Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

7 Day Piano Lock-In: A Week on the Moon Documentary

Friday, May 1st, 2015


When I set out to learn the piano, I wanted to do it as fast as humanly possible. What better way than to lock myself in a room for seven full days and remove all distractions? For me it was a step out of the 7:00 to 5:00 business busyness to focus on a single task in an experiment of human will and focus.

This event required a great deal of preparation, getting a week off of work, exercising my hand muscles the week before, booking a room, scheduling the piano tuner, and getting help moving my million pound piano. I did everything I could think of to be ready for this event, removing all distractions including phone, TV, and access to the internet.

I now know what’s humanly possible in 7 days.

After all of this, I ended up not feeling a sense of greatness, but a sense of smallness. Honestly I felt selfish, and somewhat disappointed that I didn’t get as far as I expected. I imagine much like the people at the tower of Babel, I thought anything was possible, but it turns out I’m just a regular old man like everyone else.


Resources from the video:

  • Micah Schultz obviously did an amazing job with this documentary, and was awesome to work with. He can do anything, but specializes in short films, music videos, and documentaries. If you need a video he comes highly recommended. Find more of his stuff at
  • If you are tired of my clunking and want to hear the real Clair de Lune as it’s supposed to be played, go to Piano Society’s Debussy page. It’s not uncommon to cry 😉
  • Special thanks to David Huggins piano tuning.
  • If you’re looking for a vacation spot, AirBNB is the way to go. Brenda and Val hosted the house I stayed in and were super hospitable, so if you’re looking for a sweet relaxing spot in Colorado Springs you should check it out.
  • If you’re interested in Spaced Repetition, you can hop over to the Wikipedia page for SR, and be sure to download the computer flashcard program Anki. It’s the software I used to learn 2000+ Kanji in 2 months.
  • I would not have gotten as far as I did without Paul Barton’s piano lessons on YouTube. Thanks Paul!
  • You can download the full recital on SoundCloud here. We had to edit out a bunch in the video so it wasn’t too boring. Please be gracious of my many mistakes! Thanks also to my good friend Sven Johnson for taking care of recording audio during the recital.

Dreams Wouldn’t Be As Pure

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Gustavo Weissman; named the Pocket Poet because he goes to open mic nights with his pockets bursting with poems. You might be lucky enough to find him downtown on Tejon Street in Colorado Springs, sitting on a bench with his ancient type writer perched in front of him. He doesn’t own a car or even a bicycle, and is staying at a friend’s house, but knows something that others in a similar situation don’t: He has to earn his living. So he writes custom poems for curious passersby, pressing through the fear of criticism that he might encounter from people who don’t get what they expected. This one in particular I paid him $5 for, and asked him to write about his own hometown and childhood.



Starting Small and the Art of Deguilting

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Epic.  That’s what I want, really.  I just want one or two really epic songs.  I want the next Hotel California, or Stairway to Heaven, or Bohemian Rhapsody.  I mean, it’s not too much to ask for is it?  I keep on working so hard to write music that blows people’s minds, but it’s just not working.  Everything I write just isn’t good enough.  I’ve been a mild perfectionist my entire life, but lately it’s becoming a bigger monster than ever.

So I’ve been experimenting with a solution that I think may help solve my rampant perfectionism.

Start small.

You want a three hundred page book?  Start with one crappy page a day.

You want a 480 ft tall pyramid built from 25 ton limestone blocks?  Start by moving one block.

You want 10,000 screaming fans?  Start with five or six.

You want to write an epic song?  Start with one word.

And don’t feel guilty about being small!  I haven’t written a blog post in more than a month, but you won’t hear me whining or apologizing profusely about it.  I know I could be doing better, but if I beat myself up about it then I get depressed.  And if I get depressed I beat myself up (or down rather, down to inaction).  So do you see the vicious cycle we get ourselves into here?  It’s quite simple not worth the effort.  What is more, I’m not writing this blog to get famous or make tons of money, I’m doing it to get myself out there.  I’m doing it because I know that most projects don’t die from undernourishment, they die from complete starvation.  The simple act of removing your guilt and doing something, however small, will take you a long way.

