One More Step

The Story Of Creating Business And Music

Month: June, 2013

Composer’s Block and My Writing Process

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I’m sitting at my home studio, staring into my equivalent of a writer’s blank page, and nothing is coming. I’ve been through this cycle a hundred times before, but it never gets easier. My fingers trace over the same tired chord progressions – the problem isn’t in the chords, it’s in how I heard them, of course – and nothing comes. And then the Vampires start to creep in: “I’m not good enough. What am I even doing?” From Elizabeth Gilbert’s brilliant TED Talk:

I fell into one of those, sort of pits of despair that we all fall into when we’re working on something and it’s not coming and you start to think this is going to be a disaster.

Not just bad, but the worst book ever written.

I’ve never actually believed in Composer’s Block, unless it’s a perpetual, ongoing thing. Free-flowing melodies – call it “inspiration” – come so rarely, that they are almost miracles. Struggle is the norm in my art. My best work comes from fighting myself to write – fighting for hours, day after day, until I pick up crumbles of music off the floor. So, staring into my blank Logic screen, I am disheartened (as usual,) but not surprised. I know that what separates me from a good piece isn’t divine approval, it’s the willingness not to give up.

The process is nearly identical every time, and I’ve often shared it with friends. Some of the Days below actually take a day – others can take several, or even a week.

  • Day 1: I struggle with messy ideas, bouts of self-doubt, and miserable feelings of worthlessness. I write down a dozen variations, and delete eleven of them, because they’re not even worth a second look. I think: “who am I to even try to be a composer? I’ve never written anything good, and if I have, it was by chance. This work is going to be a disaster, if anything comes of it.” At the end of the day, I either dump the project altogether in a rotten mood, or leave a few variations on screen.
  • Day 2: The ideas have had some time to percolate, and sometimes, I’ll sit down with new variations in mind. Often, especially, if my head has been in the music for weeks, Day 2 is a repeat of Day 1, and nothing comes. Sometimes, I’ll listen to a variation from before and see potential – and start drafting something more concrete. At best, at the end of Day 2, I’ll have a messy sketch of an idea.
  • Day 3: “Hey, this has potential!” Inspired by having something to work with, I get into the arrangement and orchestration, finding the best instruments and sounds for the music. This, at best, is where new ideas start coming. I feel empowered and inspired to create, and enter the state psychologists call “flow.” Opposite of Day 1, I begin to feel almost arrogant (which is really dangerous!) – like I’m doing important, crucial work, and the music I’m writing is really great and special.
  • Day 4: With a part done, it’s often time to add new musical ideas: another part (a bass line?) or another chorus, or another movement. I freeze up in paralysis – “I finally had sometime worthwhile, and now I’m going to ruin it.” Here, I have a tendency to think of my  past work as inspiration- or luck- driven, and once again go back to Day 1. Oftentimes, especially if I’ve reached a crucial moment in the music, I can be stuck here for days. Once, I spent 2+ weeks in one of my worst struggles ever. It resulted in some of my most successful musical writing, but I wanted to beat my head against the wall in the meanwhile.
  • Day 5: Write, write, write. Hopefully, at this point, I’ve already figured out what I want to see, and I have the melodies down. At this point, I need to arrange, orchestrate, mix, edit, record – all tasks a bit more technical than free melodic writing. This is the part I’m both good at and enjoy thoroughly.
  • Day 6: The final push – the ending.  With the majority of the piece done, I’m back to Day 4 with the ending. “What if I ruin it?” It’ll usually take me a few days to wrap up, and even then, my endings are often weaker compared to the pieces themselves. I’ve given everything I had, and I just want to stop.

Often, weeks will pass before I’m able to listen to and evaluate my music with reasonable effectiveness. Sometimes I’ll be very pleasantly surprised – 80% of the time, I’d say, if I really gave it my best work. Sometimes, I think there’s a lot to be added.

Either way, the process, however predictable, is something that I go through every time. Right now I’m in Day 1, and it’s not pretty, folks.

How do you deal with artistic block? Whether you’re a writer, a painter, a composer, or a sculptor, how do you approach your creative process?


A Month Off Facebook

Today, I needed to briefly log onto Facebook to check in with a connection. There was no way around it, so I interrupted my month-long hiatus to step back in. It depressed me. I know this has everything do with me and not the website, but I realized that for now, I feel better away from FB. The people that need to find me will find me. At first, I was trying to log on all the time, but these days my mind has almost let go. By nurture, I’ll sometimes type in the domain name once every few days, but the trusty “No Procrastination” extension keeps me grounded. It’s not time yet.

