Tag Archives: composer

Getting Better, Getting Pickier, Getting Better…

Ever seen the Web site There I Fixed It? No? Oh, go! Go now and check it out to see gems like this:

That should do it!

That should do it! [From There I Fixed It]

So, I haven’t done anything worthy of that site, but there was a time — early in my new-homeowner years — when I was just clever enough to pull off some questionable DIY feats… and apparently not clever enough to take the time to do things properly. The truth is, sometimes I preferred the wham-bam-done! method because I knew that if I tried harder, I might open a can of worms that I couldn’t handle. Or didn’t think I could at the time.

That’s the funny thing about learning: When you’re intimidated by something, you’re in no condition to learn; you’re too freaked out to handle the challenge! Evaluating your own work is much the same. When you’re unsure of yourself, you’re more likely to accept “good enough.” But if you want to go from amateur to pro, “good enough” never is. You have to raise your standards. And just as with learning, you’re much more capable of pushing yourself when you’re feeling secure.

Until I did it, I had no idea I could do it — and that’s the value of pushing yourself.

So I find this a fascinating chicken-or-egg question: Do you get better at something and then, from that new foundation of confidence, get pickier? Or do you start being pickier and then get better because you’re pushing yourself?

My experience points to the former, but who knows for sure? The one thing I do know is this: Once you discover that you’re able to do better, you’ll never want to go back. The first time I earned straight A’s in my undergrad years, that was it. I wasn’t satisfied with anything less for the rest of my education. But until I did it, I had no idea I could do it — and that’s the value of pushing yourself. It’s no coincidence that I loved all of my classes that semester. You’ve got to love what you’re doing enough to really, really dig in.

So, yeah, better and pickier… I’m not sure “which came first” even matters. As long as you keep things positive and healthy – don’t browbeat yourself; don’t impose unreasonable expectations – this is a great cycle to initiate and stick with. Whatever it is you do, make each finished work better than the last. Compare your best stuff to successful work in your discipline and reset your targets accordingly. Get pickier, get better, and then get even pickier. And whatever you do, don’t get featured at There I Fixed It.

One way to add that guest room you've always wanted.

One way to add that guest room you’ve always wanted. [From There I Fixed It]


A real workout: Reps within reps

I’ve written a lot here in Composing Kitchen about something not terribly flattering: self-doubt. I always just put it out there on the table because I figure if you’re reading this, you’re probably considering (or already) re-engineering your life, and let’s face it: That is scary stuff. You might feel like the proverbial 98-pound-weakling facing one of those sweaty WWF guys.

Me against myself

From the outset, self-doubt has been my most well-muscled opponent. And to hit my goal of a new piece of music every day, I’ve had to wrestle it down every day. I’m happy to say I’ve bulked up pretty well.

Sure, I still get butterflies when I enter my studio: What will I write? Will I perform the parts well? Will I record and produce it well? But over time, I’ve built up much more confidence — faith, maybe —  that I will, eventually and ultimately, come up with something worthwhile.

I think that has to do with reps: just doing it, over and over again.

It’s clear that the types of writing I’ve done the most come pretty easily now. Song form, with repeated sections, causes just about zero jitters. But for the last month or two I’ve been creating the soundtrack to a really sweet indie film called Roswell FM, and although many scenes work well with (and the director prefers) song-style backdrops, other scenes require through-composed music, meaning it has no recurring sections but instead changes moment to moment to support the action/dialogue. Not as easy.

Even so, my work on Roswell FM has been like a mini-study of how this reps thing works. Scene by scene, I gained a little more confidence about each phase of the work: Interpret the director’s comments and my own gut to determine what the scene needs; choose the right musical feel to achieve that; and then compose, perform and produce it pretty close to how I hear it in my head.

Each one of those steps is huge! The nice thing is, though, that in between film jobs I’ve done that last chunk so many times that I’m faster and more skilled with it than ever. And experience leads me to trust that the others — the interpretation part, and the more demanding skill of through-composing to a scene — will also get easier with repetition.

So what’s the lesson here? I think it’s twofold: First — and this one isn’t news — take that big, daunting project that you have in mind and break it down into sub-steps. But then figure out the specific skills required for each step. Are there some skills that you can boost outside of the “big project” context by doing, doing and doing some more, to the point that they get scratched off the list of worries? If you’ve got a screenplay in mind, are you writing something to sharpen your dialogue ear every day? If your goal is a photo exhibit, are you shooting and shooting every chance you get?

