to hold to this, because I haven’t been able to adequately set parameters. What counts for 100 days of music production?

It’s a mix of theory and practice. Learning the tools and putting them to work. I worry that I won’t be able to use my laptop or use Ableton if I have to travel, etc., but on the other hand, I made it work last time.

So far this week, I have started basic arrangements, loops, sessions, some filtering and effects, built a small drum rack, made a pop filter, recorded drum effects live. I’ve watched a few tutorials and felt less terrible about it. It’s a small thing that becomes less scary with exposure. Even though there are crying jags and times you take a nap or a walk or make the call of making food, even though it might set you behind, but you’ll have more resources, just opening it and doing SOMETHING means you have something more the next day. It’s all just progress.

I once read that progress is like rowing upstream. If you stop, you won’t stay still. You’ll regress.

Go listen to this, then go do the thing.

You’ll be dead longer than you’re alive.


Day 5: Keys 37:88:78


I used to collect keys. They look cool, they don’t take up a huge amount of space, and there’s endless variety. Given I have limited space I don’t have as much of a passion for it anymore. Eventually, I want a wall of keys.

Between my iRig and my M-AUDIO I have 125 keys. That’s a good start. Could say that with my laptop keyboard I have another 78. 203, excluding any house keys.


I spent more time on one instrument yesterday. This time, rather than throwing down notes I started wondering how I could change how it could sound.

So I started looking at a few options. All of the following can be found in this tutorial.

  • Attack
  • Reverb
  • Room
  • Gain

At what percentage does this sound good? Terrible? Do I even hear a difference?

I know what kind of sound I want. Describing it is often difficult because although I feel the same way about sounds as I feel about colours and tastes and touch, I don’t always have the words or bridge for them. Partially because identifying each note in a piece feels like identifying individual ingredients in a recipe, or individual chemical components. I can, but it doesn’t give us the full picture of how they interact. Saying “I’m making a curry” is different to “I’m making a garam masala-ginger-garlic-turmeric-fennel-chili-cinnamon-cardamom-coconut milk-tomato base.” Or whatever ingredients work for you.

The thing is that once I start getting into it, it’s fun twiddling around the sounds and listening to what sounds good to me, but I still need to do more research. I don’t just want to find the sounds I want. I want to be sure that I understand what makes it that way, rather than “I clicked things until this happened and it’s fine.” That’s not learning so much as accidentally a piece. Technically it’s random element, but perhaps a bit too random to me.


It’s not so hard to open Ableton as it was, and changing around the attack, the velocity,  the room an instrument is in, is pretty sweet. It’s like trying to create the taste of an apple synthetically. You won’t get an absolute spot on match to all apples, but you can get an approximation of that organic experience. That said, occasionally when you get an apple that tastes exactly like synthetic apple flavour, it’s a trip.

In this case it would be hearing a grand piano in a room. I wanted it to sound a bit more like the piano I grew up listening to. My room is right over the study where my dad practices piano, and I would go to sleep at night hearing that. It was lovely. I may not get it exactly right, but a little reverb in a constant hall, bringing down the hardness and a few other options makes all the difference.

I haven’t finalised all settings yet, but I will share fully when I have.

In the mean time, what kind of keys do you have?




Day 2: Listen

100 days as a challenge often feels like walking through a snowstorm. One foot in front of the other, no matter what.


Like Jon Snow, I also know nothing, and frequently have this expression. Ah nuts, I also wear all black and call myself a crow.

Rehearsal first with Summerhill, then Ableton. Afterwards, fit in cleaning, stretches, and some sleep. If you’re curious to hear the programme but can’t make the show for whatever reason, I got you.

It’s really weird to think about as a concept – to be in a very dynamic, breathing entity, where you are a living cog and your actions impact a totally different group in very measurable real time. Like in life, but these cues are a lot easier to see.

It’s simultaneously trying to be a machine and the best expression of the emotions that make us human. It’s both restraint and release. To express emotion without strangling the music, and then to make another person feel, remember, know something that might take you years to explain and relate to their experience.

I will likely always be in an orchestra because it’s very clear what is correct at a base level. It’s written there in front of you.

Interpretation, however, is another story. If you want to see a really good short explanation of the difference between reading and interpretation, watch this:

It starts out being about listening, but that feeds into interpretation, too. You cannot interpret if you don’t know how to listen. Proper listening is a full body activity.

If you’ve never seen this artist before, she is one of my heroes – Evelyn Glennie, an amazing percussionist who happens to be profoundly deaf. She teaches people to truly listen. Watching this and her documentary Touch the Sound was eye-opening and made me want to write music where I could hear what I hear in the world.

I plan to write a longer post about listening and a few other things that are seemingly innate and taken for granted, that I have had to re-learn over the past few years.

Ableton was more fun yesterday because things were more easily set up, but I got frustrated early because I was just throwing down notes at random with the iRig keys. That’s something I usually do and then prune out bits until it works, but I think this time I’d like to experiment with working with an actual structure.

Summon worked for that because the whole idea was that everything was supposed to be happening at once. Because that’s how it feels when you’re trying to recover. It’s all too much, too fast, and not fast enough. It’s a swirling mass in your head.

That isn’t a permanent state, though, and most of life is structured. Even if the structure is often broken or inappropriate. Being able to choose your own structure is a luxury.

Day 1: Breaking the Seal

2019-01-07 18.29.18

Part of the reason I’m taking this challenge on is that I really don’t like working in Ableton. I don’t know enough to have some fun with it. So if I force myself to use it every day and just play with ideas, outside of a pressurised environment, that might help.


Yesterday I didn’t do a huge amount. Start small. All commands I use will be for Mac OS, just an FYI.

  • Opened Ableton (!)
    • Preferences (cmd+,)
    • Look and feel
      • Changed background colour from the default to DISCO (way nicer)
    • Audio
      • Buffer size from 32 samples to 64 under Latency
      • This improves response time
    • Library
      • Never collect files on export if I want my laptop’s memory to survive this (saves a bunch of storage in your system)
    • Record, Warp, Launch
      • Changed file type from AIF to WAV format
      • Default warp mode to Complex
    • Built a few MIDI tracks to test out some sounds (scrolled through the list until I found something I liked)
      • Prepared Piano2 Harmonics
      • Harp3 Release
      • Kit-Core Borja (drums)

I used this video, which will probably keep me going all week, because it is an hour of solid gold content:

This sounds minimal, and it is. This is what I could get done in 15 minutes or so. I also procrastinated all day to do this, in that I have certain tasks that have to happen before certain cutoff times. I need to practice violin before 11pm,  even though I’ve never once received a noise complaint. I need to make sure I get groceries for the week, make calls to fit people into time zones, plan for the week ahead.

Drink about 15 years of coffee.

I will say that changing colours on an interface, even though it feels like a silly cosmetic change, does make a difference. It’s similar to the principle that you should always spend your money on good shoes and a good mattress, as you’ll be in either at any stage in time, and you should be comfortable.

2019-01-13 23.34.14

I committed to 15 minutes a day because once I open the program, I spend that amount of time anyway making bleeps and bloops. Yesterday I started drawing with  MIDI in pen mode to make a small hook. Something that might come in after the break in my next planned track. Too early to share, I think. But still. Funky colours make it a little more encouraging.