What’s your process?

I’ve abandoned listing these as days.

My process is mainly movement and memory. Or to put it another way, I don’t really have one.

Usually I try to build what I can, struggle, equivocate, go for walks, try to think and think and practice. Sometimes I’m just sitting at a keyboard coming up with the same variations on a theme that don’t quite work.

The issue, partly, is because I am trying to do everything at once. Lyrics, melody, arrangement. Ideas are emergent. Words aren’t so hard for me, but they also aren’t something I can control. They manifest, usually like a wave breaking, and usually they’re made up of a peak of many moments or ideas or things I’ve read. With some elements I need to  be more formulaic. Writing chords helps me but I forget to modulate and I find it hard to wrap my head around traditional songwriting. I should adhere to it more often but a lot of the time I find my words don’t fit. The thing is to me that my words take precedence so I find a form to fit them where I can.

When I don’t have any ideas, or feel I don’t, I remember Henry Miller’s line, when you cannot write, you can work. So I do. Scales, etudes, drills, ups downs until my brain goes I’M SO BORED I WANT TO DO SOMETHING COOL and then it makes a different effort. Bach doodled up and down scales over and over again, week by week, and had an entire cottage industry of Bachs to write it down. I’m splitting the difference between Johann Christian and Johann Sebastian here.

Every time I write something I don’t fully grasp what it is I’m doing, but it is more a signpost on something I need to develop. I only realise it fully when it is finished. Summon was about summoning courage that I didn’t have, in a way I had never tried to, up until that point.  I could see the outlines of the idea, but not grasp it utterly. Valentine was about trying to remember what I loved about connecting to a person, mentally, physically, because I do not feel very much romantically anymore. It feels comfortably numb. I somewhat prefer it because it is less distraction, but I wonder how much I need to worry, whether it is permanent or transitory as a state, and how that will affect the rest of my life.

This is one reason why I need to be extremely physically active. My thoughts move as I do and they only reach a conclusion or reference point as I bring them to that. Most of the time it takes frustratingly long and my output level bothers me intensely. But I also know that while I am trying to balance as much as I can, there will be trade-offs.

This is why I am constantly on the move, and constantly trying to cram in as much information into my head as I possibly can. I see creating work as more of a distillation process, where a lot of ideas and experience gets burned away to create something more potent.

I say words happen first but that isn’t even a constant. I am not formally trained with chord instruments, which means that a lot of this is challenging to me. When you are used to learning a solo/rhythm instrument (violin/vocals) it is not always easy to recalibrate.

Yes, whine. BUT I am trying to learn as much as I can,  while trying to do as much as I can. I need to fail, but also insure myself so that a fall isn’t a bad break. There’s the balance.

That said, you only need to get up one more time than you fall to count it a success.


Day 76: Write out your worries/looking back

I landed back in on Friday from a pretty full three weeks or so of travel (and I’m still not finished) and my body promptly decided to fall over and not get up for days. It was a needed couple of days indoors without the sense of immediate packing. I can pack tomorrow.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m just temporarily wrecked. I love travel, and I’m delighted to have got to see the things I’ve seen, talk to people, even play in a new country. Longer post on that later. There’s a backlog!

One thing about travel is that it compacts a lot of your activities. While I continued the challenge during the trips (including falling asleep over my laptop in an airport) I wasn’t able to do a lot overall. That lego-brick feeling of working on something every day can be effective provided there is a defined plan in place. In my case, there wasn’t. I was just sort of flinging bricks around.

The reason for that is I didn’t especially plan anything I did. I had vague goals I set out at the start and didn’t really know how it would shake out – in terms of what I would work on, I hadn’t planned it. I just began projects as I felt like it after the initial one.

I began to realise that in this challenge I lumped a lot of things into one, unlike last year. Last year was just “play the violin every day.” Done. Horrible at times, but done. And improved. This year, it was “open Ableton every day and use it” but also “have material ready by the end of it.” You may notice that both statements don’t exactly get along.

