Yet Another Blog I Won't Update

Something Terrible

I'm tutoring two separate students in Ableton Live and Digital Music Production now. It's very rewarding to talk through all the things I've learned in my two decades (!) of making music digitally, and especially to see their eyes light up (over video chat) when something that I'm explaining finally clicks.

One of my students was having trouble with writer's block of sorts, so I gave him what I called the Make Something Terrible Challenge. I came up with it on the spot, so the details were scant, but it basically amounted to “Give yourself permission to create, and actively attempt to create, something truly terrible”.

I think this is actually pretty common advice for people experiencing writer's block, at least the first part. Don't just “write anything”, give yourself permission to create something truly terrible. But I think I cranked up the intensity when I started talking about actively creating terribleness.

Now of course, I could run fingernails on a chalkboard and point a microphone at it, or mumble incoherently into a microphone for 12 minutes, or all sorts of other things that barely constitute music. But I think the spirit of the challenge is to work in the medium or genre that you're already working in.

I told the student that I would try it too, to reassure him. I tried it tonight and I'm here to report on the results.

Firstly, I won't make you listen to what I came up with, mostly because I don't want this blog post just to be a vehicle for pushing some demo music that I spent 40 minutes on.

When I started creating the electronic music track for my #MSTC I thought I was winning. “This is bad!” I thought, “This really sucks!” I was doing well, at least at first.

But as I tweaked a knob here and added an effect there, purely by habit, I started to lose the thread. I realized about 30 minutes in that I had created something that sounded shockingly similar to my non-terribly intended tracks.

This is an existential crisis, you see. Either I'm unable to give myself permission to make terrible music, or all my music is actually terrible.

Of course, it worked perfectly as a way to get out of writer's block. I didn't spend any time pondering what I should make, because “the first thing that pops into my head” was bound to be Something Terrible™. I breezed right past the point where I might normally say, “This sucks, I'm quitting-dont-save”, because of course, I was making Terribleness. And I wound up in an uncanny valley of not-so-terrible, purely by accident.

The exercise raised two questions in me:

  1. Could I actually make something terrible if I tried harder? (Inspiration to try again)
  2. What if all those times I had rage quit the music process, I had hung on a bit longer?

I'll certainly be pondering this the next time I fire up Live.