A path to improvement?

Get bored.

Have little enough gear that you are forced to explore it to do something interesting.

Many the records I like seem to come from people doing interesting things with limited gear or limited skill/chops.

That’s what got me here.

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Yeah, i think this is a big part.
I’m having some difficulties meeting people here in Portland.
Craigslist has been mixed between good, bad, and unresponsive.
Meeting people in person has the social awkwardness and ineptitude complications
which are compounded with not making it to as many shows as i would like.

But the most difficult is time and the priorities of how and with whom we spend it, especially as we get older and collect responsibilities.

do you have any suggestions?

hey, neat ideas in the link, thanks.
reminds me i need to get busy on this weeks junto.

What is improvement?

Is it a deeper understanding of your instrument that leads to greater facility with the instrument?

Is it a deeper frustration with your musical vocabulary that leads to broader exploration of genres and composers?

Is it a deeper realization that habit is destructive that leads to experimentation and play in search of new sounds?

Is it a deeper appreciation for the true transience of life that leads you away from your instruments to explore other pursuits entirely?

I’m not sure where you’re going so it is hard to give you directions. But I think the best part of this community is the community itself, and the profound variety of viewpoints contained within it. None of the advice above can steer you wrong. I would only add that if you want to improve the sounds you make, spend more time listening and hearing, and pay close attention to how those sounds make you feel. The rest is practice.

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caveat: “improvement” smells of “good” and quality, which is philosophical, academic, relative at the least.

i focus on discovery; for me improvement is about not getting frustrated or bored while searching for interesting sounds and structures; also the ability to come up with interesting skeletons around which i can build compositions, or can sustain timbres/sequences for longer; → arrive quicker, hit closer to aim each turn, keep developing aim. but it’s also developing a muscle for progressing from one point to another - working on the habit of watering these seeds

but all of this ultimately stems from having more time to experiment and play, unburdened of expectations of end results.

but, except in extreme cases, for me having more time results from making more time – it’s a conscious decision. and to decide to make time I need a nudge, which is what this community is so good at providing, daily.

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The best advice I ever received about improving my art was from a studio instructor in art school. She told me that I needed to develop a sense of what “good” (as in quality) means to me, then try to strive for it even though I’ll never hit it… and to keep evolving that sense of “good” based on exposure to other work.

It’s like critical inspiration in some ways… try to build in an internalized sense of why you think music (or art, design, etc) are good, or great, or not good. Really understand it for yourself. Then put in the work to try and make your work live up to your internal standard. It’s hard, and can be frustrating, but will also push you to improve and learn based on your own taste.

Ira Glass also talked about this, immortalized in this video back in 2011

I guess all of that is to say, that in order to improve, you need to define improvement for your own work and practice. Once you do it actually becomes pretty straight forward to put in the work.

For music, I try to listen to as much as I can and really think about why I like it or not… then to try to learn those techniques, whether they’re technical or composition, or tone, etc. For my art it’s important to look at lots of art, go to exhibitions… Surround yourself with work that you love and want to strive for.

This piece has also been instrumental for my own work (as I’m sure it has for many people):

Especially Rule 7.

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If I might say so, I think this is a brilliant and succinct summary of good music practice. It’s an inspiring reminder and one that I’m going to post somewhere that I’ll see it regularly.

One thing I’ll add: embedded in what you’ve said is time. In my salad days (70s and 80s), I made and studied music full time, but I’m no longer a professional musician (or student) and making time for music is a real challenge. It sounds like you still have your time; hang onto it. Finding and/or carving out time for the indispensable tasks of music practice while managing a (non-musical) career and family requires creativity and dedication that I’m still developing. A small bit of this can be compensated for through vicarious participation like this forum: I am grateful to those who can and do dedicate their hours to making art, as the paths you blaze help me follow more effectively – and thus with greater satisfaction – than I could without you. I don’t know how Ives did it!

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I made an Ableton thing once and that experience convinced me I would not do it again.

This does not feel like a large enough sample size - one experience of a tool - to be enough to convince you it’s a bad tool, and more pertinently, to suggest to others that it’s a bad tool. The range of music being made with in the world would also seem to disprove your point.

(I mean, at the moment, my primary use of it is firing it up, opening up an audio channel, and recording into it, which feels pretty far from the “presets!!1” one-liner you have offered up as a reason not to use it).

A thing I’m thinking about a lot at the moment: people are much quicker to dismiss software than they are other things; we expect our 10,000 hours for mastering a guitar, but after a few hours with a plugin it’s dismissed as being ‘good for one thing’, or, more likely, not dismissed but replaced by another plugin. I am bad at this too - the easy availability does not help - but sometimes, the answer to asking myself “why isn’t this right yet?” is often “how long have you been learning it?”

