night walk

The second single from “let go” is out today on all streaming platforms. It’s called “night walk”. This tune was one of two that I wrote during the week long recording session in December (which I’ve never done before).

My intention with this album was to include pieces I really loved playing. (For whatever reason that hasn’t always been the case with my previous albums.) I wanted it to be full of pieces that were special to both me and the listener.

To determine if I love playing a piece, though, I need time with it. Because sometimes I write a piece that I think I like, then a week later I’ve lost interest. In this case, though, I knew this would be one that stuck with me. There’s also something about having the mics set up, and it being super quiet in those early morning hours before the kids wake up, that really inspires me. And so it seems like this one just wanted to come out during that time.

I hope you enjoy it! Here’s a music video I made to go along with it.


Album Spotlight: “Solo on the Side” / Paul-Marie Barbier

Spotify algorithms get a bad rap at times, though I’ve discovered (or been recommended) some really beautiful albums through the years. The most recent being Paul-Marie Barbier’s Solo on the Side.

These pieces are humble and unassuming, yet full of harmonic beauty and ear catching melodies. Some even make you want to move your body with their odd time signatures, like Suzy (in 7/8), and the Samba-like Lay Down.

He knows his craft (having studied harmony, composition and jazz theory), yet chooses to distill the essence of a piece, rather than overstuffing it with extraneous harmonic color and showy scales up and down the keyboard. Any technical complexity (like that found in L’envol and Human Leather Shoes for Crocodile Dandies) is at the service of the music.

I appreciate how he does this distillation in Aftermath. The left hand plays a simple four chord progression (Ab, Fm6, C, Cm), revolving around the root (C). Over this, the melody descends, then dances around the E-natural (in the C chord) before landing back on the minor-third.

Paul-Marie Barbier – Aftermath

He does something similar—with the minor/major transition—in Wonderland. After some rolled chords in the treble, the piece falls into a bluesy B-minor progression (Bm, Em, G, A). Then seemingly out of nowhere he slips in a D# (momentarily changing the root to B-major), which adds so much color to the piece.

If you listen to the album, keep an ear out for how he incorporates chromaticism throughout. Since I haven’t been jazz trained, this hasn’t come naturally for me in my own compositions. Though this album is challenging me to broaden my creative palette a bit.

You can hear this in Lay Down, too, about halfway through where it starts to take a journey through other keys.

If you have time, give this entire album a listen. Every piece is beautiful. I think you’ll fall in love with it.

Solo on the Side, Paul-Marie Barbier – Album Cover

on balancing creative inspiration with our desire for technical perfection

One thing that held me back for years from writing my own music was a fear of failure. “What if it’s not good enough? What if no one likes it?” This fear led to an obsession with perfection. I thought I had to create something perfect (whatever that meant) for it to be appreciated. I needed to compose it perfectly. Capture it perfectly. Mix and master it perfectly. There could be no flaws.

(Even as I write and edit this, I feel the tension between wanting to just get out my thoughts, and looking back trying to make sure it’s expressed perfectly, most accessibly, etc. Perhaps I’ll rewrite these ideas later on and reframe them in a way that’s more accessible. It’s hard to know if this will resonate. After spending two hours writing, I even thought of scrapping it altogether. The struggle is real! I thought the same about “slow waltz” before it was released. “Should I bother? Is it any good?” Only to hear from others how much it’s meant to them. You can never know ahead of time what will and will not resonate.)

An obsession with perfection, as you may have experienced, can be counterproductive and hold us back. Does our perfectionistic tendency have a place in the creative process, though? I think so.

where does creative inspiration come from?

Think about a time you felt inspired to create. We’re you out walking in nature? Did you feel a gentle breeze kiss your skin? The warm embrace of the sun? Did you witness a powerful storm, standing on the coastline? Maybe you listened to a beautiful piece of music, or read a poem that lit something up inside you. Maybe it was a divine meal shared with a loved one.

Whatever it was, it probably involved the senses. Something deep inside was stirred after you touched, tasted, listened, smelled, looked, felt. It was a spontaneous reaction. “I want to create this feeling in the world.”

