MUSICIAN'S SURVIVAL project

seven deadly skills

#1

INNOVATION

The most important moment in my life was when I was told I’d done it all wrong.
— my friend

So here we are...the first of the Seven Deadly Skills, and we're kicking things off with INNOVATION.

Believe it or not, this is a skill. Being innovative is something you can work at. Why innovation? Because if we want to stay in work as a musician, we need to constantly think on our feet. We need to spot chances where others haven't. We need to be utterly relentless in our pursuit of new ideas. Not only do our ideas need to be new, but most importantly of all they need to be our own ideas. This is why people to come to you; what you can offer is your currency. If you land a gig, they (labels, management, artists, other musicians etc) want what you have, and nobody else can give them that.

Think of one of your favourite recently famous musicians. Why did they appear to suddenly come out of nowhere, seemingly walking in to all the success in the world? Because they worked their butt off and innovated. They found something no one else was doing and made it theirs. This could be something hugely technical and complex, or it could simply be how awesome they sound playing a groove. Think about how magazines, or fans talk about them…you’ll hear things like “it’s so awesome when he does that thing!”, or “how does he make that sound?!”. Only they have it, and it's what everyone wants a piece of. So naturally, said musician increases their fee and boosts their income because their currency is strong. Since forever, we've paid a higher price for rarer things

I'm going to be using the word currency a whole lot during the Seven Deadly Skills, so let's be super clear on what the hell it means. Currency is your worth. It is your value. It's the quality of what you provide with your service. With every new skill you have, every positive relationship you make - you are adding to your currency and increasing it's value. In real-life terms, ultimately it's how much you can charge someone in exchange for your service. If your currency is strong, people will have no problem paying you what you ask for. 

breaking it down

For this I'm going to use the example of drummers, but it applies to every person on the planet. 

There are a million drummers out there, right? Well there are slightly less good drummers out there. Less still good drummers who sing BVs (backing vocals) out there. There are even fewer good BV-singing drummers who can use backing tracks (computery stuff), play other instruments, and be punctual. And you'll never guess what THERE ARE EVEN FEWER punctual multi-instrumentalist singing drummers who understand backing tracks, turn up on time, and communicate clearly. OH SWEET JESUS THERE ARE EVEN FEWER super communicator, multi instrumentalist singing drummers who can use track and CULTIVATE A CHILLI FARM! …OK so that last one won't necessarily lead to employment but you get my point, right?! When we innovate, we make ourselves unique, more employable, and ultimately earn more. You guessed it: we increase our currency. 

 
It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.
— Michaelangelo, when asked how he created his masterpiece David.
 

you are the sculptor, and the sculpture

Each innovation we make is the result of thousands of thoughts coming together over time. From the tiny thoughts that drift through your mind and leave before you’ve had chance to acknowledge them, to the deeply focussed thoughts we have when practicing. Just think of any innovation as a finished sculpture. While these different thoughts are building, we're chipping away to find the shape we ultimately want to create. However, both those itty bitty thoughts, and the big ol’ juicy ones, accumulate through long, focussed workand countless failures. We’ll be diving deeper in to this in another of the Seven Deadly Skills.

What we know of as 'lightbulb moments’ don’t just let themselves into our head while we sit back and think about the millions we’re about to make. They reveal themselves, slowly, as we graft away through the blood, sweat, and tears. 

ALL THE SMALL THINGS

The system I created for quickly recalling drum sample placements on my Roland SPDsx, having been called for a gig at the last minute. I had a bunch of songs, so did one of these for each of them, scanned them, and banged 'em on my iPad for ease of switching during the show. Small, but an Innovation. 

The system I created for quickly recalling drum sample placements on my Roland SPDsx, having been called for a gig at the last minute. I had a bunch of songs, so did one of these for each of them, scanned them, and banged 'em on my iPad for ease of switching during the show. Small, but an Innovation. 

