Want a Master’s degree? Join a band
Lessons learned from a decade and a half of making music with other humans
When I was 15, I formed my first band with a group of high school friends. From that point on, I kept on making music for almost 15 years. I played in shitholes and I played almost decent gigs. I played for literally two people, and I played for more than a hundred people (not much more than that, though… we were never a big deal). I played, in total, with over 40 different people, in a variety of bands, formats and formations. I played in a nuns’ school and would have played a biker’s meetup, if we hadn’t been bumped at the last minute. As genres go, I didn’t vary much, true; I was and always will be faithful to dirty, distorted, mean rock. Sometimes I played guitar and sometimes I didn’t, but I was always the voice. And the thing I did the most, during those 15 yeas, was learn.
What I’m going to share with you here are all those things I’ve learned making music (and noise), and that ended up being useful in every other space in my life, including my work. To me, it was almost better education than doing a Master’s degree (and I say ‘almost’ just to be safe, because I haven’t done a Master’s).
It’s not about you, it’s about the song
The guy in the picture is Kim Thayil, one of Soundgarden’s guitarists and one of my biggest influences (an incredibly heavy guitarist, with 2 Grammys and a master’s in Philosophy), and he got asked the same question for years: “Why do you have a solo in some songs but not others?”.
Bear in mind we’re talking about a guy who became famous –even legendary– for solos like the one in Black Hole Sun.
His answer was always one and the same: “It’s not about you, it’s about the song. Sometimes the song just doesn’t call for a solo”. It doesn’t matter if you’re able to rip the greatest solo in the world, what mattes is what that brings to the song. And that applies to every other thing in your life (and mine, and everyone else’s, of course): content is only as good as its relevance in context. If you don’t have anything good to contribute, better to keep quiet and listen; and if you do have something to contribute, make sure it is relevant to what’s going on around you.
If it sounds good, scale doesn’t matter
Countless arguments later (all of them pointless), there is one thing I can tell you with absolute confidence:
It doesn’t matter if a note is off scale, and it doesn’t matter if a section in a song is in a scale that has nothing to do with the scale you were playing in the previous section: most likely, it does, but you simply can’t see it, and you are probably still in scale, only in a scale you don’t know existed.
As (they say) Miles Davis said: “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note –it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”
Often, mistakes are not mistakes. They are just a signal that there is another order, another plane. Change your mental model and it’s like changing scales: all of a sudden, it makes sense that those notes that weren’t in the original scale sounded well. It’s not always the note that is wrong, sometimes the scale is. It’s not always that you chose the wrong career, sometimes you just ended up in the wrong organization. It’s not always that you picked the wrong approach, sometimes it’s the wrong client. And sometimes, by doing none of “the things you’re supposed to do”, something magically works. Don’t trust scales, trust your ears.
If it doesn’t exist, invent it
In 1986, a young Les Claypool auditioned to be the bass player for Metallica and didn’t make it. That worked out great for all of us, who got to enjoy Primus.
Claypool’s life story is long and colorful, and it includes having learned carpentry and painting cars, but most of all, it is about inventing an entire genre and a way to make music that didn’t exist –and, at least as far as I know, doesn’t exist beyond him.
For my part, I started writing songs when I realized that I had music sounding in my head that didn’t exist or that I couldn’t find anywhere (remember, back in 2003, with no Spotify and no YouTube, it was that much harder to access new music). But the realization that you can manufacture and take into the outer world whatever sounds are blasting inside your head was a defining moment in my life, and it was useful for countless situations I lived thereafter. Including these lines you are reading. That something doesn’t exist isn’t a blocker, it is an opportunity.
The whole is more than the sum of its parts
Every once in a while, during rehearsal or playing live, in a sort of out-of-body experience, you get the chance to get outside yourself and listen to the band: you listen to the music, enjoy it, and you realize that the very thing you are enjoying exists as an extension of yourself, it is the product of a collaboration between you and others. That music is being co-created by you and your band mates. That feeling is amazing.
In my long and winding professional career, the best moments I’ve lived were those in which I got to replicate that feeling. Look for people who you can create a surpassing whole with, and not a mere accumulation of parts. Make sure you do everything in your power to connect with people that make you feel comfortable improvising, people who you can do things with that you can ‘listen to’ from the outside and love how they sound. So, how does one do that? Well, you have to play a whole lot to learn to realize when things ‘flow’, and you have to play with a whole lot of people to understand who things ‘flow’ with. Trial and error, until you find what works for you.
Knowing the rules to break the rules
I already wrote about this in another post, a while ago. But since it is also a thing I learned over years of making music, I think it’s pertinent. The path to learning how to play an instrument is illustrative to understand some things about motivation and excellence. First of all, it’s a long, unpredictable and often frustrating process, that requires for you to know how the instrument works, how it’s tuned, where are the notes, what are scales and how to use them. To do all of that, you have to interiorize some rules. Only when you have learned those rules, you can start truly playing, bending them and breaking them, understanding why, when you do this or that, the instrument sounds this way or the other.
