Environment, Mindset, and Creativity

By: Konner Scott

Writing a song, when you’ve never done so before (or when you’ve only done so a couple of times), can seem both daunting and exciting. It might feel like you’re on the edge of your comfort zone, pushing your creativity to its limits. Even if the final product isn’t objectively anything good or professional, there’s a resounding satisfaction in knowing that “I created that!”.

The good news, in my experience, is that feeling of pride and excitement in your own creation never truly wanes. The bad news, however, is that if you write enough songs, the process becomes habitual and almost instinctive. There are benefits to this, sure- it’s nice to sit down, disappear into the process, and know you’ll come out the other side with something complete- but the downside is that the novelty wears off and it’s much easier for the creative process to become mundane. A songwriter’s biggest fear is that their work will reflect the mundanity of their process and their surroundings.

I personally tend to view songwriting as a musical encapsulation of my own personal experience. In every song I write exists elements of my worries, fears, hopes, surroundings, and general mental state at the time I wrote it. As such, I’ve found it immensely beneficial to shake the process up as much as possible in order to expand the breadth of my output.

Of course, you can do things like put constraints on your process. For example, one thing I enjoy doing is challenging myself to write a song using only major chords, or only having three specific notes in the melody, or any number of barriers that I then must use my creativity to circumvent. However, something I have not explored nearly as much is changing my environment and mindset when I write.

Over Labor Day weekend, I booked an overnight cabin in the north Georgia mountains with the intention of doing a solo songwriting retreat. I packed up my guitar and keyboard, and drove about two hours into the wilderness. From the hours of 7pm until about 12am, I wandered the cabin and let inspiration strike.

I promised myself I wouldn’t force a single note, and that anything I wrote on the trip would come organically. I allowed myself to take breaks, to sit and think, and even- at one point- to go stand on the porch in the rain with a little 40-key portable keyboard and just plunk out melodies while watching the rain come down. By midnight, I had somehow completed and recorded five new songs- an average of about one per hour.

On my drive back home the next morning, it occurred to me that I had five new songs that had immortalized the adventure and experience of driving out into the mountains by myself. Every time I listen to those songs for the rest of my life, they will reflect that experience back to me. Whether or not the songs are good enough for public consumption is a different conversation, but I walked away from the trip with five pieces of my soul that would have been impossible to create without the change in setting and mindset that the trip induced.

Stuck in a creative rut? Go somewhere else. Maybe even just try a different room. Maybe face the other way in your desk chair. You might be amazed at how much minute changes in your setting can shake up your process!

Neural Pathways and Loose Associations: How to Discover New Music

By: Konner Scott

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I noticed I was starting to develop a deepening passion for music. My parents were trying desperately to indoctrinate me with Queen’s catalog, but it just wasn’t taking. In particular, they were pushing the song “You Take My Breath Away”on me- an eerie, haunting, slow piano ballad with goosebump-inducing vocals from Freddie Mercury. I hated it. Every time my mom put it on, I would leave the room. At that time, I enjoyed classical music, and I occasionally could stomach certain film music (Disney in particular), but that was about it.

Not long after that, I heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the radio. It absolutely blew me away. I became obsessed. My parents had a copy of Queen’s “A Night at the Opera” album, which I quickly pilfered so I could listen to the song on repeat on the boombox in my room. And I’m talking on REPEAT. I had it playing for hours at a time. For some reason, my familiarity with theatrical classical music and Disney scores made that particular song, in my mind, a musical masterpiece. 

That opened the floodgates. Naturally, I decided to explore other songs on that album, and found that I enjoyed many of them. I began to raid my parents’ CD collection, and discovered many other albums that spoke to me- the Beatles’ greatest hits collection, in particular, was just familiar enough after my Queen obsession that I quickly fell in love. I latched onto “In My Life” the same way I had latched onto “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and I would fall asleep listening to it on repeat.

Once again, the course of my musical trajectory was shaped dramatically when the band Kansas came into my life. My best friend’s dad bought me “The Best of Kansas” as a birthday gift, and “Carry on Wayward Son” pulled me in like nothing ever had before. To this day, I still consider it my favorite song. My two best friends also fell in love with that CD, and we still share a bond over our deep appreciation for Kansas’s music.

