Practicing process

One of the reasons I write this blog is to share my process. I think it’s important that I share the ups and downs, the imperfect and the better than imperfect, the struggle, the slow baby steps towards achievement. In my opinion, success is built on a foundation of practice. Not perfection, not necessary production, but practice.

It seems to me there are some vital aspects of achieving change in our lives.

One: to assess where we are – good and bad. The “morning pages” suggested by Julia Cameron have this function. A daily practice of writing three pages of stream-of-consciousness whatever’s-in-my-brain leads to something. It gets the crap, the worry, the guck, the messy stuff out of our brain and down on the page. And it connects us to the creative flow. It does so, because it is something we do.

Over time, as we write what we feel, think, worry, we start to see patterns. I did something about my financial situation after writing about money worries every single day for three months. I set up a budget and I got a consolidation loan. I got tired of singing the same song and changed it!

And, I was surprised, after several weeks of morning pages, to realize that, for the first time in my life, I was hearing my own inner voice. It had been squashed and ignored for so long (because what everyone else wants, needs and thinks is waayyyyy more important, right?) it was very very quiet and I had to strain to hear it. How can I go on to #2 below if I can’t hear my own voice or assess my own feelings about what I’d like to do with the time that I’ve been gifted with?

Two: to visualize where we would like to go. This can be fairly general – “I’d like to have more creativity in my life,” “I’d like to be in better physical shape.” Or it can be specific – “I’d like to make that trip to Italy I’ve always dreamed of,” “I’d like to get back to playing the guitar,” “I’d like to take a photography course,” “I’d like to be more confident as a speaker.” The list is endless. Morning pages (and doing the tasks in ‘The Artist’s Way’) allow us to spill out our dreams and visions and fears. Because we’re in the flow every morning, before we go out to face the world, we touch base with the most important person in our lives, our best friend – ourselves.

Three: to begin the action(s) that will take us there. This is the crucial step. One of the reasons I like recommending morning pages is that it is action. It is a ‘do’. It’s too easy to read self-help books and talk to therapists and talk to friends. Change only happens through work, through struggle. We begin, not knowing how long it will take, or if it will work, or even where we will end up. But we begin, and we continue to begin, every single day. All those beginnings, in time, lead us. We find out more, we experience, our daily process is part of the quality of our lives. We do. We are in motion.

Four: to be conscious of what we say to ourselves along the way. We need to recognize that much of what our internal editor tells us is a feedback loop created by a part of us that thrives on negativity, stress, anger and frustration. This entity within us has a vested interest in us not changing, therefore, no matter what we do, it says bad things. “You’re too old,” “they’re just being nice,” “that was crap,” “who do you think you’re kidding,” “you may have done it once, but you’ll never do it again.” If we are not aware of what we say to ourselves, we run the risk of shutting down, turning off, stopping. The act of morning pages, and the act of taking up the threads of things we desire to do, these acts help us defeat the voice within.

Five: find joy in the little things along the way. Be awake and really taste that first cup of coffee. Be awake and smell the tang of the sea in the air when you walk to work. Notice the colours of the trees. If, on our way to work, we are in our ‘heads’, thinking about the day ahead, worrying about something that might happen, remembering what happened yesterday… then we are not in the present moment. But our body reacts to those thoughts as though they are happening – and we get stressed out. Returning to the ‘now’ is as simple as stopping to take a deep breath, and really being aware of that breath in and out. This is also something we can practice over the course of the day.

Morning pages, conscious breathing, conscious attention, visioning our lives and then taking steps towards that vision, these are how we practice process.

“As we are creative beings, our lives become our works of art.” ~ Julia Cameron

embracing slow growth

I’ve always been the slow and steady type. It takes me a long time to get things into my head, and an even longer time to make positive changes in my life. It seems to me that’s the way it has to be. Change happens, over time, as we take action towards our goals. If it happens too fast, it might not stick because we don’t have the foundational experience to support it. If it happens too fast, it might traumatize us because we haven’t built the strength to manage it. Personally, I think it’s better to practice 15 minutes a day consistently, than practice 3 hours once a week. It’s the daily application that moves us forward.

I have the philosophy that as I practice today, I might not see or feel any changes. The fact that I practiced today might not help me next week. But the fact that I practiced today, added with all the other todays I practiced, will make a huge difference 6 months from now.