In nature, life moves and breathes spontaneously, in reaction to forces around and within. A hurricane is simply a force responding to other forces around it. Flowers grow as their seeds are acted upon by soil, sun and water. Lions hunt as their stomachs lead them.

I think of the creative impulse in the same way. It drives us forward to make something because we’ve been acted upon by other forces, within and without.

creativity requires work & effort

If it were that simple, though—if it were just a matter of inspiration—we’d all be effortlessly creating beautiful works of art. The reality is, creating does not come effortlessly. It requires work.

There are things to learn and techniques to master. It’s rare for something to come so easily to someone. (Prodigies are far and few between.) This can be the trap of YouTube and social media. We find inspiration there. But we also see the finished products. We see those who are excelling, far beyond what we could imagine for ourselves.

What we don’t see, though, is how long it took them to get there. How much work they had to put into honing their craft.

This should never stop us from creating, though.

For example, one of the reasons I burned out so hard in college is because I compared myself to others in the conservatory who were better. They had better technique. They were better at performing because they didn’t get as nervous. They had better ears and musical recall, and some even had perfect pitch. They could play Chopin Etudes in a way I could only dream of. I didn’t feel like I could keep up.

What I didn’t embrace at the time, of course, was that we’re all different. We all have different strengths.

My desire for virtuosity and perfection had mixed motivations. Yes, I wanted people to be impressed by how fast and technically accurate I could play. Yet deeper down I wanted virtuosity to serve the music.

After that burnout, it took me a long, long time to recalibrate and return to the piano.

balancing our desire for technical perfection with creative inspiration

So how do we balance this desire for perfection with creative inspiration? Why do we want perfection in the first place? Many times there’s vanity tied up in it. (There certainly can be for me.) But I think we also desire perfection because we want the music to come through, unhindered. We don’t want wrong notes, a botched performance or a poor recording to get in the way of someone’s listening experience.

We want technical perfection to serve the delivery of the music. This is a good desire.

It’s good to learn proper technique, so we don’t injure ourselves. Good technique helps set free the creative energy flowing through our body and instrument. It allows us to be a conduit for the music.

In recording, for example, it’s good to understand the different kinds of microphones, and why we set them up in a particular way. To understand how to avoid phase issues. It’s helpful to understand the basics of EQ, compression, limiting, and bussing, etc.

If you’re an artist, it helps to understand anatomy.

If you want to keep your car in good condition, it helps to understand why tire pressure, air intake and proper fluid levels are important.

Understanding your tools, and knowing how to use them is important, regardless of the craft.

keeping perfection at bay and letting our creativity flow

So how do we keep this perfectionistic tendency at bay, and let our creativity flow? I think it’s important to let ourselves live with the tension between perfection and creative inspiration.

If you want the ideas in your head to come through clearly, you have to learn technique.

But don’t wait until your technique is perfect.

In order to get better at your craft and the technique required to deliver it, you need to practice imperfectly.

You need to do it before you think you’re ready. If you want to create, but struggle to think of yourself as creative, you need to practice doing it in spite of your self-limiting beliefs. You need to compose before you think of yourself as a composer. You need to draw before you think you’re an artist.

(Note: I realize this can feel impossible at times. And that’s okay, too. Sometimes we need months or years to heal from some kind of hurt or trauma. Give yourself that time, and pursue healing, first. Creating just for yourself can be part of that healing process.)

At the same time, mindset is everything. Believing that we have something to offer can transform everything. Consistently believing you are an artist can propel you forward. Until one day you wake up and acknowledge, “I am an artist.”

what does it mean to be an “artist” or “composer”? do we ever “arrive”?

What does it mean to arrive at this point, though? Are you an artist or composer when someone pays you for your work? When you pass 10,000 followers on Instagram, or a million streams on Spotify? Of course not. Such measurements are shallow indicators you’ve arrived.

Instead, it’s an inner-knowing. You simply know and believe you are creating something beautiful and valuable in the world.

