One of the best parts of giving a piano performance is interacting with the audience afterwards. It’s a moment of genuine connection with others, a chance to hear how they have connected the experience of your music to their lives. Sure, you hear a lot of odd things… I never quite know how to respond when someone tells me about the neighbor’s son who plays the saxophone. (In my head I always respond, “What do you want me to do about that?”) Ultimately, though, you come to appreciate people communicating a connection in the way they know how.
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
In those glowing moments after a show, you hear some sad things, too. People will relate how a deceased loved one used to play the piano, or would have loved the show if they could only be here. One of saddest things you hear is, “I wish I’d never stopped playing the piano.” The defeat in the voice always gets me, because I know firsthand how much joy and release playing the piano can bring to a person. I know what they’ve missed out on, and it’s substantial. It’s worth mourning that loss. I take a minute to be sad with them, and then I cheer them on: “It’s never too late to start again!”
The problem is, the longer you remain inactive, the harder action becomes. “Inertia is the antithesis of creativity,” writes Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. “It’s all about staying in motion.”
Inertia is the antithesis of creativity.”
I should write more, but I don’t have anything to write about.
There are too many blogs already. I don’t have anything to add.
I know it would feel good to write, but I’m so busy… I just don’t have the time.
I never had much of an audience anyways. Who cares that I’m not writing more?
As the weeks and months passed, the fear of action became so strong that I started making excuses for giving up:
I haven’t updated the site in forever. Anyone who was reading it regularly gave up a long time ago.
I’m out of practice. If I tried to write now, it would just come out bad.
I’ll get to it when I have more free time.
I must not be interested in that anymore. If I were, I’d still do it.
Go long enough, and thoughts like this one take root:
I never finish the things I start.
Once that seed is planted, it is very, very hard to weed it out.
This is why I feel so bad for people who tell me, “I wish I hadn’t stopped playing the piano.” Regret plants itself in very fertile soil. If enough years go by, the weeds grow so thick it’ll come to seem impossible to clear them all.
Now, before we move on, let’s be clear: Sometimes it’s okay to put things down and move on. Interests change. Passions shift. What got you excited at 13 might not rev your engines at 31. If you’re at peace with it, there’s nothing here to fix. It’s also childish to argue with the practical considerations that drive us to choose between our passions and responsibilities. Bills must be paid, food must be gathered, college must be saved for, and roofs must be repaired. But like Robin Williams said, “We’re only given a spark of madness. We mustn’t lose it.”
We’re only given a spark of madness. We mustn’t lose it.
Something is irretrievably lost when we choose making money over making our music, and so we end up in a kind of no-man’s-land between action and inaction, caring too much to give up on the idea but not enough to actually do anything about it. This fallow field between action and inaction is a breeding ground for fear, doubt, and self-loathing, and its steward has a name – Creative Inertia, the mortal enemy of all creative people. He is strong, but he can be conquered, or at least managed, if you can muster the will to “go out and get busy.”
The word “inertia” comes from the Latin word, iners, which means “idle” or “sluggish.” In physics, inertia is a measure of an object’s resistance to changes in velocity. In other words, an object, given its druthers, will indefinitely preserve its present state of rest or constant state of velocity until acted on by an external force.
Picture throwing a baseball in the vacuum of space. With no wind resistance, that ball will fly forever in a straight line at the velocity at which you threw it until some external force – say, the gravity of a moon – acts upon it and changes its course.
Similarly, an object at rest will stay at rest. Creative Inertia is your creative energy at rest, and it will persist in that state until you willfully work to change its course. The problem is that unlike the baseball in space, the amount of force it takes to “get busy” increases exponentially the longer you let your creativity sit still.
Imagine yourself kneeling on the floor of a comfy room. Sunlight drizzles in from large windows, and a lazy ceiling fan coaxes the air over your skin. You’ve done hot yoga, you’ve hydrated, and you’ve eaten your Wheaties. You kneel in that position for five minutes and stand up like a champ.
Now imagine you kneel in that same position all day. The sun goes down, and moonlight casts stark shadows through the windowpanes. You go to stand up, and what happens? Your legs are asleep, you have to grab onto something to steady yourself, your joints are tight and don’t want to bend, you groan audibly and, worst of all, you feel terribly, completely old.
It’s the same action in both cases. All that is different is the amount of time you stayed still. This is how Creative Inertia works.
One of the reasons I chafed against piano lessons as a kid was because my teacher insisted that I practice my exercises a little bit each day. At the time, I couldn’t see the point – Forget technique, I thought, I want to learn the “Bumble Boogie”!
What I didn’t understand at the time was that daily practice doesn’t just build technique, it builds momentum. Momentum is what enables you to persevere through the crumbly bits of life – day job, children, school, taxes, etc. – and continue to create. Momentum is what helps you prioritize putting an hour into your novel instead of vegging out in front the TV, what convinces you to do the exercise tape at 9:30 PM even though you’re exhausted, what pushes you to write that blog post even though you’re terrified it’ll be awful. Whether you’re learning or an instrument, writing a book, getting in shape, or tackling a recipe book, momentum is what you lose when you stop creating, and the longer you go with making things, the more energy it takes to get you moving again.
It’s something I wrestle with a lot, and by no means have I solved the riddle. I do, however, have a list of five things I try to do when I find myself creatively immobilized.
You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it. The mind that made the choices, compromises, concessions, and mistakes that brought you to this point cannot help you take the next step. You’ve got to get a new mindset, and the first step in getting a new mindset is forgiving yourself for the old one. Dwelling on lost returns isn’t going to get you anywhere. Forgive yourself. Accept yourself. Right now, as you are and where you are. And then resolve to do better.
