Monday, June 6, 2016


I've been writing these posts every week for some time now. It started as sort of experiment – an exploration of the medium – and then became a routine way for me to think about musical topics, a sort of weekly mental exercise.

After some reevaluation, I've decided it's time for a change.

I will no longer be posting every week. I may post irregularly if I have something to share. Or maybe I'll just start something completely different.

I've become locked into the regularity of this blog, and as good as that's been, it's time to unlock myself to explore new things, and dedicate my time and energy toward something else.

Thanks for reading! Keep in touch. You'll be hearing from me again soon.


Monday, May 23, 2016

To Have an Opinion

To write and play music well, one must have an opinion. As important as it is to be open-minded, that doesn’t mean that one should blindly accept everything heard. To not consider new information and decide how you feel about it is to not have any presence or personality. You might as well not exist.

Miles Davis said it best in an interview when he likened music to food: you take what you like and leave the rest. Doesn’t that make you who you are? We’re not kids anymore – you don’t have to eat your vegetables.

A lot of people think they need to know more – the whole story – before they can decide if they think something is good or not. “I don’t know much about opera, so I don’t know if this one is good or not.” It’s like nobody told them what they’re supposed to think, therefore they don’t. Some people read reviews for this reason, or ask friends for their opinions.

But so long as you’re human and can feel things, you have an opinion. Your opinion may change the more you learn, but nevertheless, you have an opinion.

You mustn’t play how you think you should play, or write how you think you should write. You have to do things the way you want to do them. A lot of people are out of touch with knowing what they like and what they want. And that’s fine. But if you’re not making an effort to find out what it is that you like and want, then you’re not even trying.

Monday, May 16, 2016

3 Unconventional Ways To Write Music

There are many ways to begin writing music. You can begin with one or a combination of the following:

  • lyrics
  • melody
  • harmony
  • a groove
  • a beat

You might start from scratch or perhaps use an element of an existing song that you like. You may choose to begin one way depending on what kind of song you want to write.

I’d like to add a few unconventional ways to begin writing:

  • Set a metronome to a specific tempo
  • Clap or snap your fingers
  • Dance

Let it unfold from there. It may sound a bit ridiculous, but the last one in particular can be especially useful if you’re trying to write danceable music. Sometimes, it can be helpful to start with the end in mind.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Leading vs Micromanaging

There are two types of people: leaders and managers.

As Stephen Covey writes in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, leaders will climb a tree and tell you if you're in the wrong jungle, whereas managers can often get caught up with the "progress" down below. If you're in the wrong jungle, it doesn't matter how efficiently you work.

"Management is doing things right," said Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis. "Leadership is doing the right things."

Which brings me to managing in music. I'm not talking about band managers. I'm talking about how sometimes bandleaders can get too caught up in what exactly their bandmates play, when they should trust them to know the right thing to play.

The drummer probably knows drum parts better than a keyboardist, and the bassist probably knows basslines better than a guitarist. Etc. This isn't always the case, and bandmates should be learning new ways to play from each other.

There are also bands that come with complete parts, and if the gig is to play sheet music note-for-note, that's fine. But if you're hiring someone for their musicianship, it should be enough to just give them direction and let them go.

One of the best bandleaders who did this? Miles Davis. He always had a great band; he knew how to pick the right people. His direction to Herbie? "Don't play the fat notes."

As a bandleader, it's important to have a clear vision and sense of direction. She should be able articulate this to the band and let them do what they do best.

Band members are their own micromanagers. They need to take the information given them from the leader and turn it into music. They should understand how best to realize that vision by knowing what notes to play. It's hard for a leader to see the big picture when she starts to micromanage.

Trust your musicians. When a band member is unable to perform according to the leader's vision, it's usually because the leader's vision is unclear or the instructions are vague.

*That's an affiliate link, which means I get compensation if you click through and buy. It's a dense book, and you should read it slowly. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Value & Price

Most people use money as an indicator of value, but what it’s really about is trade: you trade something for another, and it should be an exchange that fairly benefits both parties. “Worth the money,” as your customers say; “worth the time and energy,” as you say.

(I think “trade” is a better term to use than “compensation.” Compensation sounds like someone is tossing you a bone to get what they want (e.g. exposure), instead of exchanging one thing of value for another for both people to get what they want. It's a cold exchange instead of a fair trade.)

