Tag Archives: composing

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.


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.

A Love Note for Valentine’s Day

I’ve mentioned before that when I quit my job last July, Karen and I vowed that we would not let our reduced income stop us from traveling. So we keep an eye out for great airfares and when we see one of interest, we jump on it. This weekend we hit Denver for $39 each way and got a room at a pretty fun hotel (The Curtis). We figured it was an early Valentine’s Day for us since in Karen’s line of work (she’s massage therapist at a nice spa), she’ll come home on the 14th too exhausted to do much of anything.

A couple of days before this Denver trip, I took on a project that required a fairly bleak perspective: a “beautiful but melancholy song, female vocalist, about lost love, feeling lost, etc.” It was due Friday morning, but we were flying out Thursday morning. I sure didn’t want to be the jerk spouse who works the whole time we’re away together. So Tuesday I hammered out lyrics and recorded the vocals, then Wednesday between freelancing and teaching I handled the acoustic guitar parts — the things I couldn’t do on a plane or in a hotel room.

At some point that evening I asked Karen to listen to it. She’s always honest with me about what works and what doesn’t. As she listened, her expression became concerned and eventually almost tearful. She finally took off the headphones and said, “Is this about me?”

I said, “My gosh, no! It has nothing to do with you; it’s just what I had to write for this project!”

See, every relationship song I’ve written since being with Karen has been about her, except this one. And they’ve all been deliriously happy, except this one. How she could think for a moment — when she’s the source of everything beautiful…

Mixing in the Hotel at Night

Mixing in the Hotel at Night. Yes, that's a martini glass.

We left the next morning for Denver. I finished mixing the song in the hotel room Thursday night while she slept. And then I crawled into bed and held her and thought about how lucky I am. Pretty incredibly lucky.

Listen to “All Right”

More from our Denver trip:

Inspiration, Insecurity, and Insane numbers of… goals.

I promised myself (and anyone who’s reading) that I’d get serious about posting weekly because I learn so much by looking back at what and how I’ve done in the last week. I’m a little behind with this week’s post but that’s in no small part due to a bit of soccer mania at our house. See, the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifications have been going on for a couple of weeks now and we’ve been watching. We aren’t fanatics about much in the sports world, but soccer and the Olympics are biggies for us.

Apparently not enough people in the US care about women’s soccer for the CONCACAF tournament to be televised here. I bet if more Americans knew how tight the qualifications were — that of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Canada and the US, only two teams get to go to the Olympics — it might get televised. I won’t complain, though, because we were able to watch all of the US team’s games online.

The US and Canada were predicted to emerge from the eight-nation field with the two Olympic berths, and they did, in that order. The US outscored its opponents 38-0 in 5 games (14, 13, 4, 3 and 4 to 0, respectively). That sounds like they dominated, and for the most part they did. But in the one game that mattered most — the semifinal versus Costa Rica to determine which team would get one of the two Olympic berths — they had the most trouble. They looked nervous, and they admitted as much after the game. In the end, they pulled through, got their ticket to London, and then went on to win the whole tournament by defeating the other Olympic qualifier, Canada. You can see the highlights, which are pretty impressive, at concacaf.com.

Our household fanaticism included lots of Twitter reading and youtube watching of related content. I was checking out tweets by some of the men’s national team players congratulating the women, and I got sucked into Landon Donovan’s stream. I hit a tweet by his amicably ex wife, Bianca Kajlich, of this quote: “One of the reasons we struggle with insecurity is because we’re comparing our ‘behind the scenes’ with everybody else’s ‘highlight reel.’” It’s attributed to Steven Furtick, a North Carolina pastor.

Doesn’t that just about sum it up? We watch the highlights and we see the best moments. But they are just moments. If we dig a little deeper, we hear Tobin Heath, for example, talk about making enemies by deciding not to play for her high school soccer team because she wanted the challenge of training with a boys’ club. We saw tweets berating Rachel Buehler following the 2011 World Cup. We hear Sydney Leroux say that by age 6, she knew that she wanted to play on the US Women’s Soccer team when she grew up, and so left Vancouver for the States (thanks to dual citizenship) at 15 to make it happen — and got booed for it each time she touched the ball tonight in Vancouver. We see video of Ali Krieger making herself keep running intervals after the rest of the team has stopped.

I love these women. And I know that the only reason they make it look so easy is because they work so, so hard.

The US Women's National Team following their win at CONCACAF

The US Women's National Team following their win at CONCACAF

If you’ve really got to compare yourself to someone else, keep it apples to apples. Everybody has highlights, and everybody has bloopers. And maybe every six months of effort you put in will yield just a few seconds of highlight reel — but they’ll be awesome.

Go for it – because you never know.

In the last week, I’ve had two relatively different situations come up that ultimately pointed to the same truth. Somewhat of a long post but I hope you’ll bear with me.

Last week, I was brought into a local ad project – no, not a cheesy car dealership commercial! It’s a beautifully shot, high production-value piece. The production house and I met on 12/14 with our client, the head of a well-respected agency, and talked through his needs. I came away with a variety of ideas and suggestions.

