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How music composition taught me self-discipline
Today’s post is far more personal than usual. I am writing it in the hopes sharing my story helps someone. Let's also try to persuade even the most hyper-capitalist among us that making art matters...
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
I will try to make this as readable as possible and just tell my story genuinely without making impassioned/guru-style self help-esque pleas — we have a surplus of that already. But stick with me through this one I think it’s important and will share some personal things today most artists are unwilling to speak on (spoiler: it’s way less glamorous than any movie or spectacle-driven pop star makes it out to be, sorry in advance to ruin the show …and that’s not what’s actually interesting anyway).
Many readers here know this, but for those who don’t – for around 2 decades now I’ve composed original jazz and electronic music (as well as curated/mixed the same style, but that is of course not the same as synthesis). It’s my hobby and avenue I put creative energy into when not working as a marketing exec, sharing ideas here or rescuing dogs (do you follow my dog on Twitter, go do that if not). I believe strongly everyone can (and perhaps should) make art and years ago jotted down reasons to try and persuade folk. It would clearly be hypocritical to write such a post without also walking the path. But, I don’t usually talk about my personal motivations and have not fully shared my backstory on “why.” So, based on a conversation with a friend Ronnie I had recently who encouraged me to be more open about my creative side, thought it might be of interest to share my personal story/some lessons which are (hopefully) instructive on how making art has been unexpectedly beneficial to other areas of life.
Also I was recently pitched to write a book (I am stuck on precise thesis but love the publishers, if pursue it will be with them) and they initially were most interested in my personal story as an artist. But I am not persuaded it’s an entire book, I think 200 pages may be superfluous. So let’s just get it done in a post…
If this isn’t interesting or relevant to you, you are hereby freed from today’s post. Go back to your spreadsheets, we wouldn’t wish to accidentally artist-pill anyone who is uninterested in such things. For everyone else, let’s go…
Before I share (some of) my actual life journey, context is required
Music is incredibly unique, perhaps the most special form of art. As a personal fav philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer notes:
“Music is as immediate an objectification and copy of the whole will as the world itself is, indeed as the Ideas are, the multiplied phenomenon of which constitutes the world of individual things. Therefore music is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of the Ideas, but a copy of the will itself, the objectivity of which are the Ideas. For this reason the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence.
It’s important to first note my motivation for creating art is purely intrinsic. I openly share (on SoundCloud, really the only music platform built for non-profit works) creations under a creative commons license but aside from selling one of my projects in 2007 as CD as experiment and taking time to upload some of my albums to iTunes/Spotify etc. Which I actually stopped doing that, as I want it to be clear work is mission-driven/not for profit, and I believe being on those platforms signals support of the music-industrial complex, which I have very strong opinions against. Don't get me started on the (multiple) times my 100% original creative work was pulled down via false DMCA notice. So, for many reasons I don’t seek revenue or care much for recognition here, it's just about the challenge and craft.
The popular contrarian blog Techdirt literally once called me a “no-name musician” so at least Mike gets it. All works (I’ve written 10 original albums to date over the nearly 2 decades I’ve been practicing the craft) are free/open for anyone to stream, download, share/remix or use in movies, video games and other creative projects (some use my music in drone videos, others in science presentations, nerdy stuff like that).
Publishing under a creative commons license makes it the case no permission is required for other creatives to freely use/remix works as they wish. It’s the best way to license work online and requires little effort on part of the artist. This is all well and good and I am pleased to contribute to other open and creative experiments, it makes me smile when people send links to what they made either building on top of or combining my creative work with their own.
But none of this is why I create.
Over time, many have asked why I do not attempt to monetize art or make it my living, or promote it more seriously, and the answer why I don’t wish to is simple – it provides something far more valuable: life balance. If I were to rely on it to provide for my family it would completely change that. Monetizing music is also blood from a rock, but that also isn’t the point here. I’m sure I could summon enough Patreon supporters, that is for sure the logical path any artist should take for monetization, but I don’t wish to do that either.
While I’ve shared the benefits of creative commons over the years (mostly to promote the efforts of Lawrence Lessig whose mission I strongly believe in -he’s worth a follow on Twitter if you don’t) I haven’t shared much in the way of back story to how I actually got into music composition, or how it had the unintended consequence of helping me achieve self-discipline in other areas of life. I think this is a not well-understood byproduct of creating art. I didn’t fully understand it personally either until much later.
I also have always had the sense more broadly many in modernity see creative pursuits without desire for profit or recognition as self-indulgent/vanity projects. But even if that were the case (it’s not) let’s today also try to persuade the most cynical among us that this type of work in free time, as a labor of love or simply personal challenge, also benefits what is now viewed as the productive (and, only important) side of life. So if successful by the end of this I hope even the most hyper-capitalist of reader will be on board.
