One of the strategies for achieving excellence I learned at the 2010 IMMMS was “Aim Low, Get High”. Great things are built in small steps that incrementally make the result great. The key to success is having the tenacity to keep building until you are there and a sense of taste that allows you to realize the next steps you need to take. This approach works for all kinds of creative endeavors from music to theoretical physics. So let’s assume you have mastered your instrument and take it from there…
Popular culture portrays creativity as if a creative genius gets a great idea all at once. But that is absolutely not the case. I used to work with Douglas “Spot” Spotted Eagle at Sonic Foundry. One day while I was at the gym pumping iron in front of the TV, I saw Spot win a Grammy Award. I later asked him where he found the time to put out that great album while working at Sonic Foundry. He chuckled and told me it took years to get to that point.
If you are going to spend years on a project, you need to have an idea of where to go next at every stage if you are going to succeed. How do you do that? You have to develop a sense of taste, and that usually requires immersing yourself in the existing body of work in your chosen domain. When you do that, you will inevitably begin to develop a catalog of the work you like best. And once you have that catalog you should ask yourself what it is that makes those works stand out for you. By doing that you develop your inner compass that will help point you in the direction to greatness.
Albert Einstein was once asked how he thought differently than most people. Einstein’s answer was that most people, when given the task to find a needle in a haystack dig through the haystack until they find the first needle. But Einstein suggested he would dig through the entire haystack until he found all the needles. That kind of tenacity is exactly what it takes for greatness!
Can musicians apply this kind of tenacity to produce a great album? Yes they can! Say your goal is put out an album with 10 great songs. You could just write 10 songs and put them all on the album. But what if you wrote 20 songs instead and picked the best 10 out of those songs? Chances are you would end up with a much better result if you did. This concept can be applied at multiple levels of songwriting too: Try a few variations of melodies, chord progressions, lyrics, or instrumentation and see how it impacts your results!
So stick with it, and learn what you love about the music you like!