At this point, you’re probably expecting me to suggest you set a specific goal, and that is indeed important. But you can’t set a goal until you honestly assess which goal will make you feel sufficiently successful. Will you only feel successful if you’re playing a Chopin recital at Carnegie Hall, or will you be content to blaze through “Maple Leaf Rag” like a boss? On the surface, these goals are similar – “I want to get better at playing the piano” – but they require drastically different degrees of effort to achieve. That doesn’t make one better or more worthy than the other; what’s important here is how it will make you feel about yourself.
Imagining success is about more than setting goals. It’s about actively and vividly imagining yourself feeling successful – looking in the mental mirror and seeing every crack and crevice of that success so clearly that you’re able to believe it’s possible – and then working backwards from there. It may sound corny, but you need to see it before can you be it.
Shatter it into tiny pieces.
Once you’ve settled on a goal and vividly imagined yourself having achieved it, it’s time to break that goal into small, achievable pieces. It helps to start small. I remember the first time I looked at the sheet music to “Maple Leaf Rag.” It looked like a fountain pen had sneezed onto a piece of paper. Taking on a goal all at once is a recipe for paralysis and disaster.
If you’ve taken piano lessons, you’ve likely been told to “practice each hand separately.” This is the way I practice, and the way every pianist I know practices. Why? Because it’s a proven way to break the ultimate goal of performing the piece into more manageably sized chunks. By focusing on one hand at a time, one measure at a time, you’re able to tackle more difficult passages, building the requisite muscle memory that you’ll need when it comes time to practice the hands together.
No matter your goal, you can effectively “practice each hand separately” by looking at what you want to achieve and breaking it down into small, distinct tasks, and then checking them off as you make progress.
Remember that person who comes up to me after a concert and says, “I wish I’d never stopped playing”? Let’s say that person is you, and you believe me when I tell you that it’s never too late to start again. Your first instinct might be: “I need to find a piano teacher and take lessons again!” But if you’re like most people, you won’t take that next step. Why? Is it because you is fundamentally flawed as a human being and can’t will yourself to do the things you’re interested in?
No. It’s because what you think is a simple task is actually very complex. If you live in a relatively populated area, there are likely hundreds of piano teachers within a reachable radius, each with their own approach, preferences, beliefs, and strengths. How do you choose the right one? And even when you do find a teacher, lessons are a significant commitment of time and money. If you haven’t had time to even touch a piano in twenty years, what makes you think you’re going to magically have the time, money, and motivation to do it now?
Dream big but start small. Let’s say you are okay eschewing Carnegie Hall, and instead really want to learn to play “Maple Leaf Rag.” You makes a list, and it looks like this:
- Buy the sheet music.
- Find a teacher.
- Win at life.
Is this list wrong? No – these are, ostensibly, the steps you will take, winning included, but the chunks are so big, you will have a much harder time staying with it.
A much better starting point would be something far smaller and far simpler: “Find a piano and noodle around on it for 20 minutes.” This is specific, small, and achievable. Go to a friend’s house, go to a piano store, visit a college campus, dust off the key cover of the upright in the basement, whatever. Just find a piano and press the keys. Challenge yourself to delight in what you remember instead of lamenting what you’ve lost. Just the simple act of forcing yourself to sit at a piano will help you begin to imagine success, even if all you can remember is Every Good Boy Does Fine.
Make a list of all of the small tasks you can think of that will contribute to your larger goal. Ask a friend to help you. Make a spreadsheet. And don’t be afraid to make the to-dos comically simple. Something as simple as, “Take the crap off the top of the piano and dust the piano and keys off” is worth putting on that list. The most helpful part of a checklist isn’t the list itself; it’s the empty box you get to check off at the end. I struggled so much with taking action in college that there were days that I would add, “Take a shower” or, “Check my e-mail” to my day’s to-do list. I needed to put these items on my list for the sole purpose of being able to check them off. Then I could look at the list and go, “Hey! One down! I can do this!” Knowing I’d already started tackling items on the list made it easier to take on the things that required more effort or persistence.
Remember, what we’re trying to build here is momentum, and momentum comes from motion. You don’t need to make progress at first so much as you need to get in motion, and having small steps you can take without investing a huge amount of time and effort is critical to building up to your eventual awesomeness.
One of the most useful things I’ve learned is that the peer pressure that harried you as a young person can actually be used to your own advantage as an adult. Billy Joel had it right: “Tell her about it. Tell her all your crazy dreams.” Communicating your goal to others is an incredibly helpful strategy for maintaining momentum for the simple reason that it is much easier to keep promises to others than it is to our selves.
I think this is true, in part, because it’s much easier to ignore the social contract with our selves than it is with our friends and loved ones. Ignore your promises to yourself and guess what: You still get to be with yourself tomorrow. Ignore the promises to your friends and family, and there’s a lot more to lose.
By communicating your goal to a friend or your Facebook page, you’re implicitly asking the people who know you and care about you to invest in this outcome along with you. No matter what your goal is, you need a cheering section. If you post to Facebook and announce, “I’ve resolved to learn a Chopin etude this year. Don’t let me wiggle out of it!” you’ve just created a powerful set of conditions for maintaining momentum.
“But what will people think of me if I don’t accomplish it?” you might ask. And that’s exactly the point. Fear of letting our friends down can be a powerful motivator, too.
It is so easy to mistrust your own inner voice, especially in the face of challenges and setbacks and things that don’t go your way. But if you’ve gotten this far, it is because whether you believe it or not, you have a real interest in the goal you’re pursuing. You might change goals along the way, or adjust your timeframe, or take longer on some items than you’d like, but ultimately you’ve walked this far because a part of you felt compelled to do it. If you feel you’re coming to a breaking point and you’re starting to feel helpless, see Step 1, and keep going.