Does nature and the universe need people to acknowledge and praise its beauty for it to be beautiful? There are things no human eye will ever see—in the depths of the ocean, a remote mountain crevice, a hidden cave, and the farthest reaches of the universe—that are still immensely and incredibly beautiful.

What you make isn’t beautiful or valuable because others acknowledge it or pay you for it. It’s beautiful because it came from your soul.

I’m convinced that creating is an overflow of emotion. It could be sadness or joy, despair or happiness, or perhaps a complex combination of emotions. Either way, it needs to emerge from your soul.

Beauty doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It comes through the struggle.

Paraphrasing some Taoist wisdom:

If you want to create effortlessly
without learning technique,
you don’t understand what it means to be an artist.
You can’t have one without the other.

To give this more context, the original states:

If you want to have right without wrong
or order without disorder,
you don’t understand the Tao.
You can’t have one quality
and not have its opposite as well.
You can’t reach for the positive
and not create the negative
by the very act of your reaching.

From The Second Book of the Tao, Stephen Mitchell (No. 45)

Let it unfold. Let it take time. Create while learning your craft. Don’t wait until you can do it perfectly.

Photo credit: Jr Korpa on Unsplash

you don’t ever dream as big as you should

Last week I listened to an interview with Kaki King on Debbie Millman’s Design Matters podcast.

Early in Kaki’s career she had the opportunity to audition with the Blue Man Group. Debbie asked her how she got the job. Kaki had low expectations, and having the first audition of the day, thought, “This is going to be bad.”

 I remember walking out of my audition saying, “From now on, I’m always going to be able to tell people that I auditioned for Blue Man Group.”

You just don’t ever dream as big as you should. I got the job, which was amazing.

“You just don’t ever dream as big as you should.” She said it almost in passing, but it hit home for me. Growing up, I was scared to dream big. It was because I feared receiving more than I could handle. Even from a young age I noticed how success (e.g.—winning the lottery, early fame) ruined people. It didn’t seem healthy. And those who had a healthy relationship with fame and money seemed hard to come by.

I think part of my perspective came from a proverb I took to heart when I was young:

Give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the LORD?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.

—Proverbs 30:8,9 (ESV)

I think there is a lot of wisdom in this proverb. I also think I used it as blanket permission to avoid the hard work of learning to have a healthy relationship with money. For me, it was too hot to handle. It seemed best to use it on an as-needed basis, to avoid getting burned.

The more I’ve studied the science behind how our thoughts affect our experiences, I’ve seen a common thread through my life. I’ve only every wanted just enough, and as a result, that’s what I’ve had.

In many ways, I think it was healthy to view money with a degree of skepticism. Happiness and contentment seemed a more worthy goal. Again and again, in real life and fiction (movies and books), people showed their cards when they came into money. As it took them over, they became increasingly lonely, obsessive, neurotic, anxious and unhappy. No thank you.

At the same time, I still couldn’t help wonder (like so many), “What would it be like to have an abundance of money? What would it feel like to say, ‘I want to build my own recording studio,’ then do it? Without any limitations to my imagination?”

The tension I felt came from a fundamental misunderstanding of the proverb. Rather than saying, “Don’t make me rich or poor,” it’s saying something much deeper. There’s a healthy middle ground in all this. If not poverty or riches, though, what?

I think it’s presence. When there is so much we don’t know what to do with it, we start worrying we’ll lose it (among so many other things). When there’s not enough, we worry about how to get more. (I suppose I’m extrapolating the proverb a bit, since the original “concern” was denying the Lord, or profaning God’s name.)

When there is enough, though, we can simply be. There’s no more striving. We can create out of contentment rather than anxiety.

But what is enough? It depends on our perspective. But how do you gain a healthy perspective on what is enough? The reality is, you or I could have ten million dollars and still feel discontent. At the same time, there are people who have nothing, and are happy. How can that be? What’s the secret?

I think Byron Katie summed it well in this quote, from her book, A Thousand Names for Joy.

