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I’m sitting at The Spot. You know the one. On Boylston, sandwiched between that sorta-new burger place and the old-ish bookstore. Where we re-charge and catch-up. The one that starts with P- and ends with -avement.

I just walked out of 150 Massachusetts Avenue for the last time, and I feel an unshakable urge to stop and reflect. Note that my mother will attest that I’m not generally one for nostalgia. I waltzed out of her car on my first day of kindergarten like I was going to an amusement park. But this–this is different. I have four days left in Boston, and yet I’m paralyzed. Whatever gene is responsible for this feeling is screaming out, not to be denied another minute.

I’m sitting at The Spot, my Spot. Can you believe that I have a Spot? And all of you, my friends, know exactly what I’m talking about. You would even if I didn’t give it away up there. If that isn’t a home, I don’t know what is. It’s the rare times like these–your life's “little deaths" where, even for a moment, a transition thrusts upon you with a clarity oh so profound–it’s times like these that life reveals exactly what it’s made of. What I’m going to be missing when I violently up-root myself, again, bittersweet, too soon. 

The blurry and hurried mosaic of my life is slowing down for a moment, opening up to me with its dying breath. The small details–that particular beautiful hue of Boston’s blue sky (on a criminally gorgeous day, no less–not fair, Boston); the shell-against-your-ear sound of traffic, interrupted by incessant honks; the weird guy at that other burger place that insists on hitting on me every time I walk in. The significance of these threads is due to their apparent insignificance in everyday life–they’re important precisely because of how little I notice them on any given day. These are the backdrop upon which life takes place, and soon they will be gone.

I’m at The Spot, sitting at My Spot. The one I go to when I want to see my friends–or when I want to be left alone. My earbuds are in so people won’t bother me, even though I’m not listening to any music. It’s not that I don’t want to see them--I’ll get to that. I’ll say my goodbyes. But these are emotions that are difficult to put in to words, and that’s exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing right at this very second. Writing, creating, trying to make sense of my experience. Thankfully, no one has come in yet, which is great, because I might be lightly crying every now and then. 

These aren’t all happy tears. It’s been a weird year. A weird four years, shit. I’ve loved with abandon and it’s abandoned me every time. I’ve lost my life’s passion, found it again, found myself more often than I can trust.

My hair isn’t blonde–I’ve just grayed so much that it’s gone full circle.

But these are happy tears. I’m happy with where I am, with where I’m going. And as one of the greatest men I know says, “That’s proof that you’ve never had a single regret.” I’m inclined to agree.

I’m leaving one home for another. I’ll have another Spot, and all my friends will meet me there. But unlike the move from Indiana to Boston, the home I’m leaving still calls to me. I know I’ve left my mark in Boston, and in turn it's left its mark on me. There’s a connection there that won’t ever truly die, like a friend so close that you can go without speaking to for eight months and it not be weird. 

So…let’s wrap this up. This is goodbye, Boston. This is goodbye, for now, to the city I’ve come to love, and the people I’ve loved in it. Let’s not make this too sappy. 

Thank you, and goodbye.

They Were Dreaming

Black velvet envelopes the night,

its hush the rush of a sea shell hum,

incessant and mellow–

broken by a cry.

 

The voice, a martyr and ageless,

its bellow from a bell below

lighting up the sky.

 

Cold air above the void, it flies

across impoverished stone–

its makers momentarily dethroned–

from across a sea,

an empire.

 

The metropolis above

wears prosperity as disguise, 

the empire’s next of kin,

it sows what it reaps.

Demise.

Demise.

 

Two bells ring:

Reprise by a familiar stranger,

a formant of a different timbre,

it breaks the cry of his brother’s verse with another,

all enveloped in a sea shell hum.

 

The cries, they join,

black velvet breathes in night,

incessant and mellow.

Illuminating.

Bright.

 

They sing above the lights 

that keep them from dreaming,

creation in spite of, 

seeing, weeping, 

two bells lighting up the sky. 

Hulk Out

In one of the more memorable scenes from The Avengers, Bruce Banner reveals to his team how he manages to keep his green alter ego under control.

“I’m always angry.”

As a writer of both music and sometimes English, I’ve come to adopt a similar attitude. For years, I viewed my in-the-zone, down-in-the-nitty-gritty, actively-creative self as a sort of alter ego separate from my “everyday self” that I had to pull out whenever I wanted to create. Sometimes it came when I called, other times it resisted, and still other times it showed up unwelcome, pleading for attention at inopportune times.