Working in Ableton for me requires multiple elements, of which I am ignorant of the majority. Writing, recording and mastering a track includes, but is not limited to:

  • Mixing
  • Composing
  • Arranging
  • Recording
  • Performing vocals/violin
  • Recording analog instruments
  • MIDI effects
  • Creating beats
  • Mastering

This sums it up:


Cripes, before today I couldn’t even split a damn track. TODAY.

So some of my goals were unrealistic. BUT I have still been learning a lot. Video of the day – I love this. It’s a professional talking about what they love (production) and the ways they make it better. It reminds me of some of the workshops I attended at RAC, where you get into the levels of a track, or a home studio, in much greater depth.

Point to all of this is I’m realising that this challenge won’t be over in 100 days. A lot of my approach to this needs to change because I am in new territory. As well, that my original conception of “done” might not match my current one. I am still recording and working, don’t get me wrong, but I’m trying to grasp more of this.

Before I started looking at this challenge, I was a classically trained and not terribly dedicated musician. I could improvise enough and play by ear that I was able to perform live music in different genres without a serious change in trajectory. I played orchestras, but never performed more than cursory analysis, more focusing on my own part. Which, for violins, is usually a LOT of notes that you have to play the same as everybody around you, without rushing or dragging the group, but also providing that subtle calm tension to hold it together. (Ever seen a violin section start rushing a fast part of a symphony? That’s the herd panicking.)

Since I started trying to write music, I went from Cubase to a hiatus to GarageBand to Ableton 9. Back in the day I worked with Cubase for my Master’s and actually found it easier at the time, but to be fair all I was really doing was dragging and dropping sections around and recording some stuff. I thought I could tack on “mastering” to describing my project role, and a fellow student, who had actually done sound engineering, rightfully laughed at me.

The thing is that I’ve been trying to learn multiple disciplines at the same time. Which means that the actual tally of learning in each discipline is going to be low overall, shallow knowledge over a broad surface area. A puddle of achievement, if you will.

(why does that sound wrong)

I came to some of these conclusions early on, but they became extremely apparent when I decided to write out my worries about this. I’ve been feeling a bit cruddy mentally as well as physically, and I wanted to find out why. So I started to write out the things I don’t think are good enough or that I’m stressing about, to see firstly what I can and cannot control. Because if I can’t control it, then worrying about it is just a waste of energy I could spend worrying on something else. Or anything else.

I started writing out “not good at Ableton” and then went hang on, no. What exactly about it? It’s just another program and programs can be learned pretty simply, provided you have patience and some discipline. They don’t really involve talent in the same sense. So I started to map out all the areas in which I consider myself to be weak. All of those could even roll up to good ol’ fear of failure, and most of those fears were reasonably controllable.

I picked up a book in New York, at the Whitney, called Grit in the Oyster. It’s pretty useful because it’s helpfully colour-coded on failure, discipline, and so on. It sounds fluffier than it is, because usually the people who have the worst things to say about art, are in fact artists. It is useful to flip to random pages and read. But you do need that reinforcement. I did need to do this challenge and find out where I can improve.

Point being is I’m not stopping, but I will be stopping to think and plan better in future. Similarly, I am not going to beat myself up for not having intimate knowledge of every aspect of the enormous discipline I am trying to learn about.

Day 22: I’m never opening a restaurant.

If there’s one thing music has taught me, it’s that no matter how much you think you know, you are one step away from opening a barrel of what-the-fresh-hell-are-these worms.

There will always, always be something you don’t know. Whether it’s an ability to estimate your own work, supplies, equipment, material, skill, programs, something will be overlooked.

At least with music you don’t have a literal fridge full of rotting food. It’s just your brain. And with music you can be holed up working your ass off on new music, or curled in a ball trying to pretend like time isn’t passing, but it’s not a visibly empty restaurant, day in day out.

That said, when you’re not visibly busy, things do start to dry up. It’s like perpetual motion. Looking busy is probably more work than any job. I wish it was listed as a ratio on job descriptions. “You will spend 35% of your day staring fixedly at a screen/making cleaning motions with a cloth/polishing glasses so that people don’t hassle you.” Oh only 35%? Sweet. I’m in. (100% made up statistics based on many, many jobs).

