Song Doctor Blog
Read about how to write better songs
At certain points of your songwriting journey, you're likely to encounter some fairly overwhelming feelings that can well upset your applecart. One of these is the fear of failure, and it's an important one to face off.
Sometimes, it manifests as the infamous inner critic - quite shouty, telling you to not to even bother trying because YOU'LL NEVER MAKE IT, so GIVE UP AND GO HOME! Or it's more nebulous, presenting as a sneaky feeling of worry or discontent, which produces a lethargic slump, quite effectively derailing any efforts you actually want to make with your songwriting.
There's a reason we fear failure. Like many inbuilt fears, it's a protective mechanism, protecting us from the anxiety that comes with freedom and taking risks. But if you're trying to write new songs, or present new material to your band, a live audience or simply play an open mic, fear of failure can seriously limit us. It's 'safer' not to try anything new or different just because it might fail. It can strike major artists who have had significant success as well as rank beginners, and it's an enemy of creativity. We literally stop doing what we actually want to do, because we might muck it up.
So how do we deal with it?
I used to work with a festival director whose mantra if something didn't quite work was ' did anybody die?', and I think that's a pretty good place to start. The perception of what failure is is just that - a perception. Songwriting, like any other artistic practice, is full of 'failures' - ideas that don't quite work, demos that don't get listened to, competitions where songs aren't placed, bands that break up, funding applications that aren't successful, venue owners that don't return calls and albums that don't sell. 'Failure' comes with the territory, so get ready for it and reframe your perception of it.
Artistic endeavour is also rife with countless stories of musicians and actors and writers who persisted through what could only be described as 'high rotate fail' to achieve their goals and dreams, from the Beatles to JK Rowling to Fred Astaire, whose first screen test at MGM read "Can't act. Can't sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little." And Stephen Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times!
This is the second tactic. Be clear what success means to you by figuring out some goals. The more personal you can make them the better. A goal may be as simple as 'I want to write a song for our anniversary' or 'I want to enter my original songs in Rockquest this year' or 'I want to learn how to record my music' or more complex, like 'I want to tour the US next year' or 'I want to have my second album produced by ....'.
This means you measure your outcomes against yourself, rather than the rest of the loud and noisy world, and your perception of success is intrinsic.
Thirdly, songwriting demands 'failure' in many ways. The proportion of songs that are actually hits versus 'misses' is astronomical, but so are the number of choices available to us from chord sequences, melodic variations, vocabulary and production techniques. Give yourself the freedom to try as many choices as you can. Spending more time on songwriting with more 'attempts' creates an environment for incremental improvement, and success on your own terms. In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland described this experiment made by a ceramics teacher.
The ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.
Well, grading time came and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity!
It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat around theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
And I rather like Thomas Edison's wry remark after 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn't fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps. I failed my way to success.
Rather makes the term for inspiration, a lightbulb moment, even more relevant!
Talk more soon,
ps Two opportunities for Song Doctor Mailer readers to learn more are
1. Use this code SONGDOCTOR10 for 10% off any Mainstage course on the online music education site, Soundfly. Great folks and great info on a wide variety of music topics.
2. Join us on our Songwriters Retreat Feb 5-9 next year in Akaroa for a deep dive songwriting intensive, fully catered and accommodated. Treat yourself! Early bird tickets available until Jan 5.