Two Games

This week I have been thinking about two games we tend to play. One can be really damaging, unless you play it in a really specific way. The other you must play in order to do it right. Are you intrigued? Good! Here we go…..

#1 The Comparison Game

When we learn music, we are usually part of a group of students, lead by a teacher. Right away our comparison starts, both horizontally to our peers and vertically to our mentor. We rate where we fall in the class. We try to be as close as possible with the person who’s clearly at the head of the line, but at least we know we are better than that other person bringing up the tail. We find comfort in the range – a controlled spectrum in a specific environment.

Once we make it out of the education arena and into the real world the Comparison Game levels up in a big way. Now we are competing for work against our peers….and sometimes against our mentors as well! That’s a mind-#$&% for sure. At this point the mental torture of comparison can start to become aggressive. We look at the journey of people around us and think: how did they get that? What is special about their music? Who do they know? How did they form that relationship? And then the next set of questions turn us back on ourselves: Why can’t I write like that? Why don’t I know those people? Why Am I Not Getting Those Gigs?!?!

The Television Academy concert this week featuring the documentary music of my mentors and peers.

People get the gigs they get for many different reasons: their particular sound, relationships, their musical background, the brand they have created for themselves, their previous credits, their previous mentors/employers, the list goes on. There are many aspects to the equation which results in them landing that particular project. And then sometimes it is simply luck: right place at the right time. Because of this multi-faceted reality it is largely pointless trying to figure out how to duplicate that success. You could do what you suspect is the same thing but get very different results.

Now we are even more exposed to the success of our peers. We can see it on every social media platform. I know for me, my primary use for social media is marketing (secondary use: cat fandom, followed closely by connecting with family and friends) so if you follow me you will hear about every project I am doing. But when you have a bad day, jumping on social media and seeing everyone say “Look at the great work I am doing! Everything is awesome!!” can be absolutely devastating. I think it is entirely appropriate for people to use social media for marketing but it can be a real slap in the face when you are low.

So how do you deal with this game? As we discussed a few weeks ago feedback is important. Comparing yourself to others can also be healthy. I love collecting stories of how people got into the composing game and where that journey took them during their career. The stories are so different, and so is mine to everyone else’s. You can be inspired by what people are doing with their career. The projects they take on, their work ethic, their specific range of activities which feed back into their music. For example, I am in awe of my electronic composer friends like Drum & Lace. She DJs and does fantastic synth showcases that combine music and visual art. That is freaking awesome. What a brilliant way to present her music!

Thomas Goss talking orchestration at the Academy of Scoring Arts.

Today I spent the morning at the Academy of Scoring Arts. The special guest for this session was Thomas Goss, a composer and orchestration genius based out of New Zealand. He was giving feedback on submitted orchestrations. It was a wonderful experience to see a variety of composers’ orchestration approaches and then hearing the very thoughtful feedback of Goss. I learnt a lot. I also heard things which I don’t necessarily agree with but gave me so much food for thought. Then tonight I went to the rehearsal of Pulling Back the Curtain – a concert by Helix Collective featuring the work of composers who also do support work for other composer. My work is on this program along with the work of fellow JMH-er Joseph Carrillo and seven other fab composers.

I am so grateful that today I was emotionally and mentally in a space where I could enjoy the work of my peers; learn from them, appreciate the wonderful and unique approaches they take to their craft. But friends, I am not always in that place. Not by a long shot.

Six of the nine composers on the Pulling Back The Curtain concert, with conductor Phil Popham.

So the question is: in this moment for you, today, in this hour, does looking at your peers and mentors feel helpful or damaging? Can you listen to what others are doing and be inspired? Or in this moment does it feel like it is going to break your heart and make you feel less than? If it is the former, keeping looking and take notes. It is the latter: Look Away.

You need to control what you are putting in to your mental space and there are often times when staring at what other people are doing is not at all helpful. So don’t. I encourage you in these moments to play a very different comparison game. Compare you to you. Look how far you have come. Compare this year’s projects to last year’s. Look at how much the production quality of your music has improved. Celebrate your wins, regardless of how small. You can also use this time to be strategic: what aren’t you doing that you want to be doing? What contacts should you follow up on? Where do you feel there is room to improve and how do you want to do that? This is why it is so important to track your own progress. It makes this kind of comparison easier and also empowering. When you are feeling the weight of other people’s success, focus back on you, your work and make a plan.