It’s easy to be sincerely busy. Then there’s no time to overthink, but also, there’s no time to market it, to seed more work. “I’m busy, trust me” isn’t really a closer of an argument. Similar to the girlfriend/boyfriend in a different continent. Sure, bud. Light one up if you’re gonna blow smoke.


That said, unlike restaurants, you’re not as dependent on physical suppliers. There are pros and cons to this. One is that in the restaurant business, everybody knows when a place is done. In the music world, you can hang on for years, and others will define whether your work was a success or failure, or even allowed past the gatekeepers. Every musician is a failed musician most of the time, if you take that attitude. The moments of success are just that. Moments in time over a lifetime. You can stop and start.

I am massively guilty of feeling like a failure 99% of the time. And yet I haven’t done anything to be an egregious failure. I just haven’t had amazing success. And even if I had, I would probably compare it to somebody else. Comparisons will just make you vain and bitter, so I’ve got to cut it out.

That and remember not to open a restaurant on my own, at least. What would I even call it?


Day 15: Levels

(Now at the stage where I’m hammering these out where and when I can)

If you record and produce your own work, I have a piece of advice for you. Unless you know your settings, do not try to set up vocal lines and record on the same day.

I don’t know about you, but I take a lot of time testing out sounds and levels and listening back, but that gets tiring. Performing takes again and again is exhausting in a different way. Putting the two together is stressful.

I am a different person when I produce than when I perform. I don’t think I’m alone there. Knowing that about myself that means that I now don’t schedule recording for one day only.  I schedule a day for setup. That’s my process because I know that 1) I have limited time for recording my voice as opposed to my violin and 2) I am still at the point where I get frustrated with my production settings.

My voice gets tired quicker, and my delivery requires certain elements, so I know that in terms of good takes, I have a few before my mood goes off the boil. And also, when I’m listening back to work, the test takes are brutal and I’m glad I can clear those off without fear and leave it nice and clean for the actual recording day.

This is by myself, of course. I’ve found that while in studio with other people I can keep pushing and pushing until I reach what works. I often prefer having an external person as they can be a second opinion on the best take, which is often different to mine.

I also found that reaching out to people who know more than I do is a good call. Zero buzz is less important than actual levels to work with. Same way it’s better to be under- rather than over-exposed. Below is me recording into the same mic, switching around gain and monitor levels, up and down on each. Those spikes are finger clicks because I got sick of the sound of my own voice.

Screenshot 2019-01-27 at 18.29.39

Days 10-14: Commitment. Expectation. Ritual.

Some weeks will overbalance. In those times you learn what will slip between the cracks.

This past week I learned that if I decide I’m clearing out all kitchen and bathroom cabinets in one go, writing probably won’t happen after work. Those trade-offs can be worth it, though. My kitchen cabinets are pretty fantastic and that lightens the mental load just enough that other work goes better. Hopefully. It’s early days yet.

Writing usually takes me longer than I would like to admit. It is usually a few hours, during which I am doing other work and periodically return to add more thoughts, then I edit. It’s rarely a one-shot thing unless I’ve got a pot of coffee next to me. I may even think of a topic I want to explore days or weeks in advance and leave it in drafts, and return to it when the time is right.

As it goes for writing, so it goes for music. It takes me a painfully long time to make music by my (and others’) standards. I need to remember that I am barely past two weeks of this challenge, and that there were 30 days planned in my first sprint. Beating myself up about it is using energy that I can probably use elsewhere.

Over and over in my head the chant is “just do a little.” That’s all it is, because that starting point is the hurdle. Faulkner put it best in As I Lay Dying: 

“I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off, the same as when he was set on staying still, like it aint the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping. And like he would be kind of proud of whatever come up to make the moving or the setting still look hard. He set there on the wagon hunched up, blinking, listening to us tell about how quick the bridge went and how high the water was, and I be durn if he didn’t act like he was proud of it, like he had made the river rise himself.”

I know that this challenge probably wouldn’t phase a lot of people, but it does for me. So I sympathise with Anse. Even getting on every day is a bit nerve wracking, but it’s down to one simple thing: expectations.