The paradox of giving up on something you value is: We quit because we are afraid to fail, but we fail because we quit. We quit on our art because we feel like we have something to lose. In the most powerful speech he ever gave, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” You are going to die. I am going to die. The end. Finito. That’s all folks. Your creative energy is one of the most precious gifts life has bestowed upon you. What feels like a monumental, identity-defining failure in this moment is really just a comically undersized semicolon in the story of your creative life.
Don’t quit on what you love. Ever. For any reason. Because love begets love, and love is what the world needs more than ever.
Compliments make me uncomfortable. I crave them. I need them. I hunt them like missing socks. And I collect them like I collect a piece of sheet music: I get one, take one look at it, put it in a box in the basement and never look at it again. Criticism? Criticism I post on my mental fridge like it’s a finger-painting from my son and look at it every time I go to get a glass of milk.
Most creative people I know are self-conscious and predisposed to thinking bad things about themselves and their art, but a big part of building and maintaining momentum is reinforcing the positive feelings that progress brings. This means giving yourself permission to feel good about the steps you’re taking towards your goal, no matter how small, and celebrating each little milestone.
Your whole life you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Hard work is its own reward.” I’ve found that statement to be especially true of the hard work I put into the things that I love. With momentum comes joy, peace, and the thrill of being more today than you were yesterday.
Will you stumble? Yes. Will you falter? Yes. Will you doubt yourself? Absolutely. But will you be happier knowing that you’re in motion again? You will.
An entire industry has been built around helping others find the motivation to be their true selves and pursue what they love in spite of the challenges. This article on procrastination from Wait But Why is one of the most useful I’ve read this year.
Here is what I know. Creative Inertia is only as real as we let it be. When you stumble, forgive yourself. Stumbling just means that the task you’re trying to step over is too big. Shatter it into tiny pieces and check those pieces off one by one. Find a cheering section, make yourself accountable to people you respect, and don’t give up. And when you find yourself doing the thing that you thought you couldn’t do, I want you to do this: Stop critiquing yourself for a moment. Look down at your hands. Think to yourself, “Wow. I can’t believe I’m doing this!” And feel blessed to have the privilege of bringing joy to others by finding it in yourself.
Now go out and get busy.
Here’s a tradition carried over from my old blog. At the end of the year, I make a list of the top moments in my life for that year. The list is not about my favorite moments, nor my best moments. These are the top moments, the “Hitler as Man of the Year 1939″ moments, the ones that changed me, moved me, taught me, inspired me, humiliated me.
These are mistakes, triumphs, failures, wild successes. Some are comprehensible by anyone, others belong only to me. They are not listed in any particular order, only the one in which I think of them. Listing them, the good and the bad, is my way of saying “thank you” to a Universe who gave me another adventurous.
If I left out a moment you think should be here, don’t be upset. Exact your revenge by leaving a comment!
- Finally meeting Max Morath in person in Columbia, MO and going to lunch with three generations of ragtime pianists.
- Savoring a cup of “No Chewing Allowed” hot chocolate with Jess in Bryant Park (it was $6 for a dixie cup of the stuff and oh so worth it).
- That moment when I learned that the phrase “meet me at the Yoda fountain” included having to find an actual statue of Yoda in a fountain.
- Sitting with Bryan, Yuko, and Bill for two hours at a Japanese restaurant in Sedalia, MO trying to come up with rhyming quadruplets to use in our big show on Saturday afternoon, and then finally roasting our ragtime friends at the John Stark Pavilion on the final Saturday of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. “Who does it with your pet…”
- Filming the map sequence from the latest episode of “Mark v. Universe,” where we did 10 takes of Mark fake running while his friends threw leaves at him.
- My catastrophic performance in the cruise ship’s “shake your ass” dance competition, of which I am grateful no photographic evidence exists.
- The time I was holding baby Ava and she tried to breastfeed off of me because she mistook my moob for a boob.
- Chowing down on a cheeseburger with friends Adam and Jess at Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern and picturing Bill Murray behind the counter.
- My first, second, and five hundredth glimpse at the Star Wars:Hunt for the Holocronaction figures made by my friend Daniel Harp.
- Polishing a bottle of Maker’s Mark and laughing my guts out with Sonny, Brian, and Jeff in Mississippi during the Templeton Ragtime Festival.
- Accidentally interrupting an NAACP meeting in rural Mississippi while wearing my absolutely most metrosexual shirt (thanks, Jeff).
- Brewery tour of Brooklyn Brewery and getting trashed on great beer before noon.
- Throwing my golf club after a particularly frustrating round of golf, trying to quit the tournament, and finally turning it around the next day to win the team tournament.
- Riding the Coney Island Cyclone for the first time. It ripped me a new one and I’ve never been so happy to be ravaged.
- Walking the silent halls of Ellis Island and trying to imagine the place as a cacophony of hopeful, hungry people all very unsure about where the currents of life would deposit them.
- The ghost tour in Annapolis where the very first ghost story the guide told was about a ghost who haunts unfaithful couples and asks for “Martin.” Ugh.
- Making sweet Victorian love at the Chalfonte Hotel.
- Seeing “Million Dollar Quartet” in Chicago and having my socks rocked by just how great the musicians in the show were. I’ve never wanted to play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis more than I did that night.
- Flashing my Yoda poster out the office window at Stormtroopers in the Old Town St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
- Two epic piano fails: bombing my big concert in Mississippi and forgetting how to play my own composition in Sacramento (the first time I ever started a piece over in front of an audience… ugh).
- Touring the house from A Christmas Story with Jess and fulfilling the dream of any civilized person by posing for a picture with the Leg Lamp.
- Having my golf buddies sing “Martin do you remember…” to me after I drank an entire bottle of Old Forester the night prior (and no, I didn’t remember any of the things they said I did.)
