Lesson 3: Developing Skill & Creativity


Led Zep.jpg
Led Zeppelin

You may have wondered why in a Musician’s Artist Development course I haven’t yet touched on anything related to playing a note (or drum sample). Thanks for noticing. There is a reason.


Anyone who knows my writing, knows I talk a lot about the sense of Story in music. That doesn’t mean you have to write novels set to music but that your art has to have some sort of narrative. It has to speak something. Doesn’t matter if you are writing Big Room Trance, Extreme Metal or Pop, there needs to be a reason for you to be communicating with your audience or in effect your music is:

ashjgsdgsdas shusadhgpdahg ahsgueh[foihgas gsisdahgoiays gshgdishgaoais sdhi[spowjgdnalkj hskthpaosiyg ahg o;ihsgoasigj shgisjg’sphdoiughda hadhas’gioh s;ohg oshg soaihg shgsiuhgfas’dgh shgisdhgih  sa ahsahgoa ghidga[odihaoesfsdkds.

Nope, that ain’t Swedish, but gibberish. I bet most of you stopped reading (paying attention to) it within a word or two. You know it is pointless so moved on to find something with relevance and meaning. You don’t want people doing that with your songs.

He Got Game

The first lessons were about deciding who you are, what you want to say & then starting to gather the people you need to get the message out. This time we are going to look at the vague subjects of Creativity, Talent & Skill. Each of those is a slightly different aspect of the same thing.

Talent or Aptitude are often misused, esp on the talent show circuit. Talent or aptitude refers to the way one person can have a better natural ability for something than the average. Little Mary may pick up playing the piano faster than John but having that natural talent doesn’t mean that Mary will go anywhere with music. It also doesn’t mean that John can’t have a future in music. Shocking I know.

The difference lies in the development of Skill and applying Creativity.

Skill is something that anyone with enough interest and time can develop at least to a reasonable extent. If you can combine a passable amount of skill with Creativity then you have the beginning of a great story.

(s)Killing In the Name Of


Joe Walsh.jpg
Joe Walsh who made “Hotel California” come together

Now just about any muso blog you read nowadays tells you that as a modern musician you have to develop a zillion skills in about 50 different domains. You can’t just write songs, you got to record, mix, master, make artwork, do web design, promote…. It’s a horror.


Now while there is some truth in this I think it is doing a lot of damage. In the old days, a bunch of people got together and each used their uniqueness to create a greater whole. These days there is so much emphasis on doing everything that many developing artists waste most of the time they should be using to develop their Talent Skills on developing non-talent skills. A songwriter shouldn’t be spending all their time on mixing. It is not their thing.

Henry Ford worked out the divide & conquer method of production and revolutionized the world for us all. So suddenly we decide that we should undo that and force each driver to build their own car. How dumb is that?

Decide what your Core Talent & Skill need to be and focus on them exclusively for now. If you want to write music then composing is your skill area, not mixing, mastering etc. I know that those of you in EDM think that mixing is integral to composing but it really isn’t. You can tell a great story even if you can’t write or spell. The greatness of your story has nothing to do with your ability to spell. If your story is great you find someone who can spell but isn’t great at creating stories to tryper it up for you as you dictate. If you can’t let go, there is an issue.

This way each of you is working in your strength. As opposed to wasting yourselves in things you will never be very good at. Worked for Ford, Led Zeppelin, Duran Duran…

Build This Love


Brian May
Brian May

Building real & useful Skill has to start from a sense of purpose. Most kids who start playing piano never stick with it. It isn’t relevant for them so it never comes alive. The opposite of that are people like Brian May of Queen who spent ages & ages with his guitar “The Red Special” that he and his father built.


When learning (the few times I tried) I didn’t really feel the music I was poking out. I did, however, spend a lot of time pressing the keys to hear the details of the sound from the harpsichord. The exception was Bach; I rather liked the Two-Part Inventions because the way the two notes sounded together was so often magical. Not real surprising that I picked up the synthesizer and sunk years into that; and still don’t feel done.

I don’t know what Brian May seemed like in the first weeks of learning to play but he felt something so he got enthused and kept at it and kept at it when other kids were doing “normal” things. Brian clearly kept trying things that helped him to express something he couldn’t already do. He failed plenty I am sure but instead of bitching about his amp on Facebook, he tried another way till he got something that worked. Don’t forget he roped in some other talented & skilled fellows too.

Ultravox set out to be like Roxy Music but failed. Japan set out to be like T-Rex & Roxy but failed. Duran Duran set out to be like Japan & Chic but failed. OMD set out to be like Kraftwerk but failed. They all wanted to be like Bowie and guess how they did with that? Failed. But they all created something wonderful. Each act was unique.

The lesson here is that Skill is a result of Enthusiasm coupled with Time and a willingness to fail but use that failure to find a new way forward. This is the basis of the 10,000 Hour Rule thingee which is possibly debunked but still has merit.

In the olden days a boy would be apprenticed to a master who would show some practical stuff but would also impart the thinking of how to be an artist in the craft. That is actually the most important bit. The kids who got that theory stuff did great work. The rest made passably square rocks. Karate Kid (the first one) is all about that. “Wax On Wax Off” and all that. About all that too Yoda is.

I Started A Joke

So we now know that what we spend enthusiastic time on we tend to get good at (provided we focus on one thing). The next bit is adding the magic ingredient. That is Creativity.

The stickiest one of em all is that hard-to-describe process whereby something ordinary is transformed into something cool and magical. That is Creativity (which is never done in the mix).

Many people think that creativity comes from unbridled doodling & goofing around. Sorry kids, it doesn’t. The greatest creativity comes from limits. Brutal, crushing limits.