I am being unfair in that I am expecting more than I originally set, yet again. I’m expecting not only to improve my knowledge of a program, but to actively and successfully compose while using it, and arrange what I have made. It’s a lot to try for, given my skill level so far (minimal).

So with that in mind, I’m trying to put less pressure on the elements of this project that are less central to the finished product, which is completed, released music. Blogs are fantastic and I do very much want to document what I’ve learned and the choices I make. Ultimately, however, I got into this challenge to learn how to make better music. Maybe the consistent writing should be deferred to a writing project. I’m going to keep doing them as often as I can, but maybe an every day commitment is a bit much, for now.

Part of the issue is that I’m not especially sticking to a theme with this blog. Sometimes I go too technical, sometimes I write fluffy musings on the approach to a challenge in general. It’s that uncertainty that can make it difficult to pitch this appropriately.

In a sense, when learning something new, you have to treat yourself like a client. You both have goals and you’re in this together. Putting unreasonable expectations on either is a waste of time and resources. It’s a partnership to get to where you want to be. Over-burdening yourself with expectation at the start is setting yourself up for failure. I tried to ensure that I wasn’t getting ahead of myself at the beginning of this project, and yet here I am. Got to build and iterate, rather than run through the following thought process:

Alright, got to open this up. Wait, I should make coffee first. Am I planning to do any vocal recording? In that case I should make coffee and some voice-clearing tea. Wait, shoot, where’s my coffee cup? Damnit, I should get this done first. Oh hang on, what time is it? Should I go over rehearsing concert pieces while I’m still within noise making hours? Is that a noise in my building? Are they doing construction? Damnit. OK. Where’s the cable? Oh shoot, kettle. Wait, when did I last eat? Where is my notebook with the vocal exercises? Should I check around for other options? What was I working on last time?

So, shutting all that up is pretty important. Obviously it impacts my progress, if I feel that if I don’t have certain elements in place, I can’t do something as simple as opening up a goddamn computer program. During that worry time I could have simply opened up the program and tinkered around with other stuff. It’s familiarising myself enough with the process that these thoughts have clear answers. Answering those worries each time gets exhausting.

It partially comes down to the need to establish ritual. We all have our rituals that we have before we do certain things. Whether it’s something as simple as styling, a certain breakfast or coffee, little things that help your routine, get you out the door or doing the thing where you feel like yourself, as you want to be. They can help you, or can strangle your process.

Rituals are important, of course. But establishing ritual should not come at the expense of the actual work. Especially if you don’t have a working process yet. Then ritual is putting needless hurdles in front of something. To add to that, not being able to complete your ritual shouldn’t impede the work itself. You have to get to work without coffee? You couldn’t shower? Your hair has so much dry shampoo you’re worried you look like this?


For a lot of things we don’t currently rely on to pay our rent, it’s easy to let those hurdles turn us away. Because they seem more important. For work, we get over ourselves because we have to, because it’s urgent. I want to talk about what is urgent vs what is important in the future, but any work you choose to do is important. Those hurdles can be defeated with the same attitude.

Don’t let ritual strangle your process, even if you are struggling. Some weeks will be difficult and you just have to hold on and trust the work. The struggle stretches time out so it feels like forever, but it really isn’t. Keep note of the actual units of time you are spending. (Again. Two weeks.)

The weeks of struggle are worth it. I have to remember that.

Day 8: Let’s get weird with fricatives

As I work standard office hours, I don’t have a lot of time to record sounds without worrying about noise complaints. Weekends are mine to play with, however. Accurate representation of social life with this challenge:

The fact that it’s -10C out and snowing doesn’t hurt, either.

So, I made a thing! For recording my voice without horrible plosives and fricatives that need to be cleaned out by a more experienced audio engineer. (With apologies to Adam and Martin.)

Brief glossary:

Plosives or stops are consonant sounds that are formed by completely stopping airflow. Stop sounds can be voiceless, like the sounds /p/, /t/, and /k/, or voiced, like /b/, /d/, and /g/. In phonetics, a plosive consonant is made by blocking a part of the mouth so that no air can pass through.

Fricatives are characterised by a “hissing” sound which is produced by the air escaping through a small passage in the mouth.