- The team golf tournament, where Chris and I competed for best team player. We could call in Mat or Mark to help for one shot. For me, their help was devastatingly effective, but the pressure was intense, which led to: Mat, to Mark, after Mark blows a drive for Chris: “Redeem yourself.” Mark, to Mat, after Mat blows a long iron for Chris: “Redeem yourself.” Chris, after calling for help on his third shot: “For the love of God, somebody redeem themselves.”
- Margaret giving me a Christmas gift, and in the process accidentally dumping an entire glass of iced tea down my crotch.
- The wild horses galloping by our tent in the moonlit morning at Assateague National Park.
- This phone call: “Martin, this is Chris from the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill. Happy birthday! Just wanted to let you know how excited we are to debut your movie.” (this is how I found out that my birthday gift from Mat, Margaret, and Mark was (known collectively as “The Halo”) was the gift of a movie premiere for the little Star Wars movie I’ve been working on for years. The premiere is April 20th, 2013). This led to…
- Rolling camera again on the film project that I’ve worked at for 10 years, making two trips to Houston, TX and spending hours with my friends gathering footage of Dan’s amazing models in our quest to finally finish Hunt for the Holocron, which included…
- Jeffrey mounting the camera to a bicycle to construct a makeshift camera dolly, reminding me how blessed I am by friends who say “Why not?” instead of “Why?”;
- Vicky ironing the giant fabric greenscreen against which we were shooting the models;
- And Emily force-feeding me Chick-fil-A and making sure I didn’t pass out from heat exhaustion.
- Getting lost with Jess in the woods by Clopper Lake.
- Max Keenlyside’s concert for the Northern Virginia Ragtime Society, in which he played both a piece I wrote and a piece he wrote for me.
- The crummy day made the best one by Brian Holland, who called me from the recording studio in Nashville after he and Danny Coots had recorded my “Seagull Shuffle” for their new album. Incredible.
- Winning the bowling championship with my bowling team, Livin’ on a Spare.
- Smoking cigars and drinking single-malt scotch with Tooch, Scotes, and Jess on our birthday cruise in June.
- The moment where I almost gave up and slept in the car when the temperature hit 27 degrees while we were camping at Shenandoah. I may never feel warm again.
- Performing my “Melody for a New Life” at the baptism of my goddaughter, Olivia, followed by drinking Adam Litke out of all of his “RyePA” at the baptism party.
- Finding our rabbits’ new den… in the box spring of our queen bed, inspiring a future rag called “Bunnies in the Box Spring.”
- My impromptu singing lesson from Jeff Barnhart at Chip’s house in Mississippi.
- Sitting with my oldest friends in a cramped car until 3 AM watching the first rough cut of my film in years.
- The moment Jeff Barnhart turned to me and said, “I had a great time this weekend; you being here was a big part of that.”
- Jessie’s hilarious private dance routine after we watched “Hugo” together.
- Getting promoted, demoted, and promoted again in the span of three months.
- Spending the day after my 30th birthday in the hospital with chest pains. Seriously? The day immediately after?
- Playing a duet with Marit Johnson in Columbia, MO. Marit was one of the first ragtimers my own age I ever met (in 1999).
- Climbing Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica, swimming with dolphins in Grand Cayman, and riding a bobsled roller coaster through the rainforest in Jamaica.
- Staring up at Niagara Falls from the Maid of the Mist.
- Climbing the stairs to the Cave of the Winds and getting more wet than I can remember being.
- Tart gin coolers and the world’s greatest Bloody Mary on a bar tour of Key West with old friends.
- Losing the title of “World Champion of Old-time Piano Playing” at the contest in May and finding a program with my name on it in the trash.
- Celebrating my mother’s marriage to a fantastic man in September.
- Climbing (and hunting from) a treestand for the first time with my brother and father. It was so serene, so quiet — the whole day felt like it moved with the wind.
- The moment in December when this line from a poem I wrote in 2006 finally made sense: I know the inevitability of coffee tables/and the books that are sent there to die.I know what it is to be caught by sunsets and snowdrifts,/Ugandans and shiny pumpernickel,/and still seek the caption/that proves the story of my life/was really about someone else.
- Performing my composition “The Elliott Special” for the Elliotts in Sedalia at the Maple Leaf Site, and finally getting to taste an Elliott Special (it’s an amazing, old-school cocktail) at the after hours.
- Finally seeing “The Hobbit,” a film I’ve anticipated for 9 years, and watching the rock giants battle to the death.
- Listening to Keenlyside’s “The Facemelter” for the first time and realizing that I really had achieved my dream of inspiring someone with my music.
- Receiving the devastating and accurate Letter from a Friend.
- The adult horse’s first entrance in War Horse and forgetting, for the remainder of the show, that it was a wooden puppet.
- Finding this amazing website and devouring all of the artist’s creations in a single sitting: zenpencils.com (#50 is my favorite)
- Going bowling with Brian, Bryan, Max, Will, and Bill in Sedalia, MO. It was our first non-ragtime event together, and it was absolutely hilarious to see some of the finest pianists in the land – men who eat the ivories for breakfast – bowl like disfigured cockatiels.
- Jamming with ragtime pater familias Mike Schwimmer on Eubie Blake’s “Baltimore Todolo.”
- Playing charades with Mark, Mat, and Chris up at the Chautauqua house. Chris: <acting out Webster’s Dictionary, miming opening a book and examining it as a reference material> Martin: He’s a scientist, he’s a researcher, he’s looking in a book, he’s looking in an old book, he’s looking in an ancient book, it’s an ancient book of spells! Mark: HE’S A WIZARD!
- Watching “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and enjoying all of the Pittsburgh sights (not to mention crunching on delicious, delicious teen angst).
