The Satisfaction of Figuring Something Out
A thumbnail from  my rendition of the Star Spangled Banner .  You're welcome, USA.

A thumbnail from my rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.  You're welcome, USA.

I began playing trumpet in 5th grade.  I could say it was my first ever musical instrument, but I'd be lying.  My music studies began with my general music class in elementary school that led to such offshoots as handbells group, recorder, and (my fiancée's favorites) advanced recorder.  But playing music began in earnest with the trumpet and so I always have a soft place in my heart for tooting the ol' horn. 

"Firsts" have a major significance in many people's lives.  When young, an experience by definition takes up a larger portion of your life because you only have so many portions accumulated to date, and so the significance is heightened: first kiss, first time away from home, first beer.  If you're lucky all of these things coincide to form an epic weekend when you're 15.  My personal musical trajectory branched off from learning the trumpet and went into the world of large brass (trombone, euphonium) in high school, as well beginning my foray into the other side of matters audio, namely audio production.  But as my world expanded evermore with picking up a cheap drum set, songwriting and keyboard playing, I always had my trusty trumpet case nearby, now lousy with band stickers and other adhesive musical swag I've acquired here and there.  

Picking up the trumpet again has been a 2-fold endeavor.  1) It's a great sounding horn and fun to play, and 2) since I've been playing Rhodes I've become fixated on lugging as little gear as possible to and fro, and with a trumpet you get something the size of a briefcase whereas with electric piano you get the privilege of hauling something similar to a casket with a dead body inside.  And so this process of reacquainting myself with trumpet has put me into a mode of remembering my old trumpet playing process, as well as what it means to have a knowledge deficit and how that void is then filled.

As I grow older and tend to have fewer "firsts," I start to feel the dull sting of that old adage: you can't teach an old dog new tricks.  Sayings are fun because they're both catchy and kitschy and the truth embedded in them can be powerful to uncover, especially in a personal manner.  So with re-learning trumpet, I'm finding it's more so an exercise in actually learning how to learn, which isn't so much hard as it is tricky.  Hours in the day seem to fly by and responsibilities tend to pile up and the perceived capacity to hunker down with a trumpet feels sometimes almost inappropriate.

What's weird is the trumpet playing knowledge is actually still there but it's the physicality of playing that's most out of shape, specifically the tiny little muscles in my mouth that (like the other muscles in the rest of my body) are weak and feeble (SEE: above picture).  I still have the finger movements and general posture of a horn player, but the "chops" are rough and I find myself tired and spent after short bouts of playing.  But I've been committed to getting this ball rolling again and I'm already seeing the small gains achieved day after day, and it feels good to latch on to these small increments of progress.  Even more so, it's the stuff that I am now newly learning that I too feel great about.  My musical universe has expanded since the 5th grade and the 4 notes it takes to toot out "Mary had a Little Lamb" just isn't doing it for me any more so part of the fun has been learning the tunes that currently float my boat.  And this has been the enjoyable mental revisitation I've been indulging in: I remember back to the days when I would sit for hours cranking away at a passage or a run of notes and not being able to get it, but after a while it would seem to fall in place and then it becomes something that you can't imagine ever not being able to do.  I'm dialing up that same gratification now, it's like I can feel the neural pathways being etched into my brain with each new riff I get under my fingers.

I've also realized that the every new song I learn is my most favorite current song, so the process of building up my mental songbook is like a continual excitation of the joy of playing music.  Learning the inner workings of someone else's tune is like taking a puzzle apart and seeing the amazing and beautiful connections of how the pieces actually fit together.  It's great, and helps immensely with the reverse engineering process that can be so pivotal to understanding music, be it for the songwriter or the audio engineer.

Karl Benitez
Calendars & To Do Lists: organization is fun!

I had the minor epiphany recently that life is all about keeping a schedule and sticking to it.  This seems almost too simple.  But as I go about filling up my days, I've begun to lean heavily on a well organized calendar and I realized that maintaining an air tight schedule appeases my OCD brain with the added benefit of making me feel like a real go-go busy bumble bee.  And since just showing up seems to be an important aspect of living and/or being successful, I figure marking down dates, times, and locations is a solid way to get this junk sorted out.  It may be trivial, but I feel like getting the ol' Google calendar synced up with my iPhone has been a real life game changer.  The future is now!  Getting these devices to talk to each other makes logging and checking these appointments a breeze.  Sometimes scheduling can be fun!