Affricates begin as plosives and end as fricatives. These are homorganic sounds, that is, the same articulator produces both sound, the plosive and the fricative.

If you’re curious about this, more information here. I’ve never seen it broken down in this way before and it’s also a really interesting way to analyse different accents. For example, implementing or excluding a glottal stop in your speech will bring your accent halfway to a totally different place. For a funnier visual representation, read this.

This wasn’t something I noticed about my accent until I started recording my voice in my apartment and had to listen back. My apartment isn’t too bad for recording and I like that there’s some level of aura in it, but my gods do I have bad plosives.

Usually the way around this is a pop shield. Also known as pop filter, vocal pop filter, pop shield protector. I have a hunch that if you searched for all of these individually they might be priced differently, but I’m not in the market for one I have to pay money for right now.

You can buy a fancy one that clips on to your mic stand, but I currently don’t even own a mic stand. Rather than add to the shopping list and delay myself, I’ll make one and upgrade later.

You will need:

  • Wire hanger
  • Pair of ratty old tights (pantyhose)
  • Small amount of grip strength

The instructions are here, and straightforward enough. Bend the hanger into a rough circle. Stretch one leg of the tights over it. Adjust position and gather slack. Try to make it look like it maybe remembered a circle once.

You can also do this with an embroidery frame, if you’re the type of person to prettily stab something a few thousand times. I respect both of those choices.

Progress in phone photos!

Second-last one ended up that shape because I tried to yank a whole leg over the frame. It doesn’t work out great, as you can see. Better to just tie off the slack at the top and keep tugging around. I recommend ratty old 40 denier tights that you fish out of the back of your tights drawers and the dry cleaning hanger you are least likely to miss.

Cost: $0

Fricative is now going to be my faux-swear of choice.


Day 7: Eat before editing

I was a full wreck so I made a ton of garlic kale mashed potatoes (which counts as colcannon, hooahh) and worked on fixing up drum tracks. Artist life can be thrilling, indeed.

The previous day had me realising that I needed to do the bare minimum and focus on rest. No violin, no piano, no concert rehearsal. Just Ableton, and back to sleep. Sorry, habit streak.

I mention food first in this case, because you should edit on a full stomach. Editing takes time and patience, which is harder to maintain when your blood sugar gets low. Not so full that you’re too sleepy to notice errors, mind. Just not hangry and unnecessarily taking that out on the work or innocent bystanders.

This post was mainly about looking at editing pre-built drum racks, made of samples already in the program. I looked at some tutorials from ADSR Music Production Tutorials for this. I like to record my own sound samples, so I’ll be making a separate post on the fun ways you can build your own rack. It’s fun, and depending on what you use, surprisingly messy and organic. On to the program, though!

So you draw in a few notes on MIDI and on playback, realise that there are weird bits, but you’re not sure which ones they are? There’s a knack for that, where you can turn individual instruments on and off. Similarly, you can impact the settings for each individual drum in a kit. When you play a drum rack, for example, you have a series of kicks, toms, claps, and other sounds, depending on what kind of vibe or style you want. Record scratch? Cowbell? House music claps aren’t the same as Latin claps unless you’re specifically trying to bring that sound in.

It seems ridiculous because you’d think a clap is a single sound, right? Nope. Depending on hand shape, velocity, distance, etc. just putting your hands together can make something sound sunny, or groovy, or thin, or broad. Try clapping your hands together but first at an angle, then aligned, then with the fingertips, then rotate your palms and clap your fingertips to your wrists. Do they all sound the same?


This image search was a surprisingly difficult one to decide. So, so many gif results for “weird clapping”

(I need to move to a different sound discussion before word rep makes me want to scream.)

Each sound has their own specific  colour, and as a starting palette that’s important. However, the colours you choose can be made into something else with the correct effects. Transposing a sound can fit it to your work, so it’s always worth checking before you dismiss a particular kit or rack. You can see that one rack without one specific sound can transform a mood. Alternatively, too many crashes can be massively irritating. When I was working on drums for Summon I kept being too hefty with crashes and annoyed myself. If my sounds are annoying me, then that’s a REALLY bad sign.