I did what I needed to do and deactivated. I’m sure I’ll come back to it at some point in the future, but it’s definitely not that time yet.

In other news, this may be the current soundtrack to my summer, and the best album I’ve found in months.

3 Things I Learned While Sourcing Material

A few days ago, I spent a day midtown NYC trying to find the kind of leather I want to use in my product. I have zero experience with leather, so this was a fun and somewhat stressful learning experience. Actually, that’s not completely true – it wasn’t my first time working with leather. I had my first crush on a girl in fifth grade, and she invited me to a leatherworking workshop. I, having read nothing but medieval romance novels at the time, obliged. Sadly, even after the class, she did not return my affections. But, I guess it wasn’t not my first experience with leather, then. Here are some things I learned in my recent day out:

1. Learn all you can about the material beforehand. I did some research before going out, and had a rough idea of the sorts of leather and fabric I’d be looking at. My research proved extremely useful, but also strikingly lacking. I got lucky, and the salespeople at some of the shops took the time to teach me. However, this was certainly above and beyond their job. Unlike a regular store where a salesperson can spend twenty minutes telling you why a particular watch is amazing, highly specialized material shops are by definition frequented by artisans and professionals. In short, you’re expected to know what you’re talking about, and it’s nobody’s job to teach you. In fact, the last shop I visited demonstrated this. The saleslady, although nice, became increasingly annoyed with me as I asked basic questions. Normally I’d be frustrated, but in truth, I should have been more prepared. At some point, I remarked that a particular cowhide “felt cool to the fingers,” and in a heavy Russian accent she smirked that “everything feels cool” and walked away.

In short, you’re expected to know what you’re talking about, and it’s nobody’s job to teach you.

My initial thinking was that I could only learn so much at home, and would really get a feel for things out in the shops. This may be true for some of you and maybe for some shops, but in general, do your research. I could have learned more. I could have read a book on leatherworking, spent more time researching, and prepared better.

2. Be confident in what you’re building. I’ve pitched my business to lots of friends, family, and others at networking events, but this was the first time I’ve ever gone out into the world to work with people that have no particular interest in the product.   I had to sell with confidence. And – I somewhat expected this sooner or later – somewhere between the leather shops and the many stores I visited that sell similar products, I stopped and had my first real bout of self-doubt: “what am I even doing?” I know next to nothing about the product I’m working on (but I’m learning a million things,) I’m not sure if I can see myself staying with the product for many years, and more importantly, I’m just not sure if I can picture my success. These thoughts are common among entrepreneurs, and I was expecting for doubts to creep in as my initial enthusiasm waned (it hasn’t!) But, when you’re trying to sell – or in this case, buy –  you can’t afford for that to happen. Your personal bout of insecurity will need to wait till you get home. Or at least back to the car.

Have your pitch ready. Know what you’re building, and screw anybody that doesn’t love it. Your ultimate judge is the end consumer – you’re trying to satisfy him (or her!) and if your microprocessor salesperson thinks that the robot you’re building is the cooki-est thing since Easy Cheese spray, then he can go to hell, as long as he can offer you a decent price on the electronics. And finally – you’re a business; act like it. Exaggerate and fill in corners as necessary. Sometimes you need to embody where you’re going to get there. Wait, I’m actually going to insist you click on that last link – it’s okay if you skipped the first couple. Biz Stone’s story is way more interesting than mine at this point. So, go out there and sell! Coffee’s for closers only.

3. Forget the established way and learn, learn, learn. Steve Wozniak of Apple famously remarked: ” All the best things that I did at Apple came from (a) not having money and (b) not having done it before, ever. Every single thing that we came out with that was really great, I’d never once done that thing in my life.” So, while you should absolutely follow #1 and do as much research as you can, don’t let how things are dictate what your product will be. You’re an entrepreneur  – by definition, you’re making something new. If you follow step 1 correctly, you should be knowledgeable about the many available tools, but that’s only the starting line. Now, how can you do things differently, better?

All the best things that I did at Apple came from (a) not having money and (b) not having done it before, ever.

~ Steve Wozniak

I got the following advice from this brilliant book, which I can’t recommend enough: find a thread that’s common sense to a product, and question why that is so. “Building should have distinct walls and a roof.” Well, should they? Frank Gehry wasn’t ready to just accept that. If you see a material and think to yourself, hey, this would look awesome if my product were made of that – follow that thought, no matter how ridiculous it seems! It doesn’t mean you should just make it that way, but thinking outside of the proverbial box will help you find exciting new ideas. Although making TV remotes from hard jelly might not make the cut, questioning why 99% of remotes are rigid, plastic, and rectangular may just get you thinking in a good direction. Another useful technique is to look at how things are done in other fields and try to integrate – but we’ll save that thought for a later post.