A rather romantic view, yes. But entirely impractical.

So how does one always keep their creative “Hulk” close to the surface, ready to come up at a moment’s notice, creating something just as beautiful and full of depth as if they had been meditating on the subject for two hours?

It’s simple: throw out the side that does nothing for you. 

Discard the split-mindset. Instead, integrate ourselves as Bruce Banner does. Always ready. Throw away the non-essentials. This might mean major lifestyle changes, but that’s the price of being an artist. That’s the price of possessing the ability to unleash your own creative monstrosity and lay waste to the blank sheet of paper in front of you.

Some of the changes are little. For example, even a single beer will absolutely destroy any chance I have of writing well. Apparently, the Hulk can’t hold his liquor. So I can’t just go “have a beer.” I have to plan for that–if the work isn’t done, I have to turn down the request.

Some changes are much larger. You must welcome the inspiration when it wakes you up at 3am. As I’ve said before, you must embrace the chaos. You might want to begin meditating so as to further harness your focus and creativity–a road without end and a blog post for another day.

Your Hulk is the real you. Let it take you over.

It's All Nonsense

Save for maybe Danny Elfman, Howard Shore is almost entirely responsible for my desire to become a film composer. Elfman’s scores to Tim Burton’s two Batman films and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman piqued my interest; Howard Shore’s score to the Lord of the Rings trilogy solidified it.

I’m also a huge Tolkien fan in general, but that’s besides the point.

Shore not only writes some of the most detailed, expressive scores in Hollywood, but he's also an accomplished concert composer. He conducts all of his scores, and as far as I know keeps his number of assistants and orchestrators to a minimum. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition special features only spotlights a single assistant, and Shore was writing up to six minutes of music per day!

I stumbled upon (or, more specifically, Reddited-upon) an interesting video of him, entitled A Composer’s Dream. I suggest you watch it here before reading on.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about--for lack of a better term–-the “nature of composing.” How do we get in to the right state of mind to begin writing? Should we just let it “come” to us? But what if we have a deadline? (When do we not have a deadline?) How do we pick up when we’ve left off for a significant amount of time? Should I write in a DAW, or pencil and paper, or does it matter? Should the music totally come from an emotional place, or should I try and work in some new technique in each piece?

Does the word “should” even belong in music at all?

The first thing I noticed about Mr. Shore while watching this video is that he doesn’t seem bothered by these questions, these insecurities. Because that’s what they are: internal crises caused by our inability to accept where we are in our creative development. It reminds me of a certain Ira Glass quote that's been making the Facebook rounds as of late. The only way to escape these questions is to work through it, to keep on creating. As Shore says at 01:16:
 

“To make music everyday, there’s a certain discipline to that. And day to day, the thing I try to do is not to look too far ahead. And in that day, if you have done your work–-you’ve expressed so many ideas, you’ve done some orchestration, you’ve worked on the film, you’ve worked on the cello concerto–-then you’ve accomplished what you’ve done that day and you’re relaxed, ready for the next day. So what I always try to do is just chip away at it. And you look back and there’s just masses of music–-there’s so much of it, you know.”


Notice that this shot reveals his work environment: Excluding the amazing house, it’s really just a desk, pencil & paper, a piano, a laptop, some basic computer speakers (read: not speaker monitors) and what appears to be a cheap M-Audio 49- or 61-key MIDI controller. My fellow Berklee composers-in-training and I are working with the same gear, if not more. I wonder what he has that we don’t…?

Apparently, great minds think alike. Ralph Waldo Emerson said nearly the exact same thing two centuries ago:
 

“Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”


The main idea here is that if one is to be a composer, one needs to be a composer. Because what are you if not the thing you spend the majority of your time being?

Since coming home to Indiana for a two-week break before the fall semester-–a definite “calm before the storm”–-I’ve slept in until noon everyday and generally done nothing. I’ve spent the majority of my time being a lazy slob, not writing, not studying, not doing anything productive. And I feel terrible because of it–-who knew?

To be a great composer, one must write every day. Not just study scores and techniques, or wistfully think about “the nature of composition.” No. Important as all of these things are, they’re only satellites to the planet. Write every day, and pretty soon your ability will match your taste.