- Claiming victory not once but twice in our annual Risk tournament. The Sparrow Rises!
- Trying to pull down the horse saddle from the wall at New Years so I could ride Tooch, an impressive feat of drunken laddering.
- Seeing George Lucas in the flesh at the LDAC in San Francisco during my Lucasfilm tour.
- Realizing there would be another Star Wars movie in my lifetime thanks to the Lucasfilm/Disney merger.
- Directing my brother in a corporate video shoot for the FDA, and directing Carrie Compere in the same shoot, especially her alternate “ghetto” take on the very technical dialog which continues to crack me up to this day.
- Receiving the Christmas wreath from Emily, bedecked as it was in music and little books for my two great passions.
- A round of horseshoes with the boys at SSCC – a glass of scotch in one hand, a horseshoe in the other – followed by a twilight walk in the woods.
- Gnoshing on cheese fondue at Kashkaval in NYC.
- Finding out that the first of my very close friends had become a first-time father.
- The train ride between Sacramento and San Francisco through mountain, valley, and stream.
- Having TJ, my new boss, tell me I was a “valuable member of [his] team.”
- The Oreo milkshake at Boxcar Barney’s and the cone of kings at Twist ‘o the Mist.
- My epic dice rolling that won my friends $850 at Craps (I think I won $30).
- Performing at Walter Reed Medical Center as part of their Stages of Healing program.
- Meeting Dave Jasen after years of admiring (and devouring) his scholarly works on ragtime. It was a great honor of my musical life to have him say, “I hate you!” when he heard me play.
- Spending our wedding anniversary (June 28) moving out of our old apartment of five years during one of the hottest weeks on record (the average high from June 28 through July 8, 2012 was an astounding 99.5 degrees), only to have that disgusting day become an amazing one when our maid of honor and best man surprised us with a romantic dinner at her place. As one person said on Facebook, “You two live your lives in Technicolor.”
- The moment when I realized my second album, “Handful of Keys,” had done more sales in 6 months than my first CD had done in 4 years.
- Drilling into aluminum with Dan and Bill to build a proper dolly for the second model shoot in TX.
- Max Morath saying, “Call me Max, for God’s sake,” when I tried to call him “Mr. Morath.”
- Trying to hook Tooch up with the guitar player on the cruise ship, proving once again that while I am a talented pilot, I am a horrible wing man.
- Soul food at Yats with McNally.
- The Haiku Tsunami of 2012,which resulted in gems such as, “No English needed/Yeah, Martin has a degree/Doctorate of Peep.”
- The 14,000 hilarious moments on GChat, my window to the world, with old friends.
- The drive from Sedalia to Columbia, MO with Will and Max during which Will displayed frigging freaky talent for playing jazz neckpillow.
- Mark’s homemade breakfast in Brooklyn and dining on the terrace.
- Dennis James’ theater organ concert at the Missouri Theater for the Arts where the whole room came alive, like a giant wind-up music box.
- Getting my piano back after three weeks in storage. It was like having sanity delivered by the truckload.
- Interviewing for German radio with Georg Hirsch.
- Realizing the cover of the Old-time Piano Contest’s program misspelled my name “Spitzbagel.”
- Receiving our first trick-or-treaters ever. We lived in an apartment in DC for five years and never got any until we moved to the townhouse in July.
- Posing for old-time photos with Jess and Tooch, and then again with my Texas friends.
- Performing at a great, swanky Great Gatsby party in Colombia, MD.
- Playing Donkey Kong Country Returns with my brother over Christmas like we did when we were kids.
- Having LoveSac post our little video on their Facebook page for all of their fans to see, and having LoveSac’s owner posting a comment on the video.
- Learning what a McGangBang is from Will Perkins (double cheeseburger with a McChicken inside of it).
- Partying with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg at the Supreme Court in January with the Council for Court Excellence.
- The last time I stood in our King Street apartment, waving goodbye to five years of happy memories.
I get asked sometimes how to compose music. The simplest answer, and the most accurate one, is this: “Plunk at it until it sounds good.” You don’t have to have formal musical training to start composing your own music. What you need is simple: ignorance and killer taste.
Ira Glass has a great quote to this effect, rendered beautifully here by the artist Gavin Aung Than. It applies to my experience as a composer very well.
Here’s the quote:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met.
It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
I started composing ragtime when I was 12 years old. My first piece was called “The Starlight March,” and it wasn’t good. Ira Glass would argue that I knew it wasn’t good because I had killer taste, and I’d like to think he’d be right. I listened to great musicians relentlessly, consuming every syncopated thing I could get my hands on in those days of libraries and the nascent Internet, and I knew that my first piece didn’t have that extra something. Maple Leaf Rag made the hair stand up on my arms, but my pieces didn’t do that. What was missing?
I could have quit there. Lord knows I gave up pretty quickly on the idea of my cooking ever having that extra something (unless that something was undercooked potatoes… God, potatoes are intimidating), but I didn’t give up on composing. My parents and family were encouraging – my parents and grandparents especially – and between that and my own unquenchable ambition to make ragtime, I went on to write 30 more piano solos.
Sad to say, none of these were very good either (though I did manage to write one winner in this time). It took me 12 years to finally write a piece that stacked up against my own tastes, that had that extra something.
I didn’t get there with theory classes or piano teachers (although that would have sped the process along). I got there via a shocking ignorance of my own limitations. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and so I never knew what I couldn’t do. It was never a matter of if I would write a good piece, only when I would write it, and the happy delusion of that is what enabled me to write music at all.
Composing is the only thing in my life I’ve ever felt that confident about, that unshakably sure. And so, based in my own experience, I offer the following prescription for anyone who wants to compose music.