For custom composing jobs, I follow Tom Kelley’s advice in The Art of Innovation: “Prototype early and often.” Why is that great advice? Two big reasons: It helps you home in from multiple angles on what the client likes, and it protects you as the artist from getting too attached to a single idea.

So I promised three to five drafts by the next Monday, 12/19. The first was relatively safe but absolutely usable. #2 just plain didn’t work; I canned it. #3 and #4 had a little more swagger, which the production house wanted, and I liked them OK. For #5, though, I went with a less mainstream style that I personally like, even though I didn’t think it stood a chance with the client. I allowed myself to do what I thought sounded cool, regardless of likely marketability.

We sent them to the client and waited. I thought he might go for #1 or #3 but I secretly hoped for #5; the owners of the production shop thought he’d go for #3 or #4 – but no way #5. The answer came back: #5! As soon as the commercial is out, I’ll post a collage of all four drafts and the final product.

No rest for the weary, though. Later on Monday, the music agency I use (TAXI) posted an opportunity that I’ll excerpt here, w/bold for the key stuff:


NY Ad Agency URGENTLY needs TWO, Fun (but not silly), CONTEMPORARY, Indie Artist/Band-Leaning, Mid-to-Uptempo, Singer/Songwriter or Quirky Band SONGS for 2 DIFFERENT TV spots for a coffee brand’s upcoming commercials. … They need a song that relates to what you FEEL or LOVE about coffee, but your lyric should NOT MENTION the word “COFFEE” IN IT! … Instead, give them lyrics about “getting your day off to a good start,” or “I love the way you make me feel” type of stuff … for the FIRST TV spot. … Submit SONGS about “home” related subjects for the SECOND TV spot. “Home is where the heart is,” “Home is where I’d rather be,” “being home makes me feel good” in so many words. … If you’ve got the PERFECT song for these pitches, they COULD pay as much as $100,000 for EACH placement! …  Submissions must be received no later than TOMORROW, TUESDAY, DECEMBER 20th at 3pm, (PDT). TAXI #Y111220SS


So, yeah, they posted that on Monday, and it was due the next day at 4pm my time. Yikes. Part of me – a big part of me – said, Don’t bother.

For starters, these ad agency listings are pretty high-bar affairs that leave plenty of crushed egos in their wakes. So… I’m just talking about fear of rejection, right? I thought, What if I do something that I know is good and has value elsewhere, regardless of the outcome for this listing? OK – Mental Block #1 vanquished.

Then there was the time limitation.  As little as a year ago, I couldn’t have conceived of pulling anything off in that time frame. But I’d been working on speeding up, largely by not being so self-critical in the initial stages. As composer John Lewis Parker has said, “Ninety percent of composing is having the courage to continue, and being open to ideas.” And who knows, I thought — maybe I’ll start something really worthwhile, even if I miss the deadline. Sweet! Unnecessary Obstacle #2 kicked to the curb.

Finally, I don’t have a traditionally “pretty” voice. I just don’t. But I’ve been wanting to pursue some of these singer/songwriter opportunities – a genre where imperfections can be a good thing, plus I have a solid background there. I’d gotten a good start the week before by writing and producing a piece in one day for a similarly challenging listing. I quit the day job for exactly this kind of opportunity. Am I going to let it pass without even trying?

I decided to find a way. I realized I could take an existing instrumental that suited the listing and write lyrics for it. I set to work that night on the lyrics.  Confession: I find sweet/happy/”crazy about you” lyrics easy; I just think about Karen. Seriously. If everybody had the kind of love and support I have from her, wars wouldn’t start.

The next morning I edited the lyrics a little and then hit the studio. I had five vocal parts recorded, edited and mixed by 2:40. Eighty minutes to spare.

So… the listing requested two different themes; should I try the other? Why not? I took another existing track and wrote lyrics for it. In this case, I got really lucky: Karen and I happened to write lyrics for this song for an informal performance earlier this month, and some of them even worked for this job! I quickly wrote two suitable new verses. I got the thing done and turned in by the deadline. The execution isn’t perfect, but it’s sweet and evocative, which is important.

You can hear both tracks here.

The next morning while at my freelance gig, I got two emails from TAXI that started with words I will never tire of reading: “Congratulations, CK! Your song(s) has been forwarded… .” The songs made it through the very tough initial screening and are now with the NY ad agency. In reality, this just means I’m in the running. I’ve gone from one in a million to maybe one in 20, or 50 so or. But it means a helluva lot more than that to me.

What if I hadn’t tried draft #5 for the local ad? We’d be kicking around something that didn’t really excite the client. What if I’d stopped at “Don’t bother” with the coffee ad? I would’ve just reinforced my old presumption that those sorts of opportunities are impossible, not worth bothering, etc. Instead I set a new, far more positive precedent for myself.

In both cases I told the perfectly reasonable voice in my head to bug off. Glad I did!

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
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?