Also of note but related: above few paragraphs are entirely separate from the fact that the economics of music business are entirely broken for indies (as I’ve gone into previously in detail and recommend reading if you have not) and it’s a brutal truth of this craft if one were looking to make a livelihood from it. I strongly believer smarter to have as passion project and make income from something the market values appropriately, freeing you creatively to pursue it as a pure artistic endeavor, sans-financial pressures (music, for all intents and purposes, is valued at 0 by the market despite being the most special and powerful form of art, at least according to aficionados such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, myself and other fans of the craft, very likely including you).
The back story of how I become interested in music composition…
Even before creating my own music, I had been active on the web in the late 90s as an avenue to learn more about what I was most interested in at that point: building computers/networks, learning to code, playing RTS games, and of course music which is actually how I first connected with two local artists in my hometown of Hollywood, Florida also interested in tech named Corner and Devon, over 20 years ago now.
They noticed my passion for music and generously took the time to help me focus it, putting me on the path to become an artist. What I didn’t realize then but I see now is they didn’t just help point me in the direction to develop skills to create, they put me on path to achieve self-discipline at levels I was previously unable to. Since then, I’ve been able to apply similar focus to many areas in life.
Before our first session working together, Corner said something I won’t forget. He made me promise if he devoted his time to teach me the craft, I wouldn’t quit. I had been interested in music all my life and already had some background in piano and saxophone; however had never been given a real opportunity to build skills beyond that. Composition is a step above simply playing and not an area anyone is really nurtured in as a youth. I held Corner in high regard as both a person and musician and so told him truthfully I wouldn’t. To this date I have kept that promise, and when others ask me for help with something like starting a Substack, I make them agree to the same terms. Commit for the long haul or don’t bother, especially with creative endeavors: they are lifelong, forever unsolved puzzles that you only get ever-closer to solving (but are always some % away mentally from perfection, and that’s actually half the fun).
As a youth I had played piano off-and-on in idle time, and in junior high I played saxophone. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy music – I absolutely did – however what I wasn’t interested in was playing the music of others and to this day I have not been – it just never fit within my personality. I’ve always preferred my own path. What I would later discover is what interested me most was writing my own music, but there was no opportunity for that in traditional music classes/clubs in high school. With only one parent after my father passed away and two siblings, home life did not have the space to nurture for such pursuits. My mother is amazing but certainly had her hands full.
Anyway, the problem with my instructors in band class as a youth is they never set the spark of my love for music on fire. I didn’t like playing within the lines and reading sheet music, it bored me. I was able to do it just fine, but I always thought it was zero sum – I wasn’t creating anything, so what was the point? Where were the results of my efforts? I always loved to build things – I had built R/C planes and model rockets as a child and found that more than flying, building them was even more fulfilling. Same with computers – I was never satisfied merely using, I took them apart and pieced back so I could understand how the hardware functioned and worked together. Only after I built my first R/C plane did I understand and appreciate the intricacies and complexities of flying. Only after building my first computer did I fully appreciate using one. Both the first R/C plane and PC I built crashed spectacularly, however I kept at it and eventually achieved success, as I was driven to see the results. The same curiosity was eventually applied to music, but not enabled by any traditional instructors, rather by other artists.
Art, especially music is something that I don’t think you can truly learn in structured settings – at least I couldn’t. But I always excelled on things independently when free to experiment in the wild. So, Corner and Devon actually didn’t do much aside from teaching me the basics —what they did was put me in front of the tools and got out of my way. They also believed in me, something they told me directly – but they didn’t even need to, I knew they did by their actions. Up until that point, I’m not convinced anyone really did. Not a single teacher in school, friend, anyone at any point. Regardless, they really only spent about one year physically with me working on music, but gave me genuine support. That’s all it took, I ran with it myself from that point.
As note I am very lucky as adult that I’ve had continued mentorship here. Greg “Stryke” Chin, Miami-based producer, DJ, audio engineer, and music software company advisor has mastered the majority of my albums since 2007 and helped guide me to where I am today, as well as spent many sessions with another producer Scott Stokes who means the world to me personally and is greatly responsible for helping me refine my sound and work smarter in studio.
Greg is one of the most kind and generous people I’ve ever met and am honored to call him a friend. Artists helping other artists is a special bond. He’s never accepted a cent for this work, and altogether refuses, as he understands the notion of creative passion projects and their meaning. We’re skipping ahead in the story, but that’s okay (I secretly want Guy Ritchie to make my life into a movie and make at least a few parts non-linear, as it’s proper fun storytelling).