This is the perfect point to introduce our second game of the blog……

#2 The Long Game

This is a game you have to start playing. So important. The challenge with “success stories” that we all hear about on the webs or from the really outgoing person in line at the coffee shop (warning, that may be me – I just have a tendency to talk enthusiastically to strangers) is that the stories seem to focus on the “overnight success”. Did you hear about Fran? She was a nobody and then a somebody, Just Like That. Now we all know that a lot of work went into that success. We know. We’ve read Gladwell’s Outliers and know about the 10,000 hour rule. (You haven’t? Read it). We all say it: it’s going to some time. But we really need to KNOW it. Own this fact: this is going to be a marathon.

We fantasize others’ success. We think: wow, they just got that one break and then everything was great, the work just came rolling in. Bzzz; Wrong. You have no idea of the struggles they are going through in the career and in their lives. The ups and downs that don’t make it to FB or their Insta story. Their own personal juggle. Everyone is dealing with their own marathon and for the most part you will not hear about it. You just need to assume it is happening. Don’t glamorize other people’s lives, compare yourself to that fantasy and then feel shitty about your own life. It is the most pointless waste of energy I can possibly imagine. This is the mental discipline aspect of this creative existence. Focus On You.

One aspect of the long game is figuring out exactly where you are planning on going. What does success mean to you? What does it look like? You need a destination otherwise when you strategize you may send yourself in the wrong direction. What kind of music do you actually want to be writing? What is the composing project that really fits you? Get as specific as you can. Write it down. Make a plan.

Another aspect is figuring out if you still want what you wanted a few years ago. We change. Our needs and desires change. Our circumstances change. Sometimes we have a tendency to be stubborn and keep going down a path that honestly is no longer working. There’s a great book by Seth Godin called “The Dip” (I believe I have mentioned it before). It explores tools which help you identify what is a temporary setback and what is a situation no longer worth pursuing. Be nice to yourself, and allow yourself to course correct and don’t force yourself down a path that you, five years ago, thought was a good idea. Things change. Adapt.

For Your Information: My Music Life Thus Far

  • Studied classical music through grade 10. Goal: career in classical performance.
  • Started studying jazz starting grade 11. Goal: jazz singer.
  • Age 19 moved to America. Goal: jazz singer.
  • Age 21 frustrated and isolated. Quit music. Goal: doing admin in medical insurance field.
  • Age 22 missing music desperately. Exploring music career options.
  • Age 23 undergrad in Jazz music. Goal: jazz singer AND composer.
  • Age 25 quit music. Exhausted. Goal: doing admin in renewable energies.
  • Age 27 back in music. Goal: teaching music.
  • Age 28 teaching music at elementary school.
  • Age 29 teaching music at elementary school and doing masters is music ed.
  • Age 30 teaching, doing masters and miserable. Goal: composing for a living.
  • Age 31 discovers media scoring. Goal: doing media composing for a living.
  • Age 32 moves to LA to continue pursue a career in media scoring.
  • Age 40 still in media scoring and LOVING IT.

I had to keep adapting. It was a convoluted journey with a lot of twists and turns. I love where I am right now and it feels like it fits me perfectly. But I am always checking in with myself, seeing what is working, what isn’t. Starting Joy Music House was not part of my plan three years ago but now makes complete sense. In another three years it may be a different scenario.

To build a career in the arts – or really any field – you need to have a long term view. And since you are going to be on this ride for a while, you might as well enjoy it, right? Try and be present and thankful for where you are right now. You are further along than last year, you are learning, you are growing. Yes, you could do better, but that’s always going to be a thing. Get used to it.

To be in this space, you need to get used to being uncomfortable, for pretty much the whole journey. I have not met a lot of comfortable creatives. You’ve heard about the lobster right? Their shell is hard but their body inside is constantly growing. In order to continue their growth they need to bust out of their hard shell. Painful process. And then you know what happens? The whole process starts over. Their outsides turn into hard shell. They keep growing. They bust through again. Read more about it here.

If we are living this life right, we will be like the lobster. Constantly growing, hurting, breaking through barriers and preparing for the next round. Exhausting, I know. But I would not have it any other way. Standing still sounds super boring. So, my friends, Get It. See you on the long haul.

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