As any avid reader knows, finishing a book can be bittersweet. You grow emotionally attached to diving in and escaping the world. Like a great vacation, the more you get into it, the less of it there is left to enjoy. When I got my copy of Making Music by Dennis DeSantis, I devoured the first section, Problems of Beginning, in a day or two. Problems of Progressing, the second section, was savored at a more relaxed pace and I allowed some of the concepts to seep into my consciousness before moving on. Ironically, I got stuck on the third section, Problems of Finishing. Like many of may favorite books, I had a problem finishing Making Music because I didn't want it to be over!
I really loved everything about this book. It's organized in a perfectly simple way: Here's your problem, and here is a way to solve it. The advice is bite-sized in its delivery, but the wisdom lasts long beyond the short pages it came from. I've read so many books on creativity that focus on the abstract and may leave the reader inspired, but with nothing practical to grab onto. This book is all concrete and specific in its direction. It gives a specific course of action to take, 74 of them, as a matter of fact.
I'd like to distill the 74 Creative Strategies into one important lesson. Unfortunately, you might not like what I have to say.
The final strategy in the book is called "Fail Better." It leaves the reader with the idea of practicing finishing your projects. Think about, finishing is the last thing you get to do in a project. And if you are like me and pretty much every musician and producer I know, it's the thing you do the least often. I start a project all the time, but truthfully, I finish only a small percentage of them. DeSantis advises readers to finish projects even when you realize that they might suck. It's painful to work on something and realize that all your work has only led to something that you don't even like. It feels like a gigantic waste of time. But this is where you take your lemons and make your lemonade. It's not all lost. If nothing else, a project like this is a chance to practice finishing. It's working on your follow-through. So put in the work, suck it up and finish, just for the sake of finishing.
And that leads me to the painful lesson of the book...
Making Music is Hard Work
I think many of us have this idea of making music (or any kind of art really) as this glorious form of expression, in which we release our ideas and emotions into a beautiful tapestry of sound. We picture the triumph of writing something we truly love. But when we actually sit down to make music, we are confronted with the reality that making music is hard work.
It's a job with no right answers. It's not like cleaning the floor. When you are working, you can see the floor is not as dirty as it used to be; you know you are on the right track. It's not so with music. There's complication along the way. Different parts of your mind are fighting each other. Your creative side is battling your judgmental side. There's no right answer. And if you are trying to do something truly original, there is no frame of reference. You are driving in the dark with the headlights off. With all that uncertainty, it's very easy to feel defeated, to quit, to throw in the towel, to delete your project and start a new one, which can ultimately lead you to the very same place of despair. A floor either gets cleaner or doesn't; it's easy to measure.
So as I finished the final chapter of Making Music, one thing stuck out more than any other: most of what we do as producers is hard work. It's not all boundless inspiration and jobs well done. In fact, if I'm being honest, I leave a day of music making and production feeling frustrated and defeated about as often as I feel successful. The secret is to keep showing up and putting in the work.
There's a lot of great advice and wisdom in Making Music. It's unquestionably one of the best books I've ever read on the creative process, simply because of how specific and practical it is. But the truth is, there is no magic formula within its pages. It offers is a collection of ways to get to work. It offers possible directions to turn and techniques to try. It does not offer the ultimate untold secret of successful artists, because there is no one such thing. The only secret is get to work. Keep pushing. You will bleed, you will sweat and you will cry. You will struggle, you will fail. But, as my martial arts instructor says, you must "embrace the suck." Like so many things in life, it's a case of "no pain, no gain."
I have no doubt that Making Music will inspire and motivate you tremendously. I will keep my copy in my studio and refer to it like a writer does a thesaurus. But make no mistakes, the only way to move forward is pure unmitigated hard work. End of story.