Look at most of the really beautiful & amazing things that humans have created and they come from the shittiest parts of the world, in the shittiest of times. Quite commonly from the crazy & depressed or at least repressed people. No offense but Hawaii isn’t known for its deeply visionary works. India, London, Seattle, Berlin; they are.

The Beatles made really detailed records with 4 tracks of hissy tape. Kraftwork defined several genres with synths they had to make as they went. Matter of fact most of the early synth bands had to hope their synths would even work on a daily basis. New Order used to take 5 of the same synth on tour in hope one would be playable on the night. It is those brutal limits that helped shape the periods and the amazing works delivered.

Spice Girls "Stop"
Spice Girls “Stop”

The second Spice Girls album “SpiceWorld” is a great study in creativity within limits. The record is an incredibly clever take on recreating several classic styles of song within the confines of 90s Dance-Pop and the Spice Girls thing. It is what the writers and producers did within those confines that is creativity and why the record sold so well, and is still a joy to listen to 20 years later. “Stop” is a timeless song because it is so well delivered and focuses on its message over any fashion tricks.

Boot Scootin’ Boogie

Creativity is the unique vision & decisions made by the artist in the situation they find themselves.

In inventing you can create a whole new kind of mousetrap or simply a new take on it. More often than not the latter is the more successful. But you have to be sure people can see how your new music, sorry I mean mousetrap, is better than the one they already have.

The common thinking amongst aspiring musicians is to simply add a bigger Kick Drum, a Bassier Bass, faster Blast Beats, faster Shredding… You get me? Sadly it is a very limited strategy and can only work for so long, if at all as it is actually exactly the same mousetrap. There is a reason that colored hammers aren’t a big seller.

You know (at least of) that Brooks & Dunn song because it is so well done. It is unique despite there being a ton of not-dissimilar Country Line Dancing songs like Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee”. “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” contains no real new elements but the way the parts are put together and delivered makes something that speaks to the soul (and feet) of anyone alive. Tip: it isn’t in anything technical.

ASIDE: If you are too cool to be affected by Line Dancing music then you probably can’t be an artist. Real artists at least appreciate the work of others outside their genre. It is in pulling in slightly disparate parts that creativity really shines. The only way to make a different mousetrap is to do something different & unique. Bob Marley delivered a Reggae/Rock flavored mousetrap (with a distinct green tinge). He wasn’t afraid of Soul, Punk or even Electro. He sang his story and rolled em all in.

You gotta bleed a little while you sing, Less the words don’t mean no thing


The Cult

Thankfully stories are free (well at least they don’t cost money) but you do have to commit.


One of the biggest failings I have seen in aspiring musicians is the fear of committing to the art. The song. They are afraid to bleed any. No, not literally, tho often they’d rather cut themselves than expose their soul or even a tiny part of it.

Remember that if you want to be noticed & remembered, to get people to commit to you, you have to commit to them. The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” has currency today because the lads delivered a universal emotion very clearly. It doesn’t need any flummery with production tricks because it is focused on the important thing – the feeling (thanks, Sir Mr. Martin).

It may be frightening to commit yourself to posterity with the fear that no one will listen or care. But that is the difference between an artist and a punter. Punters sit there drinking beer, performers do stuff.

When I DJed I was sent to difficult places & shows. Pubs that had blown their room with fighting etc. My task was to get them working again. Sadly often the venue still wanted to do the very things that destroyed their room in the first place. Luckily I was well trained so I knew that I had to put something into the room to build it. The first part of the night there’d be tools in the crowd who wanted to gob off at me because they thought I was a ponce for running around, playing air guitar and bouncing up & down like NSYNC.  I love Rock & Roll and all that goes with it and eventually, that came across and those same people would be dancing and having fun in an hour or so tops. The thing that did that was not the beer but the commitment I put into entertaining my crowd. Yep, my crowd. If you don’t own it then you can’t play with it.

All the true greats of Rock (or any genre) committed fully to their art and expressed their uniqueness through their instrument.

Homework:  still not the time to ask you do something musical (soon my pretties, soon) but what I want you to do right now is more important: I want you to write down where your area of natural Talent is, the things that you are most engaged & enthusiastic about. I also want you to do the same with your best Skill. Be honest here as self-delusion will take you off track. Commit to who you are.

Action: fill in these points and post them below. If you make it public then you are committed. Things you commit to in public are more likely to be actioned. Things you hide are easier to shirk and evade when the dark gets scary. Now here’s the scary bit for you Riders of the DAW, put aside everything but your answers and work on only those as you do your thing. If you decide you are a songwriter and find yourself obsessing over the side-chaining of the drum bus then you are evading. If your song can’t survive without 27 layers of compression & overdrive then you are in trouble. Just because your DAW lets you, doesn’t mean it is a good idea.

  • My natural Talent is:
  • My Enthusiasm is:
  • My best Skill is:
  • What can I do to Express my Uniqueness with these:

No matter when you meet this course, please feel free to participate actively in the Homework & Action sections at the bottom of each page. Even if this article is old, I am still listening.

2 thoughts on “Lesson 3: Developing Skill & Creativity

  1. My natural Talent is: Composing melodic music
    My Enthusiasm is: Creating music of many styles and genres
    My best Skill is: Playing guitar
    What can I do to Express my Uniqueness with these: Write more music, record and perform it

    1. Thanks. I think we are looking for that something unique that I point to in those above. Guitar could be George Benson or Mark Knopfler, or some guy strumming at a campfire. You need to differentiate so that you are something unique. Otherwise, it is hard to get noticed. Not to mention far easier to get drawn into trying to be everything to everyone by doing every job in the musciverse at once which means you spend too little time doing what makes you special 🙂

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