Two Steps Back Or Setbacks In Project Management

Recently, I had a substantial graphics setback in one of the GuitArchitecture books that will delay publication by at least 2 months.  This is the latest in a series of obstacles that have come about from starting this project, and I thought it might be beneficial to talk about the books in a little more depth and also to talk a little about dealing with setbacks in project management.

When I was at CalArts, I was a TA for Miroslav Tadic.  This meant that in addition to grad studies, I was teaching 10 hours a week (all in ½ hour lessons and about an hour of  built in lesson prep time).   At Berklee, lessons were a fairly straightforward affair – each term had proficiencies and you had to prepare the material you needed for each proficiency over the course of the term.  At CalArts, there were no proficiencies per se.  Lessons were centered on student interest and what I started seeing as a commonality among guitar majors was an interest in modes, scales, chords and their applications.

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Understanding the fingerboard

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When I first learned these things – I used CAGED shapes – which really didn’t make a lot of sense to me.  What was instilled in me by my teachers during this time was the concept of – you don’t have to understand it – you just have to play it.  This also did not make a lot of sense to me.

I realized later on that what my teachers were trying to instill (at least what I hope my teachers were trying to instill) was the concept that you don’t have to understand it – you just have to hear it and get it under your fingers so you can play it.  Having said that, if the fingering you have to work with doesn’t make any sense – you’re not going to be able to assimilate or utilize it easily.

While CAGED allows people to connect chords and scale shapes it doesn’t adapt well outside of the major scale. My method breaks all scales into modular shapes that cover the fingerboard in an intuitive way. Instead of twenty-one positional fingerings to cover major, melodic minor and harmonic minor – GuitArchitecture uses seven core fingerings to cover all of these scales.  This approach allows players to break out of performance ruts and substantially reduces the need for memorization required to play scales.

In other words, it gets the notes under your fingers faster and in a way that makes sense.

The people who studied with me seemed to get a lot out this approach.  When I took a pedagogy class with Susie Allen at CalArts, it made sense to take the material I codified and make a presentation out of it.  I pulled 120 pages together pretty quickly and then had the idea that maybe there was a book hidden in these lesson materials that I generated.

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Forming the clay

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The approach that I use is very straight forward, but where I saw students getting hung up was in the application of the scales (i.e. breaking out of the stock forms and making music).  I realized a number of method books had been done – but the majority of these books presented a scale with a 2 sentence explanation and then had 40 licks using the scale.  If these happen to be licks from your favorite player, this may work for you – but it’s going to be hard to get people to practice licks for the sake of learning them in the scale.

I decided to go in a different direction from a standard lick book, and create something that would be a combination of instruction and reference.  I wanted to create a book that you could get ideas from really quickly to make music – but would have enough depth to be something that readers could go back to over and over again.  The first area I decided to tackle in-depth would be the issue of sequences.  Here’s lesson 1 in project management:

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Build off of past experiences (or go with what you know)

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I had never seen any book that took a systematic approach to generating melodic sequences so I decided to work out the permutations to generate all possible unique melodic sequences.

When I wrote my Symmetrical 12 tone book, I used this same process to generate all of the possible 12 tone rows that could be created using symmetrical divisions of the octave (whole tone scale (6 divisions), augmented chord (3 divisions),  diminished chord (4 divisions),  and tritone (2 divisions).  This was extremely helpful in knowing in advance what would be required in terms of mental discipline to generate these ideas.  It was also a little daunting as material in the 12 tone book couldn’t be measured in hours or days – it took almost 2 ½ years of constant work from concept to cover.  This brings up another important point in project management:

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Whenever possible start with the heavy lifting

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The reason for this is, as a project drags on – your endurance to complete the project will wear down exponentially to the point where even the slightest bumps in the road will have you questioning whether or not you can finish the project.  You need to get whatever really ugly stuff (in terms of work) out of the way while you have the energy to do so.  So I decided to start the process of generating all of the patterns and notating them.

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Beware of the rope swing

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You know those cute graphics of kids grabbing a piece of rope hanging from a tree and swinging into a lake?  The story I know about a kid who did this ended differently.  In the story I know, the kid was unfamiliar with the lake, swung into the shallow trying to do a flip, landed the wrong way and broke his back.  Unless something’s on fire or you’re chased by zombies you should always go into the water before just diving in so you know what you’re getting into.  Even knowing that, it’s easy to get into a situation and then get overwhelmed by the enormity of it no matter how well prepared you think you are.  This brings up another point.

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Be realistic about what you can do

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I could have sat down for a week or two straight and probably generated all of the graphics I needed, but there would have been thousands of errors – in something where the tolerance for errors is 0%.  Knowing what kind of concentration was required I did no more than 2-3 hours of work in a single sitting.  This meant it took a lot longer, but the review process was ultimately easier.

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Break up overwhelming things into small chunks

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How many of you have seen Bobcat Goldthwait’s Shakes The Clown?  Truly worthy of the title of “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown films”, the opening sequence is a fade in to an apartment in squalor.  While a record skips in the background, a dog is trying to choke down a full slice of pizza.  Project management is like this.  If you try to do all things on all frontiers at once, you’re just a dog choking on a slice of pizza in Florence Henderson’s apartment in Shakes The Clown.  The key is to have a strong overall view of the project.  In doing so, you can identify what else needs to be addressed and work small on multiple fronts as you need to.  While working on the graphics, I also started expanding on the modal application idea and applied this same approach to modal arpeggios, modal pentatonics and modal chord voicings (and harmony).  In Frankensteining these together I realized that I had a problem but

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Contortion doesn’t hurt if you’re limber

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When I assembled all of these components – I had about 2,000 pages of material.  This was prohibitively expensive to produce  and (in that form) something no one would read (much less purchase).   If I was dead set on releasing only one volume, I’d be in a lot of trouble – but working with the material I had and creating something new gave me more options.