At the moment, there are few tools I know backwards enough to make certain recommendations of them to other people, and the ones I do, I’m pretty sure can be coerced into doing almost anything.

Given that: yes, really, practice is a thing that can be done in the studio/electronic environment. Your ear can be trained; your hands can learn; you can shorten the path between thought and action. Yes, time is a hard master. I feel like the only answers I have to @itssowindy’s questions are “yes, all of the above”, and “yup, I’m finding it hard too.”

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Thanks everyone for the insight and discourse.

Yeah, there is a subjective, vague, but open ended definition to ‘good’ and ‘improvement’, that ultimately must come from within for it to have any real value. Framing the conversation with these undefined qualifications makes things more interesting and diverse than something more specific. It also allows for what you find helpful which i may have never thought o,f or put much emphasis on. In some ways the answer to my question might be; ‘put in the time to stay motivated and follow inspiration’ which might also mean that each individuals path to improvement is different.

@emenel thanks for posting these. The Ira Glass quote is a really important idea which mostly tells me to persevere.
I haven’t seen the John Cage list, its really helpful I like @dnealelo’s idea of printing and posting this along with @ermina’s thoughts.

If anyone is feeling benevolent and would like to offer some further criticism and insight about my music specifically then please contact me. I would also be interested in collaborating with people. Especially if you work with Ableton and can share a live set so i can see and work with something directly.

please keep the ideas coming as this thread could be a good resource for other novices as well as more experienced producers who feel stuck.

thanks, bunny

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Hi @itssowindy,

Thanks for asking this question! I’ve been thinking about this all year, as I’ve returned to making music after a long time away. I’ve found a lot of guidance and inspiration from the lines community, the sound + process podcast (thanks @dan_derks!), in loads of music released this year, as well as the more theoretical side of Warp Academy’s offerings and some free classes from Berklee via Coursera.

Anyway, here are my non-expert takeaways from a year of study:

  1. Use a notebook. Write down small “how do I…” investigations, little tricks, and big picture thinking about approach, arrangement, and ideas. Actually write this stuff with a pen on paper.

  2. Embrace constraints. This has been a rallying cry on every forum, book, and interview that I’ve come across.

  3. Be open to a bit of theory. I purchased Ray Harmony’s “hacking theory for electronic musicians” via warp academy (it goes on sale for super cheap every so often), and he subsequently released many free youtube videos with his partner; both are great teachers. Especially in combination with MIDI and other digital tools, basic theory principles can really provide shortcuts to music that sounds good or conveys one emotion or another.

  4. Listen actively. I have an ‘active listening’ playlist with favorites old and new across the artists and genres that inspire me. I try listening both analytically and emotionally to these songs to understand what’s going on. The next level is to have a go at ‘covering’ or recreating one as an exercise–may seem silly but it can teach you a lot!

  5. Use deadlines. The @disquiet junto is great for this–in addition to inspiring prompts and a built in feedback community!

  6. Think about form and arrangement. Depending on your genre of course. But for me this is the next level which will take good sounding ideas to the next level.

  7. Revisit your work. Like many people I’ve developed too many sketches and not enough finished songs this year. I think it’s important to force yourself to revisit and work on older ideas–even if they take dramatic left turns! I just inventoried my working folder for the year and self-assigned percentages of completion. I’m now going back to anything over 75% and trying to push out a few tracks by the end of the year.

  8. Consider a “prosody” (unity) of sound and vision within a work or an album. Some kind of guiding coherence.

  9. Think about your approach and workflow. Do you split sound design / experimental sessions apart from composing and arrangement? I’ve developed a little table to guide my approach, though to be honest my approach is usually more “screw around until something sounds cool and go from there” :wink: From left to right I try to consider: constraints, feeling/narrative, instrumentation, form & attributes, and any other conceptual framework. Filling these out can provide a scaffold within which to be creative without being overwhelmed by infinite possibilities.

Moving into next year, I’d love to find more collaborators (and finish/post more music). Maybe we can swap some Ableton projects! Thanks again for starting this thread.

Matt

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I’m really appreciating all these thoughts. I’ve been smashing my head on the creative wall for some time and just keep going back to ‘work work work’ as my guiding principle. Also, as a sports fan, this is permanently etched into my brain from my childhood.

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this.
Since forever i was stubborn with the idea that each project has its own stack of loose A5 papers on which i write things from small calculations to big plans to to-do lists, interesting options, and so on. I thought it worked.
Recently (like one month ago) i began working on a composition project and instead of the usual stray sheet of paper i began writing down in a thin (like 40 something pages) notebook.