An important point not to be overlooked is the part about relaxing, letting go, getting ready for the next day. This is something I’ve struggled with for years, and no doubt has been the leading cause of my chronic insomnia. The work you do is important, but it’s not everything. Music is inspired by life–-go and live it every once in a while.

In addition to writing music, I enjoy writing these blogs. I have a good dozen blogs that are sitting around unfinished due to a mix of perfectionism and procrastination. If one is to be a writer, one must write. And one must accept one’s writing as never perfect, always unfinished. So that’s why I’m not going to edit this. I’m going to push the Publish button…right…now.

Embrace The Chaos

I’ve always struggled with a caffeine addiction. At times I might be ingesting up to 2 whole pots a day. The Black Magic Woman, its deep aroma tickling my nose like an apple pie in Looney Tunes, promises floods of feel-good neurotransmitters, a sense of euphoria and focus like a low-level blend of heroin and amphetamines. A real-life Soma.

I’ve come to the conclusion that caffeine is a more serious drug than we realize.

I’ve been reading “The Tao of Gung Fu” by Bruce Lee, been getting pretty heavy in to physics, philosophy, Zen. Generally thinking a lot.

This is not a new phenomenon. Though I do find it funny that I’m beginning to revisit a lot of the standard High School subjects. Same with conducting: After taking struggling through hating every moment of the two required classes at Berklee, I’ve come back to it now with near reverence. There’s a lesson in there.

Also that was only sort of related. My bad.

I’ve come to realize that the various words that we use to describe human “energy”–inspiration, focus, determination, creativity, etc–are all really the same thing, come from the same place. When one runs dry, they all run dry. Think about it.

I myself am a musician by trade and by hobby, and when I’m lacking energy (and by this I mean that which can be synthesized by caffeine and is better fueled by sleep, exercise, and good food) I’m also lacking inspiration. My mood suffers, my music suffers, my career suffers, my life suffers. I drink caffeine to get through the day, I feel extra good, crash, have a night of insomnia, terrible sleep, and the cycle continues.

Drinking caffeine is like forcing yourself to be bi-polar.

So I’ve finally quit cold turkey. I can successfully say that I’m completely done with my addiction, but my energy levels (and therefore creativity, focus, etc) have been erratic and unpredictable. I’ve lately adopted a “plant-based” diet–pretty much vegan, but eating egg whites, greek yogurt, and occasional chicken and fish–and this has changed me for the better immensely. I’ve also recently gotten over bi-lateral tendinosis to the point where I can begin lifting weights again. All of these changes have come together to give me this insight:

Mental strength is our ability to make ourselves do what we know we need to do most, when we want to do it least. Drinking caffeine synthesizes mental strength in an energy and dopamine boost. Like doing squats with a machine rather than free weights, we feel good about ourselves for getting off our asses and doing something but don’t even touch that which holds real value and sustains us.

In case this analogy made no sense to you: When you do squats, for example, you can either choose between doing a box squat or using free weights (either a bar bell over the shoulder blades, or hold dumbbells). The box squat limits your range of motion, keeping you from going side-to-side or front-to-back–you can only go up and down. This might enable you to lift a heavier weight (and feel better about yourself while doing it), but due to the range-of-motion restriction, you won’t be working those little stabilizing muscles in your core that ignite when you’re keeping yourself from moving side-to-side or front-to-back. If these stabilizing muscles don’t grow in proportion to your bigger, more “obvious” muscles, you’ll eventually get injured and/or hit a weight ceiling. In short, you do something “big,” feel good about yourself, and over the long-term, set yourself up for failure, or at best will have to turn around and do something essential that you could’ve been doing the entire time. Drinking caffeine is the same. You might get a lot of work done while drinking it, but you aren’t exercising that which is essential: your mental strength, your ability to make yourself do what you need to do when you want to do it least. It’s a setup for failure–a complete lack of personal growth with zero tangible meaning except for a rise in “productivity,” all the while being less and less concerned with said personal growth due to said rise in productivity. I think it’s obvious that our culture has cultivated an excess of the latter and a deficit in the former.