You’ll find that as you take that first step, as you get yourself moving, you create momentum that often helps to carry you to places you couldn’t have ever imagined.  Often times, you only need to go into your room, shut the door, and put the pen or guitar in your hands.  Nothing else.  Woody Allen says “90% of life is just showing up.”   Don’t force yourself to write anything at all.  Even better, try your hardest to NOT write anything.  I bet you can’t do it.  I know I can’t.  It’s practically impossible for me to sit with a guitar in my hands and NOT play it.  If you are passionate about your music, you’ll know what I’m talkin’ ’bout Willis.

Don’t worry about trying to be “as good as” that guy, or that girl that you admire with a passion bordering stalker (you know who your’s is).  Don’t even try to emulate the styles of The Greats, because they obviously understood something that most of us don’t: The Greats were great because they didn’t copy anyone else.  If they did, would they be that great?  Stop comparing your skill and your talents and your creativeness and your hair and your skin tone and your vocal chords and your chord progressions and your shoe size and your bank account and your fan count, to them.  You’ll always be left wanting.

On a final note, learn to be completely engrossed in the moment – letting the “magic music” that “makes your morning move” come to you.  Let go of everything outside your little space.  There are very few things more freeing than releasing the unjustifiable and luxurious expectations to which we chain ourselves, and when we give them up we find it easier to create.


Listening Intentionally: A Higher Level of Music Study

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

What is your favorite song?  I’m sure by now you’ve listened to it a thousand hundred times.  You know every word by heart, every chord change like the back of your hand, and every drum beat and transition is etched into your brain with razor-like precision.  It may have even influenced a decision that you had to make in your life, expressed the exact feelings you were having when you first heard it, or (like many songs for me) helps pick you back up when you feel down.  I want to talk about how you can become a student of  the music that’s had a positive impact on your life, and use said knowledge to write your own awesome material.  Your own personal, self-taught music appreciation class if you will.

So what is “listening intentionally” and why should we do it in the first place?  Isn’t it just good enough to listen to music for its quintessential awesomeness?  Well, yeah it is, but we’re not normal.  We want more.  Listening intentionally means that you’re looking beyond what most people see, trying to understand the meaning behind the song, and the reason that you like it so much.  If you love a song, wouldn’t it make sense to write another song just like that one?  Okay, not exactly like it since that’s illegal, completely unoriginal, and just plain bourgeois.  But you can use the knowledge you gained from that song (and hopefully many others) to write something at the same awesomeness level, or awesomer.

Becoming a virtuoso musician entails doing some things that other people might find strange.  It means pushing the limits (that is, your own), and continually learning new things.  Most people don’t listen to the same song for a week straight, or practice that same song for hours on end.  Most people don’t ever set up their own personalized The Playlist, or build a prioritized list of songs they want to learn.  Not everyone sits down with a timer and practices vibrato for an hour.  Intentional listening is just another one of those “outside of the box” things you can do to really hone your skills and improve your ears.

Step L: Listen

Okay, enough soapboxing, lets see what it looks like to “Listen Intentionally”.  Let’s start out with your most favorite song (ever!), and listen to it for the next week straight.  A whole week.  Nothing else.  No cheating either.  You are now a disciplined individual.  You can do it.  Music from coffee shops, department stores, and elevators is acceptable since you can’t control them, but anything that’s under your power should repeat that song relentlessly.  Now some people might be thinking “If I listen to this song for a whole week, I’m going to hate it!”  To a certain extent this might be true, you probably won’t want to listen to it for a few months afterward; but honestly, if you can’t listen to a single song for a whole week straight, then maybe it’s not that great of a song in the first place.  Am I right, or am I right?  And, if this song really was forged in the fires or Mordor, I can assure you that you’ll be drawn back to it before too long.  My precioussssssss!!!

Step R: Research

When you start listening to your song, hop on the internet and do a few searches for the artist and song.  A good place to start is the artist’s official website, since they’ll have the most accurate lyrics and bio about the band.  If you don’t have the lyrics memorized yet, do it.  See if you can find the history of the band, and if possible, see if you can find some commentary about the song itself.  If the song is a popular one, you might be able to find some really specific facts about it.  When was it written?  Did the artist write the song him/herself, or is it a cover?  Ideally you want to find an interview or article where the artist talks specifically about the context and meaning behind the song.  This will give you better insight, and will ultimately lead to a higher appreciation of the song.

