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  • docwattson

If you build it...

You folks got a restroom?

When I was in high school I was presented with a dilemma.

I LOVED music. Over a third of my classes in my senior year were in the Arts wing. Any free elective I would pursue another instrument, or electronic music, or composition, or radio broadcasting. I had to be around music as much as possible. I played saxophone in concert and jazz bands, I took guitar and piano lessons. It was all-consuming.

Thing was, I wasn't very good.

OK, I was good... But I wasn't good.

I did truly love music, and fancied myself as someone who might pursue music professionally (at minimum as a major in college). But as I was to learn early, there is a saying with regards to expertise:

"A good artist practices until they get it right. A great artist practices until they can't get it wrong."

Sitting to practice was always tedious, and I would often find myself unprepared for my auditions or barely prepared due to feverish cramming the few nights before. Who could blame me? I was a teenager: other homework, desperation to socialize, video games/computers... And it didn't matter if I didn't have that measure exactly right in the concert band... who'd even notice?

Well.... I did... But also so did others. Passed over on auditions. Average scores during solo/ensemble competitions. Frustrating practice sessions where it was clear I specifically was holding up the section by flubbing the tricky passage...

My band teacher, who also led the jazz program at the high school, sat me down one day. He'd noted my zeal for music, but he also noted my lack of focus and discipline when it came to mastering my craft. He noted my frustrations with being passed up or feeling like my ratings weren't what I expected, but he also noted that all of the auditions and scores were honest assessments of my ability. I was pretty good, but I never put in the requisite effort to excel, and it showed to anyone listening.

He gave me two paths: focus, drill down into one thing and master it, play until you can't get it wrong... Or, manage expectations with respect to earning your living in the industry.

Another painful reality struck me around the same time. The life of an artist is hard. Even if you're a famous well-respected artist you're still working all the time, there are still dramatic swaths of economic uncertainty built in to the career. And almost all musicians are NOT famous or well-respected... My aunt and uncle were both symphony musicians but also taught private lessons and eventually both earned degrees to teach in the public school system. Their life was a hustle. Did I really want to work my ass off for that?

(Aside: I would later apply this line of reasoning to avoid pursuing a PhD in English Literature, another choice I don't regret due to the inherent vow of poverty and lack of careers in academia, and the now collapse/reform of higher education delivery altogether)

I earned extremely good grades in high school and I was on track to be admitted to my dream school (and now alma mater) Washington University in St. Louis. Receiving an admissions letter to Wash U made my choice for me. Wash U didn't have a robust music program, but they did have a small jazz program, and at the time their liberal arts degree was one of the best in the country. I stamped my ticket to a great education, a lifelong network of highly accomplished people I'm honored to call friends, and a taste of the world outside the idyllic but not-perfect enclave of Evanston (St Louis, but still)...

I learned the cost of following your dreams, and did not deem it worth the price of admission.


I told you, I spent my summer in Alaska with my uncle hunting wolverines...

I read a short story once about a man coping with the death of his wife, but in it he reflected on the state of his relationship, and how pursuing his dreams of being a writer always caused tensions in the relationship. In his reflection he mused at how torturous it was to have only a little talent, to know just enough about your craft that you will never live up to your own ideal. You will always undervalue your abilities, even as you grow to a place where you receive positive acclaim for those same abilities. It's creative torture...

It's also a humble brag.

I've had so many wins, and am so proud of all I've created. But it took some humility, some gratitude exercises, and some therapy to get there.

I am my own worst critic. I've written heavily about it in my music and on this blog, and it always made me nervous as an artist because all my creative expressions are so raw and personal. But something funny happened that reframed my worldview and led to a hugely productive 2020.

It came from learning how to suck again.

At first at production... then at mixing... then at playing bass.... then at tracking live instruments....

It reassured me of the things that I can do well, including rapping and composing songs.

It came from building this label, and with heavy encouragement (and executive production) from Know Sage to put together the Daywalkerz project.

It came from facing my weaknesses as an artist head on. And enjoying that process of sucking. Enjoying the best part of music, the learning and growing, the aha moments when you know you finally got it right.

It came from being more honest with myself as a human, and then as an artist.

It came from treasuring the process as much as the product.

I began living the truth head on. And in doing so I noticed something... I was also putting in my reps. I was writing more, which improved the writing quality. I was producing more, and the beats started sounding decent enough to share them. I was mixing more, and my mixes don't sound as amateurish and embarrassing as they once did. I began playing bass more, and now am enjoying putting together music with the Jet Set Roulette crew.

All these seeds are planted, and I am so much more motivated to keep them tended and nurtured, and so much more grateful that I enjoy both the act of creating things AND the act of sharing them with others. I am building something here, and while I'm not sure exactly what the future holds, that's probably the most exciting part.

It's scary, it's thrilling. It's vulnerable. It's raw. It's a whole vibe.

And it feels good.



Native Stranger Productions

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