Detriment Versus Determination

I wanted to take a moment to talk about balance in terms of vision, execution and success.  And I’d like to do this because, in what has been a challenging transition moving to NY,  I’ve come across a number of posts with well-meaning advice that all seem to work on the universal formula of: following your vision = success.

“You will always be successful if you follow your vision.”

That’s just simply not true.

It’s not only a case of gleaning the wrong lesson from a given situation, it’s a case of giving advice to people that makes them think that they’ve failed when they followed their vision and it didn’t bring them the result that they planned on.


I’ve talked here before about the television show Shark Tank (and the much better BBC series Dragon’s Den that it’s based on), and one thing that happens consistently on the show(s) is people investing everything they have (and more) into a bad business.  They’ll present an idea that might seem novel, but when the investors get into the financials it becomes obvious that the business isn’t working.

It’s heartbreaking to watch because, as an outside observer, you can immediately see it’s a bad investment.  The people who have created it however are so passionate and have invested so much of themselves that they’re convinced turning the business around is merely a matter of determination.  They’re convinced that if they just keep at it and invest more money into it, it will succeed.  They’re convinced that it’s some shortage of resources, execution or acumen that’s causing the business to fail.

The Golem

The history of the Golem goes back much earlier in Jewish folklore than the story that I’m telling here,  but the most famous story of the Golem dates back to 16th century Prague.  Rabbi Loew, the chief Rabbi in the Prague ghetto, sculpted a figure out of mud (The Golem) and then (through a secret series of steps) brought him to life to protect the locals from antisemitic attacks.  The Golem went on a murderous rampage and to be stopped, Rabbi Loew erased the first letter of the word “emet” (truth or reality) on the Golem’s forehead leaving the Hebrew word “met” (dead).  The Golem turned back to lifeless mud and, legend has it, was taken to Rabbi Loew’s attic to be reactivated in the event that it was needed again.

Redefining “Success”

Now I don’t think that I’m telling tales out of school, but you can devote the rest of your life to carving anthropomorphic shapes out of the dirt and not make a golem.  Maybe you’ll prove me wrong!  But I don’t think that it’s a constructive use of time – if you’re trying to make a rampaging golem.

If, however, you like working with your hands and like sculpting golems you might find yourself getting good at it.  You might start creating something unique that gets the attention of other people, who ask if you could make a smaller version out of clay.  Or perhaps you document all of the golems that you create with photographs and release a photo book on The Golem project.

The point is, you can be successful in whatever you do but

  • it might not be the success that you planned on
  • any alternative success will only come out of hard, passionate work of high quality that connects with other people.
  • Finding alternate success requires being open to other possibilities.

Determination – A Guitar Story

When I went to Berklee, I had a couple of hometown awards for playing under my belt and had built up quite a bit of speed from practicing the same licks over and over again.

I also didn’t have any formal instruction.  I was practicing things with bad technique in a vacuum.  So while I could play quickly and energetically, I didn’t have anything to say and what I could say I could only express quickly and inarticulately.

I had inadvertently modeled my guitar playing after the way an auctioneer speaks at an auction.


When I got to Berklee, my first teacher Doug (a killin’ Jazz player – btw), really took me to task on my picking and my timing.  He told me that I’d have to start all over technically.

I was pretty resistant to this idea.  So I said, “to Hell with that” and just kept doing what I did.

And like the people on Shark Tank/Dragon’s Den – my work stagnated.

Sure I got faster, and a little cleaner.  But, as a player I wasn’t getting any better.

Fast forward to going to CalArts. I remember the first lesson with Miroslav Tadic well.  I barely slept the night before and when we met,  I talked about how I wanted to learn repertoire, how I wanted to be able to negotiate odd time signatures in a more fluent way and how I really wanted to work on ornamentation and stylistic elements of Baltic music.

He had me play for about 30 seconds and said, “Your hands are a mess.”  Your fret hand is completely compromised for your playing.”  He told me I’d have to put intensive work in to fix it.

Again, I was resistant to the idea but realizing where I went wrong at Berklee, I decided to give it a shot.  I also took some lessons with Jack Sanders and Jack reinforced everything that Miroslav told me. Then I started the real work.

I started relearning everything that used my pinky.  Ultimately, I had to re-learn everything.

That was a while ago… and I’m STILL working on it.

“Success” – A “Career” Story

One of the primary reasons I went to grad school was because the local music scene I lived in was in a death spiral (in terms of how things had always been done) and I didn’t see that changing in any other scene. I thought if I could get a teaching gig at the collegiate level that it would a.) be something that I could engage in passionately and do really well and b.) give me the financial stability to do what I wanted to do with my musical interests on the side.

When I got out in 2008, the job market was grim.  The following financial crisis made it even worse, and I realized that (in an ever shrinking pool of positions and downsized departments) that (for the few positions I was seeing open) no one was going to even look at my resume without a doctorate.  And a doctorate wasn’t in my future.