A perfect example of this is my composing and production skills. Honestly, I knew next to nothing about producing in November 2006. I was sitting at a music conference with some people I had met on a songwriting forum, and I realized that I was talking to people who actually made money with their music. You wouldn’t know their names, but you’ve probably heard their music on shows like America’s Next Top Model, Ugly Betty, CSI, talk shows, etc. I decided, since I wanted to make money with my music too, that I needed to do what they were doing.

Up to then, I had been writing some instrumentals, but had very little in the way of tools or equipment to make them sound good. I wrote my instrumentals as midi with my keyboard or as notation in Band in a Box, and then used free Virtual Instrument (VI’s) plug-ins I downloaded off the internet to create the sounds. I wrote all kinds of stuff this way, but it didn’t have any hope of going anywhere.

After I got home from that conference, I bought my first orchestral program – East West Silver. It was one small section of the orchestra, and all I could afford. It was my Christmas present to myself. The problem was… the computer I had couldn’t run it.

I got a graphic design project, working with my sister, to design a textbook for a local college. I was pretty pissed, actually, to find myself working on it on Christmas Day because of issues with the client getting information and documentation to us. However, that contract, when it paid in January, was just enough to buy the custom-built audio computer that I needed.

After that, every couple of months, as I saved up the money, I added to my sound library. And during that time, I played and played and played and wrote and wrote and wrote. Many of my compositions, even with the new sounds, were still rejected for various reasons. I kept working at it and kept trying, and kept practicing. My hard drive is littered with tracks created and mixed during the next two years. I did produce some acceptable tracks and signed four to a music library – my first deal. I kept writing. I used my membership in TAXI as a measuring stick. If TAXI forwarded a track, I knew I’d done something right. Finally, in late 2008, all that hard work started to pay off, and I signed 10 tracks to another music library. In 2009, I started to sign more tracks still. In September 2009, I was pleased to be accepted by a prominent music library as a composer.

Still I consider this to be only the beginning of my five-year plan to sign enough music to be making a significant amount of money from it. Everything I sign now has the potential of bringing in income down the road.

More than that, though, is the fact that the daily work on music, the daily listening back critically to my own and others work, the daily working with tools, reading about composition and using sample libraries, etc etc… all this adds up to a level of experience that is the foundation for the future. These three years of effort, sometimes feeling like I’d never get it, have begun to pay off. I have much more to learn, more tools to get, more skill to attain. Thankfully. Keeps life interesting!

2005: Coffee Grind

2009: Data Stream (excerpt)

Creatively managing creative time

I was privileged to teach a class at a recent music conference. The class was called, "You Can Give the Industry What It Wants and Still Be Creative". It was taught by a team of 4 people: Suz Doyle talked about finding inspiration when you are blocked; Chuck Schlacter talked about how he researches opportunities and client requests, and illustrated how he sketches out the plan for a piece of music on a daily basis; John Mazzei talked about what it’s like to work with film directors as a composer, and the challenge of supporting the creative vision of the director while remaining true to one’s own muse.

I choose to talk about creatively managing creative time.

I was on a coaching call a while ago with Debra Russell and Nancy Moran, and Nancy talked about delegating tasks. Not just bookkeeping or web management… but the personal things you need to do around the house, or the errands you run. Her logic was, if you are self-employed, then everything you do is part of running your business. What a sense of relief I got when she said that! I’d been struggling with the house, shopping, laundry, and felt guilty about not being able to keep up with it all. It was huge weight off my shoulders to realize it was ‘ok’ to delegate some of that out. I asked my Mom to come in a couple of times a month (and paid her) to help me with the house, I found a local woman who would drive me to appointments or help me run errands (I don't have a car) in exchange for coaching.... and more.

Here's how I got myself organized:

1-Make a list of daily, weekly and monthly tasks. That’s everything you need to do. Pay bills, shop for groceries, go to the gym, etc.

2-Set up a calendar. I have mine set up as a table in Word. Preferably you want something where you can see the month at a glance.