Step ILIBP: Intensively Listen Intentionally – Big Picture

After researching the song, begin the intensively listening intentional process.  Here are a few “big picture” things you want to pay attention to while listening:

  • How many instruments are there, and what are they?
  • What are the levels of the instruments?  Which are louder than the others?  Do any of them have a piercing quality, cutting through the other parts?
  • Which parts are rhythm, giving structure to the song, and which parts are melody?
  • Who is holding down the beat?  The drums usually do a good job of this, but that might not be the case in some songs.  I love Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment, and sometimes you can’t even tell what the heck Mike Portnoy (the drummer) is doing.
  • Pay special attention to who is NOT playing.  Silence is golden.  A well placed rest in a song will introduce contrast in a piece, accenting and building complexity in the places that DO have sound.
  • Which parts are complex, and which are simple?  Some of my favorite songs are just a singer playing solo with his guitar, but at the same time I’ll love a song that utilizes a full orchestra.
  • What is creating tension? When and what is releasing it?  Where is the climax?
  • Pay special attention to the opening and closing.  Does the song start high or low energy? Does it end with the same theme it starts with?

Step LSMV: The Live Show and Music Videos

Another dimension of music is the live show.  Since there isn’t an option for specialized recording equipment, backup vocals, full orchestras, or multiple takes, the live performance might feel “empty” when compared with the recording.  Groups with a higher budget will be able to include some of the other extraneous elements included in the recording, but not everyone has that luxury.  Although the sound quality might not be as good for live shows, another vital element comes into play: visuals.  Search on YouTube or the band’s website for live shows, and take note of the differences in sound, and the kind of stage presence they exude.  Watch the movies several times, taking note of each band member’s actions.  Notice if and when the members feed off each other.  Do they make eye contact often?  Do they talk to each other between songs?  Do they act like one amalgamated entity or are they engrossed in their own little world?

If you feel strange watching somebody like that, just accept the fact that you’re a creepy stalker, and famous people deal with creepers everyday.  You know they love it.

Music videos are yet another avenue that bands present themselves.  Unlike live shows, they have the opportunity to present refined visual and audio in the same package.  This is one of best ways for a band to present their image to the world, since it allows them to do it in a medium where they can cut out the errors.  Again, take notice of what’s being presented.

Step PP: Practice Profusely

If you haven’t started learning how to play the song, this is the time to do it.  For each instrument you know how to play, look up tabs, find the score, or figure out the parts yourself.  If it’s especially difficult, find the official score online or in a store and buy it.  I find that music videos are especially helpful when trying to figure out guitar parts because sometimes you just need to know the position on the neck before you can figure it out.  I’m writing another article on how to figure songs out, so I won’t go into great detail on this here, but the key point here is to examine the chord progression and understand the structure behind it.  This is key.  If you only have time to do one of these “steps”, do this one.  The chord progression defines the mood of the piece, and gives the driving force behind the song.  The most interesting and memorable melodies are built upon good chord progressions.

Step ILISP: Intensively Listening Intentionally – Small Picture

If you haven’t noticed yet, the order of these steps don’t really mean anything.  You don’t even have to do all of them, I’m not an LI dictator, but I’m just trying to fill your head with some ideas that could be helpful.

So moving on, you’ll now want to use those beautiful ears of yours to listen to each instrument specifically.  This can be deceptively easy since you’re listening to a finished product.  By now I’m sure you know what the raw sound “should” or “would” sound like with no tailoring.  Everybody knows what a real life, unrecorded, un”effected” acoustic guitar or grand piano sounds like.  So what you want to do is try to figure out the changes that were made, and follow the sound through the cables from beginning to end.  This can be extremely difficult for the inexperienced, and (if the artist is using some special kind of pedal or effector) it may be impossible.  But after you play your instrument for a while, and make a few experimentation trips to the local guitar store, you start to discover the kinds of sounds and effects that are typically used.