All that aside, perhaps the most important advice is the unspoken #4: just go out and do it. Get out of the building. Even if you’re completely unprepared and neglect my previous thoughts completely, you’ll be worlds away from the dreamers that steam in their ideas for decades and never actually get anything done. What about you, fellow entrepreneurs? What experience have you have in sourcing and selecting materials for your product?

I Bought A CD!

I just bought a CD online! Lately, even as a completely broke college graduate, I’ve been trying to pay for the music of artists I really like (so, there’s minimum risk – I already know I’ll likely love the album.) As an independent musician myself, I’m honestly conflicted about the free sharing of music and piracy  – I’m not sure which side I stand on quite yet. But, before we get into that whole conversation, I just wanted to share that I bought a CD, which, in this day and age, is pretty cool. I’m young enough to remember  before MP3 players – I used to rock one of these guys – but almost all music I’ve bought in the past five years has been digital. So, I’m really excited to get my CD in the mail. Whoo!

If you’re wondering, the music itself is by a little known Quebeqois artist named Nicolas Boulerice. I’ve been listening to lots of Scottish and Cape Breton Fiddling – which is very different from the stereotypical southern/midwestern fiddling – and after hearing this guy, I loved the music. You can hear some samples here.

I’ve been contemplating my next few posts, and have a few good ideas – about being late, about staying productive over long periods of time, about motivation and weakness, and about working alongside doctors. So, I hope you stay with me!

PS: When I studied economics in college, I got to research a fantastic paper on music piracy. It’s a little science-y, but very approachable – so, skip all the math and econ talk, skim, and learn lots of really interesting facts! Plus, it has an awesome name.

What Motivates Entrepreneurs

A small excerpt from ‘Founders at Work:’

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Currently ReadingFounders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days

First, I noticed that I got a number of subscribers since my last post. Thank you for your interest! I’m not sure how many of you are keen on selling me “make $$$ blogging!” services, but if you’re interested in the blog itself, I’m very flattered and look forward to getting to know you. I’m going to split my writing between my business and personal development, so rest assured: more entrepreneurial thoughts and experiences are coming. But, first…

A few years ago, while still in college, I picked up on the idea of giving myself weekly challenges. Every week, I’d decide on something I would do slightly different from my normal way of living – usually for self improvement, but sometimes just to test new waters. Inspired by David Cain of Raptiude, I kept this up for a few months, and definitely learned lots about myself. For example, I found that if I went to bed before 1AM and got up before 8AM consistently, day after day, my alertness and quality of work became significantly better. It’s nothing mindblowing – we hear about how important sleep is all the time – but confirming it on myself in a measurable setting was a memorable and important experience. I spent another week without listening to any music through headphones, particularly outside. This led me to self reflect a lot more, and pay more attention to the people around me. Yet another week, I consciously stopped paying attention to girls: when I would instinctively notice an attractive girl, I would drive my thoughts away and continue with whatever I was doing. If I remember correctly, by the end of the week, I had a date. It may have been a coincidence.

Some other challenges were less successful- but just as insightful. One week in the dead of winter, I committed to taking a cold shower every morning. Just last month, in an attempt to resurrect the challenge tradition, I decided not to eat chocolate or other processed sugars. The second and third days were miserable, but then I got used to it. I lost weight. Overall, I have nothing but positive memories or my weekly challenges, and I can now laugh at the ones where I was miserable. (Surprise!) I’m going to go back to doing them. I’ll think of the first one within the next few days, and you’ll be the first to know.

The idea of self-experimentation is not new. Have you ever done something of the sort? What were  your experiences like?

Why I Want To Be an Entrepreneur

Short and simple: I want to hold a product in my hands and know I’ve created it. Perhaps that’s what is motivating me towards hardware and away from websites. I don’t have a background in design or engineering, but I have spent most of my life around people who create: musicians, composers, artists, and people who calculate: mathematicians, analysts, other entrepreneurs, and financiers. The idea of working for a company I don’t believe in doesn’t just bother me – it terrifies me, and I have a natural urge to make new things.