Anyway, before one of the most talented audio engineers on Earth was doing post on my albums out of goodness of his heart, my ambition had to be developed. At first I just wanted to curate/remix/mash up compositions of others to make them my own (I still do the mix/curation thing to help surface new and interesting artists to friends, here’s a handy playlist). The logical progression from that point was to dissect music to learn how all the sounds worked together to create a final product greater than the separate pieces. Eventually of course I wanted to create my own works from scratch.
As I matured in life I reached a point I didn’t require others to believe in me, my internal motivation was more than sufficient, but I realize now that it required someone’s spark to get to that point. I consider myself fortunate to have connected with passionate and generous artistic mentors when I did – they made more of a difference than they realize. This wasn’t possible without the internet in the late 90s/early 2000s, even then the social web was a vibrant and connective fabric of the world (at least for nerds). The internet provided what my physical, given surroundings were unable to. This is now common, back then it was the case you were a nerd or outcast.
I know this is all prelude to what the title of this post promised to deliver on, but felt it important to know the back story. Maybe instructive for how you nurture your own kids or make the very serious and important decision to spend time mentoring others. I do believe we have a leadership crisis in America and probably the world at-large (at levels small and large) but this one is more solvable than we think, and anyone can choose to lead. There’s a phenomenal book on modern leadership I highly suggest by Seth Godin, it’s short, get a copy.
Now that you’re caught up and have context I’ll share with you specifically how music composition, likely seen as a distractive pursuit to a pure pragmatist, had the unintended byproduct of teaching me self-discipline that propagated to other areas of life.
Importance of internal goal-setting
The metacognition required to make music or engage in creative work of any sort was more challenging and interesting to me than purely cerebral academic studies, and the results immediately tangible. I could never work up the motivation to care about testing or scholastic tasks as I was acutely aware they were done in artificial settings with no impact outside the walls of that specific institution. They seemed fake and unimportant. I enjoyed reading/studying independently and applying skills on actual projects in the wild, not memorizing facts and being tested for the sake of being tested. Through music I was able to focus on what I wanted to achieve and visualize a result in mind for the end product. I learned to set internal goals and outline actionable steps for what I wanted to build with an understanding that it would actually mean something personally to get that result. It wasn’t the world expecting me to pass a test, get an A, or write an essay based on the challenge of a professor. Those felt artificial and externally forced. I simply couldn’t work up the motivation or focus. What is the point? To please some dismal clock-watching box checker I was assigned without choice? Who even is this guy? Just listen to him recite a textbook and spend weeks or months on something you could read and understand essentially as well as him in a day. It felt like my life was slowly ticking away. I was bored daily, a fate worse than death for some of us.
But personally chosen projects were different. The stakes seemed higher. My own goals mattered (not just more, but even at all vs those from others). I’m unsure if this is a factor of being neuro-divergent, or simply lacking any sort of real leadership while young. Perhaps both. But since I’ve been able to, where I feel prudent, also let externalities drive me (if not the case I never would have gotten any job or be at all part of the professional world). I’m unsure if I would be able to do this if I hadn’t had the experience to be nurtured as an artist first …and that work was all done outside of any institutions, who essentially never served as any real catalyst for meaning or purpose in life. They might have even been slowly accomplishing the opposite.
A lifetime to grow
Art is something that is a lifelong process, where there are no right or wrong answers, it is whatever you make of it. You are the architect of the matrix. Being actively engaged in making long-term creative projects on a self-motivated basis is a great way to become disciplined in the spectrum of interests in your life because writing an album or making a film is not something you just slap together in a day. It’s such a commit it takes months or years of time, planning, iteration and likely that time comes from nights/weekends as society mostly values art at zero (you still have to pay the bills, artists need a real job, too - welcome to Earth). But in aggregate, larger art projects just equal life projects. You do them over the course of your life. With a mission to sharpen your abilities at a creative pursuit over this long a timeframe, one where it is impossible to ever achieve “perfection,” you are forcing a personal growth process no podcast, Twitter thread or self-help book could ever provide.
As my friend Jack Raines so eloquently put the other week, basically summing up why the (has to be multi-billion $) self-help industry thrives like it does:
I also think my drive to do better is a reason I’ve created in my free time more work than many creatives who do this full time for a living. No pressures or expectations from audiences, because you don’t need them to survive, is a gift for creatives. Being unshackled is a superpower.
