When I was in college, I had plenty of excuses for why I didn't make art on a regular basis. I was either too busy or too tired, which was true to an extent, but the most common excuse was that I simply had nowhere to create. I hid behind these reasons and blamed the world for my lack of productivity.
The error of my ways hit home when a jazz teacher told me I was a waste of talent. It was right before I dropped out of college. I had stopped attending all of my classes except for a Jazz Appreciation Lecture, which met twice a week. The teacher was an animated jazz connoisseur whose main goal was to instill in his students a passion for music beyond mere knowledge of the subject. One of our first assignments was to learn the blues scale and improvise a one minute piano solo while he accompanied us.
At this point, I was still learning how to play piano, and I'd never taken private music lessons (apart from three meetings with a lady from church when I was seven, where I mastered such works as "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "When the Saints Go Marching In"). Though I doubted my music abilities, I still walked into my teacher's office one afternoon and attempted a piano solo.
His response blew me away. He said that my solo was the best one he'd heard all year. I told him that I was still learning to play, and he confessed that it was obvious, which perplexed me even more.
"Most musicians come in here and show off all they can do for a minute, but none of their solos ever leave me wanting more. A true musician knows how to use silence, how to build up anticipation, and how to deliver the goods, and you got IT!" he exclaimed. "Use what you know to tell a story and leave the listener wanting more is what I say!"
My teacher emphatically declared that I deserved an "A+" for my solo, and he rushed to his computer to upload the grade. It was then he noticed that I had a "D" in his class.
"Ah, a true musician in every sense," he mused.
I was embarrassed. I tried to tell him that I loved his class, but he just waved it off. What he said next has stuck with me and fueled my passion for creating through the years.
"Do whatever it takes, young man. Get your hands on something, anything, and make it sing. You are oozing musicianship. Don't waste your talent. Don't waste your life."
When I first heard his words, I misunderstood what they meant. I took it as a sign that college wasn't for me. I devoted my full time and energy to a band. I quit school. I went to New York. I made a fool of myself. And, I tanked. Two years later, I found myself in that same teacher's class, where I worked hard and earned the "A" I should have received in the first place.
My jazz teacher taught me to stop making excuses and apply myself. It didn't matter where or when--what mattered was that I showed up, paid attention, and worked hard to create.
The fundamental function of the artist is to observe. To observe, we have to be present. Most artists have a space to call their own. A room, or basement, or sidewalk, where beauty is ordered and art is named. Here, songs find breath, canvases meet color, and stories come to life. Sometimes, this happens in the studio. Oftentimes, it doesn't.
Before they ever hit the studio, most of my songs for the new Beggars album came to life here.
No, it's not a laundromat. It's Nathaniel's basement (the favorite rehearsal spot of Beggars Made Believers). Every Tuesday for two years, we gathered, did our laundry, drank coffee, played rock-paper-scissors, and rocked out (in no particular order).
Before I owned any studio equipment, our recording setup primarily involved a computer microphone placed as far away from the drums as possible. Here's a basement-bred demo of a song called "To Reconcile All Things":
One year later, we took the song into a studio and the same part came out sounding like this:
The basement afforded us the space and freedom to imagine bold possibilities for each of our songs. Take this next sound byte, for example. In the basement, I heard a melody and used my voice as a placeholder for a synth part that would later dominate the intro of the song.
It didn't matter what we had at out disposal (or that everything around us smelled like fabric softener), we simply devoted our full attention to creating. We showed up, paid attention, worked hard, and came out with a song. In effect, Nathaniel's basement became our go-to place for dreaming up new material.
What matters most is that you are passionate about your art and imaginative in your expression of it. Claim your coffee shop, park, or garage, and make a studio out of it. Art is in life all around us. It just needs a willing artist to name it.
Photo Credit: Lindsay Turberville