9am: get pollen, 901am: get pollen, 902am: get pollen, 903 am: get pollen....

9am: get pollen, 901am: get pollen, 902am: get pollen, 903 am: get pollen....

Speaking of fun (boring) stuff, another iPhone productivity essential has been the free app GoTasks.  It is both painfully simple and unbelievably effective.  Creating lists is great and GoTasks lets me make a butt load of them.  I have the standard "To Do" list which ranges from ranking things I just gots to do at the top, while hiding a bunch of crap I feel like I need to do at some point but keep on putting off listed more towards the bottom.  It's more like a collection of high priority items and semi-longterm goals.  Not the purest To Do list ever, but I like throwing that junk in there just in case I ever get crazy enough to actually tick it off.  And when items sit stagnant on there long enough... just make a new list!  Something like: "Bullshit I Ought To Get To."  Other essential lists include a grocery list and  things that are worthwhile to keep handy like a list of gear to bring camping, or random, crazy ideas that pop into my head.  The major selling point on this app is that it too syncs up with the Google by signing into Gmail, hitting the little drop down arrow in the upper left and clicking tasks.  Now there is seamless management of my many, many lists between iPhone and computer.  These little pieces of tech know-how may seem pretty elementary but I've found them to be infinitely useful and indispensable.  Embrace our robot friends, they're here to help.

Fix my Mix: The Never Ending Search for Approval
We all suck.

We all suck.

A new trend in Internet buggery that's been popping up in my Facebook feed has to do with guidance and insight in improving one's audio mix or music production tracks.  I'm seeing things like "Warning: Don't Read This Unless You Are Frustrated With Recording And Mixing Your Music."  It's a typical motivational and self-help method that you would see in any other sector: finance, weight loss and diet, love life.  Kudos to audio engineering for becoming important enough in culture that we get our own vulture industry preying on the meek!  We did it!  This is a fascinating new addition to the creative space and it tells me a couple things:

1) people are out there making music

2) the fear of making bad art is palpable and persistent

This second point is interesting to me because it demonstrates such a base level of intimidation and self-doubt that people have when "putting themselves out there."  It's fucking weirdly scary!  Not even the standing on stage/performing part of it (which is its own kind of creepy monster) but even the slightly disconnected act of making a thing and then presenting it to the world for consumption while not necessarily standing next to it (i.e. releasing a written work, posting a video, writing this stupid blog, finishing a song or an album of songs and then tepidly asking your friends and loved ones to listen to it and then hopefully like it/reward you with many thousands of dollars for it).  Excellent horn blower, music educator and long-ago neighbor Steve Tresler has enlightened me to some interesting facts about fear re: making music.  He's blogged about the difficulty of the creative process and, even better, offered some answers to this oft debilitating mental state.  It's scary to suck and even scarier to suck publicly.  If only there was someone who could come along and make it so we don't suck...

Enter: the people who can make you magically not suck.  Those who offer coaching, guidance, insight, a wealth of experience, an "expert" ear or eye, the uncanny ability to take your bullshit and make it actually good.  "All our problems are finally gone, and this time it's permanent!!"  It's not that this path of artistic development is unethical, but more so that it's not terribly gratifying.  You can pay someone to listen to your raw tracks and they can even deliver something that seems like an objective improvement from anything you could have produced (i.e. louder, "richer," better stereo positioning, nifty sounding FX, etc.) but ultimately what you're doing is deferring to someone else the final approval of the "goodness" of the finished product.  And like I said, this is absolutely fine because some people work well that way.  People are specialized in certain areas and a hot mess in others and artistic cooperation can and should develop all the time.  But it's important to know the difference between "I work well with this producer because he accounts for my creative deficits" and "I suck at mixing so I need someone to fix my bullshit because I'll never be good."

The crux of this phenomenon relies on people who need to appeal to authority and those who decide that they indeed are the authority.  Beyond the delineation of "you are the hapless audio engineer" and "I am the skilled producer who regular turns shit into solid gold" there are no actual inherent ability deficiencies or magical powers respectively possessed by either type of person.  Relying on someone to "fix your mix" gets at a need to feel good and whole, and that the answer always lies outside of yourself.  Undo this toxic thinking!  You hold the power!!  Throw down your chains!!!

"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, I can EQ a kick drum so that it doesn't sound too boxy."

"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, I can EQ a kick drum so that it doesn't sound too boxy."

