One meta cognitive skill worth learning is learning how to think about how you learn in the midst of your learning. The figure of the experienced runner running comes to mind: she’s moving almost effortlessly fast and her body is in constant motion, yet she’s attuned to more than just the terrain and the passing landscape. She regulates her cadence, posture, her breathing (breathing deeply and slow, for instance), and can alter how her feet strike the ground. She can even feel her toes inside her shoes, gripping the soles. In short, the runner is in the moment while simultaneously observing and fine-tuning it. It’s in this way that running can be a feedback experience par excellence—an opportunity to get “in tune” with the micro-learnings of one’s body in deep engagement.
Music production is like this experience of running (or at least I’d like it to be) in that it offers many opportunities for shaping oneself through the shaping of one’s material. Whenever I’m working on music I try to work on my feedback game at the same time, looking for ways to learn better and make that learning stick. As I work, part of my attention mulls over whether or not I’m spending my time fruitfully and I wonder how I might tighten the feedback loop between my actions and what I’m learning from them. I don’t have quick answers to these questions, I but I’ve learned some things.
Work on the thing that appears most problematic or in need of altering. Trying to fix what needs fixing is the quickest route to improving the overall flow of the music. If you don’t hear a problem, keep at it and either (a) listen more closely and/or (b) hone in on a single part and re-assess that. No matter what kind of music you make, its sounds are always making competing claims on your attention, so it’s sometimes difficult to hone one’s focused listening skills to get directly at what needs your help. But as with almost all things, this gets better with practice. In short, the more you focus your listening the better you get at focused listening.
As you alter, fix, or improve something, take note (ideally, writing it down) of the specific thing you’re doing. Even if that action is something as simple as altering a note’s volume say, pay attention. As you take note of your actions, sometimes the actions will reveal themselves to be fundamental creative strategies that you might apply in other situations down the road. Take muting, for instance, which is often a quick way to clarify a musical texture by silencing bits of it here and there. Instead of thinking of muting as a technique you use once in a while, it can be a process you apply (or try to apply) to every part or every piece, almost like a cleansing. I’m often struck by little pockets of beauty that are revealed when I mute something, which in turn has me rethinking matters of structure and which sounds should be featured and where. Maybe one day I’ll mute almost everything in a piece and then what’s left will shine!
Make many small errors in a process of trial and error. This is an idea I gleaned from Nassim Taleb, who explains in his book Antifragile that the virtue of small errors is that they’re small in harm (i.e. they don’t kill you) yet yield a lot of useful information. In music production, my errors mostly come in the form of trial and error: trying something out, realizing it sounds bad (or neutral), and then moving on to trying something else, over and over and over again, until I get closer to my goal of an enchanting sound. In fact, it’s not unusual for a producer to try out dozens or hundreds of sounds or layered sound combinations in search of a timbre that fits and feels just so. No, this isn’t exactly fun, but if the only harm that comes from such extensive trial and error is spent time, then that time is well spent.
As you work on the music over time, let your changing perception of it feed back into both it and your working. It happens to me all the time that what sounded good yesterday sounds lame today. This means that either I’m growing or that my listening is wildly variable, or both. So as a general rule, forget what you perceived then and trust what you think now. The piece may sound like it’s getting worse, not better, but that may be a function of your knowing it so intimately—think about how much time you’ve spent with it already. Remember that you’re trying to refine the music so that it can withstand the scrutiny of your knowledge of it today, but also tomorrow and the next day, at which times you’ll know even more. So be generous with the music by bringing all of your knowhow from today to bear on making it more cohesive, more subtle, more interesting, and more capable of holding your attention down the road. As you work to improve it in little ways, know that by tightening the feedback loop between your techniques and how the music sounds you’re refining yourself too.