Break it down and say, “Bring it on! More reps! The more the better! Grrrr!” And pose like a WWF guy.

Grrrrr.


The Value of Retrospect

I had a boss once who’d say, “I don’t care what’s on your resume. I don’t care what you did before; I care what you can do right now.” I saw his point when it came to certain b-schoolers on staff, but for my own purposes I thought of it more like, “Hey, sweet! Every day is a new opportunity to do something amazing! No baseline needed!”

Yeah, I’m Pollyanna like that.

Well, last week, I gave a talk about my composing work to a class of composition students, several working on their masters’ degrees in composition. It turned out to be a great opportunity for retrospection: how I started, the multiple paths I’ve maintained (so like a Gemini), my graduate studies, my many and varied extra-curricular pursuits, the incredible people I’ve gotten to work with, what about my work has changed and what hasn’t.

The Spreadsheet For Section 2

Evidence that during my thesis composition process, I was clearly out of my mind. In a good way.

Given that my audience would be a bunch of students preoccupied with thesis work, I decided to spend the bulk of the talk discussing my own. When I began preparing my slides, though, I realized that I might have to turn to my not-terribly-consistent journals for details about how I constructed my thesis, because it was 10 years ago. Like a place I used to live, it’s got certain landmarks that I’ve retained and used to navigate conversations about such things over the years: It’s called Name Day and is for electronics, oboe and cello; it’s based on the prose poem of the same name by the remarkable Teresa Phillips; it deals with her diagnosis with bone cancer as a toddler and the aftermath; and it employs serial techniques – the use of external information (in this case, the poem itself and aspects of Teresa’s post-op X-rays) to drive musical decisions. That much, I can recite on command. Any deeper, though…

Because, you know, I’m not crazy about paper at this point; I try not to collect or keep it. And to my memory, I’ve only recently become disciplined about documenting how each of my pieces is put together and especially how it’s performed. I’ve had to, though, because so many of my compositions – in contrast to my thesis piece – use some new/different combination of gadgets than the last; are performed by me as structured improvs and so not typically scored; and are performed once, maybe twice, right after completion and then not again for months or even years. So by comparison, I wasn’t sure how much I would’ve documented 10 years ago about a piece that resulted in a definitive score. What more was to document? And how much of the supporting material would I have bothered to keep?

Chicken Scratch

From the trusty blue spiral manuscript notebook.

But I looked through our bookcases anyway – and was rewarded with the spoils of being supremely Type A (about some things). Each item I unearthed brought a bigger smile and a stronger rush of memories than the one before. There was the original master print, complete with front matter describing the compositional process (phew!). Behind that, photocopies of the original hand-written score. In another section of the same shelf, the abused but still-legible prints of the spreadsheets in which I painstakingly tracked certain details of the piece – one for each of the three sections of the piece, and each one a taped-together tiling of 9 or more letter-sized sheets. Sooooo OCD!

Each of those documents represents hours upon hours of teeth-gnashing and triumph, self-doubt and certitude, and above all, complete surrender to the process. I worked so incredibly hard on it. I can see the spreadsheets tacked to the wall of my bedroom studio, the blue spiral music notebook I carried everywhere for months, and the lights hitting the performers as they took the stage for the premiere. These memories, and what they say about my capacity for hard work and even healthy obsession, could reinvigorate me on the worst of days.

Page One

Page 1. Beginnings, endings, all good.

To that former boss, I’d throw a well-worn business maxim: If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. In Composing Kitchen language, I’d say that retrospection doesn’t have to be a consolation, an indulgence or a crutch; it can be a tool. Knowing what you’re capable of can propel you to do something that’s not just amazing, but even more amazing.

So go ahead: Read over your resume – be it literal or figurative – and then vow to exceed everything on it.

If you’d like more detail about Name Day and/or to hear excerpts,
leave a comment. I’ll be happy to tell you a ridiculous amount
based on my copious documentation.


Two Kinds of Confidence

Five bucks is not much. But it’s apparently just enough.

One of the music services I use, TAXI, works sort of like a “want ads” listing the various types of music currently needed for TV and film projects. It charges a nominal annual membership fee (about the same as a Sunday subscription to the NY Times) and $5 each time you submit a piece of music in response to one of those “want ads.” In exchange, they create and maintain the industry connections and secure the opportunities, and much of the time they also critique the music you’ve submitted with respect to the target use.