Do this listening exercise for each instrument, and look at what effects are being used.  Who is putting out a raw, undoctored sound?  Who is running their signal through a hundred million effector pedals?  Listen with open ears and an open mind.  The artist had an end result in mind, and used whatever s/he needed to get there.

Here’s an unofficial, and incomprehensive list of common effects you might try listening for.  A lot of these effects are mostly used for electric guitar, but you know how some people are.  They like to get … creative.  Search the web for samples of these effects if you aren’t familiar with them.

  • Reverb
  • Delay/Echo
  • Equalization
  • Compression
  • Distortion
  • Chorus
  • Flange
  • Wah-wah
  • Tremolo
  • Octavers and Pitch Shifters

Closing Words

Don’t stop at just one song.  Great quality and high quantity input begets great output.  I would know, I spent a year learning a second language.

Step NGUNS: Never Give Up, Never Surrender

One song for a whole week.  Straight!  You can do it!


Learn Songs Faster by Creating a Master Playlist

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

For those of you that don’t know, I just got back from a year long foreign exchange program in Japan.  I wanted to learn Japanese super bad, so I decided the best way to do it was to go there.  I found out later that you don’t need to go anywhere to learn a language, but, well, that’s another story altogether.  Using the advice from Khatzumoto, I started making Japanese my life.  I switched Firefox into Japanese, I tried reading stuff on Wikipedia in Japanese, I tossed out almost all of my books that were in English, I stopped hanging out with English speaking people as much as possible, and most of all – I completely quit listening to music in English.  That was really tough for me, because it’s obviously a huge part of my life, and provides the life force for my entire existence. And so I had to find a way to get good Japanese music, get it quick, and get it cheap.  I signed up for an account on imeem, and immediately started building a playlist of music that I liked.  It was free, easy to use, and I could access it anywhere I had a computer.  Since I spent most of my time studying with a memorization program on my computer (Anki if your interested), I listened to that playlist almost every day.  Needless to say, after listening to this playlist almost every day for 10 months, I started memorizing songs that I couldn’t even understand yet. I’d go to karaoke with my friends, and be able to sing a ton of songs in Japanese while my other foreign friends were stuck singing in English.  As you can probably imagine, a thought was sparked in my head, which in turn began an on-going project that I hope will help you in your quest to collect all the pieces of the triforce become a better musician.

“The Playlist”

You can probably see what’s coming next.  You’re going to want to take all of your most favorite music, and build what I like to call “The Playlist”.  Yup, your favorite music.  Now you’re reading this post, and you’re thinking “What the heck John, who hasn’t done that.  I mean seriously, everybody and their aunt’s FedEx delivery-man has a playlist of their favorite music … gosh dang it!” And in saying that, yeah you’re probably right.  The reality is that it’s just that: a playlist. But it’s a collection of the music that fuels your passion, the songs that made you start playing in the first place, the music that is so good that it gives you goose-bumps, the music that you can’t help dancing to – even when other people are around. It’s much more than just a “playlist”.

Constructing The Playlist

To start out, you want to embrace the life of a minimalist for a bit, and make sure that all of your music is in the same place.  Having files spread across computers, different programs, CDs, tapes, and vinyl, and other various places is a nightmare.  You can’t quite immediately get all of your analog media (tapes, vinyl, etc.) onto the computer, but just get everything in the same place.  Use your favorite audio software program to collect all your digital media in one place.  I use Media Monkey, and could rave about it all day, but I certainly can’t tell you which program to use.  If you’re in a band, I suggest you all agree on using the same media player and file format.

So now you’ve got all your files in one place and begin by making a playlist called, well, “The Playlist”, or anything you want I guess. Just make sure it’s not just another playlist on top of all the other “my favs”, “grandma’s music”, and “mix tape for Henrietta” playlists you’ve made. It’s gotta be recognizable instantly by anyone who sees it. Add a zero in front of it if you want it to show up first alphabetically.  Now you want to systematically choose the songs that you like the most.  You need to suppress your feeling a little bit while doing this, mostly because if you’re like me, you have about 500 favorite songs.  Most media players such as iTunes or Windows Media Player keep track of the number of times you listen to each song your own, so let’s start there. iTunes even has an automatic “Top 25 Most Played” playlist, unless you deleted it.  Add the top 25 or so songs to start out, and more if you feel like it.

