This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.

Even when you're authentically fluent in your influences while bearing high standards, that doesn't mean you're equipped with all the skills you need to make the music you want to hear. There are other crucial skills that'll help you execute your intent effectively.

Diligence        

When we hear musicians talk about the great songs they've written, they talk of rewriting parts of a song over and over again. This practice comes from having a standard for how good a part should feel and not stopping until it's achieved. Far too often musicians know what they want to hear but give up before ever getting there. The skill to not stop until your vision gets realized goes by a few names like diligence, grit or persistence.

 Throughout the creative process, there are times it'll be annoying, hard, expensive, time consuming or even all of the above to achieve what you know can be reached emotionally with a song. The perseverance to keep going when you're not yet feeling emotional resonance is an essential skill of execution. This drive you need to get through annoying hurdles and stubborn collaborators can be daunting, but until you gain the resilience to pursue your vision, your music won't be as resonant as possible.

 Every detail you allow to go below your standards is usually one you'll regret for years to come whenever you hear that song. If you've put in countless hours of development into your music, letting all of this vision cease from being too scared or too tired to pursue the execution of it is the epitome of wasted opportunity. The standards and elaborative choices you've developed are the keys to making your song as resonant as possible. The diligent pursuit of getting your vision across is one of the most important skills you can develop.

Diligence is another muscle that needs development. Trusting your instincts and learning to elaborate on your ideas takes practice for everyone. When the going gets hard, you can't give up. Can you imagine how Queen felt halfway through layering the vocals for "Bohemian Rhapsody"? The vocals were recorded for 10-12 hours a day for three weeks straight. But without this exhaustive dedication, we wouldn't have one of the most ambitious songs in music. Now, you'll probably never go through this, but understand that emotional impact is achieved by focusing diligently on the details.

Proficiency

 One of the most vastly under-discussed skills of great artists is proficiency. Without it, you're handicapped by difficulty in expressing what you want to express. After your gut sounds an alarm, it's important to understand how to solve the problems that are giving you pause with the right solution. Novices who don't know a lick of music can tell you a part of a song doesn't feel good, but they're clueless to the remedies of what's causing this part to sound bad. Whereas an experienced musician or producer often knows the ailment along with how to cure it immediately. When you first develop these instincts, the solutions can be confusing, but with experience, you know you need to experiment until you find the solution that quiets your gut instinct. In time, you’ll know the solutions to the instinctual problems you commonly feel.

Bruce Springsteen puts it this way: "Your artistic instinct is what you're going on, but your artistic intelligence hasn't been developed yet." He goes on to say that in his earlier work he was instinctual by saying "that doesn't feel right, that doesn't feel right" over and over again. But he didn't know how to express more than that. Anyone who’s seen the documentaries of him taking six months to a year in the studio to record both Born to Run and Darkness On The Edge of Town can witness him not knowing how to get the sound in his head but continually saying it’s not right yet. Proficiency is knowing what the problem is caused by as well as how to fix it.

Proficiency is important since it allows inspiration to flow through you while it’s fresh and potent, instead of struggling to communicate it. By being fluent in how music works down to its smallest constructs, you're able to understand how to solve problems properly as well as communicate your vision.

But what does proficiency look like in music creation?

·       The ability to play your instrument well enough to get a good recording in few takes.

·       The ability to spot flaws and understand their cure, instead of experimenting or guessing at the solution.

·       Knowing your musical instrument and recording equipment well enough to get the sounds you want to hear.

·       Being able to focus on the subtle details of performance that enhance a song.

Proficiency Helps Keep Objectivity - We’re in a race against the loss of our objectivity, so if you're not proficient at your instrument, it'll require more listens as you punch in a part repeatedly. Proficiency allows us to move faster instead of having to punch in a part 400 times while hearing a song over and over; it allows us to get it in a few takes to maintain objectivity. An even greater time hack is when numerous members of the group can nail live takes from being proficient enough to play well together. This is why you hear of experienced musicians making records in a short period, while their imitators fail when they do the same.

Proficiency Helps You Make Good Decisions - As you write songs, you'll inevitably hit a point where a part doesn't feel right. One of the most common mistakes I see is that someone will think the chorus needs more bass to make it "bigger," so they'll EQ in more bass, when really the problem is the bass isn't playing in the lowest octave possible. Musicians who lack proficiency often blame the wrong problem to get to a solution that ends up crippling their song.