A drum rack contains multiple individual instruments. Here’s how it looks when you draw in notes on midi in different instruments in a rack.

Note Editor

Note editor, the red squares mark where I have drawn in notes in Draw Mode. Can also be used with a MIDI keyboard, hence the black/white next to each instrument name.

In a created sample, you can mute the instrument for all chains in the session view and see how it sounds. This was invaluable because I was able to listen and see what should come out rather than turn them off at random and get confused. It highlights which ones play at that point in time. M or S means mute or solo.

Muted Clap Mate

Muted Clap Mate, with a visual representation of the Kick Punch drum sound wave – warp set to default at 2 beats, currently untransposed. 

Learning how to write is important, knowing how to self-edit will save you a lot of time. Especially time spent trying to describe your errors to somebody else, which is a game I’ve enjoyed as long as I can stand. There are enough other errors to catch during the review process.

PS. Anybody wants the colcannon recipe, let me know.

Day 6: Shivers and synthesis

Early start, lot of information. Lot of caffeine and resulting full-body shudders.

Questions: do I try crank this out before going to training? Did I somehow miss a day of working or posting?

I did not, but later I went to strength conditioning and had to leave. I was too tired to keep up, which set off a panic response I was too exhausted to counter. Which means, you cry. It’s not anything more or less than that. I did leave training early, which I don’t like, but I went rather than skipped it, which is what I would usually do when I’m that drained. I don’t know if I made the better or worse decision, but I think the bottom line is I need to take better care of my sleep schedule.

My coach made an excellent point. When you’re dealing with a new challenge, your body takes time to adjust.

New information is exhausting. Changes in schedule are exhausting, and I’ve been incorporating more changes into my daily schedule. Evidently I left out the option for sufficient resting time.

I get edgy about taking time to rest or just watch non-educational stuff for a while, because 1) I am pretty great at procrastination, and 2) because usually there  is always something to do. It’s tough to switch that off.

Wait But Why has a fantastic article on procrastination and it did help me contextualise it somewhat. To use the article terminology, it’s pretty easy to get stuck in the dark playground, where you end up sleep deprived and hating yourself. This graphic really says it all. Bloody instant gratification monkey.

I came back from training early feeling drained and frustrated, but I figured that I might as well work on what I’ve got. So I worked on two items: sends and delays.

Sends and delays were tracks I had seen and never used. You can send a track audio to a specific track that has reverb effects or delay effects, temporarily or fully, one or the other or both. So it’s pretty cool for changing the audio effects midway.

What did I decide to do with this new information? Grab my kazoo. I had promised Precious that I would record a kazoo cover of White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane, and by gum I meant to do it. Given I had made this promise ages ago, I originally thought I’d just record a quick and dirty cover into my phone.


Now that I’m taking on this challenge, my brain started thinking of the session view and how you can use it to create small loops. And then I started listening to the bassline of White Rabbit and realised it was a melodic ostinato, so I could theoretically hum it, loop it, and create a kazoo layer on top.

Then I thought again and figured maybe I could see if I could whack in a really rough drum track.

So long story short this may become a proper cover attempt that people probably will not want to listen to, because what is the max endurance for kazoo? Going to say about one minute, if that time touring was anything to go by. Eight of us in a van, and at one music equipment shop, myself and one other person were so bored we decided to buy kazoos and have a little sing-song in the van en route to the next venue.

Stunningly, we were asked to put them away after a while. Tolerance was probably fairly high at this point, because we had been listening to Fleetwood Mac on repeat, as we could not agree on any other music to listen to.

This is more about learning by finding the fun, as my dad always advises. Even when it seems like a big, daunting task, there’s always nonsense you can fit in.


If you’re at the point where there’s no way to bring some fun into a task, it’s okay to step back.

Example: look at this. This is the circle of fifths and I have the hardest time remembering it. Carolyn Gets Drunk And Eats ButterFlies is all keys if you start at C and read the circle of fifths clockwise. Carolyn Fondles BEADs lists all keys of the circle of fifths if you start at C and move counter-clockwise. Thanks Michael New for that mental image.

