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Dear Readers,

I think I’ve mentioned before in this blog that I’m fortunate enough to have a day job. A day job completely different from music and art, but I get the bills paid and am happy for that. Thing is – making music is a job too. It’s a job that takes up a lot of time. Probably a little blood, sweat, and tears too. I see it as two lives contrasting from each other with very little overlap.

How do you keep those lives separate? Depending on your generation, you probably have a different approach. It seems the older generation would keep these as separated as possible while the younger generation would take every opportunity they could to tell you all about their side hustle and why you should support it. You can probably tell which side of the generational gap I’m siding with on this topic. (To be clear: it’s the side that keeps things separate.)

I don’t announce anything at my day job about my artistic pursuits. Sure, there are a few people that are more friends and less work associates these days, so I tell them a little bit. Sometimes, people will ask when we’re on video calls about the paintings in the background and I might give them a quick tour around my office – beyond that, it’s all professional.

One thing I’ve noted over the years and through a number of jobs is that it’s becoming more normal for people to share about their personal lives. And now, when so many people out there are using video conferencing for the first time ever, things seem to be getting even more personal. I don’t approve. I won’t drag this out but the next time your company leadership goes on about how “we’re all Company family” – you should think about that.

I know this much: I’m not allowed to fire my family members for not making money.

Anyway… separation. It can be incredibly difficult to enforce separation between your job (day) and your job (night). Everyone’s circumstance is different so let me explain mine a bit.

I’ve been a remote worker for about eight years. I have an office. The office has one main desk that houses my music equipment, personal computer, some art supplies, and work supplies. In another corner are the art supplies. Somewhere in the middle of this room, right now, are guitars. During the colder months, I also bring exercise equipment (small weights, mats, etc.) into this room. I pretty much live in this room. (Inside the Red Room. Get it?)

Keeping these lives separate becomes a real balancing act. I have to place things in my office just right to ensure they are out of camera view so I don’t have to deal with questions. I can’t make too much of a mess when I’m painting because I need a clean space to work in and, when it’s colder, I need room to exercise. This also limits just how much gear I can acquire since there’s a limited space in which to put the kit.

The main problem, though, is that all around are the various temptations of things I’d rather be doing than my actual job. And when I’m actually doing the things I want to do, I’m right next to my work computer where if I only spent 30 more minutes on that project, I could get it done… (Which almost always spirals to hours because there’s never enough time to do all the work.)

How do I handle it? Well… there’s a Chris Rock stand-up comedy special where he makes a few jokes where the main punchline is, “A mortgage makes you act right.” I can’t argue with that! But what does it mean to act right?

In my case, I keep a consistent schedule. I work the same hours throughout the day and I unplug at a predefined time. Sleep gets, more-or-less, the same priority with a set number of hours and timing every day. The remaining hours are split for all the other things where I try to keep some flexibility. On some days, I’ll work on music for hours while on other days, I spend all that time with my family instead.

And I’m sure you’ll love this circular logic: the most important thing to keeping things separate is to keep them separate. You know, setting boundaries. If I were to sit around talking about my artistic pursuits all day, I would feel a stronger desire to work on it during that time. Even if I were to refrain, I would still be watching the clock waiting for the exact minute I could be done with work in order to get on with the better pursuit.

Many years ago, that’s exactly how it was with my coworkers. We would play video games together in the evening, show up late to work, and then sit around and talk about those games all day along with strategies for that evening. With all that talk and planning, we were all itching to get out work, often trying to find ways to leave a few minutes early so we could get started on the all important game.

On the other end of the spectrum, in more recent years, I was so attached to work that I was never able to more forward on any artistic pursuit. I’d work all day and sometimes in the evening to wrap up sometimes and then I’d communicate to work contacts through all the waking hours – I never unplugged. So every time I went into my office, I felt pulled to my work device… because there’s always work to be done.

Ultimately, blurring the boundaries between things that should have stayed separate was a terrible idea.

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. Yes, you could say that I have one job and one hobby because I could walk away from music. I consider it a second job because of the amount of time I put into it and the effort spent on things like this blog. For as long as I continue to do this, I’ll continue to think of it as my second job.