3-Now schedule your tasks. Try to be efficient. For example, if you are downtown on Friday afternoons, then you schedule all your downtown errands on Friday afternoon, that’s when you get your photocopies, pick up toner from the office supply store, mail your packages, do your banking. If you set aside time on Saturday morning to clean house, maybe that’s also a good time to do laundry. You can throw a load in and then go clean the kitchen. If, like me, doing laundry means a trip to the Laundromat… well, I have enough towels and clothes to go one month before I need to do laundry. And when I do laundry, I put everything in the washer and then go to the grocery store and/or drug store, do any banking. Sometimes I’ll even call my mom from my cell while I’m sitting in the Laundromat. I can cross ‘call Mom’ off my list ;)

I mentioned in the class that I order my groceries on-line. There is a local company ( that deliver organics. I order those supplies on Mondays and they are delivered Thursdays. I then go to the store once a week (usually Wednesday morning) and get anything I need that they don’t deliver. I order on-line for the convenience, but also because I know that if I get swamped or overwhelmed, the first thing that goes is shopping. That is not good for my health. So ordering on-line is not only time management, it’s health management, to get a box of beautiful fresh veggies and fruit every week, encouraging me to eat sensibly.

Because I work at home, I’m able to manage cooking by preparing veggies for the steamer, and plugging it in before my last session starts, or using the crock pot. I tend to eat pretty much the same things most of the time. I make a meal plan for the week – this is not only good for time management but it’s a good budget measure as well. I always try to cook enough for two meals so I only have to warm things up.

Included in your schedule of ‘tasks’ should also be some daily personal time, just to be… to walk, to dream, to meditate, to be still. And also include, on a weekly basis, time to go over your schedule for the following week, plan your budget, balance your chequebook, make your grocery list & plan your meals. I allow 2 hours for this on Saturday morning.

4-The next step is to make a list of projects you want to work on. This could be musical collaborations, writing for opportunities, working on your album, etc. I have separate project sheets for library composing, co-writing, my album, and listings I plan to submit to. I have a project binder and in each section I put notes & emails for the different projects I’m working on.

5-Now look at your schedule, and plan when you will be in your ‘studio’. On weekends I plan 4-6 hours per day, during the week I plan 3 to 5 hours per day depending on what I have on. Allow time for social events…. Dinner and a movie – one night a week. Overall I schedule about 20 hours studio time as a minimum. Because I work for myself I’m in charge of my schedule. If you work full-time and you have a family, then your obligations are going to be different, and your available time for writing is going to be reduced. That’s life. We make choices and we need to see them through.

When you walk into your studio at the scheduled time, then you look at your list of projects and ask, ‘what is the best use of my time right now’, or ‘what is the most urgent thing to work on,’ or ‘what would I like to play with today’. Guard this time, don’t let other things eat into it. Use your weekly planning time to assess how well you are figuring out how to deal with your needs, and adjust accordingly.

It only makes sense to me that we should set reasonable goals, figure out what we need to get or to know, and then set out to save for that software, or set aside time to learn/practice, and use available resources (like songwriting forums) to get feedback on what we are doing, or even to share our process and ask for advice. We assess progress by looking back and asking… did I move forward over the past few months? Am I writing better, more consistently, did I finish what I set out to do?

I recommend these books:
“Getting Things Done” by David Allen
“The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron

The handout I distributed at the class is available here:

~ ready, set, go

Ah well what to report, what to report. Big Brothers came and took away a big bag of clothes and a box of shoes. The junk van came and took away old beat-up furniture, old junk, old carpet, et al. Feels good.

Been working hard to get prepared for the music conference I go to every November. Burned some CDs with examples of my composing in case I get close to a music library representative... and a few CDs with worktapes of songs to get feedback on.

Have any number of projects to work on when I get back. Three more instrumental demos to pitch, and then 21 instrumental cues to lengthen and do final mixes for. Also a number of collaborations need finishing up, and I have a few listings I'd like to write for. Also, 2010 is going to be the year of the album. I figure now I'm getting broadcast quality tracks signed by music libraries, I'm ready to produce the album I've been dreaming of the past couple years.

Am also playing a gig on December 11th that's a mix of original and traditional songs of the season, we'll have to kick up the rehearsal schedule when I return.

I'm on a 'tips and techniques for film/tv composing' panel at the conference, and I'm also one of a team teaching a class in how to give the music industry what it wants while still being creative. A little nervous about that, but hope I can remain calm and say something useful, lol.

T'was a nice day today, and weather reports are good for the week :)