Apparently there are two types of people. People who believe that intelligence is a fixed thing, and people who think it’s changeable. I believed that my intelligence was finite. I think I learnt that because other people always said to me when I was a kid how ‘talented’ and ‘clever’ I was, especially with reference to being a musician. Practising for hours daily on piano and violin was seemingly overlooked as the reason I was actually a really good musician.
I also believed what others thought of me as fact about me. For example, I was often told I was impatient and moody. Well, I believed it, so I gave myself an excuse to be these things. I have learnt over the past few years that this is just an opinion of the way others see me, and more often about them. It’s not who I believe I am. Who I truly am is an incredibly tolerant person with a great deal of tenacity (possibly an acquired skill through tens of thousands of hours of practice), impassioned and focused.
But back to my childhood, I believed what others told me and I was told I was talented, so I was talented! I would be fine in life, things would come easily, I wouldn’t have to struggle, etc. So after school and uni and leaving home and the guided support that goes along with that, I believed I’d be fine and all my dreams would come true…because I was talented!
I didn’t consciously continue skill building. Yes, I still worked hard and successfully as a gigging musician, but I fundamentally didn’t believe my skill could be improved…because I was talented!
Over the years, I started teaching singing and it was through teaching others I began to witness that others needed to practise in order to be good – they had to do their 10,000 hours of practice to make their new skills automated and second-nature. They weren’t talented – they were skill-building. I struggled to make the connection to myself that my 10,000 hours had been completed as a kid and not consciously or recently. Why? Because I believed I was talented!
You can guess what happens next. You can only get so far on talent alone. Because once the other kids/adults have caught up to your level of skill, you really don’t have much to depend upon. So whilst I’d honed my skills under the age of 18 and have continued using these skills, others have continued skill-building throughout their adult lives.
12 months ago, I came to a crossroads – career, life, health. I was calling myself a songwriter and yet I hadn’t written a song in 6 months. I had a chronic 4-year shoulder injury from playing piano, which was seriously affecting my ability to function as a musician and teacher, that I was just keeping at bay by remedies such as massage and physio and pain killers. I wasn’t being active in learning new skills in order to further myself, improve myself and live the life I want to live. It was here and in my thirties, I realise I have to consciously cultivate the life I want and the person I want to be and the things I want to be good at.
Last September, I attended an enlightening workshop by Jo Lawry at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, where I teach. Jo, who is backing vocalist singer to Sting, shared her journey as a songwriter as part of her presentation. She spoke about a New York City songwriting club she had joined and how they had set goals to be as childlike as possible in the writing process and that they put restrictions on the writing process in order to help. Whilst the workshop was aimed at the students, I feel I took away the biggest prize.
Two days later a student expressed frustration and self-loathing about not feeling inspired enough to write songs. I knew exactly how she felt. I had a solution for her – I always have a solution for others – but I was sick of not practising what I preached. In my desperation, I, too, wanted help. That day I formed my songwriting club.
I asked this student to join my songwriting club, and we could each invite another member to the group that week. The task was to set aside 1-hour in the week individually to write our “child-like” songs and then send to each other via email. We would then all listen to each other’s songs and share some constructive feedback. The 1-hour is intended as a support framework for the creative ideas to be developed.
The process was set and all I had to do was adhere to the process – 1-hour a week, write to a set theme, go with the creative flow and minimise the editing, and share the song with the club. Initially I didn’t try to write a good song. Just to follow the process. This worked well for me. Occasionally, I felt the old habits creep in – the need to write a good song, or even worse, the pressure to write a ‘hit’ song, even when what that is, is completely out of my hands.
I was truly surprised when the club reached 10 weeks old. By then, we were a club of healthy numbers and we were all writing songs weekly. We had members from all around Australia and the world. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. It was two steps forward, one step back with the writing. Over time the judgment and self-loathing lessened, and the wanting, love and desire to write songs grew. Basically, I had learnt the skill of not judging but, instead, being open. This changed me as a person. It allowed me the freedom to get rid of rules in my life. Rules I had forgotten or even didn’t know I lived by, played by, and created by.
I starting attending a weekly 1-on-1 exercise physio session in order to foundationally fix my shoulder injury. The progress was very slow. But it was progress. I stuck at it. It was 1-hour a week – just like the songwriting club. 1-hour a week is doable.
My 2015 New Year’s resolution was to learn guitar, something I had intended on doing 8 years ago, when I first bought a guitar. In May this year, I decided to actually do something about it. In my 1-hour of sacred, non-judgmental space, I taught myself guitar as I wrote a song. I could practically do anything and I would be ok with it. There were no rules, mainly because I didn’t know any, and because of that I played sounds, not theoretically correct chords. So I wrote my first song on a guitar. I listen back to this song as write this these reflective words and the chorus lyrics finally make sense to me:
“You can last the distance take it slow, don’t forget nothing stays the same forever, you’ll be fine”
In 3 months, since May, I have written 9 songs on guitar and even performed one of these songs on at a gig. Yes, this perfectionist played guitar at a gig, imperfectly. And I loved every minute of it.
50 weeks later, the club has becoming a nurturing, safe place to share new ideas musically and personally. Within the club, we have all had different experiences. Some people left, some returned, some didn’t write for weeks or months. But we have all had one thing in common. We have all been confronted with personal challenges in having only 1-hour to be work with whatever creative ideas we have rather than judge or edit.
Writing a song in an hour each week. Fixing my body so it works again. Learning guitar. Performing guitar live. Not judging myself and how this feels. This has all blown my mind. I have spent my adult life berating myself for not being enough. For not living up to my talent. I had put it down to not being good enough. And reconciling the belief that I was talented and that I’d be fine in life versus the fact that I was not good enough in my mind was really tough.
But I actually just hadn’t acknowledged the 10,000 of hours I had applied to learning music and piano and theory and hadn’t allowed myself to continue learning as an adult.
I had failed to praise and acknowledge the process.
I thank all my friends, family, students, random people in the streets, for inspiring songwriting club themes each week. Some challenging themes have included ‘Drilling Holes’ and ‘Hotdogs’, some challenging musical guidelines have been to write minimally, using only 2 chords, and others to write with modulations.
I thank these songs. They have been on tour, are being recorded and will feature on my forthcoming album later in 2015. I thank the generous and open-hearted members of I Heart Songwriting Club.
What I Learnt:
- That if I stick with something, I will actually get better at it.
- Skill is a changeable thing – ‘don’t forget that nothing stays the same forever’
- I can actually play the guitar and after about a week the finger pads being sore was a positive reminder I was on the path to doing something I wanted to do
- Songwriting is on a spectrum. I don’t have to write a good song. I just want to write a song. Same with guitar playing. Good guitar playing, and learning guitar playing is on the spectrum of guitar playing.
- I do things I love and want
- Creating and editing aren’t the same thing and shouldn’t be confused with each other
- I remind people that use the word ‘talented’ that really it’s just a lot of hard work and dedication.
- To not judge – mainly myself.
Connecting with other musicians in a safe and supportive environment
Helping others to connect with their creativity
Changing my life in a way I hadn’t imagined. Sounds too good to be true for just 1 hour’s worth of work a week. It’s true alright!