I realized that the only way I was going to get into that building was through the back door.  So I worked on books and tried to establish myself more as a player.  And then, I was informed that without a lengthy peer-reviewed process with a limited release on a “name” publisher that no one in academe was going to take my books seriously.

(This despite the fact that no one in academe has released 1200 pages of guitar reference texts, much less done so in the same academic year.  There’s an extended rant in my pocket about the whole outdated academe publishing scam that I’ll save for another post.)

It was the last reinforcement I needed.  For the foreseeable future, I was going to have to go it on my own.

If I viewed going to CalArts solely as a stepping stone to a university faculty position, it would (thus far) be a profound failure.

But I don’t look at it that way.

In addition to the incredible knowledge I got there, my books would never have been done if I didn’t go to CalArts.  I never would have gotten the video game credits I have if I wasn’t there. This blog wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t be writing for Guitar-Muse.

Even more importantly, I never would have met (and played with) people like Miroslav Tadic, Vinny Golia, Randy Gloss, Susie Allen, Wadada Leo Smith, Butch Morris, Carmina Escobar, Daren Burns, Sahba Motallebi, Craig Bunch, Eric Klerks, Sarah Phillips, Andre LaFosse, George McMullin, Don McLeod, John French, Jonathan Wilson or the dozens of other people I was fortunate enough to meet and play with being there.  Some of these people will be lifelong friends and (while my creditors would disagree) you can’t put a price on that.


In other words, it paid off in different ways and was a success in other ways, but not in the way I initially planned for it to be.


And so…

Be determined and passionate and present in whatever you do, but be balanced enough to know when you’re making progress, and when you’re trying to make a Golem.

Like the first lesson that Miroslav gave me, putting that advice into practice might take a while to implement.  But trust me, it’s a good use of your time.


I hope this helps!  As always, thanks for reading!


Be Wary Of The “To Kill A Mockingbird” Production Model

Harper Lee


I’ve been accused of having pedestrian tastes when listing Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as one of my favorite books, but it’s a decision I stand by.  It’s extremely well written with excellent story telling, indelible characters and meticulous language and focus.  It’s truly a classic work.  


Here’s a question though, have you ever read any other Harper Lee books?


In case you’re wondering why you haven’t, it’s a trick question as there aren’t any.  A recent compelling documentary, Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, has brought to light a fantastic back story about the book.  Airline reservationist and author Harper Lee secured a literary agent with some strong short stories and a personal referral and then saw the original manuscript for Mockingbird rejected by 10 publishers before finding an editor in Philadelphia at a publishing firm who saw something real in the work.  The editor liked the idea but saw a series of short stories instead of a unified novel in its submitted form.   So the two of them went to work crafting a novel.


They proceeded to spend two years editing and hashing out the story.  I can only imagine what an exhilarating and agonizing time this must have been for Ms. Lee (she is said to have referred to this period of her life as, “A long and hopeless period of writing the book over and over again.”)  but the payoff was a book (and a movie) that became a classic (and a huge financial success).


Harper Lee hit paydirt with Mockingbird but while she never stopped writing, she never published again.  


Isaac Asimov

On the literary front, an interesting contrast to Harper Lee can be found in Isaac Asimov.  One of the most prolific writers of all time (his Wikipedia page bibliography is approximately 500 books), Azimov was originally a biochemistry professor at Boston University who became a wildly successful and influential author. I don’t know that any of his books have the emotional impact of Mockingbird (and none of them have the civil rights impact that Mockingbird did), but there’s no denying his influence.


In terms of artistic output,

I recommend that you don’t hinge all your efforts on any one big payoff.


It’s easy to fall into the trap of pursuing “perfection” in artistic output (particularly with regards to recording), but in my opinion, you shouldn’t hinge all of your efforts on ONE defining work.  This is applicable to any aspect of artistic work, but consider for a moment bands who hole up for years on end recording, editing and mixing their full length “masterpiece”.


In addition to the fact that it’s impossible to ascertain how it will hold up over time (I’m sure that there are a lot of former members of ’80s bands listening to the then “hip” electronic drums on old recordings and wondering what they were thinking.), all indications for the current and future economic model for working musicians involves multiple streams of revenue from multiple releases, sources and performance.  


In other words, you’re going to need a lot of output and it all has to be high quality.  


Creating a classic work like To Kill A Mockingbird is like hitting the artistic lottery.  Instead of getting stuck on any one big project, work consistently hard, keep enough perspective to know when a project is done (the subject of a much longer future post) and keep outputting material.  


As a short term example, 3 four song EPs released over the course of the year might ultimately gain you more traction (and visibility) than 1 full length released every 12-14 months but it will most certainly put you in a better spot that one full length released  every four or five years.


(In related news, I’m taking my own advice on this and plan on releasing a lot of Scott Collins output that’s been in a holding pen for a while.)


Stay engaged.

Stay productive.

Make everything you do as great as you can

then let it go and move on to the next thing you do.


As always, thanks for reading!