From that point until I was nearly in high school, I almost only listened to classic rock music. I couldn’t stomach anything else. It just didn’t resonate with me the same way the hits of Kansas, Queen, Styx, Foreigner, and Def Leppard did. Some of the classic rock I listened to pushed me in the direction of hard rock, which I developed a love for my freshman year of high school. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough of Breaking Benjamin, Three Days Grace, Rise Against, and Shinedown. Until I left for college, classic and hard rock remained about 95% of the music populating my playlists.

In retrospect, I wish I had pushed myself to branch out more in junior high and high school. I had a certain unwarranted pride in how closed-minded I was; rock music, to me, reigned supreme and anyone who disputed that was clearly wrong. I wonder how my musical journey would have been shaped by an earlier exposure to different styles and eras.

These days, I listen to just about everything. In college and in my adult life, I’ve made an effort to listen to, play, and understand, as much new music as I can. It didn’t happen all at once, though! Just like in my early years, I can only latch on to new music if it’s close enough to music I already love that the similarities captivate me and draw me in. As I got older, the novelties and differences in new artists and styles soon became familiar, and I continued to expand my palate upward and outward.

I’ve found it impossible to make too large a jump in my listening repertoire- if something is just a shade too unfamiliar, it doesn’t resonate and I lose interest quickly. The fascinating thing is how, through a slow expansion of my musical tastes, I’ve learned to love what I used to despise. So many songs and artists that friends and family had shown me years ago I had quickly discarded, yet I’ve rediscovered many of those songs and artists over time on my own terms, and they now make up a core part of my music library. It’s not until a song perfectly treads the line between familiarity and novelty that I can digest its beauty and bring it into my “musical zone”. Over the years, I’ve been able to engage this process enough to have an appreciation for nearly everything that’s become prevalent in our culture (with some exceptions, of course, but I won’t get into that).

Additionally, from my current vantage point, I see “You Take My Breath Away” as one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

Teacher Strategies: Game Plan vs. Going with the Flow

By: Konner Scott

Over my time as a music teacher, I’ve learned that I have to walk a delicate tightrope with each student. On one side lays the pit of having too rigid a curriculum, which can lead to a student feeling stunted and suffocated. On the other is a quagmire of chaos, where I’m so focused on “going with the flow” that I’m not adequately prepared with the appropriate lesson materials and the lesson devolves into anarchy.

The fascinating thing about this tightrope is it changes location and elevation based on the personality and learning style of each student (and sometimes, even with the same student from week to week).

I’ve learned that there are personality traits that lend themselves to each particular strategy. For students who have a hard time focusing, being able to stay flexible and jump activities quickly can be a huge benefit. Some students can be picky about the curriculum they enjoy; once eyes start rolling and wandering, I will do my best to push the student to finish the particular activity, and then I’ll listen to their cues and move on to something they may find more interesting. (Even this is case-by-case, though; some students benefit more from being pushed through their ennui!)

Creative types, too, often benefit from a bit less structure. For my students that show creative inclinations, I will try to mix creative activities into the lesson on the fly. Perhaps we’ll break down the structure and chord progression of the song they’re working on, or I’ll ask them to show me what they would have done differently if THEY were the composer of the song they’re learning. 

As a songwriter and composer myself, I also have a plethora of songwriting/composition exercises that can help my more creative students learn the fundamentals of the creative process as it applies to music. This almost always tends to be a looser curriculum than the act of merely learning songs, though! Whether that’s because creative endeavors inherently demand less structure, or because creative students learn better in a less structured environment, it’s hard to say- the point, though, is that it works.

I’ve taught songwriting lessons where the entire 30-minute period is devoted to trying to find the perfect third line lyric for verse two; in others, we crank out the instrumental part for the entire song and get halfway done with writing the lyrics. The focus and scope of the lesson changes based on the student, their headspace, the progress they’ve made, and about a million other factors- I’ve learned to trust my intuition in these situations and follow the path as it appears in front of us.

For students who are very “by-the-book”, or have the ability to commit their focus single-mindedly to a task for a long period of time, it helps to have more structure in the curriculum. I’ll often chart out not only what songs we’re going to work on, but perhaps which specific sections we’ll tackle, and sometimes even the exact notes, dynamics, or articulation required to achieve the proper results in their playing. Again, it all depends on the student’s personality, skill level, and progress on a particular song!