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Dear Readers,

I was recently at a local outdoor music event, eating very interesting (also very good) Moroccan red quinoa tacos and listening to live music. After a while, I realized I wasn’t hearing the whole music anymore – instead, I was trying to find the song structure and the chord changes. Was that a 12-bar blues I heard? Was that a major turnaround? What was that drum pattern? So this is where I am at now – finding enjoyment in deconstructing other music to see what I’ve learned or what I can learn from it.

Song structure is important when you’re working with lyrics and vocals. The reading I’ve done on this seems to reinforce the idea as almost all the descriptions revolve around the lyrical portion of the song. All examples provided are lyrical songs – no instrumentals. It leaves me wondering how important having a formal song structure is to my own music.

I mean, in the strictest sense of the thing, any song I create will have structure. There will be a beginning, middle, and end. There will be volume changes and instrument drones that fade in-and-out. There will be chord progressions and multiple instruments, but many of the songs I’m working on don’t follow standard structures (12-bar, ABABCB, verse-chorus, etc.). Does it matter?

Well, what I’ve found recently is that songs following a defined structure definitely stick around in my head longer. I’ll walk away from working on the piece and still be humming a catchy part of the song later in the day because there’s some repetition in the music and using a common structure leads to having certain expectations. It’s like watching a movie – once you’ve seen enough in a single genre, you know what’s coming next.

The music I’m creating that is free-flowing and doesn’t focus on structure? Mostly, I walk away from these songs with just a feeling. The melody is forgettable, nothing more than a snapshot in time from the day I originally played the part.

I call it forgettable but that’s not the most apt description. The goal of the music isn’t to have a melody that sticks out or be distracting in any way. It’s music that goes in the background. It fills the void of silence, but it doesn’t have to draw you in. When done right, you will enjoy the music enough to remember the artist name but forget all the song titles.

Hopefully, you’ll be left with a good feeling and forget all the rest.

Sincerely,

Achira

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Dear Readers,

It’s been a little while since “City Dreams” came out and I thought I should tell you that, yes, I have been busy working on new material! Here’s a small sample:

Untitled Work in Progress

For this work, I’ve been focused on making a clean ambient sound. This should be the kind of music that can sit in the background while you study, sleep, or meditate. And, so far, I’m pretty happy with the results. That said, I’m still very much in the initial creation and mixing phase of my workflow – so I don’t yet have a target release time or any more details about the album.

My main focus, in creating the cleaner sound, has been in improving my mixing. I’ve largely focused on doing better with equalizers and, in some cases, attempted to apply a more standard song structure. My plan is to avoid drums in this release or, if they are added, having a minimal amount of them. What I want is to have a mostly free-flowing piano lead with a variety of ambient drones and strings in the background to invoke a nice sense of calm.

As for other techniques, I’m using a limited amount of compression, a variety of delay and reverb techniques, and a whole lot of shimmer. (See: https://valhalladsp.com/shop/reverb/valhalla-shimmer/). I don’t have too many third-party plugins but that one is definitely one of my favorites!

Anyway, I wanted to share some updates because I’m excited about this future release!

Sincerely,

Achira

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Dear Readers,

I think any parent will tell you that it’s pretty common for kids to complain about their education. For that matter, many adults might recall their own complaints about school – or maybe they have complaints about what is being taught in school to their kids because they think it’s useless. People have their reasons for hating on education but it’s pretty common. It’s been on my mind lately between summer vacation for the kids and my own attempts to learn new things.

What I’ve mostly been thinking about is that we waste a lot of time complaining about education or trying to justify the “why” you need to learn a subject. There’s an inability to just accept that you have to learn things to grow as a person or that you need to learn a specific subject in order to learn a subject that seems more interesting to you.

I mean, you have to learn a few things before you can jump into differential calculus, am I right?

As an adult, though, I accept that sometimes I’m learning just for the joy of learning something new. In recent months, I’ve taken on trying to learn the guitar. When I decided to learn the guitar, I started with doing research on the type of guitar I should buy as a beginner and resources for learning. I subscribed to Fender Play and now I practice every day to get better because I want to learn.