Patterns, proficiency, processes
Early on in my independent audio production sessions, I quickly learned the importance of becoming efficient with low-level tasks such as finding ideal compression levels and EQ settings I found optimal on different types of sounds. I created my own defaults/presets for many processes so I wasn’t reinventing the wheel with each production. Also, I saw where I could potentially take shortcuts but knew it made a better product to do the process manually (there’s plenty of automation in music production software, but that doesn’t mean it’s always good to use). This required a strong development of self-discipline because it’s in many cases easier to go with presets you didn’t make or automation setting (all from software engineers/code, not artists) all of which could ruin the originality of your work.
The more time I freed up during production sessions to spend on the creative elements of composition most interesting to me, where a human should actually focus their creative energy (sequencing, sound design, etc) the more I enjoyed the process. For it, the results got better. I’ve done essentially this with every creative area of my life, including and especially marketing work which I spend most of my time on during the day as my professional pursuit (and far more time in totality than I ever have on art). There are of course unifying theories of many creative fields and there’s a reason for it. Also all the more reason you should personally branch out, you can probably move faster learning something new if you’ve already mastered an existing specialization.
Passion as a shortcut to learning self-discipline
Parents and teachers peers try to teach us self-discipline, however at the end of the day you must learn this yourself. I strongly believe, at least for the weird and different among us, it’s a personal and likely solitary affair. Probably the best avenue to achieve this is being involved in something you’re passionate about, because that will motivate you to see each phase of it through to the end. Passion is really just synonymous with motivation. If you aren’t passionate about the thing you’re working on, how can you possibly remain motivated?
When you’re able to do this successfully for multiple projects, you watch your results get closer to what you had envisioned initially bit by bit. It’s a lifelong process, of course, but I believe learning self-discipline at one thing – it doesn’t matter what it is – teaches the patience and work ethic necessary for success in other areas because now you know what is required, have respect for the process, know it’s possible and have walked that mental pathway (something once done becomes easier to do again).
Years of directing free time as a youth to creative output I am certain helped develop self-discipline and motivation in other aspects of life, even the non-creative areas I previously couldn’t find a path through. What works for you will of course be different, but if your passion is behind it and you can learn to summon it, you can probably do anything. Although certain mind-numbing things like expense reports or doing taxes are exceptions. I am never going to care about them and there’s not a way to prod me to doing them (in cases like this, the good news is you can simply now outsource the work).
I believe anyone with the right drive and determination can learn self-discipline to apply in life and achieve what they want. It is for sure something everyone discovers in unique ways, and it happens for different people at different points. It could be through art but it could also easily be through something else.
Learning self-discipline in something you have affinity for feels like the right first step, because you must achieve it in one avenue to learn how to apply it to others, as I stated above. Art in particular is so great here because it’s unstructured, you’re going from a metaphoric blank sheet of paper to a finished product and without any real instruction other than your mind being forced to organize itself. My only regret is not learning proper self-discipline sooner, I was motivated as youth and worked a job since was 15, but my energy was completely undirected, it took until my 20s to get to a place I felt ‘good enough’ about the ability to direct it (this will of course never be perfect) but for a long time felt that was late, and I was behind. However the older I get the more I realize I am perhaps (at least personally) fortunate to have learned it at all.
I also guarantee there are millions who quietly are artists of varying types and levels of dedication in their free time and never share that anywhere online. They quietly believe such labeling might get them dinged by a recruiter/deemed un-hirable, or appear less serious about their professional side. How dare you have multiple interests, that must mean you’re unserious about <thing we want someone deadly serious for>. They probably aren’t wrong in this thinking. Modern society encourages people to be less imaginative and everyone is for sure conditioned to “stay in your lane.”
But what if it’s actually the opposite that is desirable? What if showing commitment to something you personally believe in, that was intrinsically motivated, is actually a signal of strength (and likely pairing with that, curiosity, another underrated trait). I believe this is actually the case even if others do not. Look at how the reverse is true: artists are able to apply their powers to the business world. Consider how Kanye West is not just an artist but a top % successful entrepreneur, or an actor like Ashton Kutcher is also now a world-class VC (note: you don’t even need to be at this level to do this, and that’s the point). I’m certain they were given a ton of shit along the way for daring to have multiple interests. And they wisely ignored any haters. Maybe you shouldn’t stay in your lane, and ignore the unimaginative people who want you to. You are likely better off without them.
Finally, thanks for reading I know today’s post was personal, I haven’t really shared this story in detail and felt it might be helpful especially with the world how it is now. As takeaway, I’d love if you’d consider helping mentor someone or even encourage them in work or a craft that might not make sense to you. This post also serves as a thank you note to not only the artists who mentored me, but really anyone who already takes the time to encourage others. It’s a core reason why we’re here, and we need far more of it.