How To Compose Like a Very Real Person… Who Composes
- Find a genre of music that lights you on fire and listen to everything in that genre you can get your grubby little ears on. Ragtime, classical, zydeco, trance… whatever. If it moves you, if it makes the hair on your arms stand up, it can fuel your journey to Composerland. Don’t be intellectual about it. You’re going to need fire to boil this kettle.
- On your instrument of choice, try to make something up. One hand, two hands, with vocals or without, it doesn’t matter. And it’s okay if it sounds like something else. Correction: Your early works will sound like something else. Your killer taste will tell you that it sucks, and your first instinct will be to give up. Don’t. Your taste only has one setting: tough love. Stay with it.
- Share what you make with a trusted community of friends and family. If they discourage you, drop them. You need a fan club right now.
- Listen to more music. Keep making shit up. Share it with the ones you love.
- Don’t give up. Ever. For any reason.
- Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you write something that makes you cry when you play it.
- BAM. You’re a composer. Now, get cracking! Those folios don’t publish themselves.
This list is not oversimplified. You have to compose relentlessly, doggedly, stupidly. Malcolm Gladwell recommends 10,000 hours of it to master it. Get started. And even if you get moderately competent in one genre, you can still be a beginning composer in another. Three years ago I attempted my first composition for orchestra, and once again I was a complete beginner, trying to make something that stacked up to my killer taste.
But when you love the music, when the sound lights you up, there is no more profound pleasure than forging yourself into someone who can make good art.
Nestled unassumingly in the small courtyard outside of the Letterman Digital Arts Center lobby, the Yoda fountain looks as you might imagine: a bronze, pensive Yoda, hands at his sides, standing on top of a rectangular stone surrounded by water. Little waterfalls pour out of shelves in the stone, and between the gurgle of the fountain and the rustle of crepe myrtle leaves, you feel like you should be raking sand or trimming a bonsai tree, not anxiously adjusting your coat sleeves because you’re about to visit the company that changed your life.
The Letterman Digital Arts Center (LDAC) is home to Lucasfilm LLC, Industrial Light and Magic, and LucasArts, the companies responsible for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and almost every other written-with-lightning story that’s inspired me in my life. LDAC is situated on a beautiful campus at the Presidio in San Francisco, a former military base with large, white rectangular buildings, ornate and bulging palm trees, and narrow roads that wind up grassy hills. The striking view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay below makes it clear why this is some of the most desirable real estate in the city. I can’t see that now, though. All I can see, directly in front of me, is the glass-paned lobby, and aside from Yoda greeting me as I enter, there is no indication that I’m at anything other than a really fancy dentist’s office.
I’m standing here thanks to my Uncle Andrew, who’s friends in San Francisco were game to make a Martin’s dream come true. Let’s call them the Awesomes.
I meet Mrs. Awesome at the Yoda fountain, and we go inside. My first feeling, upon entering, is momentary surprise that George Lucas is not there. I know this is ridiculous, but I think I was expecting to walk in there and see him… I don’t know… waiting for me, enflanneled, in a large leather chair, bear rug at his feet, smoking a pipe and holding a spaceship, possibly while wearing a hooded brown robe over that unmistakable shock of white hair. When I jokingly share my expectation with my host, he explains that he’s only seen Lucas at the LDAC three times in as many years. “He spends most of his time at Skywalker Ranch. We only see him for the holiday party.”
In other words, I have about as much chance of seeing George Lucas today as I do a live Ewok.
The lobby looks like the living room of the classiest Star Wars collector you’ve ever met. The room, with wooden floors and brightly lit by large floor-to-ceiling mission-style windows, has four tan leather couches arranged in a broken rectangle. On every end table and coffee table is a different Star Wars book, some in English, some in Japanese, and some in languages I don’t recognize. To my left are wall-to-wall bookcases, broken up only by a life-sized Boba Fett and Darth Vader watching over the room. Vader is imposing, if a little comically low-tech in person, while Boba Fett looks like he is posing for a camera yet to flash. On the bookcases are bronze sculptures and Master Replicas – a thermal detonator, Yoda’s lightsaber, etc. – and I can’t help thinking that this is how my house would look if I hired starwarsshop.com to be my interior decorator.
On the opposite wall are two massive vintage movie posters, each six feet tall and nearly as wide. Lucas is a huge movie buff, and one of the most impressive things about the lobby (and, as I would learn, the place in general) are the giant posters with which he decorates the buildings. Next to the front desk, for instance, is a giant French poster for Dracula (starring Peter Cushing, who went on to play Moff Tarkin in A New Hope), his wild eyes and green face hungrily gazing on a helpless damsel.
The reason I am able to go beyond the front desk into the Grey Havens of geekdom is because Mr. Awesome works for LucasArts, and every Friday is friends and family day, where employees can have visitors from 11:30AM – 1:30PM. We get our badges, sign in blood our promise not to post on the Internet any pictures of things beyond the lobby, and are let inside.
What strikes me first is the size and height of the main hallway. Along its length, massive vintage movie posters alternate with floor-to-ceiling windows. The whole place is bright, cheerful, and remarkably unpretentious. Outside, a gaggle of children play, waiting for their parents to come visit them at lunch. At the end of the hallway we pass beyond another security checkpoint, turning a corner into a much smaller, much narrower hallway. It is here that the place starts to resemble an office building – white walls, grey carpet – but the difference is that instead of insipid abstract corporate art, the halls and walls have artifacts from movies the company has worked on: animatronics from Jurassic Park, giant original matte paintings still mounted on glass with their shot number written in chalk, sets of scuffed and worn Stormtrooper armor, Draco’s human-sized rubber tongue from Dragonheart, an enormous portrait of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II that strikes in me a primordial fear just thinking about it, models, maquettes, movie posters, on and on an on. Iron Man guards the restrooms, E.T. flies in his basket and bike in the stairwell, the ships from Galaxy Quest soar overhead, Han Solo relaxes in carbonite against a wall, a freakishly realistic wax figure of Tommy Lee Jones from Men In Black takes calls behind the front desk of ILM… it’s like I’ve wandered into our collective cultural subconscious, and for good reason: a Lucas company has worked on half of the top-grossing films of all time, and bits and pieces of those projects are everywhere to be seen.