Do I need to learn it? Not really. I’m doing it for fun. It’s a choice I made.

I’m also spending this summer trying to learn about gardening. I bought some ebooks via a Humble Bundle sale in the past that cover small-space gardening and I finally decided to move forward on that. Again, do I need to learn this skill? Nope! I’m just doing it for the joy of learning.

Some out there might be inclined to say that it’s different. I’m learning now because I choose to and that makes it better. My response is that I can learn these things now, for fun and faster, because I learned the bare minimums provided to me before. Math helps with music. Math helps with science. These foundational ideas help with art, both visual and auditory.

Music mixing and production is nothing more than making sound waves that appeal to human ears without having too much or too little in any one frequency band. While I don’t need a background in math and science to understand this, my ability to understand this is improved by having that knowledge.

Consider this my plea to change your perception of learning – it’s not a chore, it’s important, it’s fun, and it’ll expand your horizons. Sometimes you have to learn something not directly related to your goals. Sometimes learning is difficult. All that effort, though, just makes it all the sweeter when you come out on the other side having learned something new.

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. Don’t let this blog fool you, I rot my brain cells with TV too.

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Dear Readers,

In art, there’s a term “negative space” which refers to all the space in and around your actual subject. So if you were drawing a picture on paper, the ink or pencil defines your subject and all that blank space around it? That’s the negative space.

Negative space is important because it’s through this space that you guide your viewer to the thing that matters. It’s in this space that your viewer gets to take a break – their mind gets to relax from processing the visual and the overall picture becomes easier to look at.

In music, there is still a negative space. There’s a time to stop playing, to take a rest, to skip a beat. Sometimes, the melody stops. Others, the harmony might cut out. In the most extreme, everything will stop for a moment but this is all done for the effect of guiding the listener on a journey.

There are lots of stylistic options that contribute to the negative space in a song but the most comparable for me is the bridge of your song because it’s a construct specifically designed to wake up the listener and prepare them for a final hurrah before the song ends.

In common song formats, you generally have a structure where the verse sort of sets up a story and the chorus is the climactic, super-catchy part that you are humming all day. It’s the part that repeats in all those songs that you sing along with but if all you do is the verse-chorus parts, you’re missing out on a lot of your story. Where’s the intro? Outro? The transition between all the parts? There’s just so much more.

When the music is repetitive, it’s easy to tune out, so we have to have a way to guide the listener and wake up those senses. If we think of the verse-chorus as our artistic subject, we can’t just add blank space around it and have a complete picture. Something needs to go in that void and that’s where you end up with the turnaround, the bridge, and some other things. These seemingly minor parts transition the listener between the major parts or wake the listener up to let them know another section is coming soon.

So what’s the point? Those minor parts are important – those parts are filling the gaps to make the major parts memorable. No matter your choice of art form, the subject is only one part of the overall composition. Spend time working on the minor parts too because, honestly, the chorus is only catchy when there’s a bunch of stuff around it that you enjoyed too!

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. I like making connections between different art forms because it makes it easier for me to retain the information. I’ve been drawing a lot longer than I’ve been making music and anytime I can connect the two, well, that’s a win in my book.

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Dear Readers,

Artists are a quirky bunch with odd mannerisms and whatnot, so I guess I’m not too far removed when I wonder how many of us have a favorite key to play in. I suspect everyone making music probably has a favorite chord progression or beat pattern, but what about a favorite key? Or a favorite time signature?

You may be wondering why I would even be curious about such a minor thing. That’s fair.

There’s two things really: the first being that I have my own favorites. There are time signatures that draw my attention – I love 3/4 or 6/8 time – and there are keys that I prefer to play in. While I try to branch out a bit, most of what I work in is C major (because it’s the easiest), F major (because it adds interest while still being easy to play), and C minor (because it’s more complex but easy to shift chord progressions from C major).

My favorite is F major. I can also name my favorite chord progressions:

  • 6 -> 4 -> 2 -> 1 : Just sounds nice to me
  • 2 -> 5 -> 1 : For resolution

Not that you needed to know!