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Projects have a tendency to run wild on their own – so plan on constantly monitoring their growth

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The good news was that I did have an overall view of what I was trying to achieve.  In reviewing the material, I realized I could severely edit the material and expand some of these areas into five full books on their own:

  • The GuitArchitect’s Guide to Modes
  • The GuitArchitect’s Guide to Modes: Melodic Patterns
  •  The GuitArchitect’s Guide to Modes: Modal Arpeggios
  • The GuitArchitect’s Guide to Modes: Modal Pentatonics and
  • The GuitArchitect’s Guide to Modes: Chords and Major Modal Harmony.

In the meantime, there was a 6th book that I was developing, The GuitArchitect’s Positional Exploration. This book had started as a technical book, but I realized mid way through that the technical issues I wanted to address would be much better served by looking at a video.  So I refocused what I had to make it into something useful.

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The main modes book would have to be one of the first ones released and I wanted to get the sequences book done at the same time but the Positional Exploration book was the closest one to being done.  Working within those parameters, I decided to release these three books this year and then focus on releasing the remaining books at the rate of one a year until I get to the point that I no longer want to read another book much less write one.

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Be prepared to go a lot of it on your own

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People generally have an aversion to things without proven track records.  When people see something new in terms of a project, they typically want to wait and see how it’s going to work out before they get on the bandwagon.   Once it gets rolling and other people sing its praises, there’s no shortage of people who will want to lend a hand or be associated with it in some way, but in the beginning expect to spend a lot of money and/or a lot of time to get the skill sets you may be missing to complete your project.  Along those lines:

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Be ready to make a lot of mistakes

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Do you know the story of Thomas Edison and the creation of the light bulb?  Apparently Edison tried some 3,000 filaments in creating the light bulb.  There was nothing glamorous about this work.  It was just shoving a bunch of different things into a light bulb to see what worked the best.

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If you’re working on any project there will be multiple points that you are literally in the dark and will have to triage a solution.

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When I first came up with the book idea, I wasn’t sure what the layout was going to be and didn’t have the money for a graphic designer.  I made some initial design decisions that, once I had enough material together to really get a sense of what the book was going to be, I realized really wouldn’t work.  This required a lot of labor to fix so…

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Be ready to improvise because you can’t plan for everything

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Many solutions are wrong.  Unless you’ve done the same project before – there will be countless things that go wrong.  Solutions to problems will not always be obvious, easy or desirable.  But if you’re flexible and have a strong conviction about what the project will be when it’s done – it will be easier to adapt solutions to the project (or vice versa).

In going though the review stages of the books I realized that there was an entire graphics section I missed.  Even being as methodical and meticulous about it as possible, when working on something with this scope you’ll miss things.  Fixing this will now set the book back at least 2 months and while it is immensely frustrating – it’s also manageable because I know the books are going to be done this year and along those lines:

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Have a deadline or know when you’re done

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Deadlines allow you to get things done.  I’d write more about this but I’ve already written on it here.

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You really can’t do it alone

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I am really fortunate in that I had a number of people who were willing to take a look at what I had done and offer feedback.  Some of that feedback resulted in me realizing just how much material had to be edited further and/or corrected.

Even with innumerable revisions and examinations – it’s really difficult to catch everything. Even if you can, it’s unlikely that you’ll be objective enough about the project at that point to see all of the angles that other people see when they examine what you’re doing.  This might cause a lot of discomfort in realizing that something that you thought was mostly done actually had a ways to go, but in my case, having a stronger book makes it all worthwhile.  And this leads to the final point:

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The difference between 99% and 100% isn’t always 1% – sometimes it’s 100%

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The paradox of most long term projects is that the closer you get to completing the project, the more every instinct in your body will tell you to bail out on it.  By the time you get to getting the project to 99% it may take as much energy as you’ve put into the project up to that point to get that final 1%.  In the end,  the payoff is in the 1%.

I’m bummed about doing a lot of work I’ve already done all over again, but I’m really excited about these books.  I don’t think there’s really anything like them and hopefully other people will feel the same way.

I hope this helps with your long term projects!

Thanks for reading.

-SC

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2 thoughts on “Two Steps Back Or Setbacks In Project Management

  1. “…you don’t have to understand it – you just have to hear it and get it under your fingers so you can play it. ”

    Absolutely. I am only recently realizing the power that the brain has in figuring out stuff FOR you. Stuff you may not have even intended to really figure out. It’s what allows us to learn languages (and music). You play with something. Over time your brain sees the patterns. You may not know how it knows what it knows, but that doesn’t matter. You’ll still get the benefit.

    I just found this article recently (see link) where they interviewed Greg Howe and he gives a quite honest answer on what he thinks about being “over schooled” in music theory. They become frozen. They know so much that they don’t even know where to begin. He definitely has a point with this I think. It’s probably better to know a few things that will help bring out the music you want to create, rather than overdoing the music theory and being stuck creatively.

    ~Johnny

    • Interesting take on information overload. Mick Goodrick’s books address that problem by forcing the player to ask him or herself “is this necessary”, and so on. Bill Leavitt’s Method For Guitar (Berklee) contains just about all the information anyone should need to be a high-level professional guitarist, concisely laid out; the problem is, too many students think that they have to master page 8 before going on to page 9. A linear approach to theory may be more of a problem than the actual amount of information.

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