It’s worth noting as well that some students who fall in the more creative or less focused categories often benefit from more structure in their lessons, and students who are particular process-oriented and systematic can learn a lot from breaking away from a traditional structure and trying some off-the-wall activities. The balance is more of an art than a science, and as a teacher, your intuition for what’s required tends to develop over time! As it stands, I prepare for my lessons by planning appropriately, but I’m always ready to go off-roading if the situation calls for it. One size does not fit all!

Do Less

By: Konner Scott

If you’re like me, you often try to do too much. Whether it be music, writing, or work, it’s tempting to listen to the voice in your brain that says “more is better”.

I’ve found that this is not necessarily the case. In music in particular, the vast majority of the time, less is more.

I had a guitar mentor of sorts around the time I was 22 years old. To this day, he may be the single best guitarist I’ve ever met in person. He was showing me some tricks to use in my guitar solos, and then he had me practice those tricks over a backing track. In an effort to impress him, I tried to string notes together as quickly I could manage. He stopped me about 30 seconds in with a disapproving look.

He had me start again, but this time, the rules were adjusted: I could only play two different notes (I think he gave me E and G). This was way more of a challenge. I had to find ways to bring those two notes to life. I realized how much the extra notes I played were a crutch, and now my musicality was exposed. I learned that day that the mark of a truly talented musician is one who can extract beauty and feeling from a single note, not necessarily one who can string together thirteen thousand notes at light speed (although, don’t get me wrong- that takes talent too).

Since then, I’ve spent my life fighting the impulse to do more. Brevity is not something that comes naturally to me, so it takes active focus to keep things short (like this blog post, for example).

Stuck in a rut? Try playing fewer notes and see what happens.

Anxiety, Flow, and Meditation

By: Konner Scott

The act of making music- especially performing that music- can be incredibly nerve-racking. It’s easy to get up on a stage and feel that pit appear in your stomach as you stare out at the eager crowd before you. On many occasions, I’ve been in that situation and let my nerves consume me. In the words of a great poet (or something of the like), “my palms were sweaty, knees weak, arms were heavy”. I found that as someone on the more introverted side of the spectrum, I am not necessarily a natural performer and it’s far too easy for my nerves to derail my performances.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that performing music is a meditative act. I have to practice getting lost in what I’m playing. The more I can train my brain to focus on the flow of the music and not the situation as a whole, the more I’ll be able to capture the essence of the moment in my performance. This is something I’ve seen within myself time and time again: when I’m “in the zone” and single-mindedly focused on each note that’s coming out of my instrument, I can trust that the results will be something worthwhile. However, as soon as that concentration is broken, my nerves come back full force and I start missing notes (or adding too many notes).

I’ve found that this is something I can practice doing at home. For the musicians out there, how many times have you been practicing your instrument and found your mind wandering? I know that for me, I’ll be in the middle of my 15th run of a particular passage of a song, and I’ll catch myself thinking about what I’m having for dinner, or whether it’s going to rain, or even the next song I need to practice. Even at this point in my musical journey, I’ve found I only have about 20 minutes of focused practice within me before my mind starts venturing off in other directions.

In these moments of realization, I try to consciously redirect my attention to what I’m playing. The first step is an awareness that my thoughts have deviated, and then as soon as I notice this, I stop, take a breath, and pull my attention back to my instrument. I’ll start whatever song or section I’m practicing from the beginning again, and make a concentrated effort to keep my focus fully on the task in front of me.

This is the meditative part of playing music. Meditation experts will tell you that a great way to practice meditation is to train your attention on something (often the breath), and try to be aware of when you lose focus and redirect your attention. It’s much easier said than done, of course, but with consistent practice, you can improve your ability to fully immerse yourself in the moment. I’ve found practicing music to be, in many ways, an extension of this principle. The more I can train myself to keep my focus trained like a laser on the material I’m playing, the more I’ll be able to default to that state of mind during my performances. Over enough years, the work adds up, and it gets easier and easier to get on stage and lose yourself in the music!

Updated COVID-19 Mask Guidelines

Beginning TODAY our mask policy is changing to the following…

  • We ask those of you who are unvaccinated to please continue wearing your mask.
  • All teachers are currently required to wear a mask.
  • Parents can choose if they wish for their child to wear a mask.
  • We will continue with handwashing and sanitation as always.
  • We ask if you are under the weather to please stay home.

We still are meeting students outside for lessons until August.  We will be opening the waiting room again in August.

