1. Start from where you are, right now.
2. Focus on your craft. Art will appear when the time is right.
3. Have a project. “Practice every day” is a good habit to build, but it’s not a project. “Record a transcription of Bill Evans’s solo on Autumn Leaves” is a project. “Write a song every week” is a habit, not a project. “Record my last month of songs, make an album cover and release it to my ten best friends” is a project.
Daily practice is a vital first step, a foundation. Practice is ever-changing, unbounded, and personal. A true artist will practice until the day they die.
A project is finite, it has a vibe, limitations, and a goal, and at some point it’s finished or abandoned and you can move on.
Artists like to hide in our daily routine. Practice is safe. No one will know whether you practiced for twenty minutes today or for six hours. No one will know exactly what you did during that time.
When you tie a bow around ten or twenty or sixty minutes of music, when you put a picture on it, when you put it in front of an audience in a room and say “this is mine”- big risk. And a big part of becoming an artist.
4. Share your work. Finish your project and show it to someone- to your sister, to your teacher, to your friend, to your dog. Put it on the Internet, if you’re feeling brave! Be generous. Your creation just might make someone else smile or laugh or feel a sadness they needed to feel. That won’t ever happen if you don’t share. Every great artist’s first and biggest fan was one person- their mom, their dad, their brother, sister, dog, best friend, the little girl across the street. Create something- not just for you, for them too.
5. Focus on process as you work through projects. It will take time for the end result to live up to your standards, because you have taste. See your projects through, finish them, let them go out in the world and live their lives. Some will flourish, some will flounder. You will continue creating. And you’ll get there, wherever “there” is in your mind. Just keep going. See #1.
6. It pays to be opinionated. At the same time, it pays to be open-minded and observant. Banish “good” and “bad” from your vocabulary. Instead, try “I like this, I don’t like that... I feel joy listening to this, I feel sadness, I feel rage… I hear colors, I hear oak trees growing, I hear aliens flying through space…” Observe your feelings, observe sensations.
This’ll pay off when you try to describe music to other people- no one can tell you you’re wrong to feel sad listening to Louis Armstrong sing “Dinah” (however surprised they might be). Or you can talk technique- “this is quantized, this is funky, this is compressed, this is loud (maybe too loud?), the bass is buried in the mix, she’s playing with triad pairs here, this is a blues, they used this weird tuning, to sing like that you have to open space in the back of your head, I’m hearing this in C#, that’s the pentatonic scale,” etc.
Take it a step further: connect techniques to emotions, motions, colors, textures. Then you know how to evoke the moods you feel and the imagery you see in your own music.
7. Work at your own pace. Deadlines are fine and good, but don’t rush a project and do work you can’t be proud of knowing you gave it the best you could. As you grow, you’ll get a sense for how long you should give yourself to complete a given project. At the same time, some people thrive under pressure, and love working against looming deadlines. If you’re that person, you might want to give yourself a little less time than you think you need to create that productive pressure. Just be wary of the difference between productive pressure and unnecessary stress. “How do I know the difference,” you ask? The same way you figure out the meaning of all these rules- practice, experiment, talk with other artists. It’ll come to you.
8. Share the process. Some projects will take a long time to complete. It’s important not to disappear just because you haven’t finished any music recently- it could be an occasional photo post, or a bit of freeform writing, or a scrap of a melody, or a short video of you noodling on a guitar, anything to let us know you’re still here. After you’ve won a Grammy or two, you can disappear for years at a time and only come back when you’ve got something to say. Until then, let us know we can trust you by showing up with consistency- not everything you show us has to be music.
9. We create in order to understand. We imitate others’ work to understand their sound, their world and their experience. We use what we learn to create things that express our own world and our own experiences.
10. We create in order to be understood. We develop a vocabulary of sounds to help us express ideas. We learn to play, to sing, to write, to tell stories, and to perform, so that things that were beyond our ability to just say might become possible to share with someone else.