After a few weeks and ten pages i realized that from timeless and unorganized scribbles, i had begun to write an actual journal concerning solely this project: date of the day, what ideas do i have, listening to what audio i have so far, did i follow up on the ideas i previously had, etc and sometimes a thought or two after the work session about what i did and why.

I find that the ability to re-read myself with a clear sense of chronology is very valuable: work is more efficient, it’s way easier to keep focused on the actual music being done here, in a nutshell i just found the type of “project management” tool that i unknowingly needed: a dedicated notebook.

The fun part for me is that i always wanted to keep some sort of journal but was like, “hey i know my life, there’s no need to write about it (and it feels vain, self-satisfied, preposterous)”. Now i know that if i have nothing to write it means i didn’t work enough.

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When playing an acoustic instrument one can practice scales, learn to read music and interpret other people’s songs. Muscle memory, strength, dexterity and control can be developed through repetition and practice. There are clear paths that have been distilled for most traditional instruments such as a piano or guitar.

I wouldn’t consider these “improving” so much as “knowing your tools.” The concept of “improvement” depends entirely on one’s goal is, which of course for everyone is personal and subjective. But for me, and I assume most people on this board, the “goal” of music lies somewhere in a tangled mess of expression, philosophy, exploration, and freedom. But mostly expression. You know, moving people.

Starting with that, I’d consider scales/dexterity/etc as analogous to learning about and achieving one’s desired results with one’s tools, whether those be different types of synthesis, a DAW, digital audio, etc.

The way I see it, there’s no “improving” in music. You can improve in the myriad satellite topics of music, of which this forum is dedicated to only a few (albeit the newer ones, so things can be a little fuzzy – which is exciting!), but I don’t think you can “improve” at Music.

Said less cryptically: if you agree that the ultimate goal of music is to express, you can’t get better at expressing, but only at the tools that allow you to translate what it is you’re expressing to other people.

So, focus on your craft, and then step away and allow yourself to just be. Everything else will take care of itself.

Or not, who knows.

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There are a LOT of problems with how modern electronic musicians think about their work, and you’ve stumbled on a key one of them. I know this struggle all too well, because I really grapple with it. A lot of electronic musicians, especially those of us that are “weirder” or more “experimental” have worked years to get a workflow where there are no limitations. No scales, no time signatures, no genre, no boundaries, only experimentation. We, whether consciously or not, view those things as some sort of “conventional” thing that’s not for us. Oh no, WE will create music from thin air- devoid of cultural context, history, language, etc etc. The trouble with that idea should be pretty obvious - limitations breed creativity, and the massive amount of culture, history, and labor that went into establishing something like the guitar or piano is something you can benefit from tremendously. This is why people jump into genres, and why your neighborhood metal band seems 10x as productive as you, without any of the technical capability or taste you have! You and I are not going to reinvent an entire musical history, build for ourselves a universe and culture and functioning musical scale. And in the same vein, we’re not going to then invent a system of ‘practicing’ that messy semi-existent and delusional reality.
So TL;DR - maybe you should grab a guitar or a piano and practice a little there. You’ll be amazed how much positive impact it has on the rest of your music. Interpreting other people’s songs, even ones you hate, WILL help you with your own expressivity. Learning scales won’t hurt you - and if you still feel like they suck, you’ll have a more thorough understanding of why you feel that way and what you have to say about it musically.

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I agree! it’s an interesting paradox that most of the people in the last centuries who were really iconoclastic and helped create this millieu of total experimentation are building from WITHIN the universe, having been classically trained and so forth.

There’s a lot to be said against that universe, but even more to be said about having somewhere to build from to give you an idea of where to go.

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RIGHT? I didn’t realize the unrealistic expectations I had for myself until I’d been farting around at electronic music for like ten years. It’s a bit like young writers who sit down at a keyboard with the goal of writing a ‘Great’ novel. If you put that kind of immense and miserable pressure on yourself, you’ll buckle, and find yourself staring at an empty DAW or single loop forever. Just try and write something average, and if great, or awful, or whatever happens, cool. But don’t fear stealing ideas and concepts, especially rudimentary ones like scales and instruments.

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It’s also interesting that it would be relatively easy to find fitting names for most genres inside the experimental music world :slight_smile:
Though of course there is more restrictive genres than others.
The complexity of making music the more music itself develops and progresses is that the amount of stuff yo have to get familiar with is getting more and more. Because you can’t ignore any of it.
This said, I’d also start from the scales, some harmony, etc. Still working on that myself, but doing that with an open mind is really helpful!