Music and Physical Fitness

By: Konner Scott

The act of playing an instrument and the act of becoming physically fit feel like they’re in two different worlds. Playing music is so cerebral and emotional, and while it does involve some level of physical activity, we often neglect to think about the connection between physical fitness and success as a musician. I am not a scientist, but I have done a fair amount of research on this, and I’ve observed how the correlation manifests in my own life. Here are some reasons that staying physically active and healthy may have a positive net benefit on your musicianship:

The Physical Act of Playing

Depending on the instrument you play, being in physical shape can make a tremendous difference in your stamina. For example, any metal drummer will tell you, exhausted and drenched in sweat, that it takes a lot of physical strength and fortitude to be able to drum at high levels of intensity for extended periods of time.

Violinists must keep both arms elevated, guitarists’ hands may get tired of picking and strumming at high tempos, and pianists may not have the forearm & wrist strength necessary to play complicated and speedy runs (if you don’t believe me, watch Evgeny Kissin’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor, and imagine what kind of physical toll that must take on a person). A little work at the gym can help supplement the physical skills required to play more complex material!

Mental Stamina

Studies nearly unanimously show that one of the best things you can do to preserve your mental function and stamina is intense cardiovascular exercise. This could include running, biking, swimming, rollerblading, handstand-walking, or any activity you can think of that will keep your heart rate consistently elevated for long stretches of time. The benefits will translate into your practice time, and allow you to stay focused for longer and better remember what you’ve learned. As an additional benefit, cardiovascular exercise is also the best known way to preserve brain function as you age. If you want to keep shredding Metallica guitar solos into your 70s, physical activity can help keep you mentally sharp enough to do just that!

Emotional Stability

In my own life, I’ve found that the stretches of time I’m most miserable often correlate with the times I’m exercising the least. It’s hard to tell which causes which, but in these low mental states, I’m less driven, less creative, and care less about my success as a musician. Emotional & mental health is a hugely important factor in developing good musicianship, and exercising frequently can release endorphins and balance out your mental state so that you have the motivation and enthusiasm to handle long weeks of grueling practice!

Improvising with Chords and Melodies

By: Konner Scott

It’s common for budding musicians to begin their journey by learning how to read sheet music and play songs note for note. The methodology here is very straightforward (but certainly not easy!): learn one measure at a time, start slow, pick up speed, and fine tune the song as you become more and more comfortable with it.

Eventually, though, musicians will often get to the intermediate level and start to wonder about improvisation. The act of inventing music on the fly can seem quite daunting and open ended: how do I know what to play? How do I play it without messing up? How do I ensure I’m not just playing the same thing over and over again?

These are all complicated questions with complicated solutions. I have spent a lifetime trying to learn to improvise, yet still feel like I’m standing at the base of Mount Everest. However, over time, I’ve picked up a bunch of tips and tricks that have provided me with some direction, and I’d like to share some with you here.

Although these strategies can apply to most instruments, I’m going to take a piano-centric approach, as it’s perhaps the most versatile instrument when it comes to improvisation.

Learn Music Theory

It’s painful, and it’s extremely mathematical, but it’s necessary. Learn the basics of music theory. Understand how a major scale is constructed, then learn how to build major and minor chords. Learn diatonic chord theory (the chords that can be constructed from each major scale), and how they function in the context of a song. Learn about chord inversions. Learn a little bit about suspended chords, 7th chords, and diminished chords.

You don’t need to have a master’s degree in jazz music in order to improvise well, but it will be much more difficult if you don’t have a cursory understanding of what you’re trying to play. It’s a rare talent that can get by playing only by ear without any understanding of conventional music theory whatsoever, and even someone with off-the-charts talent will eventually be stunted by their lack of knowledge.

Play What You Love

If you have a favorite song or band, that’s a fantastic place to start! If the song or band is popular, it will be quite easy to find resources online. These could be chord charts, sheet music, or video tutorials of someone showing you how to play the song.

Learn a bunch of songs by your favorite band, then learn a bunch of songs by similar bands! Since you enjoy the music you’re learning, the chord progressions & melodic patterns that resonate with you will be easier to grasp, and you’ll recognize useful patterns more quickly. (For bonus points, learn each song in all 12 keys. It takes MUCH more time, but there are no words for how valuable a skill this is!)