This is another way to say that your level of value should evenly match the amount you charge. But while it’s clear that you can charge more the higher your perceived value is, the amount you charge can also communicate value.

But this is getting confusing. There’s an easier way to think about money: as a way to exclude people when demand gets high but supply (i.e. your time and energy) gets low or remains the same.

Imagine starting out as a musician. You love music. You want to do it as much as possible. You’d do it for free. But then you get better, and people start asking you to play more. Eventually, so many people start coming to you with work, that you have to start saying no. You just don’t have the time or energy.

So how do you decide when to say yes? It all comes down to what’s worth your time. Perhaps it’s interesting projects, or perhaps it’s money. Ideally, it’s both.

Here are three things to keep in mind when setting your price.

1. How big are the pockets? This may seem unfair. Isn’t it fair to just charge everyone the same? Sometimes. But “fair” means something different to everyone, and some people may not be able to afford what you normally charge. How would you feel if you undercharged? Would that be fair?

2. Charge the amount that makes you feel a little uncomfortable. You can always negotiate down, but it’s hard to negotiate up. Growth is never comfortable. You have to trust me on this one.

3. Determine the least amount that you’d accept for the job to be worth it. If it’s not worth the money, you may be better off spending your time somewhere else. Or maybe the job is worth it regardless of the price.

Monday, April 25, 2016

How To Practice #6: Pitch, Space, and Practicing With Your Eyes Closed

When you first begin a visual instrument (such as piano) or a challenging piece of music, it’s natural for one to feel the need to constantly look down at one’s hands to make sure they’re in the right place or going where they need to be.

This is because the person either doesn’t have a good sense of pitch (otherwise she could hear if the notes were right or wrong) or a good sense of space (where the notes are on the instrument).

Pitch and space are important for all instruments, including the voice.

Your sense of space largely comes from muscle memory. Instead of knowing what space looks like, you understand what space feels like. (How else would Stevie Wonder know how to play the piano?)

To quickly test oneself, you might try sitting with your instrument and attempting a number of jumps with your eyes closed. Focus on how it sounds and feels.

Having a visual element to your instrument is similar to playing with sheet music, in that it’s easy to “cheat” and get by without a very strong sense of pitch or space. But you’ll never perform at your best without practicing these.

The knowledge of your instrument needs to be so great that you can sit down and play any note without even looking.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Backup Isn't Extra Cables

I played a show with St. Van Cortlandt at Rockwood II on Thursday, and less than halfway through the set, the house guitar amp started having problems. It began as loud crackling, and got so bad that our guitarist Troy had to stop playing until someone came up and replaced the amp. He wasn’t able to jump back in until the last song. It was a huge bummer, but he handled it well and kept a light attitude.

Indeed, it’s always good to have backup or use your own stuff whenever you can (e.g. extra cables or your own equipment), but his real backup was the band, and that’s where I failed him. (I thought the others did an excellent job at keeping up the energy and filling in.)

Not having the guitar left a few big holes in some songs, holes that I should’ve been able to fill on the keyboard, but I didn’t know the guitar part well enough to fill them all. Sure, it’s not my job to play the guitar part, but “it’s not my job” is the reason why we have BROKEN things (see Seth Godin’s talk on BROKEN).

What will you do if something goes wrong with the drums, the bass, the guitar, or the vocals? How will you fill in? Are you prepared to jam out if the mic stops working? Do you have a story to entertain the audience if you have to stop playing to fix something? Can you compensate for the loss of an instrument through your own?

Perhaps more valuable than having backup equipment is having a band that can handle these situations, a band that is fundamentally solid.

A big part of being fundamentally solid is being able to perform music with the least common denominator, and relying on as little as possible. 

Your value should come from your musicianship, not your ability to play an instrument. You get me? I think of doctors, whose value is in the knowledge, experience, and expertise that travels with them, not their gear or equipment.

Furthermore, a song’s quality should be derived from it’s musicality (i.e. melody, rhythm, harmony); everything else – textures, layers, sounds – is just extra. Like going to a restaurant: sure, the ambience may be nice, but is the food good?

Troy is a musician who knows how to handle the unexpected. He tried everything he could to fix the amp without disrupting the flow of the show, and played in such a manner as to minimize the broken amp sound until the amp was replaced. In the end, when he was able to get a clear sound again, Troy forwent his pedals and played clean to be safe. And it sounded great.