That’s why it’s useful to know, understand and master the rules. Only when you’ve reached that mastery, you can know at what level you’re operating. Once you have knowledge, understanding and mastery of the rules, then yes, you can devote yourself to breaking the rules as much as humanly possible. And then some more, even though the rules say you can’t.
When you understand what rules you’re breaking, you can create dissonance. Not just any dissonance, but ones that sound good. An intentional dissonance, one that makes sense and creates meaning. But if you don’t understand those rules you’re breaking, if the dissonance is accidental, you’re just making noise.
Your style doesn’t exist until you invent it, develop it and learn it
This is another one I stole from Miles Davis, only unknowingly. We happened to agree. He used to say that “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself”.
This is another of those endless, recurring arguments that take place in the early days of any band: “so, what style are we going to play?”
As the years went by, I realized that the bands I enjoyed playing in the most, we never knew how to answer that question. On one hand, I keep as a lesson that it is a better exercise to formulate those questions than it is to eventually answer them. On the other hand, a much more valuable lesson and a harder one to see is this: style is not something you choose and let alone something you can configure beforehand. Style is an emergent and it does not exist until you invent it. It takes hours and hours, and weeks and months, and even years of playing a lot and with a bunch of people until you find that place that feels natural, where you can simply let go and focus on listening to what’s happening instead of being so attentive to what you have to do or how it should sound. If it sounds good, scale doesn’t matter, and neither what style it can be boxed into. Those boxes are not a part of creation, they belong on the consumption side of things, and only for people who need things to be neatly arranged into boxes.
Your style will be a multi-causal product, and most of those causes will remain unknown even to you. It is something you invent in praxis, as you hone your skills, and to learn it you have to pay attention to yourself while you do those other things. Your style is the scar that is left on you from learning to make music with other people.
A band is a local project, everything else isn’t
True, that is changing today and it’s becoming more frequent to see virtual ensambles, but back when I stepped into this world, making music was a face-to-face activity. First, because it requires you to be present. And second, because it requires a group of people to get together in a room and play. Nowadays, technology has gotten cheap enough that almost anyone with a computer can record tracks at home and then have it put together somewhere else, or rehearse through a video call. This used to be limited to bands like Pink Floyd. For everyone else, a major part of playing in a band consisted of traveling around carrying an instrument. I have a hard time thinking that some of the magic that takes place in a room when a handful of people play their instruments can be reproduced through a screen. But who am I to say something about it?
Anyway, the point is that the in-person factor that used to be a requirement to make music meant that your band could only be formed by people who lived relatively close to you. It was quite a challenge to find musicians in your area. Generally, bassists and drummers had 4 or 5 bands simultaneously because the demand was always higher than the offer. There were websites devoted to publishing want-ads for musicians, similar to LinkedIn and other job search sites. Finding musicians to form a band and finding a job are very much alike, much more than most people think.
I haven’t been in a band for a couple of years now, and I didn’t get to live this era of remote rehearsals. But my work led me to learn that almost no other thing is as fundamentally local as playing in a band. And even that is not so local anymore. Nonetheless, I still surprises me every time I come in contact with organizations who keep thinking about their businesses with those same limitations bands used to suffer years ago. If a band can rehearse remotely, any business can leverage talent from anywhere in the world, with much less complications, for sure. It’s only a matter of setting up a metronome, I guess.
Have your instrument ready, tuned and at hand
Writing music is, like any other creative activity, a frustration prone process. There are days when you don’t like anything that you come up with, and it’s hard to find ways out of those cycles. But all of a sudden and when you least expect it, an idea may drop. In those moments, having a guitar, pen and paper at hand saved me from losing those ideas that, like rainwater, end up falling to the the ground if you don’t have anything to catch them with while they’re in motion.
In times of inspiration everything is easy, but it is in those moments of creative drought when you need to be ever more attentive. “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”, Pablo Picasso used to say. If you can’t be working when inspiration visits you, the very least you can do is be ready to get to work as soon as she comes along.
A while ago, while waiting for the train to come (back in a time when we could go out and use public transportation), I read something that left me thinking. It was a meme that said “once you start clapping, you never stop; the intervals just get longer”.
You can start making music at any give time. In fact, if you never did, I strongly recommend you do. But once you’ve started, you can’t stop. And not because I say so. Like clapping, once you start, it simply sticks with you for the rest of your life. The intervals may get longer or shorter, but the music is still there.
And the learnings, I have learned, are still there too.
about Martin Pettinati:
I want you to communicate better. When I’m not communicating the amazing stuff that goes on at Manas.Tech, I write, talk, design and execute trainings on communication, marketing, presentations, public speaking, leading teams, and several other things, always within the field of communication, always focused on doing, and with the purpose of creating and sharing useful and applicable things.