San Francisco BB Family Member Brent Curriden decided to delve into a question that we can all benefit from, applicable to all aspects of our life: How to take it to the next level. Specifically, how to take your music to the next level. We had a fantastic interesting discussion and came up with some solid options for improvement.
0. One of the first things Brent asked us to do as he took center stage was to pretend that “we all really, really suck at making music”. The reason for this request was to ignite the attitude underlying any effective self-assessment. Brent was reminding us to remind to check our egos at the door, humble up, and open ourselves to change and the possibility of improvement. So for all intensive purposes, consider that you aren’t anywhere near as good as you could be.
1. Make an Assessment Worksheet. Brent was trying out this idea with his band, the Lords of Sealand, and relayed his experience to us. He made a worksheet with a series of questions, addressing categories (such as songwriting, arrangements, live performance, composing, recording) separately. The assessment questions are up to you to decide, but here are a few good ones we came up with during discussion:
- What are your band’s strengths? Weaknesses? For example, songwriting is a strength, arranging is a weakness.
- Identify what you’re bad at and work on staying aware of it and actively finding ways to improve.
- Identify your strengths and play it up!
- What are the important qualities that you believe good music should embody, and is your music achieving that?
- What’s good about your music?
- What are you achieving with your music, in relation to fans, shows, personal satisfaction, socially, etc?
- What are other artists doing that you’d like to incorporate? How can you steal it and make it yours? Don’t be afraid of stealing. Be aware of this distinction though: Amateurs copy. Professionals steal. Find a way to make whatever you steal unique to YOU.
- In regards to making a decision whether you should do/add something or not: What would this add to the performance/song/band image/etc.?
- Where do we want the audience to be mental as they listen to our music? How do you want your audience to feel as they walk out of your show? What do you want them to say and think? What impression do you want to leave your audience with?
- As a band, what are your goals with your performance?
- As an individual, what are your goals with your performance?
- Where are you coming from as an artist?
When doing this exercise, make sure to actually write down your answers. There’s a qualitative difference between writing something and just thinking it. If you’re in a band, make sure each band member does it separately and then come together and join your answers. Remember to keep your egos out of it. Listen to each other. Actually listen to what the other person is saying, rather than listening to your internal emotions/thoughts. Don’t take things personally, and work as a team. There’s always a way to make everyone happy. Or just show your music to a kid.
2. One of our BB members, Jordan Vanderbeek suggested this creative writing rubric he would use in class as another worksheet option (might be a better fit for evaluating songs):
- Creative writing rubric: 0-4points
- Write down what’s happening in the piece concretely. No opinions, just the objective structure.
- Write down the theme/emotional content of the piece.
- Point to where it felt most alive, where you connect with it most?
- Point to where you’d like it to grow most.
Another option brought up by BBer Suzanne Yada aka Little Spiral: The SWOT Analysis (used in startups/businesses): identify and examine Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats.
3. Cover other people’s music. Covers can be a great change up in a live show and provide insight to another artist’s creative process. Covers are like the icebreaker in the live show. They can be instantly familiar to an audience, ramp up the energy, and automatically add positive points to your image. Covers can make your show more memorable. An audience singing along to a cover with their friends can easily refer back to that moment. People like different takes on things. Recognize that you’re unique and that your cover will be unique as well. Embrace it.
4. Practice your musicianship. We all know practice is important. But what may be even more important is how you practice. The best music is made when people are working out problems, tweaking and adjusting their sound until it sounds exactly how they want it to. This is the engine of good music. When practicing, be aware of what you want to work on and improve, and consciously work on it. Practice is fixing shit. Practice makes permanent, so make sure what you’re making permanent is exactly what you want. 1000 repetitions may establish your muscle memory, but you want those 1000 repetitions to be correct. Think of practice as training your dog rather than feeding your goldfish (maybe).
Last but not least…
5. Collect your Influences. Learn from the people who have succeeded at it. They will serve as your inspiration, as guidance, as a reminder that what you’re doing is doable, and your goals are achievable. Have a system for your collecting. Make small goals so that you’re accomplishing things. Write a to-do list, but do it in a grid format. The 2 dimensionalities may make it more enjoyable and visual when crossing things out. Take everything as a lesson, and take it one step at a time. You’re doing it because you love it, so be aware of your love for it. Express that love in whatever you do. Even the shittiest things. Then, maybe one day, you might just be able to say that you’re actually quite alright at making music, assuming that we’re still pretending that you suck.