So the cool thing is, innovations don’t have to be huge! It can be you thinking up a new way to hold your guitar pick. It could be a new way to approach someone you've had difficulty working with. It could be creating a cool new synth sound - whatever! Make it NEW and make it YOU.

Every single person has an innovator in them. Too many people don’t believe it, but it’s part of being human. We all have something completely unique to offer. Who we are and what we feel affects how we soundYour body and brain are musical instruments.

 

Beg borrow and steal

Let's not forget here that we can learn a TON from the innovations of the past. What's the best way to learn from them? Take them. Dive in deep. Pick them apart until there's barely even a skeleton left. Those who came before us sure as hell did it to those who came before them. Climbing inside the minds of those who have pushed themselves to their limit helps us push ourselves beyond anything we knew we were capable of; feeding the beast in our belly that never wants the same meal twice. To be an artist is to have evolving conversations with people we'll never speak to, and WTF is a conversation if not the swapping of thoughts.

 
Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.

— Clark Terry, Jazz Trumpet Legend
 

First we imitate; borrow and learn from those who inspire us. Then we assimilate; process new information through practice. Then we innovate; we create our own musical identity utilising the melting pot of our brain. Every time we challenge ourselves in focussed practice, we are creating brand new physical neurological pathways. What's more, the very connections you are creating are smashing against and branching off every other pathway you've ever made in literally any experience you've had in your life. Whether it's the lessons you had in French as a kid, the memory of your Nan, that smell that reminds of that one time: your brain is a storage unit and all the wires are connected. This is how all of us indisputably contain the potential for true musical uniqueness. 

Feel like you just need to 'find your voice' on your instrument? Quit beating yourself up! You already have one and it's been yours since you were born - hell since you were conceived. Ok maybe not that early. Point is, stop asking yourself the shitty questions, be proud of the value you already have and focus on the questions that add to it. This is how we nurture innovation. We need to give our brains permission to meander through the distinctive neurological connections we've birthed inside our head throughout our lives. This is the seed of true innovation. When we learn, we literally change the makeup of our mind

lick your chops

For me, the constant pursuit of 'chops', or 'licks' is totally counter-innovative. Sure they can sound cool and this isn't to say they're not relevant, but whatever it is you're doing that someone has perceived as choppy, it's got to have come from you. This is what constantly gets lost among all the frantic thoughts of "Oh man I wanna be as fast as that guy!", or "I wanna play double kick at 200bpm!". While this is absolutely cool, we must not forget the reason we picked up an instrument in the first place: to express ourselves - not someone else! 

Of course we all want to pursue excellence in our craft, but the danger of overemphasising the importance of learning chops and licks it is that, ultimately, you're going to sound as bland as Theresa May's record collection. The more you practice with this gotta-get-chops mindset, the less employable you make yourself. Chops and licks are put on this glorified pedestal where this creepy guy is standing, dangling a golden carrot saying "Eat this and you can sound like this guuuuyy...don't you want to play as fast as himmmim or herrrrrrr?". Grab the carrot, eat it anyway (free food), and kick the imaginary creepy carrot-dangling man in the carrot sack.

...I need to emphasise here we only ate the carrot because it's free food not because we want to magically get chops...that would sort of...completely destroy everything that I just said. And believe me as a musician early in your career, you're gonna get good at making the most of free food.

FEEL THE FEAR. DO IT ANYWAY.

It's vital we keep our mind in a constant state of flux. Never stop questioning. Question the most basic, dumb stuff you can think off. The moment we allow our minds to become relaxed; satisfied with ourselves; comfortable - that's the moment we cease to innovate. For all the discomfort it ultimately causes us; all the uncertainly - forcing ourselves to be utterly unafraid of this state allows us to continue our growth, leading us on to bigger, brighter futures. 

That's it for this week, but swing by next Wednesday for the next of the Seven Deadly Skills. Bang any questions you'd like covering in the Musician's Survival Guide below and I'll do my best to blag...ahem...I mean Innovate an answer. 

Thank you to my good friend Hugh Huntingford for his graphic design skills, which have bought the Musician's Survival Guide to life. 

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