Challenges from friends or mentors can work. Silly mnemonics can work. I’m not forgetting that in a hurry.


Not every day will be fantastic. Can’t be. You cry, you barf, you deal, you try and make sure you get some rest so the next day might be a bit better. At the least you’ll be more rested.


Day 4: Paper and Programs

There was a rehearsal mixup for a recording project in February (more details soon) and so I had the evening to get all the things done. In theory.

Did I get it all done? Regrettably, no, but ticked off a few boxes on the ol’ Habitica app. I could beat myself up about how I only do things if I gamify them, or I could accept that that’s how I work and run with it, and not waste time berating myself. Work in progress.

(Disclaimer: I don’t have any affiliation with Habitica, and it’s free. I think it’s useful to share what works for me. It would be nice if I ever got paid to promote anything but I will disclose if that ever becomes the case.)

So, I mentioned how I got frustrated with how I throw notes down at random. Something that happens frequently when I don’t know what I’m doing. Standard pattern of try, get frustrated, not know enough to correct, drop it. Project goes stale and clogs up your computer.

Back up. Back up more. Step away from the computer.

Get a pad of paper and a marker. Or pen. Whatever is comfortable.

Make a broad strokes plan. Sections. Wireframe it out.

If you need to, rip up that page and do another. Thrash it out until it flows.

If you don’t know enough about a program, you can work with what you already know. If all you know is how to put down an overall structure on paper, do that. If you can’t do that, look at examples on the internet.

Similar to sculpture, you don’t start with your intended rock. You start small with wax or clay and work out all the kinks there. Same principle can apply.

The other reason I have to do this is I have one laptop with a 13-inch monitor. There isn’t a lot of visual space to work with and I like to have the work open next to me. I have a miniature easel which I prop the manuscript book on, then I can scan it while I work. It helps.

On a practical note, I’m still on MIDI. I  did connect up my little iRig keys to the system, which has honestly been the most useful little add-on to writing music. It’s small, it’s lightweight and has a few nice little options for working things out quickly. Working out the chords for what I want takes a bit of trial and error and changing around the chord structure has more of an impact on what actually sounds good than the original theme.

For tutorials, I’ve been following Michael New and Marks Piano – PGN Piano. Both very clear, concise and worth a follow if you’re either trying to learn or refresh your memory.

I’ve also been trying to practice the first book of the Mikrokosmos by Bartók (download link to the book). Despite what people seem to think, I never learned piano. I couldn’t generate interest in it, partially because my father teaches it. Now that I am trying to play what is in my head, suddenly I have much  more drive to get it right. So I leave these tutorials on even in the background while I’m doing other stuff, and then try to rewatch them where possible. Some of it is sinking in.


(Writing note: not sure I’ve figured out any consistent style and am currently just rolling with a diary format. After the beast of yesterday, probably best to keep this one snappy.)


Day 3: Why? How?

Two questions that can often present a barrier to learning or improving:

Why am I doing this?

How does this relate to that?

Those questions often have subtext in my experience.

Why am I doing this? often translates to What is the payoff?

How does this relate to that? often translates as How do I relate this to something that matters to me? 

The question of worth and what matters is subjective and often poorly formed in our minds. There’s always the image of yourself as the end product. Smarter, better, slicker, and yet the same age and with the same daily activities, if you even think of those factors. The end image that we have in our heads might not even be true or what we actually want. This is a really good article on the subject, but grab a coffee before you start reading. Specifically it discusses techniques for unmasking yearnings in your life and how they interact. Image from the article:


Fundamentally both questions boil down to is it worth it?

We can’t offer anything except platitudinal assurances to anybody else, because we don’t know how those different values are balanced.

Defining goals is tough. Interrogating your hopes and wants is deeply uncomfortable. Neither of those facts constitute an excuse not to do both.

Setting goals for this challenge didn’t work until I started using my day job to inform my work. Why is that? Because in my job, the work gets done. Why does it get done?

Aside from the fact that I am not currently an independently wealthy person, and need the job, the why and how are answered. Why am I doing this? has a clear answer.  You build in a specific way because it works best with an existing architecture. Music, despite its fluidity, does have architecture and can be addressed in those terms.