These have become my favorites over time because they work, proven by other musicians, or maybe they’re just easy. They’ve become familiar, comfortable. That, though, brings about a different problem: repetition in work. That is my second reason for wondering about people’s favorites. Do we know our own favorites because we need to avoid them?

An important part of growth, as an artist – or really, as a human – is expanding your horizons and trying new things. Not being fluid, always doing the same thing on repeat because it’s comfortable…? Well, that works for a while but if you never grow beyond that, the art never improves because there’s always more out there. There’s always something new to learn, something new to try, or just a different perspective available to you if you seek it out.

So while I’ll still use my favorites, I’ll shake it up and try new things from time-to-time because who knows? Maybe I’ll land on an even better favorite.

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. One thing that I feel is fundamentally true is that an artist’s vision can be improved by having life experience and perspective. Getting involved with your community, traveling outside your home town, being around other cultures – these things give perspective that can inform your work or give you inspiration. Most importantly, it just makes us better humans to have that understanding.

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Dear Readers,

The seasonal change means something different to everyone. Some people love spring because it brings new life and a sort of reawakening after a long winter. Others love autumn because of the changing colors and the cooler weather. And, crazy people love winter. I love summer.

I love getting tan and being on the water. I love how running become less of a chore and more about just being outside or how yoga moves outside with the fresh air and sunshine. If we’re being totally honest with each other, I just love walking out my door and immediately breaking out in a sweat because it’s hot and humid!

This time of year is my favorite but it happens to be my least productive, creatively.

As the weather warms, I fill my time with as much outdoor activity as I can stand, and there are more chores to get done: the grass needs to be cut, plants need to be watered, and so on. It all adds up and next thing you know, it’s time to go to bed and I haven’t gotten anything done. This isn’t to say that I’m not hard at work on new music – I am!

For the most part, I fit in work while I drink a cup of coffee before I have the motivation to get out the door for some activity or another. I might do a little at night before bed when I have a few minutes of quiet to myself. I’ll work more when it’s stormy and being outside isn’t much of an option. I just fit it in wherever I can knowing that, sure, I’m not getting a lot done at this moment but the nice weather doesn’t last forever.

So when I’m out on the water, I don’t let myself feel bad that I didn’t spend that time on my creative pursuits wishing that I were back home instead. Not at all. I’m enjoying the nice weather with full awareness that in a few short months, it’ll be too cold for me to be out and I’ll have plenty of time to fill making more music. Most importantly, I’ll have lots of happy memories to draw from to make that music better.

My message to you is this: whatever your seasonal preference, take the time to enjoy being alive. Your enjoyment and happiness will shine through in your work.

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. Other things I love about summer aside from being on the water: walking with my family to get ice cream in the evening, having windows open when driving, longer days, laying in a hammock, and finally not being cold.

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Dear Readers,

Anyone reading this has heard the expression, “Practice makes perfect.” I’m a subscriber to this and it’s a firm part of every aspect of my life. I can freely admit that some things come easier to me than perhaps they do for others. Most technology, for example, is easier for me than for my partner. The joke around our house is that all I need to do is walk in the room, breathe on whatever tech was broken, and it’ll just magically work.

The reality is often different. There’s occasionally a time or two when things just magically worked, but most of the time, it’s directly related to my years and years of practice.

The truth is that I’ve spent over two decades practicing these skills and learning from observation. While I may have some natural skill for learning technology, that talent isn’t the same as the wisdom and accumulated knowledge I’ve built up over decades. That’s why when I walk into a room and fix a problem, it seems so easy – I’ve either seen the exact problem before, I’ve seen a similar problem, or I know enough about the underlying technology that I can make a pretty good guess at where the problem would be.

Thus, my position: practice is more important than raw talent. No matter what it is, I’d rather work with the person that put in the time to practice over someone that just happens to be good.

Part of my argument is probably rooted in jealousy. I’ve had to beat my head against the wall for years now to get anywhere with drawing, painting, music, or just anything creative. It’s taken consistent effort, every single day, to get anywhere. Drawing has been the most consistent point of practice as I’ve been sketching nearly every day now for some time – even when I don’t spend a lot of time on it, I spend at least 10 minutes every night before bed sketching.

