When to give up on music

I want to talk about those feelings that you’re getting nowhere with your songs. Perhaps you listen to a song on the radio or in a club and just think “there is no way I’m going to be this good”. Maybe you’re having a hell of a time learning a new piece of equipment or software. Maybe the technical side of things has you overwhelmed or perhaps you have plenty of technical skills but your ideas just seem uninspired. Maybe you are feeling like whatever gift you had for this, you’ve lost. Maybe you’ve never felt you’ve had a gift for making music.

It would be fair to say that once you’ve had a few accomplishments under your belt, that your confidence improves. It’s definitely a good feeling to do something that gets attention and a pat on the back (even if it’s from your own hand). Unfortunately,  after the buzz from that accomplishment has come and gone, you start to question whether or not you can do it again.

Maybe your early musical accomplishments were a fluke. You start to wish you could bottle up that formula and pour a little on everything you did but of course if that worked, everybody would be cranking out smash after smash.

Some people become afraid to branch out and explore new musical territory. They’ve got a reputation to withhold and they just can’t fail. This can create long periods of writers block (which is really just the fear of sucking turned into a lack of inspiration).

The fact of the matter is that whether you are a beginner or a veteran, you are going to have creative spurts followed by lulls. It’s natural and is nothing to be afraid of. It’s the natural flow of things.

For me, I’ll just be messing around with a groove and things will start to get interesting. Pretty soon I’ll have added enough parts to make a pretty sweet 32 bar loop. I’ll play this in my headphones over and over getting really pumped about what I’ve made and then I’ll let it be for the nite. I’ll go to sleep feeling confident and totally in flow with my creativity. A day or 2 might pass before I open up the song again & all of a sudden things just don’t sound as cool as I remember. It sounds like somebody came in and messed it up. Next comes the complete confidence crash. All those fears of not being good enough come out. This feeling sucks.

It’s pretty natural to be uninspired when this is the vibe we are bringing to the table day in and day out. There are several things you can do outside of throwing in the towel though and I’d like to discuss some of them. Some approaches may directly conflict with another approach, so feel free to pursue the one that vibes with you most.

Keep Going

Being stuck in the unfinished song syndrome is the point the separates the boys from the men (or girls from the women). With any worthy pursuit you are going to hit a few walls. This is just a way that life filters out those who aren’t worthy of the prize. If you’ve been a quitter in the past, all that is required of you is to stand back up and have another go.

Keep this in mind…

If you haven’t had these feelings of being a failure, you probably haven’t accomplished much.

Roadblocks are actually a way of knowing that you are reaching beyond your comfort zone. I actually look at it as a good thing, an old friend. Welcome it willingly and you can transform it into an allie. It’s those things that feel uncomfortable at first that can be the birth of some of your best work.

Yes, I understand that sometimes you will be in the full creative flow and bang out something great without much struggle & this is something we can always hope for, but to expect this type of flow as the norm is to miss the bigger picture of what an artist is and what an artist does. You have to embrace the bliss and the dirt, the feeling of being lost and the joy of finding yourself again.

In nearly everything you do that is worthy of your time, you are going to lose the plot for a bit. You just want to make sure you allow yourself a breather to recharge if you are running on empty (more on this later).

I have several articles in my blog archives the can help you if you are stuck in “unfinished song” mode. Here is a specific article that you might want to start with:

Finishing Tracks

Curiosity

Chances are you are taking this music thing way too seriously and it’s taking the fun out of creating. One way that I like to recharge my batteries is to pursue curious experiments. For me this usually starts with a “I wonder what would happen if..”. One experiment was to see how many ways I could process one loop through different effect chains to create an evolving part that kept me interested for, say, 15 minutes. This might not turn into a song in the end, but it very well might be a joyful pursuit that might put a few more tools in your creative toolbox. It might inspire you or boost your confidence and at the very best, might turn into a great piece of music.

The great thing about curiousity is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it doesn’t expect or require perfection. Instead it puts you “in the moment” and just allows whatever happens to happen. Brian Eno is known to spend most of his time setting up an experiemental process for music to just happen on it’s own. I like this approach, especially when I am feeling uninspired. I just create a process that allows the music to make itself until I decide to take a more active role in it again (if that even becomes neccesary). Sometimes if you stop trying to control music, it starts to evolve almost on it’s own. You almost become more of a witness to what is taking place.

Think of creative ideas as something that is “out there” in the cosmos. Every idea that can be thought and every song that can be made is already there. You are not the maker of music. You are simply a vessel in which music comes through.

Mozart had a very similar experience of music. He felt that he was simply given full works of music, already completed. His job was simply to get out of the way and write down what had come to him.

When we realize that we are not the makers of music,  we can put more of our focus on getting ourselves in tune with the source of the ideas. Obviously, expressing these ideas efficiently will require some skills and proper tools, but you can always find someone who has the skills you currently lack.

Take a break

The real question is whether you are putting yourself in a state of mind that makes you feel inspired or if you’re giving in to mundane daily habits that are uninspiring. When many of us feel uninspired, we find ourselves constantly thinking about our lack of drive and feeling guilty about pursuing our many distractions. We often try to keep close to home “just in case” inspiration strikes, thus continuing the path of an uninspired life.

A better approach is to allow yourself to quit making music. Take away the option of making music and give yourself a month, 2 months or even longer to pursue other interests guilt free. Maybe you want to travel, or write a book, learn to become a better cook, expand your social network (preferably face to face), or learn a new language.

When you stop feeling guilt for not being musically creative, you can pursue many other aspects of your life with much less resistance. Everybody needs a break to recharge their batteries and many of us never do that. We become convinced that somehow running on dead batteries will eventually lead us to our best work. In reality, if we look at most, if not all,  of our favorite artists, we find they draw inspiration from a variety of life experiences, not from spending endless days in their studio. Allow yourself to quit making music for a bit and fill your empty cup by getting out and doing life. It’s a good idea to keep a notebook and/or a recorder close at hand. When the ideas come back to you, they tend to come on strong.

Work with a partner

I find that working with another person can really help bring out the best in eachother. It’s good to work with someone who has strengths that are your weaknesses and vice versa. I’ve found that I might hit a creative high when my parter is at a low or he can pick up the slack when I’ve hit a breaking point. If you don’t currently have a person to work with, consider finding someone, preferably in your local area. If that is a no go, you can always find someone through the net that you can send files back and forth to.  Although it won’t quite be the same as working with someone in the same room, you can always work with screensharing software which is the next best thing.

When all else fails, allow yourself to suck

That’s right, if you can’t seem to get anything good out of your self, enjoy the process of sucking. See how bad you can make something. Do all the wrong things and enjoy it. Laugh with your inner critic because you can both agree “yes, this is really embarrassing”. Keep going, make it worse! Embrace the suck in you. It’s liberating!

Eventually, you will find yourself enjoying the process and having a laugh. You may even find that you hit a roadblock in your suckiness and simply can’t come up with a way to suck any worse. You might even accidentally do something that sounds good. As you go through this process, you will find that you are in one of the best mental states for being creative and as you are riding that wave, you may even have the drive to open up one of those unfinished songs and push it a little further.

In conclusion, there is no time to consider giving up on music completely…unless perhaps you are these guys….

Happy Music Making!

Jason

 

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