FULL DISCLOSURE: I've appealed to my fair share of authority.  I went to the Art Institute of Seattle for 6 quarters and graduated with an A.A.A. in Audio Production so I am by no means saying one ought to travel the path unhindered by external influence because the world is only full of exploitative snakes trying to chip away at your precious resources.  They answers lies somewhere in the middle, and gaining a solid education in the many facets of audio production prepared me in any substantial way, but it by no means "fixed my mix."

The joy in this process comes from making some stuff that kinda sucks, because as time goes on you actually end up enjoying it a little.  The real killer is your own closeness to the thing.  The art I make is, in a small way, a chunk of me.  So when it sucks, I suck.  And that's a crumby feeling so just avoiding it altogether removes ever coming to terms with being utterly terrible.  And now, consider the art of another...  I find it quite easy to consume someone else's shitty work and still love it, flaws and all.  Some of my favorite things ever are lo-fi, gritty, slapped-together, and authentically rough.  I'm a Pavement fan after all, and I don't think there is anyone (Stephen Malkmus included) who can objectively say "Trigger Cut is the prototype of high art and a template for sonic representation of the human condition."  In reality, it kinda sucks.  But it's OK to suck because everyone sucks and it's one of the more relatable feelings an artist can offer.

These guys suck... in a good way

These guys suck... in a good way

My solution: do a bunch of stuff, have it be shitty, and try to get a little better with each new thing.  It's horrible advice because it is neither quick nor easy (nor painless) but it is how you actually develop and not just use someone else's artistic aesthetic to glob on to your own thing.  It's scary because you remove the safety net.  If you send a mix off to an audio coach and she mixes it and you release it and your life still sucks well then that audio coach probably sucked and it's all her fault anyway and what else can you do?  What else you can do is keep trying, keep failing, keep dialing in the things that you like, push yourself to make something unique and true to you.  I am literally just imagining saying all these things to myself in the mirror during an epic, self-pump up speech, so no more talk!  Time to go out and do.

Blog Post Zero, or: nobody asked for this but you’re getting it anyway.
This is your life.

This is your life.

Starting projects is hard.  I suck at it.  I’m starting to embrace the “tough self-love” mentality by repeatedly berating myself into doing things.  I’ll lie around in bed and consider all of the many ways that I’m a useless piece of shit and this seems to help me to focus on the remedy for this problem, which is to just do it.  This blog post is one of the many pills I’m going to be swallowing in an attempt to cure my chronic apathy. 

I’m not entirely giving in to the countdown-clock-towards-death way of thinking, but I am starting to see my time - my waking, productive life - as a bucket with a small hole in the bottom and every day when I wake up the bucket is full of water, and every night before I go to bed the last drop trickles out and the process starts again the next day.  This analogy is shit because a bucket with a draining has nothing to do with artistic fulfillment or creative productivity and why keep filling the bucket up anyway?   But keeping the quality of this initial blog post low gives me an easier bar to step over for the next one, and thus motivates a subsequent post.

“Whatever you're meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

-Doris Lessing

Who’s Doris Lessing?  No, I’m asking because I don’t know... I heard Greg Proops drop this gem of knowledge on his hilariously erudite podcast and the quote stuck with me like a scar on a tree struck by lightning.  It speaks to the relentless agony of feeling like a worthless piece of unproductive shit.  It speaks to the anguish of staring at a blank screen and foolishly convincing yourself that you have something better to do.  Lessing (via Proops) chides me for being lazy, but does so in a way that sounds knowing and understanding, it’s almost like this isn’t a novel doubt of mine, but something stitched into dreadful existence.  Props to Proops.

But really,  who is  Doris Lessing??

But really, who is Doris Lessing??

Well, this blog has gotten off to a dreary start!  I can tend to have a paradoxical way of thinking: I see things as pointless and empty but then use this bleak mindset as launch pad and motivator to, instead of wallowing in nothingness, make meaning and aid in my own creative purpose. The only thing stopping me is trivial preoccupation on the hole in the bucket, as if worrying about the water draining out will stop it or even slow it down a little (it won’t).

Part of me feels like this blog post is akin to proclaiming, “Guys!  Did you hear??  The sky is blue!!”  I am not the first to feel unproductive and worthless, and I won’t be the last.  But it is incredibly cathartic to get these woes down in black and white, and it helps me to move on to the next thing. The structure that is my Body of Work will be built brick by brick and when that last bucket of water drips its final drop, there will be beautiful things left over because I decided to do something rather than nothing.