Once you’ve learned a bunch of songs, you’ll probably have built a small library of chords and melodies that you can try to apply to your own improvisation. Don’t feel like you’re “stealing” chords from your favorite bands if your first improvised tunes just synthesize a bunch of chords you’ve ripped directly from their music- that’s how it starts! Over time, as you continue to expand your ‘musical library’, you’ll be able to string chords and melodies together in more unique ways that are a reflection of your personal style, rather than an obvious amalgamation of other influences.

Learn, Practice, then Explore

To be able to improvise with beautiful chords and melodies, you first need to learn how to play chords and melodies. Start simple, but as you grow as a musician, try to elevate the complexity of chords and melodies that you learn to play. Again- learn them in all 12 keys! It’ll feel painstaking, but take the time. You will always be limited by the keys in which you can’t play.

Once you’ve learned and practiced a bunch of chords, chord progressions, and melody riffs, spend some time spontaneously stringing them together. It won’t sound good at first! You’ll be slow, awkward, and clunky; and you’ll play a bunch of things that feel wrong or don’t work. This is as valuable as learning how to play things that DO work: your brain will start to subconsciously internalize what patterns are useful- and which ones aren’t. It just takes time!

Be Consistent

On that note, the more you improvise, the better you’ll become! When I learn a new melody or chord progression, I try to spend a bunch of days in a row improvising with my new material in every key. The goal is to internalize the new information so deeply that it comes out naturally in my playing, and the only way to make this possible is to play it every day for a while. This trains my brain to understand that the new chords & melodies I’ve learned are important, and are worth expressing in my music.

Go Easy on Yourself- and Have Fun!

It’s easy to get frustrated while learning to improvise, and you’ll inevitably hit brick walls where it feels like your efforts are futile. Don’t be afraid to take breaks! These can either involve walking away for a while, or pausing on your new material and spending some time improvising using skills you’re already comfortable with. All your hard work is meant to give you the tools to play exciting chord progressions & melodies in real time, and if you don’t spend some time enjoying the fruits of your labor, then what’s the point?

Blurring Creative Lines – The Old and the New

By: Konner Scott

Order and chaos. Yin and yang. Tradition and novelty. It’s the age-old human story. How do we walk the delicate tightrope between the two? The same question can be applied to the creation of music. When writing, composing, or arranging, a musician may find themselves struggling to determine the appropriate balance.

The tough truth is that everybody has to figure out for themselves how to best mix together familiar territory with novel innovation. I’ve heard some artists say that they almost never listen to music, for fear that it will cloud their creativity and cause them to accidentally just reproduce something that has already done before. I’ve heard other artists say that they listen to new music nonstop, constantly trying to add more influences into their sound so they can mix them together in new and unique ways. Personally, I fall somewhere between the two. I’ve noticed I go through phases- I’ll have a month or so where I listen to music nonstop, and that will often be followed by a month where I’m completely in a creative zone and I hardly listen at all- almost like I’m ‘purging’ all of the new ideas I absorbed the month before.

If you don’t know where to start, learning the classics can be a great way to get going. It’s hard to innovate properly without integrating your culture’s musical traditions into your soul. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, after all. I spent a large part of my youth learning to play pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and other classical geniuses. As I got older, my focus shifted to guitar and I began to replicate parts by Boston, Kansas, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, and an ever-expanding variety of classic and modern rock artists.

All the while, I was doing my best to go into my creative Narnia and return with something new and unique. By the time I was at that point, it wasn’t a conscious process- the conscious legwork had been done while I was learning songs by other artists. I found that if I turned my conscious brain off and let my wandering mind search for what felt like the best guitar part, piano part, vocal melody, or lyric, I would often emerge from my creative trance with something that surprised even myself. It was as if there was a part of me that I didn’t understand creating music that I couldn’t fully grasp.

Through years of refinement, I’ve gotten my creative routine to a place that works well for me. The funny thing, though, is that I’m still constantly changing and tweaking it! That’s the thing about creativity- it’s not static. It’s an ever-changing river of ideas and processes, and needs regular updating to stay fresh. The more I pay attention to what works and what doesn’t (and when things stop working), the more I walk that tightrope between familiarity and novelty, and the better my creative output becomes.

My advice, then? Start trying things! Listen to music. Play music. Create music. Pay attention to the things that help, and the things that don’t. Get frustrated, walk away, then come back and try again. Creativity is messy, and finding the appropriate balance in your creative process takes time and requires failure. Just don’t give up!

Voice Lessons Available In-Person

Voice lessons (and ALL lessons) are available in-person now. Voice students may remove their mask during lessons while singing.