What delights me the most on the tour, more than the memorabilia, are the trappings of the actual office culture. It’s an active workplace, after all, and to their great credit the employees seem unperturbed by the merry buzz of excited visitors. There are conference rooms and common areas, hallways and broom closets, cubicles and corner offices. My favorites are the offices I recognize immediately as those of an artist: dark, lamp-lit, and slathered floor-to-ceiling in posters, artwork, statues, and toys, the difference here being that the artist probably designed the artifact that they proudly display (or worked on the movie it is from).
My favorite detail, though, is in one of the office break rooms. Above the sink is a picture of Yoda, ball of Force lightning in hand, gently chiding the workers: “Wash themselves these dishes do not.”
The LDAC has a number of built-in movie theaters. The largest one is by the main lobby, where employees get to enjoy pre-release screenings of new films. This week’s movie was Life of Pi, which was being screened early for Lucas employees. Director Ang Lee was coming by on Monday to talk about the film, joining a roster of famous speakers like Scorcese and Tarantino who regularly come by to talk movies with the company at large. I find myself resisting the urge to go to the front desk and ask for a job – any job – application. The big theater is also the location for family movie nights, where employees can bring up to four friends or family members to see a screening of Indiana Jones or Star Wars in full THX surround-sound.
We ended up in one of the smaller theaters, where they show a little “get to know us” film that highlights the company at large and then shows off some of their latest work. ILM did extensive work on The Avengers, and it was amazing to see the final film shots deconstructed into a dazzling series of layers and effects.
“Dazzling” is a good word for the LDAC. It feels more like a wizard’s foundry than a $4-billion-dollar corporation, and I came away impressed at the family-friendly culture of creativity that Lucas and Co. had created. Mr. Awesome explains how, to encourage collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas and capabilities, the different departments offered seminars that you could sign up for to learn, say, how to take better photographs or do 3D animation. It is like the whole place is made up of people who actually want to be there. I find this intensely refreshing.
I look at my watch. I’ve got 20 minutes until I have to catch a 1 PM shuttle back to the Ferry Building downtown, where I’m catching a bus to the Amtrak station in Emeryville for the 3 o’clock train to Sacramento. The Awesomes invite me to at least see the cafeteria before I go, profusely apologizing that we ran out of time to eat.
Like the rest of the building, the cafeteria is open, bright, with giant bay windows that actually look out onto a bay. To the left is the Golden Gate Bridge, its orange muted against overcast skies. To the right is the Palace of Fine Arts, its dome an earthy half-moon silhouette. Conversation is lively, and a farm-to-table ethos pervades. The chalkboard by the cash registers says where the food for the day’s options was sourced from, and hundreds of employees and guests crowd around food stations serving everything from fish tacos to lasagna. After snapping a few photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, we decide to make a quick stop in the gift shop, where my prized purchases are a Lucasfilm mug and a little magnet with a picture of the Yoda fountain on it.
Just then, as we exit the gift shop, Mr. Awesome stops in his tracks in the middle of the hallway, then quickly backtracks to me.
“Oh my God,” he says quietly.
He motions me over subtly, trying to avoid attention. As I walk to him, the door to the conference room by the cafeteria swings open to reveal a group of people having a working lunch.
At the head of the table is an older man in a blue-and-red flannel long-sleeved shirt with a shock of unmistakable white hair. He’s seated in a leather chair, his back to us. After a moment, his shoulders stiffen, as if a chill just ran up his neck. He turns his head. When our eyes meet he gives me a long, acknowledging nod. I nod back, two lightning-weavers acknowledging each other’s might. So, I think, we meet at last.
Okay, the nod never happens. But I do see George Lucas in person, a stroke of the Force that neither my host nor I could have foreseen. And after visiting the campus at the Presidio, I leave with a new respect for the art and business of the man who has given me so much to dream about, so much to strive towards, and so much to chew on as I mull over my always-in-motion future…
***Apologies for the last post — that little plug for partypoker.fr just paid for 3 years of hosting this site. The Internet is a funny place.***
A few years ago, when I was applying for a graduate program in creative writing, I wrote in my letter of intent how excited I was by the “incredible dearth of talent” the school had shepherded. It’s a good thing I showed the letter to a friend before I sent it, because of course “dearth” does not mean a lot of something, it means a distinct lack of something. As in, “This website has had a dearth of updates.”
Sorry, friend – I haven’t been making much music this past month. My wife and I just moved into a new place and, between that and transitions at my day job, I haven’t had much time to wander the creative meadow.
There is one happy exception, however. The highlight of the past month for me was definitely my performance at Walter Reed Medical Center as part of their Stages of Healing program. The folks there heard me on the radio last year and kindly invited me to perform.
It’s an understatement to say it was a tremendous honor to perform for the patients and their families. It’s a memory I’ll cherish forever.
Despite my general lack of creative output, my friends have been busy making more awesome music than you can shake a Martin at. Here’s what I’m listening to today:
- Max Keenlyside released a tremendous album called “Mostly Max,” which features a dearth… I mean a plethora… of stunning original compositions and delightful performances. It’s basically been on repeat in my car.
- Bryan Wright delivered a magnificent performance of David Thomas Roberts’ “Roberto Clemente” at the Central Pennsylvania Ragtime Festival in Orbisonia, PA. This piece is one of Bryan’s specialties, as it showcases his lyrical, thoughtful, and eminently musical style.
