Be a beginner

Kira, an eighth-grader, has been doing amazingly well learning to play and sing pop songs, to the point where she can do it pretty much on her own now. So, I suggested that she start writing songs.

She said that she had tried to write a song but, "I didn't like it."

I said, "Wouldn't you be surprised if the first song by a beginning songwriter was something you wanted to listen to?"

I have a first song. I wrote it nearly twenty years ago, and I remember it quite affectionately even though I was somewhat embarrassed by it at the time. All in all, there is only a handful of songs from my first five years of songwriting that I would consider performing onstage now. Thankfully, though, I've became a better songwriter, and now there are many songs I've written that I'm actually proud of.

Where's the fun in knowing how to do everything right from the start?I'm still a beginner in other ways, however. Currently, I am trying now to launch a new program that will allow children to explore a variety of musical instruments and games on a drop-in basis. I wish that we had dozens of exotic and expensive instruments and a polished presentation. Instead, it's more like what the above-average kid would own if he were very spoiled by Grandma, with an enthusiastic but not extensively experienced staff member helping out.

But so what? Is it going to be perfect, right out of the box? Hell, no - there isn't even a box. I'm making the whole thing up as I go along. I have to, as Anne Lamott says in Bird By Bird, "write really, really shitty first drafts." I have to just let myself be a beginner, and perhaps Mastery will notice me laboring there in the trenches and bestow a little fairy dust on my endeavors.

I have no reason to think that my project won't work - or at least, evolve into something that will. I have taught many children, and everyone improves. Everyone gets better, even with vanishingly small amounts of effort in some cases. So I feel very confident in telling Kira that her songs will improve. I just won't tell her how long it might take.

In what respect are you a beginner?

Hat tip to E. R. Pidgeon for sharing the Lamott piece.

Finding your inner fourteen-year-old

A songwriter who doesn't write songs

Eclectic Music was founded in the Fall of 2001. I moved to Atlanta in January 2002 and hit the ground running, trying to build my business before I ran out of savings. I took a job waiting tables for a little bit, but I was teaching full-time by June, on my own and as a contractor at a couple of schools.

By 2006 I was fully on my own, and then in July 2007 I brought on additional teachers. That's also about the last time I wrote a song. Well, I wrote one last one after the Red Sox won the World Series that fall. But since then, nothin'.

Songwriting has always been a huge part of my life and my identity, and for me to not write even one song for two-and-a-half years is a really big deal. What happened?

It's not like I haven't been feeling creative. But a lot of that creativity (and a lot of my time) has gone into my business. Eclectic Music, as much as I love it, is a lot like an evil vampire baby.

For some people, running a school would be enough. However, I've always believed that my teaching must be balanced by attention to my own musicianship. These days, I feel very strongly that my challenging left-brain work as an administrator must be balanced by joyful, challenging right-brain work as an artist. So, I gotta get back on the musical horse somehow.


Sitting on the end of your bed

Adult students often have trouble building momentum due to a lack of time and a lack of self-confidence. I tell them the same thing I'm telling myself now: you have to put yourself back to age fourteen or fifteen, before you got your driver's license, before you and your friends were up to anything cool, and well before you had a job, bills, and a stupid incessantly buzzing BlackBerry.

"More Guitar" (detail) by Michael McGillImagine sitting on the end of your bed, back at your childhood home, with a guitar in your lap, just playing the hell out of that thing. There you are for hours upon hours, muscling through the physical pain and the lack of any clue what you are doing, with brazen, cocksure determination. "Of course I can do this. Keith Richards/Johnny Ramone/Kurt Cobain/Billie Joe Armstrong/Jack White/Taylor Swift can do this."

Now, sitting on the end of your current bed or piano bench or whatever, put yourself in that same place, even if you only have ten minutes. Find your inner fourteen-year-old, and you will start to silence all the inner noise about how you're too old and you have more important things you should be doing.

If you are fourteen (or younger), you only have to silence your phone and log out of Facebook, and you'll be in the zone.



Obviously, this all works better if you give it hours, not minutes. This will not be possible or practical for everyone, but for me right now it's a must. This week I'm on Spring Break, so once I'm in the right place emotionally, I'm going to do what I did in high school and dive in completely: musical immersion.

My goal is to have four three-hour sessions this week. It's okay with me if my songwriting dry spell continues during this period - I just want to build up a little momentum. I want to get back to that place - that delicious, timeless Eden - where music was on my mind constantly and it was all that mattered to me. I feel that way when I hear a great song or play drums with The Omnivores, but it's not often enough to create the momentum to create.

If, each day, I could taste a little more of that freedom and expansiveness offered me by my inner fourteen-year-old, I might have the emotional energy to get through the pile of emails that is no doubt piling up as I write this. Or I might not even bother, and not care, and just go write a song.

"Sweet Little Sixteen, she's got the grown-up blues.
Tight dresses an' lipstick, she's sportin' high-heel shoes.
Oh, but tomorrow mornin' she'll have to change her trend.
And be sweet sixteen an' back in class again."

-Chuck Berry

How do you know if you'll get better?

Times are tough. Sometimes, it has nothing to do with the times - it's me. It's my own private struggle.

Like right now. My business, my school, has been growing at a good clip for the past couple of years, but each phase of growth brings new challenges. There have been so many times when it felt like I couldn't keep going, that it wasn't worth it. Now is one of those times.

In my former studio at Virginia-Highland Church, January 2007Every time I've come to what seemed like a dead end, I decided to keep on pushing through. It's been painful, grueling, exhilarating, and I still can't say whether it's been worth it. I still don't know how it will turn out. I do know that I'm learning a lot, and that every time I think I can't work harder than I'm already working, I discover grimly that it is possible.

This business experience definitely parallels my musical experience. A student recently asked me, "How do I know if I'll improve?" He was working on songwriting. I had told him, "keep writing songs, and eventually you'll write good ones."

"But how can I be sure my songs will actually get better?"

"That's a very good question," I said. "But, I mean, how can you not get better? You're working so hard on this in a focused way. It's inevitable that you'll succeed."

I pointed out to him that by coming to a music lesson each week, he is opening himself up to input from another person. Without that input, his songs might stay the same, but being open to the influence of an outside perspective will allow his work to change and progress.

I do the same in my career - I consult with trusted advisors (of which I'm fortunate to have many), read The Dip and other brilliant books over and over again, and listen a little harder to what my business is telling me. And I keep going.

Be open to the wisdom of others, and keep at it. You can't help but get better, in music and in life.

As for me: I'm going to continue pushing through my discouragement, fear, resentment, and confusion. I'll follow some good advice and visualize a desirable outcome for myself. A better existence is in my crosshairs, and I do have the tools to get there. I'll let you know how it goes.