If you’re like me, some songs with have a ridiculous play count.  Not because you listen to them a lot, but rather because you’ve been practicing them for a long time.  In my playlist for example, Karma by Bump of Chicken has been played 184 times, simply because I had to practice it so many times before I got good at it (it’s boat hard remembering lyrics in a second language).  You can choose to leave those songs in or take them out, depending on how much you actually like them.

Depending on how old you are (yeah, sorry to point it out like this, but it’s pretty obvious), you’re going to have more or less analog media.  Accept the fact that your music is outdated, in an inconvenient package, and that the sound quality is not nearly as good.  I know some people love the vinyl sound, or the tape sound, or the scratchy-overcompressed-radio sound, but for our purposes you need something more portable.  You’re gonna need to get it on your computer somehow.  Since you can’t readily add it like digital media, you have only a few options.  The first thing you wanna do is make a list of the analog songs that you actually like.  To do that, make a pile in the middle of your living room of all your analog stuff, and separate it into two piles – the “really good” pile and the “not as good” pile (you don’t still own all crappy music do you? why?).  Go through the “good” pile and make a list of all your favorite songs.  Choose specific songs and not just whole albums.  Take that list and hold on to it for the next part.

Next we want to choose songs that might have been missed by the play count (or if you don’t listen to music much on your computer). You’ll have to manually go through your entire playlist and find all the songs you consider top notch. These are 5 star songs, the cream of the crop.  Try to eliminate as much “good” music as you can.  This is your favorite music of all time isn’t it?  It might be time consuming depending on how much music you have, and will probably result in some nostalgia too :). But at the same time, don’t get distracted!  After adding these songs you should have a rather sizable list.  It might be upwards of 100 or 150 songs if you have a considerably large music collection, or you were just too generous when choosing your songs. Including your analog songs, this list should be somewhere around 150 songs.  If you have more, take some out; if you have less, don’t worry too much.

At this time, you’re going to want to have your analog songs in your computer somehow.  I’ve never done it, but there are some ways that you can record your tapes and records onto your computer, but I imagine it will seriously be a pain in the butt.  If you’ve had a different experience, tell me about it in the comments.  Rather, my suggestion is to just buy brand new songs online.  Yeah, it’s like buying the song twice, and yeah, you already own it.  But seriously, this music is awesome right?  That probably means the artists spent a lot of time and hard work writing that song.  They deserve to be paid.  You’re gonna want to listen to it everywhere you go, so it’s worth the extra price.  I plan on posting a How To soon about buying songs online, so check that out when it comes, and get those songs into 1’s and 0’s.

Further Notes on your The Playlist

Please realize that this playlist is not static, but rather, it’s very very dynamic.  Adding songs and deleting songs should be a regular occurrence.   It’s also a really great tool for a person pursuing a career in music.  Here are some examples of things I do/could do with my playlist:

  • The 50 songs number is just a target, so don’t be afraid if your playlist is swelling to 75 or more songs.  When I find a new band or album I like, I add all of their music to the playlist.  I find that the list quickly goes back down to 50 or so as I delete songs that aren’t awesome.
  • I add songs that my band is practicing, kind of as an addition to the list.  Meaning I get to listen to them often (very important) because they are in the list, but I don’t include them in the 50 song limit.
  • Show it to your friends or band-members.  They might be inspired to do the same, thus improving the quality of music you end up playing.
  • Like I said before, use it when forming/joining a new band to define the direction you want to go.
  • And the ever so blindingly obvious: to enjoy it.

Upon completion, you’ll have made your very own The Playlist.  It is the best of the best of the best.  Your very own representation of the greatest music on the face of the earth.  You’ve also done something on top of defining greatness, and not only created your very own inspiration tool, but have defined the path that your own music should take.  If this music has changed your life, or constantly brings you pleasure, then you should write music similar to that.  It is your responsibility to start writing that music, and take the step from passive reception into active transcendence, adding richness to the world by passing on inspiration and encouragement to others through your music.