Admittedly, this article is largely an effort in both self-help and proselytizing. Sharing what I have learned, and learning what I haven’t learned about. Not so much “This is a map, I should know every part of it” but in terms of what “maps” exist that I haven’t even heard of, much less learned.
One thing I am slowly realizing, despite my best efforts otherwise is that confidence is one of my main weaknesses. The main problem with that? Without confidence, it is difficult to accomplish anything. At all.
Just imagine a painter, for instance, who is extremely timid. You’ve got someone who can get out his canvas, get out his paints, his brushes, his palette…and he stands there. Like a pimple on an elephant’s ass, he stands there. Depending on how extreme his timidity is, he might end up with either a very bland painting, like sky blue from top to bottom and very little else, or he might simply end up with a blank canvas.
Watch Bob Ross sometime. The guy will paint a gorgeous scene, prettier than real life, so quaint and serene, so beautiful. Then he’ll load up a fan brush with paint the color of tar, getting every bit of paint into the brush that it can hold, and blop it into the canvas. Right on top of the scene, he’ll scrawl an inch wide black line across it with what can only be called reckless abandon to create a couple trees. Ruthless. Reckless. Fearless. Confident.
As if he’s saying “I could think about it for hours and still not give a shit if I ruin this painting. If it is spoiled, screw it, I never liked it anyway, I can do better work, and tomorrow I will. I will. I…Will. This painting? One pre-stretched canvas worth twenty bucks, five bucks worth of paint, one hour worth of time. This very evening someone will go to a fancy restaurant and they’ll spend more money and more time feeding their face. Well, sparky, I aint hungry right now and I got pop tarts at home, so let’s do this.”
There is an element of confidence that is a crucial necessity. If you’re timid and holding back, trying to play it safe, it’s really tough to even end up with a decent painting, much less to risk ruining it all by scrawling a tree across it.
The bad part? It’s not just a dragon to slay in painting. I’ve noticed it a lot in music. For the longest time my strumming on guitar was weak and didn’t sound good. It was also really tough to imagine how some players can just go at it at a fever pitch. Impossible…except I’d seen it done and knew it was possible. Then I made a startling realization…
I watched a musician play and…I knew for a fact he didn’t have 100% control over that strum. He did four that I really watched closely and he didn’t have full control over any of them. Maybe 60% control, approaching 70%, but certainly not full and complete control on all four….and it didn’t matter at all.
Seriously. Listening closely, not listening closely, watching closely, not watching closely, it didn’t matter. At all. If he accidentally tapped that bottom E on the way by, it’s irrelevant because I didn’t hear it on any of his strums.
And what difference would it make if it had rung loudly? With the drums, the bass, the keyboards, the crowd, his own vocals, the lead guitarist, who would hear or care if he accidentally hit a bad note? Think of the sheer volume of entire CDs that suck and contrast that against four bad notes in one song during one concert. Microscopic scratch on a Maserati. One bad brush stroke on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A completely naked supermodel with a small pimple on her instep. It’s sincerely such a small blemish that it really doesn’t really warrant mention. Four bad notes is nothing.
My own playing was basically stifled because I was worrying about accidentally hitting a missed note from time to time. Trying to hold such fine and precise control that…I managed to keep the aircraft perfectly aligned in straight and level flight, but only at speeds too slow for the wings to generate lift. I was afraid to strum fluidly because I was afraid of making a “bad” noise. Then I had a realization;
If I picked up my guitar, grabbed a chord, and butchered it in the worst possible way, having screwed it up better than anybody ever had before…with the highest quality guitar capable of sustaining the notes for the longest time…the “evidence” of my blunder would be around for maybe 30 seconds. Considering that the universe is more then four and a half BILLION years old…dammit, I can screw up thirty seconds and survive it. Should I make a bad noise for 30 seconds and some mob find it so offensive that they wish to come and assault me, this sounds like an ideal reason to offer other “bad noises” that are much louder, but last less time. All men are created almost equally; Louisville sluggers and Samuel Colt puts them all on a level playing field.
The “risk” of making a mistake was greatly outweighed by the possible gains of succeeding. And, in full truth, the “risk” was all self-imposed. I had convinced myself that a bad noise was a lot worse than it really was. In all truth, once I became willing to fly…I stopped falling out of the sky so much. Yeah, I’ll admit, early on I made a hellacious racket but that didn’t last long. Once I got comfortable making full power strums I discovered something interesting: the sound of the good notes usually overpowered and “drowned out” the bad ones. Yeah, you could still hear them, but they didn’t stand up on top of the chord and scream “Hey, I don’t belong here but I’m here because this idiot sucks!” They were there, and you could hear them, but they were soon forgotten. Nothing bad happened when there were unexpected and unwanted sounds. In time, thousands and thousands of strums later, the “right” notes started outnumbering the “wrong” ones. Without the confidence not to care if I made a bad noise, I’d never have gained the experience to learn not to care.
Now that I’ve moved on to composing my own pieces…same basic reset. I’ve let my inexperience breed pugnacious timidity. Though I have made it a personal goal to write at minimum ten measures of 4/4 per day, I still find the dragon in the corner is there, and he still needs a good smack every now and then so he never forgets who’s really in charge ’round here in the musical composition department.
Falling back on the “standard” rule of thumb works: if it sounds right, it is right. If it sounds wrong, it is wrong. 50% of trust goes to good judgment, 50% of trust goes to knowledge of theory. The rest is a matter of time and experience.
I suppose in all creative endeavors, that’s basically the rule to follow. Looks good/is good. Sounds good/is good. Feels good/is good. There will be bumps in the road, but really that’s the whole point of creative journeys; to find and smooth the bumps. To find and slay that Timidity Dragon that sits in the corner and whispers doubts and derision in your ear when you are vulnerable.
I find it more fun to keep him around. In a way, things might go smoother to just hack off his head and be done with him…but it’s more fun to stumble upon a really awesome riff by luck and dogged determination, play through it a few times to make sure I have it down pat, then turn the volume knob all the way up on the amp or keyboard and play it right in his face.
Small wars breed small victories, and I’ll take ’em where I can get ’em.