3 Resources You Really Need to Succeed In Music
Many of us grew up believing in the lone genius. It’s a myth supported, curiously, by both those who think talent is innate and those who think talent is the inevitable result of practice. When I started writing music, I bought into the myth. I thought that working alone allowed for greater focus, and that focus over the long term is the key to becoming exceptional.
I grew up with the philosophy that, with enough hard work, you can achieve anything. The philosophy seemed valid, especially when Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hour rule. His bestseller, “Outliers”, moved talent from the province of the lucky few into the deserved reward of those willing to put in ten thousand hours of practice. So I believed that the real key was to put in enough hours.
Then, I moved to Los Angeles to attend USC. I learned that hard work and practice alone were not enough to do extraordinary things. If you want to excel in music, you’re going to need other people.
At USC, dozens of talented musicians work together and in friendly competition each day. They study under expert teachers, and inspirational figures from Chaka Khan to Rick Rubin drop by campus each week to hold an open forum. In short — it’s a near-perfect environment for fostering creative excellence.
As an artist, other people are core requirements for achievement. They will motivate, instruct, and inspire you. Hemingway had his community of Parisian writers, who both taught him and supported his work. Maria Sharapova had her Russian tennis academy, a spartan community dedicated purely to the mastery of tennis. Major artistic, scientific, and political movements nearly always come from a community of masters, not from any solitary genius. The greatest artists of our time emerged among a wealth of other talents.
As a musician, there are three types of people you should have in your career:
1. Role Models
When Daniel Coyle was researching “The Talent Code”, he noticed a peculiar behavior among athletes training in the world’s best camps. Students had inspirations and idols, just as most of us do, but they also took things a step further. They studied their idols with borderline fanaticism: before practice, after practice, every day of the week. They watched tapes of their performances. Students mimicked the habits of their idols and replicated their movements.
When your view out onto the world is filled with world class examples of who you want to become, it changes the way you approach your practice. And even a minor association with a role model can improve the amount of effort you devote to a task. In one study, subjects who believed they shared a birthday with a mathematician worked 62% longer on a difficult mathematics task.
Role models are more than just inspiration. One of the best ways to improve as an artist is to steal from your idols. That’s why comedians will study the exact length of the pause before a Mitch Hedberg punchline. It’s why chess players will re-play classic games by the grandmasters. It’s why some novelists type paragraphs by their favorite authors before settling down to write for the day. Your role models are a gold mine of information as you improve.
Idols are, in a way, your teachers. But they’re best for inspiration and to serve as a model to work towards. You won’t progress from where you are now to matching your idols overnight; and during that day-to-day work, you need a teacher.
As human beings, we’re awfully biased and subjective. It’s impossible to accurately judge our own performances, and even harder to realize our subtle mistakes. This is especially true when we just get started with a new skill: we make so many mistakes it’s even difficult to decide what to fix first! That’s why teachers are the mainstay of athletes, artists, and performers at any level. You might think a gold medal-winning Olympic athlete would be beyond instruction, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one without a coach by his or her side.
Teachers provide something otherwise totally missing from our work — and it’s vitally important. They provide a tight feedback loop.
When you stand in a vocal lesson and sing through a complicated run, you can immediately receive feedback on why it is or isn’t working, a recommendation to improve, and most likely some thoughts on your posture and breathing and other mistakes you didn’t even realize you were making. When you stand in your apartment and perform the same run, all you know is if it felt right or not. Weekly feedback on your progress and immediate feedback on your technique are jet fuel for your progress as an artist.
So when you’re just getting started with a new skill or technique, your teacher is going to be the most important player. Most of your habits form right at the beginning of the learning cycle. Learn the wrong habits, and you’ll hamper your progress indefinitely. Teachers will provide the external feedback necessary to make sure you’re on the right track.
Be careful when you choose a teacher.
The community you involve yourself in will in large part determine your success. Your community can motivate or demotivate you. It can deliver a steady stream of information, analysis, inspiration, feedback, and pressure; or, it can deliver nothing. When you become a member of a group expending every effort to improve and become masters of a skill, you receive all these benefits.
At the bottom layer, there are few things more motivating than a peer improving faster than you are. Friendly competition has been a mainstay of performance for centuries — it’s a well-known phenomenon that the fastest running times, for example, occur during competitions. Friendly competition with others pushes us to overcome the barriers in our way and transcend limits we’d otherwise accept tacitly.
But a community of peers offers much more than this baseline. The community can help you improve just as much as any idol or teacher. Within music communities in Los Angeles, a there is a constant, mass exchange of ideas. Musicians swap samples; deconstruct productions; make music in new genres; stay up until 3am putting together synth patches; go out to shows and meet other artists; and analyze the latest pop hit. There’s constant discussion around contemporary topics, from the music itself to copyright law, marketing, and money. It’s not just that these people are your friends and your competition — it’s that the community is an immersive environment.
If you are in a community that doesn’t care about or support your art, then you are at a disadvantage. You don’t simply lack the benefits of a supportive and invigorating community — often, you’re actively discouraged. Most musicians I know have been told, “Oh, music? That’s cool. But when are you going to get…you know, a real job?” In this kind of environment, it’s much tougher to be successful.
If you don’t have a community yet, you don’t have to pack your bags and come out to Los Angeles. The amount of conversation and sharing of music online has made it possible to join the global music community from anywhere. Forums from KVR, subreddits like WeAreTheMusicMakers, collaboration sites like FindMySong, and even Facebook groups all provide ways to tap into a community you’d otherwise be hard-pressed to find.
As you continue to work hard towards your goals in music, keep in mind the three people you need in your career: the Idol, the Teacher, and the Community.
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