And you know what I see? Improvements. Consistent improvements over time. The drawings I have now are better than what I had last year and vastly improved over the drawings from years before. The topics I choose to research more in-depth stick with me for longer and I’m apply to apply what I learn easier because I practiced those things every day. Music is the same. I practice every day and I’ve gotten better every day.

So when it comes to practice being more important than raw talent, I think the other part of my argument is this: If you’re putting in the time to practice every day to get better, you’ve got the right attitude. You already know that you’ll have to work hard and put in time to get the results you want. You already know that this is something you want badly enough to put in that time and effort. And, probably, you’re humble enough to accept that you don’t know everything about the subject – that’s why you were practicing.

Practice builds talent – talent that is repeatable and reliable.

That’s it. No advice, just respect. If you’re one of those people out there working hard every day to hone your craft, I respect you for that, and I hope you keep it up!

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. Another thing about practicing… Raw talent eventually fades when you don’t put in the time because no one is born with knowledge, you have to work at that.

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Dear Readers,

No matter where you are in life or what you’re doing with your time, you probably have a goal. Maybe you want to lose five pounds or learn a new language. Perhaps, the goal is broader: try something new. Whatever the case, you probably have something you’re striving to get to and that’s great! It’s important. It’s a reason to get up and keep working at something every day.

I’m pretty sure anytime I’ve read, watched, or heard something about being successful it typically involves not accepting defeat and having defined goals. One problem that I’ve had in the past, though, is that sometimes I don’t know where to go after reaching a goal.

A long time ago, I had this goal: learn the piano. To learn the piano, I would take some lessons and I would play my favorite classical pieces. I practiced as much as I could as often as I could and eventually, I could play those songs wonderfully… but then, I didn’t know what to do. I had met my initial goals and I didn’t have anywhere to go at the time. I wasn’t interested in playing the same songs but there weren’t any other songs that really inspired me the same way.

So, I stopped playing for a long time.

This didn’t last forever as you may have noticed in previous posts on this site. Now, arguably, I’m a worse piano player than I was back then. My hands have a hard time working independently, sight-reading is a chore if I can even read the music at all anymore, and freestyle play is full of accidentals – not the good kind either.

This happened because I had goals. I had very specific goals and a very specific end point and when I got there, I was bored with no where to go. Was I particularly great? Nope, not really, but it didn’t matter because my goal wasn’t to “be great.” My goals were built around learning the instrument and playing specific scores because I grew up loving those songs and just wanted to replicate the sound myself.

Fast forward all of these years and I’m on a different journey. I’m practicing my playing (albeit on a keyboard which is good but doesn’t have that full piano feel) regularly and I’ve started learning a new instrument: guitar. It’s another one of those things I’ve always wanted to do and kept putting off until I had the time. Life never just hands you time, so a few months ago, I finally made the plunge. This time around, I set some goals and am working towards those, but more importantly, my outlook is different.

What seems obvious to me now is that it needs to be less about reaching some arbitrary goal and more about enjoyment of the music. Enjoying the sound of a guitar or piano and wanting to have it make those sounds is a much better reason to show up every day and put in the practice to get better rather than learning how to play a handful of favorite songs. Realizing that practicing these this music is an art and something that brings calm into my life – turns out, that’s more important to me than being able to play any one song.

I know I can’t see the future, but I think this time I’m on a better track. I believe that a few years from now, I’ll be better at playing piano and guitar and I can look back on this year in my life as the turning point – because this is the time when I finally figured out that goals aren’t everything. Sometimes, you need to do a thing just because it makes you happy. And this is my advice to you: set goals but remember to smile and enjoy the thing you are doing.

Sincerely,

Achira

P.S. Another thing that has helped me is understanding my own limitations. I accept the limited amount of time I can put into learning something new and I accept that it will be years before I’m any good. Accepting that makes everything more enjoyable because I’m not rushing – if I want to spend today just working chord progressions for the dozen chords I’ve learned, then that’s what I do. I get better while just having fun.