When I quit
my primary job,
I cut my reliable
income by 7/8.
Yeah, ouch.

When I was earning more money than we needed to get by, I banged out those $5 submissions like nobody’s business. (In calendar 2010, because I was trying to get established with a specific client, I submitted more than 70 times.) The $5 seemed negligible, and I was targeting my music carefully. I wasn’t squandering money or effort.

But when I quit my primary job, I cut my reliable income by 7/8. Yeah, ouch. Still, though… $5? Big deal.

Then something weird happened. The first time I went to submit something after quitting my day job, I was filled with more insecurity and self-doubt than I’ve experienced in ages. Am I going to come up with anything? What if it sucks?  What if I write a part that I can’t play well enough? What if I can’t get the mix right? Whatifwhatifwhatif?

I’d always been a little nervous before. But this was a crazy new level of horror. Was it actually about the $5 on the line?

I thought about it for some time… and then it dawned on me: there are two kinds of confidence, and I’m transitioning from one to the other.

I’ll be blunt: the first kind of confidence is cheap and sorry, now that I see it for what it is. In retrospect, it’s so obvious: When the stakes are low or nil, that can feel like confidence. But it’s not.

The first kind
of confidence is
cheap — made for
shuffleboard
matches, not
your career.

When I was earning a lot more, the $5 was nothing to me — but more to the point, I had my day job to go back to if my piece was rejected. I had a safety net. That felt like confidence, and I’d been relying on it for years without acknowledging it. But now I know differently: that’s crap confidence, made for cruise-ship shuffleboard matches, not my career.

What’s real confidence? That’s what I’m building every minute that I spend in my studio, every time I re-record the less-than-inspired guitar passage; rework the melody til it really, truly sings; tweak and learn and research and try again until that muddy section of the mix sparkles; and generally refuse to settle for less than my best, every time.

This distinction is a good, good thing! Everything I learn adds to my confidence, kind of like Pee Wee’s ginormous foil ball. And guess what? This new, growing confidence is in my ability, not my safety net. Life shouldn’t be about the backup plan.

Day by day, every new little scrap of confidence I’ve fought for will make it easier to walk back into the studio and know that I will come up with something good.

How about you? Is there a part of your life in which you’re mistaking low stakes for confidence?


August was a whirlwind!

After my first two weeks as a free woman, I posted a tally of sorts to take stock of what I’d accomplished. I thought I’d follow up with a new post covering how August went. There’s nothing like publishing what you’ve gotten done to keep yourself honest and focused.

I didn’t quite hit my goal — one new piece of music per working day — due to some unavoidable disruptions and obligations, but I came respectably close. I’ve also suffered a bit of insomnia. Sometimes that makes creative work easier, but sometimes harder. Generally, I’m hanging in there.

In terms of my spirits, I experienced a remarkable upswing the week I started teaching fall classes at the University of New Mexico. I’ve taught one class per semester since ’08 and just started a second, brand-new class (this was additional motivation for leaving the day job). In short, I enjoy my students and what I’m teaching, and — at the risk of sounding über-practical — I also got a very real bump from the simple knowledge that the second class would happen despite meager enrollment, because it takes a little pressure off the financial side of this whole adventure. And besides, it’s a cool class (Introduction to Max for Musicians)!

So, in a tidy list, here’s what my calendar and email Outbox indicate that I got done — geez, I might have to start keeping a journal:

  • composed/produced nine 15-second “intro themes” for a TV show (no guarantees, just opportunities)
  • signed a contract with a new music library — yay! — and provided two existing pieces from my catalog, wrote another and will be writing more
  • devoted a few days to some needed software installs in the computer-music lab I manage for UNM
  • lost a half-day to getting the house partially re-roofed. Schedule? What schedule?
  • replaced our washer and dryer. Um, yeah; so much for austerity measures. The dryer bit it on our anniversary.
  • wrote new pieces for a handful of TAXI listings. If you’re an active musician or even if you have an older catalog that’s well-recorded, you owe it to yourself to at least look over TAXI’s business and offerings. Check out their excellent forum, which is open to non-members, at forums.taxi.com.
  • met again with a small-business owner about some editing work
  • moved a little further toward being able to work as a contractor for my former employer; the temp agency is still working on my background check. I’m apparently Crazypants McMystery Girl or something, they’re taking so long to vet me.
  • did some enjoyable editing work for an exceptional, local green business — the one I met with in July. Lined up more of the same just this morning. Feel fantastic about this opportunity.
  • did a bunch more editing assignments with that online editing service I mentioned in the first tally; I’m getting the hang of it in terms of choosing assignments that suit my skills and schedule. Good stuff.
  • started the new semester at UNM. I’m blown away, to be honest, by how much I enjoy teaching. Great students + cool topics = tough to beat.