How does this relate to that? also has a clear answer. Structurally. It’s not just applicable in databases, or cooking, or even carpentry. All of which I have worked at. It’s because you break a task down into smaller bits that make sense.  You identify the thing you will need first. You work out how long it will reasonably take you to do that, before you can move on to the next milestone.

In music, you have some flexibility on determining your milestones, but I do quibble that certain ones need to happen in order. Whether you think that a melody or beat needs to come first, or lyrics, or understanding of a system, that’s what works for your process. I’m not here to dictate that. What I am here to quibble (somewhat) is how we perceive each.

I propose the following:

  1. Concept
  2. Lyrics/Mood/Theme
  3. Instrumentation
  4. Recording
  5. Arrangement
  6. Mixing
  7. Mastering
  8. Releasing

As a basic layout that’s fine, provided you never care that anybody hears it. Concurrently you need to be working on marketing, collaboration, release venues, dates, cutoff times, studio time if you can fit or afford it, flagging any external professionals you may need (engineers, promoters, publicists, etc). As well as that, you better have budgeted for the track costs alone, before you get to video/promo shoots/publicity/event costs if you decide on any or all of those.

All of these elements are great. When positioned next to a why, they make sense.

Hey, do you want to learn accounting? No? Because it’ll help you structure  your earnings, so you can actually afford new equipment or repairs for your instrument/physio you couldn’t afford.

Do you want to learn the physics of sound? No? Well, it will probably make your beats sound bigger and actually like a real drum, not stock, to give one example.

Do you want to know about chord structures? No? Good luck.

The point is that taking any of these elements in isolation of the bigger goal is myopic. Focusing on how boring the individual tasks are, even though I do it all the time, is counterproductive.

With all that in mind I’ve psyched myself up to work on this better, even if I still have difficulty grasping many, many concepts.

There’s a Bojack Horseman monologue that really kicks the aspiration side of me in the teeth. It’s Princess Carolyn, one of the more driven characters in the programme.

Princess: You want to know what I do when I have a really bad, awful, terrible day? I imagine my great-great-granddaughter in the future talking to the class about me. She’s poised and funny, and tells people about me and about how everything worked out in the end. And when I think about that, I think about how everything’s going to work out. Because how else could she tell people?

Bojack: But it’s…fake.

Princess: Yeah, well, it makes me feel better.

Why did I choose to bring you down to my level? Because this is what it is when you let your aspirations remain aspirations, in your head, and don’t take the steps. Often painfully small, slow, dull steps, to even approach where you want to be. Because it’s easier to remain one or the other and not be in between. A thing or not a thing. Stepping into the bridge between the two is horrible and you feel stupid. Most of the time.

Because we can’t guarantee a payoff. Nobody can.

So, I’ll tell you how you can circumvent that and keep going.

Embarrass yourself.

No, really, I mean it. Embarrass the hell out of yourself. Don’t bother by halves. Be egregious.

Allow me to tell you a story of how I got over myself and started going to the gym properly. It’s not my only or even most embarrassing story, but it was productive. Back to the days of the iPod Nano, which was still more robust than my self-esteem at the time.

I’m on a treadmill, flailing along, and one hand catches the earphones cable and catapults the iPod clear across the gym to the other side. In shock, I hit the emergency stop, and don’t realise that it stops after three seconds, so I also fall off the treadmill. I pick myself up and try walk over to retrieve it as nonchalantly as possible, then return to running.

Five minutes later, I did it again. At that point, I noticed that nobody had even looked up.

Your perception of embarrassment is rarely the same as anybody else’s. The stuff you remember versus what other people remember is rarely analogous. Except maybe for siblings.

So just go for it. Worst case scenario is that you end up on stage dressed as a giant bird talking about your feelings.


What’s the payoff though? And how does it relate to making music? Or anything else?

Very simple. It means you don’t really allow judgement (that may or may not even exist) to interfere with following something you actually want. Judgement and creativity cannot live in the same house, to paraphrase Yanni.

Frankly, the payoff means you stop giving a shit. And that is massively freeing.