There’s no mistake, and there’s nothing lacking. We’re always going to get what we need, not what we think we need. Then we come to see that what we need is not only what we have, it’s what we want. Then we come to want only what is. That way we always succeed, whatever happens.

I experienced this last week after our car was totaled. (Thankfully all involved are okay.) I had just finished transferring most of the money in our small savings account to our checking, just to cover basic expenses. I thought “Nothing can go wrong. It can’t. There’s not enough for any type of emergency.” An instant later Rachel called telling me about the accident. My heart sank. Hers did, too. I could tell she was more shaken up by the thought of how much it would cost to repair or replace the van, then she was by the accident.

Later that day, on the verge of tears, I sat down to meditate. (Of course it wasn’t easy.) Everything in me wanted to give in to despair. Instead, I heard myself saying, “Thank you. Thank you for this. Thank you everyone was okay. Thank you there was enough coolant left in the leaking radiator to get the van home safely. Thank you that it was just around the corner rather than 100 miles from home. Thank you for our friends who rounded the corner on a walk, just as we arrived home, and offered their car for us to use. Thank you.”

As I gave thanks, my heart rested. It wasn’t a mistake. There is nothing lacking. We are receiving what we need. What is, is what I want.

There have been more miracles since then. A family member lending us a larger van while we sort things out. A bonus from work. Having one of my tunes get playlisted. Things I didn’t have to strive for. Of course I’ll never know the direct correlation between my expression of gratitude, and these signs of provision. What I do know, though, is that gratitude is a gateway to contentment. As “good” and “bad” things happen, gratitude puts them in perspective.

Gratitude allows us to do two seemingly opposite things at once. It lets us dream big, while letting go of those dreams at the same time. Gratitude lets our dreams come at the right time. It allows us to be here, now, while holding out our vision for the future with open hands and open hearts.

Photo by Anton Murygin on Unsplash

the courage to create

Yesterday was an exciting day. My tune, slow waltz, was added to the Peaceful Piano playlist on Spotify, which at the time of writing has close to 6.5 million followers.

This is worth celebrating, of course! Though while I’m so grateful for more exposure, a “success” like this can come with many struggles. I only say this because I’ve been here before, and I hope my story can encourage you to keep creating, no matter the circumstances.

It was around December 2019. Colors had been released a few weeks prior. The first single to be released from Her Heart Is Open as the Sky. It was a surreal experience looking back on it. We were at a friend’s house, and she was listening to some piano music I knew well, though wouldn’t expect others to be familiar with. “How did you hear about this album?” I asked. “It’s just a playlist I saw you were on, from your profile.” A playlist? Me? I checked Spotify, and sure enough, there it was. Colors on the Magnificent Piano playlist.

I was shocked, stunned, excited, thrilled, affirmed, confused. How did one of my tracks get playlisted? I had no idea. I had submitted it for “editorial review” through the Spotify for Artists’ app, but figured there was a greater chance of being struck dead by a cow falling from the sky.

A few days later, there it was. Colors on Peaceful Piano. It simply blew me away.

What I didn’t expect was the self-induced agony that followed.

I soon came to realize that typically with one editorial playlist came many. (At least for others, based on my observations.) However, that wasn’t happening for me at the same rate. I also began to notice the playlist was updated every two weeks. (Now it’s weekly.) I think it’s fair to say I became obsessed with keeping Colors on the playlist. Though I had absolutely no idea how, and no control over it.

I became spellbound and obsessed with numbers. It felt hard to control. This compulsive desire to check my stats every day when they were updated. To make sure I hadn’t fallen out of grace with that one person (or many?) who made decisions about who is worthy to stay, and who gets canned.

It didn’t help that I was also suffering from imposter syndrome. I kept worrying maybe it had been a fluke. Did they really mean to add it? I’d wonder. Is it because Jane called out and Barry had to make the playlist adds that day and I got lucky? I’d listen to my track on the playlist, comparing it side-by-side with the others. Can it hold its ground amongst these giants?

It wasn’t just the numbers, though. People told me there was real money to be made from a playlist like this. I started researching how much of a payout I might get. And if I was even in the ballpark, it was significant enough to be helpful for our family. My heart swelled, looking forward to it.