Did I Learn Anything?

Hmm. Well, frugality is fine, but you have to take care of your home and your family so that they can keep taking care of you. I came to the conclusion that after working hard for 25 years at jobs that weren’t always satisfying for the sake of (some) financial security, it is OK for us to buy — for example — a good-quality new washer and dryer rather than used. Maybe not the models we would have bought if I hadn’t just quit my job, but good ones. I mean, really: what was the point of all those years of work if I’m going to lapse right back into my old poverty mentality? Sure, if the money weren’t there, we wouldn’t; but it is, so we did. And we will be fine.

So there you have it — a full six weeks in. The anxiety about this life change comes and goes, but for the most part, I feel like I’m getting into a groove with my new life.

I like it.


The First Two Weeks: A Tally

Since my last day at the corporate gig on July 15, here’s the tally of what I’ve gotten done, working Sunday through Thursday and a little on Saturdays.

  • drafted 2 light orchestral pieces and sent them to a collaborator, who will complete them and submit them for consideration for a reality-TV show (as I write this, it’s Thursday, July 28th, and I might crank out a third later today or possibly Saturday – yeah, that’s cheating! – to cap the week)

    A picture of my new office.

    My new office, complete with love notes and funny pictures thanks to Karen.

  • composed/produced 5 of what I’d call “upbeat light pop/rock” instrumentals and sent them to the requesting music library
  • drafted 1 theme for a local documentary film; the director likes it
  • created 32 alternate versions of approved pieces (9 pieces x 4 alts each). Alternate versions of a piece are basically useful variations on it, for example, without the melody instrument, just the rhythm section, and so on. They’re time-consuming but necessary.
  • completed lesson plans for 3 class meetings of the new course I’ll be teaching in the Fall
  • edited or proofed 13,301 words through an online editing service, for earnings of… wait for it… $163.29
  • received payment for a very quick-turn theater sound design – $150 – and discussed future engagements with the playwright/director
  • began researching how best to sell the soundtrack of the indie feature film Warrior Woman
  • wrote and posted a few blog bits (I like to call them bloggins), including this one at smaCK! (my music tech blog)
  • met with an SEO expert who also happens to be a musician, about helping her organize and structure a book
  • met with an attorney regarding whether to form an LLC for my publishing company, Smudge Creative Publishing
  • met with the fabulous owner of a very cool green business about her need for a good editor; she promised a contract in a few weeks
  • pestered the contracting officer at my former job about getting things in place so that I can contract with them occasionally; haven’t heard back after two pesterings in two weeks.

Clearly there’s not a lot of money being made at the moment. But there is a lot of potential, a lot of little pieces of me getting out into the universe. The production-music thing is a numbers game. The more music – let’s qualify that as “good music” – I have out there, the better my chances that something of mine will be used and create some income, and possibly some momentum.

Also, this doesn’t quite satisfy my target of a completed piece per workday, but it comes darned close, and the alternative activities were just as important. Building genuinely excellent, positive relationships will be key.

What Have I Learned So Far?

Well, for starters, the freelance editing gig takes a bunch of time (for me, right now) for not very much money. I also have to time it very carefully; for example, I can’t take a 7,000-word job in the morning if I definitely need to start composing by lunchtime. Not right now, anyway. Maybe I’ll build speed, but for now, as a new contractor with them, I’m very focused on ensuring top quality at the expense of time and therefore $/hr. And that’s OK. They’re a good company, and I believe in their value to their clients as well as to their editors. It’s just a matter of learning the ropes and building confidence and speed. Oh, and memorizing a few new style guides.

Second, and more positive, is that in all of these ventures I learn something every day. I learned specific music-production skills on Tuesday that I applied again on Wednesday; I learned about some new editor resources; I learned some small-business law (I’ll forget that, most likely…LOL); and I was definitely inspired by the people with whom I met.

I had some pretty severe anxiety on Day 2, but I got through it by doing the main thing I know how to do: work my butt off. I expect these little attacks to crop up occasionally; any healthy, smart person would be a little scared right now.

It’s cool (she says on the outside…).