Proficiency Within Your Own Compositions - One of the biggest complaints producers have with musicians is that they don't even understand what's happening within their own songs. Whether it's guitar strumming patterns that aren't consistent between players or a bass riff being off from a kick by a 16th note. Getting to know the innermost mechanics of what makes your songs tick is essential to being able to fulfill your vision. Taking the time to delve into the details of what other instruments are doing along with how they work within a song, even if you'll never play that instrument, allows you to learn how the relationships work to get what you want creatively.

Proficiency In Imagining New Directions - Back in 1970, The Rolling Stones made Sympathy For The Devil, a movie directed by the amazing Jon Luc Godard. The movie chronicled the recording process of the song of the same name, along with some artsy short films thrown in for good measure. The movie shows the Stones trying extremely different versions of the song, trying to find the music that would match well with the extremely visual lyrics in the song. You hear countless other ways the song could've been played that don't evoke that same creepy vibe the song evokes in the version we all know today.

Today, we're able to hear countless covers and remixes that show the potential for how different a song can sound by heading to YouTube. When crafting your song, the first idea that comes to you isn't always the match for making the lyrics and music combination its most potent fit for the intent you're trying to convey. Trying whole new versions and imagining other ways a song can be helps you figure out its best form. Learning to vastly reimagine songs is one of the greatest proficiencies you can achieve.

Proficiency And Equipment - If you've ever read interviews with great musicians, you see that they often have very little concern for the equipment they create with. I frequently think of a video where Dave Grohl sits down to play on a toy drum set and, despite it sounding like a toy when others play it, the second he plays the set it sounds like a real drum set. It's easy to drool over analog synths, vintage guitars, tape machines and $4,500 tube compressors. I did it for many years and then, one year, I abstained from buying equipment. I got to know the equipment I had, instead of obsessing over what I could have. In that year I got immensely better at what I do, realizing you can hand a $4,000 Les Paul to an amateur and it sounds terrible, but a $40 guitar in a great guitarist's hands sounds amazing. Getting to know your equipment and its limitations always sounds great. Those who do this get the attention of the public that helps them buy more expensive equipment.

Proficiency In Diagnosing Problems - Even the most successful suits are inexplicably uneducated in what's wrong with a song when it's not right. "The mix" is commonly blamed when the tempo is too slow or there are huge flaws in the vocal performance that can’t be fixed by a new mix. Just because a suit is successful doesn't mean they're good at diagnosing what has gone wrong in a recording. I was once part of a large indie record that had ten mixers do mixes before realizing the engineer who tracked it had distorted every instrument so much the only answer was to re-track the whole record. There goes over $10,000 of mixing for a bunch of songs that needed to be re-recorded.

There are times you'll need to call out members of your team. If you don't understand every aspect of the process, you won't be able to communicate with them effectively. If I had a dollar for every person that incorrectly said "the tempos are all the same" when they're actually very diverse, but the songs are similar in feel, I'd be so rich I'd own all that equipment I just talked about lusting after. Being proficient in knowing what each step of the process entails is part of being able to control your creative results.

Musical Proficiency Allows You To Focus On Details

 Proficiency allows you to focus on the details that make a song outstanding. If you have to focus on remembering your parts, playing them properly or staying both in time and in tune, inevitably your attention has little room to focus on the subtle inflections that make a performance great. Proficient musicians don't have to worry about these concerns. In time, the details amateurs struggle with begin to be natural and no attention is even given to them. They learn their parts, executing them without considering basic factors like timing and pitch. Instead, they're able to focus on details and expression. They’re not struggling to play their parts, so they can think about changing up strumming parts, the subtlety of the velocity of their hits, small fills and tweaks that make up the details we love in a performance.

 This proficiency is easily seen in the exceptional singers of any genre. What Hayley Williams, Mike Patton, Kendrick Lamar, Joe Strummer and Michael Jackson all have in common is they're so proficient at enunciation, pitch and rhythm in their singing so they can focus on small details in their performances that make them come alive. You hear this in the details of inflection they all bring to their vocal performance. They're so past thinking about whether they'll hit a note or not, they can think about what a slight hiccup in their voice, putting their hand in front of their mouth, a cool pitch bend or accent does to their performance. These details are what make these singers so enjoyable to listen to. When you're concentrating on even getting to a note you need to hit, your attention cannot be brought to these details since doing the basics of your job takes up all of your attention. When your attention is devoted to struggling to play a part there’s no emotion in it, leaving your song devoid of resonance.

This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.