Archive for August 27, 2013

Advice to Beginners

I don’t know if you’re a musician. If you are, I don’t know what kind of musician you are. Maybe you’re a songwriter; maybe you’re a classical pianist; maybe you’re a didgeridoo player. Maybe you’re a poet, a sculptor, or a choreographer. Throughout this article, I’ve used the word “songwriter,” but hopefully you can adapt this advice to your own creative pursuit.

I also admit it’s pretty darn bold of me to give advice to beginners, when I am in so many ways just a beginner myself. My music production company has been in business for less than a year. But on the other hand, I’m old enough to remember when CDs were invented and when mullets were cool, so I hope that with age comes some wisdom that others can benefit from. As I like to tell my mentees, “I’m not any smarter than you; I’ve just been around longer, so I’ve had time to make more mistakes than you.” (The mullet, by the way, was definitely a mistake.)

I’ve been thinking about what advice I wish someone had offered to me back when I was just a kid trying to write music, with the occasional crazy idea that someday maybe that would be the main thing that I’d be doing and that someone might be even crazier and be willing to pay me to do it. Alas, I can’t go back in time and offer this advice to myself, but the next best thing is to publish it here on the internet for all the kids (and those with child-like hearts) who still have these crazy dreams…

  • First of all, you aren’t trying to become a songwriter. You already are a songwriter. You’re just trying to become a better songwriter. You write songs? Then you’re a songwriter. The question of why you do it never even occurs to you; you just do it because that’s what you need to do. So ignore any voices (especially you’re own) that try to tell you that you’re not a songwriter yet.
  • Write a lot. Write often. Feel no shame in not finishing things (if something’s not working; abandon it and start something else). Learn the discipline of writing everyday, even if you don’t feel like it. (One of my favorite pieces of advice, although I can’t remember who said it: “So you can’t think of anything to write about? OK, write about that.”) Most of the fight is just showing up. I promise you that if you show up, the music will show up too.
  • Be prepared for inspiration to strike anywhere, anytime. Always carry some way of capturing those unexpected moments of inspiration. I recommend a miniature digital recorder. You can hum a melody, recite a few lyrics, even just describe an idea (like “hey, I should write a song about the old remains of a kite that I saw stuck in a tree”).
  • Collaborate. Most of the time you’ll probably write by yourself, but seek out opportunities to write with other people. Remember that co-writing, like love, doesn’t often blossom at first sight. The first (or second or third) time you write with someone, it might be hard and might not produce good results. But if there’s even a glimmer of hope that the collaboration can produce something that you can’t produce by yourself (assuming of course that you like that product) then go back for another try.
  • Spend time with people who know more than you. Oh man, how I wish someone would have told me this. You might even be surprised that older, smarter, more experienced people won’t mind having you around, as long you don’t become a nuisance. I saw a cool documentary about how Mark Knopfler likes to invite young musicians into his mixing sessions, as long as they stay silent and sit in the back and just watch. Some ideas: look for internships, go to symphony rehearsals (they’re usually free), take lessons, take someone to lunch and pay for lunch in return for just listening to their stories.
  • Be true to yourself. Don’t write the songs that you think people will like; write the songs that you like, then find other people who also like them. Imagine how awful it would be if you write a hit song in a popular style that you don’t like, and then everyone expects you to keep writing in that style.
  • It’s hard work. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. But it does mean that success is not going to come quickly or easily. You have to listen a lot, write a lot, practice your playing or singing, take lessons, etc.
  • Don’t wait for a song to be perfect before you record it or perform it live. Guess how many songs you’ll record if you wait until they’re all perfect…
  • Join a community of songwriters where you feel safe sharing your songs, getting constructive feedback, and being enouraged. You can find such groups through your school, your spiritual community, on bulletin boards at music stores or studios, and there are lots of “meetup” groups that advertise on the internet (for example at When you go to a songwriter meeting, each person is usually expected to bring one song to share with the group. There will probably be snacks and drinks and opportunities to talk to the other songwriters. This is a great way to find collaborators (see above) as well as people who know more than you (see above).
  • Get your music to be heard. There are lots of opportunities to perform live (count it an extra blessing if you get paid, but don’t expect it): coffeehouses, open mic nights, art galleries, farmer’s markets, talent shows, etc. And broadcast your music: Start a YouTube channel, a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, use a music sharing site (like SoundCloud or Bandcamp), etc.