After a few months, the first payout came, and I was ecstatic. Because if it continued, it would be a huge help for us.

Yet within days, Colors was removed from Peaceful Piano. Maybe they are just shuffling things around? I tried to reassure myself. My thoughts spiraled. It was almost like it had been planned. Like they wanted to dangle success (a/k/a money) in front of me, then burn it before my eyes.

I was a mess.

I’ve always been prone to self-doubt. And this was the pin to pop my little piano balloon. To me, it validated what I believed to be true about myself (at that time). That I wasn’t worthy to receive good things. That it’s dangerous to get one’s hopes up. That I shouldn’t dream big. That my music (or anything I make) isn’t worthy of people’s time and attention.

It’s interesting how expectations play a role in all this. When I released my first album (Opening), I was simply grateful to afford studio time and work with a great engineer. Those songs needed to come out. Otherwise I’d burst. And it felt so good to have a finished thing to share with friends and family.

There have been many experiences in my life where I’ve learned the hard way that money doesn’t satisfy. For example, I’ve taken jobs or promotions, just for the money. Then I was miserable because I hated what I was now doing.

That experience with Colors wasn’t much different. Once it became about money and numbers, I was a wreck.

In contrast, the times where I’ve chosen to do things in spite of money, have always been more gratifying. Where I’ve chosen to follow my heart, and act with integrity, rather than sell myself for money.

So what about now? It’s happened again. Will anything be different? Will I suffer the same fate?

In a way, I’m glad it hasn’t happened till now, because I don’t think I was ready. I had a lot of shit to work through in my head and heart. I needed to remind myself of why I create in the first place. I needed to remember: I do this because I have to. Music is a sort of life-blood for me. It’s like breathing. Without it, I merely function. With it, I’m vibrantly alive. It doesn’t matter who’s watching (or not), I must do it.

Additionally, there are some practical things I’ve done to prepare myself for whatever happened, “good” or “bad”. Editorial playlist or not. (Which I’d be happy to share more about another time.)

Part of the reason I share this is because I know I’m not alone. Like so many, I’ve created and bled my heart out for years with no one watching. With only a few people really believing in me.

After sharing about the playlist add, I posted this to my Instagram story. The response was overwhelming and heart-warming. It came from my heart, so rather than rewriting it, I’ll re-post it (edited for clarity):

For all of you who bleed their heart into the world and feel like there’s never a payoff, like no one is listening, you have to keep going. You do it because you have to. It’s like breathing.

And no amount of streams or follows will ever make you valuable. You are valuable because you have the courage to create and be yourself in this world.

What is most important as an artist is to be true to your craft. Make things you love. Make things to express your joy and sorrow. Share them if you want to. Like scattering seeds, letting them go to take root in people’s hearts, where and when they may. That takes time. We have no control over that.

I’ve been writing music since I was 13, though fear kept me from sharing it. In many ways, the music I wrote was awful. (It takes time to develop one’s craft.)

I tried to stifle my desire to compose for a long, long time.

You make because if you don’t, you might as well be dead. (At least, that’s what it feels like.)

If you connect with one soul through your craft, celebrate that.

And that’s exactly what I want to celebrate now. You, the listener. The reader. All of you who’ve reached out saying how much my music has meant for them. How could there be anything more wonderful than connecting with another soul? Money comes and goes, but our connection will give birth to new creations. New life. How can it be otherwise?

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

small miracles

She called just as I finished balancing our budget. Just as I wondered how much longer we could last before hitting zero. Before going red. FaceTime—the screen, shaking. “Is she driving?” I wondered. Her face, gaunt, as she looked forward, over the steering wheel. Scared. “I hit a car… I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,” she kept repeated.

The night before, my dad texted. “Grandma might not last much longer. Can’t get out of bed. Isn’t eating and drinking.” Video call—her face, pale. Almost unrecognizable. I can’t tell if she’s looking at the screen, though her face glimmers with recognition. “I love you, Grandma.” “That’s all I need to hear right now,” she whispers. “I wish I could come and play for you.” I want to play her off. I want it to be the last thing she hears before leaving her body. She doesn’t remember I play the piano, and I smile and cry at the same time.