I’ve come up with a somewhat silly but effective visualization for this:

I’m sure many of you watched Dragon Ball Z. When they’re powering up to kick ass they yell DEADLY KAMEHAMEHA!!!!!!!! and subsequently kick ass with a torrent of energy. Cultivating one’s focus is like that. Before you practice an instrument, or do a workout, or even to help yourself get up in the morning, work on cultivating your focus and channeling your energy. Again, I don’t mean “energy” in a stupid hippy pseudoscience quasi-deep way. I mean your real energy that is fed by food and sleep and exercise. Tap in to it. You’ll feel your real power, and its depth is far deeper than you have ever imagined.

I’ve recently adopted the idea that we should treat our bodies–from a physiological perspective, at least–as nothing more than animals that have evolved in a particular way and for particular things. It’s no wonder that eating good food (and by “good” I mean that which provides a more direct line to the Sun’s energy–fruits, plants, other things that growI mean, eating a salad is as close to eating a star as you can get. Why not do it?), getting adequate sleep, and doing what we were born to do (move) makes us feel best, or as I’ve already referred to it, most human. Add to the mix that which we know is essential but not necessarily physiological, such as some basic tenants of sociology and psychology (basically, do things you like and be social), and you’re pretty far up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You’ve been given all the resources in the world, literally at your fingertips. Why not make it to the top of the pyramid?

Become a Jedi, dammit.

I still deal with sleepless nights (I am an actual, real-deal chronic insomniac) but have been able to force myself to go to the gym on only a couple or even zero hours of sleep, when before I had to rely on caffeine to barely get through it. Now “cultivating my energy” energizes me like never before; my workouts (or whatever else I’m “forcing” myself to do) flourish. One could think of it as a form of meditation–in fact I’m sure there’s a name for something like this.

Action creates motivation, not the other way around.

Again, “motivation” could possibly be synonymous with focus, determination, inspiration…at its simplest, all these terms represent that UMPH that we feel when we are using our bodies and minds at their best, when we feel most human.

If you don’t want to do something, start doing it. Ten minutes in, I bet you won’t want to be doing anything else, let alone stop.

Some of you may not really vibe with the whole “just do it” mindset. To some, it just comes naturally. They see both the forest and the tress. Others get caught up on the trees or feel overwhelmed by the forest. So if this post has made you feel motivated or happy or optimistic, here’s some good news:

This feeling won’t last. It is your life’s unreliable narrator, the same voice that at times tells you what you can’t do, that you’re not good enough. Learn to ignore it and even bypass it altogether, and to act regardless of its input.

Instead, find a protocol, something to start with, to work with. Here’s an example.

1) Think about what you want to do.
2) If you feel some sort of cognitive dissonance–resistance–then figure out why. Maybe this thing you think you want to do is actually something you don’t want to do. Search your feelings for the source. If you don’t want to do a step in a process but want the end goal, suck it up. If you conclude that you don’t actually want the end goal, stop reaching for it. Change paths, even if it means finding a new job or changing majors or schools. This is the most direct path to “knowing yourself” that I’ve experienced.
3) Find clear, concrete reasons as to why you want this. Write them down if you must. These reasons will help remind you and keep you on the Way when all you want to do is quit. Be your own mentor.
4) Narrow this goal down to clear, concrete steps.
5) Narrow each step to where you are.
6) Go about accomplishing them efficiently, revising them along the way. Schedule out each day, when you’ll do what, etc. Be aware that these things change, and that your goals might change as well. Each plan opens itself up for the possibility of failure the moment it’s implemented. Don’t fear this fact, because it’s an inescapable constant in everything you do. Accept and react, don’t expect and control. Embrace the chaos.
7) Before doing what you must do everyday, cultivate your focus. Call it meditation if you want. Remind yourself why you’re here, doing what you’re doing.
8) Do it.

If the simplicity of step number 8 still doesn’t sit well with you, listen to the immortal words of Philip Toshido Sudo:

(Paraphrased): “Do your task once, today, as well as you can, and do it that way every time. There is no other time than Now, so you’re only to do it once. Tomorrow, you’ll do it once, when tomorrow is Now.”

So, long-winded, confusing, kind of goofy. This type of thinking and acting has helped me immensely–in fact, more than any other approach to life thus far–and hopefully it will help at least one of you. Like many things posted in this genre of material, much flies over many peoples’ heads, makes some nod in agreement, and significantly moves a tiny few.

And remember, action cures fear; action is an effect of motivation. When in doubt, go forth.