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When I performed acoustic instruments I always wanted to play better, and it was always easier to identify areas for improvement than it was to actually improve. There was, in fact, no such thing as “good enough” in any specific aspect of performance. Better tone! Better control! More confidence! Better understanding of jazz chords! That cool frame drum finger technique I saw in some YouTube videos! More stamina! Better oodaiko technique! Wrapping my extremely confused brain around taiko choreography!

It’s easy to feel inadequate and frustrated that way, and maybe hard to keep yourself motivated in the long term.

Across the… 33 years or so now that I’ve been making electronic music in one form or another, I’ve never had these sorts of feelings with it. There’s not a long list of things I am bad at – okay, there is, but most of those don’t actually matter because I can do other things well. Really, it was mostly exploration and play and experiments. Some experiments fail, and that’s okay. Sometimes failure is better than success anyway.

Part of that, I’m sure, is not having a specific destination. Even though I’ve found the mythical “My Sound”, it is fluid and mine by definition. When I make music, I follow the sound, my curiosity, whim, habits, knowledge, emotions, aesthetics, and luck. I follow it like it’s a riverbed and I’m the water; sometimes my following it causes it to change but that’s okay. Path of least resistance, Tao, etc.

What I’m not doing is following lines someone else drew on a map – I’m not trying to make, say, Detroit techno. If I did that, I’m sure I’d have a whole list of things that I had to do better to not embarrass myself, and I might get discouraged.

I’m not saying there’s no struggle. While I can sit down in my little studio corner and make music pretty easily, it’s only been in the last couple of years that like I had developed discipline, flow and a stylistic focus I can stay with (and thus no longer feeling like kind of a fraud or amateur). And I still get consumed by self-doubt or GAS at times, and there are whole related disciplines that I wonder if I should get into and fear I would get lost in (like serious DSP, building instruments, live performance etc.).

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I did the “genre” thing for a while but didn’t find it satisfying. I didn’t know what really I was adding to what others had done. there was always the vague notion that I would “hybridize” a certain genre with what i was actually listening to at the time. But in truth I wanted to go fully ahead into that indefinable something that I could never quite reach. I realized at some point, just listen to the sounds that come most naturally from the gear. That was the thing, in pursuit of “genre” I had forgotten how to listen! Buf then the task became to evolve processes that also were suggesting themselves, that also best fit into that. Over time, this was the new “genre”, or new individual approach. It’s anything but a situation with “absolute freedom”. the constraints are my gear, my habits, my process. Each iteration constrains the next. How it came nobody can say. I certainly don’t feel I invented anything or deserve any credit. I decided to just be open, and accept what was already coming forth. Aletheic freedom. I decided to choose the only possibility that presented itself rather than cast myself as “lord of all possibilities”. But this also meant releasing myself from all “genre” preconceptions that had made me so unhappy.

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Cetrainly electronic music has made the concept of virtuosity more relative. Brian Eno once said:

“The great benefit of computer sequencers is that they remove the issue of skill, and replace it with the issue of judgement. […] So the question becomes not whether you can do it or not, because any drudge can do it if they’re prepared to sit in front of the computer for a few days, the question then is, ‘Of all the things you can now do, which do you choose to do?’”

Virtuosity in electronic music is probably the ability to make decisions and to choose (making decisions in time, if you perform live, as Rodrigo puts it)
But that’s probably not the only factor. Things are less defined by tradition with electronic music. It’s a more chaotic system, and hence it gives more freedom.
I think not having the pressure to perform (in the sense of becoming virtuous at playing an instrument, or at classical composition) is by itself a good thing, though that can be a very positive driving force as well at times.

At the end of the day I think it’s important to note though that this puts more of a burden on our shoulders. There’s nobody telling us which tone or which chords are the right ones, we have to figure that out. So adhering to a genre does indeed help. More freedom means more decisions to take, more things to figure out, which on a certain level, makes you less free… ironically :slight_smile:
Please note that I’m saying this mostly as a provocation. I always felt quite oppressed by strict genres (as I’d call them).

And since I’m in provocation mood… isn’t anything we do always a “hybrid” to some extend? I mean, anything we do is a remix of things other people have done, which is a remix of what other people have done etc…
The difference is in how you mix things I guess.

Back when working hard on my drawing skills (for illustration) was the big focus on my life I was seeing many people copy other artists’ work and they were pretty good at it sometimes. But that always felt totally wrong and boring to me. Why do a bad copy of somebody else’s work? Does the world really need that?
With time I learned that copying is not only bad though. It’s how you copy that makes the difference. When you copy with a critical and analytical eye, you absorb the principles not the rules. Principles are what help you to understand the matter you are dealing with, and then apply those to your personal view of the world, your personal way of working. They become tools not the final product.
So from a learning point of view copying (and copying anything) is very valuable if done right. It’s also very valuable to develop one’s artistic voice I’d say.

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