That same morning, “slow waltz” came out. A joyful and warm reception. Encouraging words. Amazed something I created can be listened to all around the world. That even with all the unrest social media helps propagate in our hearts and world, it connects me with real people. People I now call friends, even if we’ve never met in person. Who if we did meet, I know we’d connect deeply.

We visited a Buddhist Sangha on a recent cold, snowy evening. They didn’t expect anyone to show. Then there we were were. All six of us, making up two-thirds of the people in the room. A twenty minute, silent meditation. With each slow breath in, the words let go kept repeating in my head. Letting go of specific things and circumstances. With each slow breath out, everything is as it should be.

Afterwards, someone shared this ancient Taoist story:

Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

Since then I’ve been meditating ten or so minutes each day. I figured if I can get through twenty minutes, why not ten? Why not let myself be still for just ten minutes before I hustle? Breathing slowly. In. Out. In. Out. Just being present. Observing my thoughts and judgments. Letting them go.

The album (to be released April 22, 2022) is titled “let go”. Maybe I’ve subconsciously been wanting to put into practice the soul of the album.

Things have been happening since then. The accident. (Everyone was okay, thankfully.) Grandma dying. An exciting job opportunity that came (and maybe went). Gratitude and encouragement surrounding the new tune. Sudden career direction. More patience with the kids. And through it all, a deep sense of peace and steadiness. A recognition of blessings. Friends turning the corner on a walk, just as we drove our smashed van home. Momentarily still drivable while the engine coolant slowly leaked. (The accident was thankfully just around the corner.) Hugs and an offer to use their car in the meantime. A gift.

Life is full of such miracles.

new single (slow waltz) / new site / new blog

Hello! Welcome to my new website. It’s pretty bare at the moment, and I need to update my sheet music page with all the extra transcriptions I have available. In the meantime, I wanted to share a bit about my new single coming out tomorrow, which I’m very excited about.

I shared the original idea for this piece back on July 22, 2021 (TikTok, Instagram) when I was writing a short piece each day. I ended up doing it for about 50 days before I decided to stop and take stock of what I had written. I didn’t love every piece, and some were intentionally direct imitations of other composers as a way to try and expand my creative palate.

This piece (at the time called simply “032”) is in 6/8, though it has a two-over-three sort of feel. The right hand plays a melody in four, while the left hand accompaniment sticks to the time signature. It felt sort of like an exercise to me. Quite generic. Like the chord progression was overdone and wrung-dry by more talented composers.

After sharing it, though, I got more feedback than usual, and it had been viewed/shared more than most. Stats never tell the whole story, I’m convinced (a post for another time), though in this case, it made me take a second look.

Why had I judged this piece as “generic”, “too simple”, or “unworthy”? Did I want to write more “original” music? Did I want people to have a certain perception of me, that I didn’t think this piece conveyed? (I’m curious whether other composers struggle with this, and how they deal with it. i.e. – Writing to please rather than writing from the heart.)

When it came time to put this next album together (to be released 04.22.22), I couldn’t ignore number 032. The melody was lodged in my brain, and so I started fleshing it out.

I had worked a B section in (number 045 from those daily shares), but when I stitched them together the transition felt awkward, abrupt and forced.

I had since worked in a bridge (B section), which I liked. But it was still lacking something. Some contrast to the A and B. During the recording week (a/k/a 3:00AM to 6:00AM when everyone else is asleep), it finally came to me. (Those early morning hours are very inspiring.)

Contrast is provided by the melody flipping to 6/8 and the bass stepping up (F#, G#, A, B) instead of chromatically down, as it did in the A section. Not much, but it was enough to make the return to the A section feel fresher.

I’m really happy with where it ended up, and I hope you enjoy the final version. Sheet music for it to come soon, and I’m looking forward to sharing and engaging more with you in this space. —vontmer