- New York pianist-slash-computer-programmer-slash-jerk-who-is-good-at-everything Dalton Ridenhour unleashed his first CD, “Eccentricity,” which in addition to featuring 15 fantastic tracks, also features the goddamn peppiest “Maple Leaf Rag” ever recorded. Another must-buy.
- My buddy Brian Holland completed a new stride piece called “Scram”, which just rocks my socks. It’s cinematic in its intensity, it finishes harder than an orgasm, and it’s got some killer rhythms. I’ll definitely be stealing this one as soon as I possibly can. [note: the video this links to is just hilarious to me – you’ve got one of the world’s great pianists jamming the hell out of the joint, and all you can see are the backs of four stationary elderly people with the sounds of people shopping in the background… the ragtime life, man.]
First, you’re implying that the period in which you could learn has ended, which is patently untrue unless you are dead. Second, you’ve denied yourself a source of tremendous release, refueling, and joy. There are so many benefits to be gained from having the piano in your life. Things that even a game on partypoker.com, a warm drink on a cold night, or a cold drink on a hot day can’t even do.
Here are some benefits:
- Self-discipline – You might have been forced into piano lessons as a child, but self-discipline is never a bad thing. A regimen of daily piano practice gives you an excuse to schedule “me time” into your day.
- Happiness – Playing the piano can make you a much happier person. It’s a tremendous creative outlet, and is a great way to relieve you of the daily stresses of life. Personally, I go crazy without it.
- Memory – Learning the placement of the keys, learning how to read music, memorizing a composition until you play it effortlessly… playing the piano involves you intuitively exercising your memory, and the more you do so, the better you remember.
It’s beautiful, it teaches discipline, and it brings happiness to the world. What’s not to like?
If ragtime had a season, it would be Spring. I’m not sure why – maybe the blossoming and blooming of a billion life forms makes more sense set against a jaunty rhythm – but whatever the reason, it’s been a busy time to be a Martin.
In March, I had a blast in Starkville, MS at the Charles Templeton Ragtime Jazz Festival. It was pretty much a dream gig for me: amazing lineup, gracious-to-a-fault hosts, posh accommodations, friendly faces, great pianos, and good money. I can’t speak highly enough of the event, masterminded by Stephen Cunetto and the folks at Mississippi State University Libraries. If you ever get a chance to attend, take it. It’s wonderful.
A special treat was meeting Dave Jasen, the foremost scholar of ragtime music on the planet. Many, many nights of my youth were spent reading his books on the subject of ragtime. His words were often the last that would pass through my eyes before sleep took me, and so it was terrific fun to meet him. He lived up to his reputation as an iracible, vulgar teddy bear – I’m pretty sure he dropped more F-bombs in front of the southern ladies than we dropped in WWII – but it was the great honor of my life to have him say, “I hate you!” when he heard me play. A good, good man.
After Mississippi, I switched gears and put on my filmmaking cap. Ten years ago I started dreaming up my own Star Wars movie, which has materialized into a massive effort known as Star Wars: Hunt for the Holocron. I flew down to Texas in April to oversee some of the final photography on the project, and was delighted with the work we were able to accomplish thanks to artist Dan Harp and his incredible spaceship models.
Here’s a picture of me in director mode:
Now it’s back to ragtime, with my next appearance scheduled for this weekend at the World Old-Time Piano Playing Championship in Peoria, IL. It’s a new venue this year – the Four Points Sheraton downtown – and I have to try and defend my current title as reigning champion! We’ve got former champions in attendance, including Ethan Uslan and Bill Edwards, who no doubt want to unseat me and own the trophy. So, to prepare, I have followed a strict regimen of procrastination that has thus far looked like so:
- Choose my pieces at the absolute last minute.
- Learn three of the six pieces and decide just to “wing” the rest.
- Forget to get my name engraved on the trophy.
- Have nothing to wear because my old outfit doesn’t fit anymore.
…at this point I pull a Han Solo and go, “Never tell me the odds.” But if I were a bet on the craps table, let’s just say the House would be smiling right now.
After Peoria, I have a week to recuperate and learn some new tunes. From June 6-14 I’ll be traveling through Missouri performing at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival and, for the first time ever, the Blind Boone Ragtime Festival in Columbia, MO. June 16th I’m playing at a wedding reception, and then July 11th I’m performing at Walter Reed Medical Center for the wounded veterans and their families.
Somewhere in here I have a 40-hour-a-week job, a wife, and a move to a new apartment at the end of June. Whew.
It’s a busy time to be a Martin.
Here’s a tune I wrote in honor of my friends Byron and Melissa Elliott of Austin, TX. Byron and Melissa are fantastic patrons of the arts, and have done a great deal for ragtime and the music that I love.
In June 2011, Bryan Wright and I were asked to perform at Byron’s mother’s birthday party in Hayden Lake, ID. We had a terrific time, and were treated like members of the Elliott family. I wanted to find an appropriate way to commemorate the happy occasion and, knowing how much Byron loves ragtime, decided that I would write a piece and dedicate it to him. The resulting piece, strangely, is one of the least syncopated pieces I’ve ever composed, but it’s got some lovely bits, a pleasing melody, and some complex voicing of which I’m very proud.
The piece is named after a drink that Byron’s grandfather invented. It is called “The Elliott Special,” and in the words of the grandfather, “One’s not quite enough, two are way too many!” The country club at Hayden Lake knows how to make it – that’s where the grandfather invented it, after all – but I’ve not tried it yet! The recipe is a closely guarded family secret, although I’m happy to say that in return for this piece, Byron made me an honorary Elliott and I will be able to concoct my own “Elliott Special” here soon…
Recorded August 30, 2011