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

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