Obviously the list could go on and on. But I really do think that these ten things are the things that I wish I had known dozens of years ago. Instead I probably was fixated on getting my mullet just right, or saving up some money to buy the coolest new keyboard (so that I could sound like everyone else).

It’s been years, but like I said, I’m still a beginner (just in different things than before), so I’d love to hear any advice that you can give me

House Concerts

Last Friday, something truly remarkable happened in my living room: A group of about 30 people came together; some musicians played;we all hung out together, listened to great music, and had great conversations. It’s called a “house concert.”

What is a house concert?


It’s pretty simple really: It’s a concert at a house. Note that I didn’t say “a party with music.” At a house concert, the music is the main priority. Sure, there’s probably food and drink, and there’s probably time before and after the concert to mingle, but during the concert itself, people sit, stop talking, and give their attention to the music.


How do you have a house concert?

First, you’ll need a house. It helps if the house has a piano (but maybe that’s just my bias as a pianist coming through). You’ll need a space in the house where people can sit comfortably and listen to music. The space needs to be large enough for the musicians too, of course. Not all houses are suitable for all kinds of music. I recommend having a space for 20-30 people. But there are no rules; that’s one of the things that’s so great about house concerts. You can have one with only 10 people, but I think with more than 30 people it starts feeling impersonal. You want musicians to be able to connect with the audience and for the audience members to connect with each other.

Next, find some musicians! Maybe you yourself are one. The concert could be one musician. Or it could be more than one. I suggest 30-60 minutes of music. It’s probably best to stick to minimal and acoustic genres. Your neighbors might not appreciate heavy metal or heavy bass and drum techno. Some ideas: a solo songwriter with acoustic guitar or piano, small classical ensembles (such as piano and/or a few string instruments), maybe a jazz trio (if you have the space for it).


And, lastly, invite people. Use all the same techniques you would if you were throwing a party: word of mouth, email, Facebook, web-based invitations, etc. When you invite people, make it clear that it’s a concert, not a party. Make it clear what time the music starts and discourage people from coming in late. (Tell people arriving late to come in the back door, so that they won’t disrupt the concert.)

The person hosting the concert can provide the snacks and refreshments, or you can go with a potluck approach, but I find that can lead to problems if not properly coordinated (for example, 20 people all bring desserts). You might ask for a voluntary donation (or just charge admission) to cover the cost of the food and drink. As a general rule, the host of a house concert isn’t going to make a profit; you’re just in it for the love of music.


Why have a house concert?

I think the biggest reason to have a house concert is to connect musicians and audiences. In a typical concert at a larger venue, a bunch of people sit in an auditorium, watching musicians on a stage, then after the concert everyone goes home. There’s no communication between musicians and audiences except for music in one direction and applause in the other direction. With a house concert, musicians can share more in depth and more personally about themselves and their songs, especially during the time after the concert when musicians and audience members are mingling.

A house concert is also a great way for music lovers to connect with other music lovers. If the right audience has been invited, there will be people there who don’t know each other yet, but they’ll have something immediately in common to talk about: the music that they’ve just heard. Chances are, people will meet other people who share similar music interests. (By the way, I met my wife at a house concert!)

The listening and viewing experience in someone’s living room can be far better than the back row (or even the front row!) in a club or auditorium. For classical music, it’s pretty amazing to watch virtuoso instrumentalists from just ten feet away.


It’s also a great way for musicians to promote their music. They can sell CDs, sign up people for their newsletter, and network with other musicians.

It’s a non-threatening environment for a musician to try new things. A songwriter can get feedback on new songs. Or a musician can try out a whole different musical style than what they normally do. Or a classical musician can run through material that they are preparing for a recital or a competition.

Lastly, as someone pointed out last Friday at my house concert: “An evening of great music in a great setting, shared with great people… do we really need any other reason to be doing this?”