Creative Cycles & Self Evaluation
Updated: Nov 18, 2019
There are entire industries of biographers and documentary makers who've built careers out of analysing the peaks and troughs of musicians' creative output. Tracking musicians' artistic development across their active years; drawing connections between their personal lives and artistic output; seeking out their influences and inspirations and more. What's often lacking however in the world of fandom is actually knowing how (or if) the artists themselves analyse their work retrospectively in any way similar to how their fans do.
I imagine in some way or another most artists and bands reflect on their own work and probe areas of their craft that can be improved and/or evolved, however artists tend not to openly reflect on their work publicly (or even give details on their reflective process).
In a way, I think this is a bit of a shame as I believe there's great educational potential in understanding how other musicians evaluate their music, develop and improve. Whilst everyone's methods would undoubtedly be personalised and tailored, it could provide much useful food-for-thought for young and aspiring musicians.
With the above in mind, my intentions for this article are to explain my interpretation and understanding of how practical and evaluation skills develop simultaneously (albeit slightly out of sync with one another). A process that both relies on and encourages critical listening and self evaluation.
Practical Skills Vs Evaluation Skills
Let's consider practical skill development alongside (or versus) the ability to evaluate your own work (and the work of others in your field/genre).
Consider the diagram below (sourced from a google image search):
This diagram is referring to art/drawing, however it's just as relevant to music creation (in my opinion). If I reflect on my own musical journey and that of musician friends (along with those I've known from working in education), I've seen this cycle play out many times.
The blue line reflects the artistic/musical ability and the pink line reflects the ability to evaluate the artist's own work as well as that of others.
It's common (after an improvement in skill) for the skill-level to plateau and be overtaken by the ability to identify details in the work of others that were previously unnoticed; moreover, details that your own work is lacking or falling short of.
With this newfound realisation of your own creative shortcomings, so begins a new journey of development and learning in order to improve and overcome these newfound shortcomings. Once the improvement is achieved, the blue line is back on top and so the cycle continues.
That's the Theory, Now Let's Consider it in Practice
I believe this to be a very natural process that plays out in all kinds of disciplines, from arts to sports and more. I can confidently say this is how my development as a musician has progressed.
It's important to note that since gaining a greater understanding of this seemingly natural process, I've been able to better adapt my own development and even control it (or at least control my emotional reaction to it), in order to accelerate the process wherever possible and more importantly avoid potential pitfalls of negativity which I consider; managing low morale and sidestepping writer's block.
Managing Low Morale
If we were to consider the above creative cycle diagram as fact (hypothetically speaking), we can know and understand that our skill-level will plateau and we will start to perceive (with greater clarity) our own shortcomings; moreover, it's completely normal to go through these phases.
There's a chance that while your skill plateaus and your perception of quality increases that you might feel both a stagnation in your craft and a frustration that you can't do what others can. This is how low morale can creep in.
Keep in mind however, that the diagram shows us that being able to perceive a shortcoming is in fact the first step to improving that shortcoming, and whilst I appreciate discovering a shortcoming can feel like a daunting prospect, it's crucial to view shortcomings as opportunities to grow and improve, as opposed to viewing them as stumbling blocks or setbacks.
Keep in mind that once the new skills are acquired, you'll have new insight and clarity on areas of your craft that can be further improved. I.e. the cycle will always continue, there'll always be things that can be improved and ultimately this is the journey of musical improvement.
All things considered, exercising self-pity over a perceived lack of skill (that can be overcome) would be irresponsible and unproductive.
Sidestepping Writer's Block
I also like to think of the creative cycle as being a powerful tool to counteract or rather sidestep writer's block. This notion relies on the aspects discussed above; those of having shortcomings in your craft that you're continually improving and refining.
My approach is to be routinely working on something from my list of musical shortcomings and the areas for development. Most days I'll do a little something, whether it's tinkering with drum sounds, practicing the piano or designing synthesiser tones. This keeps me firmly in the habit of being in the home studio, making noises.
Against this backdrop of daily noise making, when I feel the desire to compose but ideas don't come easily, I just resort back to addressing my list of shortcomings. You see, these exercises not only help to better my techniques, but they more often than not, tend to grow and evolve into compositions after a while.
Put simply, if I'm not feeling particularly creative (in terms of writing) I busy myself with technical experiments intended to improve my workmanship, which usually results in new musical compositions.
I'd go as far as saying that 10 out of the 11 tracks on my forthcoming album started out as an exercise related to bridging a skills-gap. I didn't sit down with the intention of composing; I sat down with the intension of trying to broaden and vary my knowledge and experience.
What About all of the Failed Attempts?
In the instance that I make something that's not good enough to release, I view it as practice. It's really no different to practicing piano scales or memorising times-tables. Practice is never a failure; practice is just practice. I believe you're allowed to trip up and make mistakes all you like when practicing; that's the whole point of practice, as practice makes perfect!
Considering all of my sub-par music as practice (as opposed to failures) negates any low morale or self doubt that could potentially creep in due to a perceived lack of progress; thus I'm always able to remain quite relaxed and positive about my work and progress, even if it seems slower than some of my contemporaries.
Creative Cycle Workflow Summary
The better you get at evaluating music, the more your own music will improve
Shortcomings are positive opportunities for learning and development
Don't panic if you feel yourself plateau or stagnate, it will pass if you continue to evaluate your own work and that of others
Make lists and work your way through them routinely
Sidestep writer's block with the above-mentioned lists
Allow practice and technical exercise to evolve into new songs if the mood takes you
If you're making something and it isn't working, chalk it down as "practice"
What I've written in this article is what works for me and what helps keep me focussed and organised in my approach to music. It's nothing new or revolutionary, just my take on a well established principle of artistic practice.
I hope this article serves as some food-for-thought regards your own working practices and if you've ever suffered with low morale and/or writer's block whilst producing perhaps give some of my suggestions a try.
Furthermore, what I've tried to put across is an ethos of ever-changing; evolving development and accepting that there will always be things in your craft that can be improved (and that we, as musicians mustn't be disheartened by this). I find a key component to this approach is to remain routinely active, routinely reflective (with ongoing evaluation) and ultimately to remain positive in how you approach things. Without trying to sound too preachy, it's very much about maintaining a glass-half-full approach.
And if you're ever feeling a little overwhelmed by the notion of wanting to improve, take solace in knowing there's no end-game, no finish line, no perfect ten or platinum trophy. As cheesy as it sounds, to improve your craft is a journey not a destination and consider it a privilege to be on such a journey.