My main motivation for working used to be money, but now I’m much more driven by the desire to innovate, contribute, and participate. Working on Explorchestra (the orchestra I co-founded in college) and with BizSaves (as startup I interned with) were the best and most productive experiences of my life. We’d get together in small, tight-knit teams, and spend hours upon hours brainstorming, designing, planning, arguing,  and ultimately bringing new ideas to life. Then, we’d go out into the wide world and visit places to fundraise; we’d cold-call, email, and research. The coolest and most terrifying thing about the process of creating something new is that it requires a radically different mindset. Getting the spark is the easy part: once you start paying attention to inefficiencies and needs, problems and solutions start popping up everywhere. The hard part comes next: now what? Unlike most experiences I’ve had thus far, nobody is asking concrete questions. In college, I’d be given problem sets with expected answers. At a job, I would be responsible for some small step of a financial production line: calculate the bottom line, create projections for next quarter, call 42 clients. Here, however, nobody at all is telling me what to do.

So, what do we have? Me at the starting line with a head full of ideas to solve a problem I’ve selected, and somewhere far off, a finished product. Along the way, vague benchmarks: a viable prototype, a business plan, a crowdsourcing campaign, manufacturing specs, and so on. In reality, all of this translates to me at my empty desk staring at a computer screen, unsure where to even begin. I always read about entrepreneurs working ridiculous hours, but my question as of now is: what the heck are you working on? Like the product I’m creating, I know the answer is there: everything. Sometime, I’m just overwhelmed with where to even begin. Self-discipline is another issue: I need to set concrete working hours and work them. I think that’ll be a great way to get on track.

I’m planning on keeping you updated throughout the process so that we can both learn from it if I’m fortunate enough to succeed. Whatever difficulties come my way, however, I know that when I read about the many aspects of product creation, from design to marketing to manufacturing to sales, I am inspired to follow. Without any guidelines, the words of the brilliant Jack Sparrow come to mind: “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” Let’s see what I’m capable of.


If you’re ever bored and on the internet (only all the time??) go read Pitchfork ruthlessly butcher your favorite artists. If you listen to a band that’s know by more than a thousand people, the gentle folks over at Pitchfork have some strong and often hilarious opinions to share with you. I’ve always been really impressed and entertained by scathing monologues that are artfully mean. Here is a good example for one of my favorite bands:

For about 45 seconds of “Supremacy”, they actually sound like a real band, immediately after which hushed military snare rolls, chesty timpanis, and anticipatory string wells lead you to believe Matt Bellamy has unwittingly sauntered into a Michael Bay movie or Metallica’s symphonic tragicomedy S&M. And titans shall clash as Bellamy speaks with the conviction of a man who is either going to tell us they’ll never take our freedom or to release the kraken. With dramatic flair, he intones “your true emancipation is a fantasy,” which… OK. But “the time…” Go on. “…it has come,” that “it,” perfect. “To destrooooyyyyyy…” Destroy what? Make sure you put your drink down as Bellamy screams “YOUR SUPREMACYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!” because all of a sudden having The 2nd Law only in audio form feels pathetically inadequate– next time you will place it against footage from Starship Troopers, although the closest visual equivalent to this batshit moment is a dinosaur with a cowboy hat manning a F-15 and blowing evil aliens to bits while scoring the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.

Mendelssohn Quartet

One of my favorite musical experiences ever was playing with the brilliant musicians in the New York Youth Symphony chamber program. We played the first movement of the Mendelssohn Op. 13 quartet. It’s performed here brilliantly by the Juilliard quartet – it was the recording we were using to work from at the time. We spent a year on this piece, and I still listen to it with great appreciation and tenderness in my heart. The experience taught me how good a piece can get after practicing it for a year. We spent the entire second four months just working on the musicality – the technique was nearly polished. I also forever learned how to spell “Mendelssohn.”

Hello, June.

Tomorrow, I start work at the Maimonides Hospital. I’m working 8 – 6 PM, possibly to seven on Thursday, and I’m going to be moving about clinics throughout the coming weeks. Tomorrow, just for a day, I’m in pediatric oncology. Damn. For someone not accustomed or drawn to hospitals (is anyone?) this is a rough start. But, I just hope I can do my job. I really need the money, and this is a fantastic gig to have in the meanwhile, although it doesn’t do much to advance my career in the traditional sense. The idea is to save up some money to be able to work on my electronics bags business, release my album (my best friend Manar is pushing me, fortunately,) which is halfway done, and just be able to take a girl out once in a while. Moreover – and I know I’ll be hating myself in two weeks for saying this – but I need the routine. I’ve been roaming free for months, and it’s killing my productivity. Counterintuitive as it might be, exchanging a large portion of my day for money is going to force me to the kind of focus I desperately need.

Note to self: order new business cards for networking, not my music website (

I deactivated and blocked Facebook about four or five days ago. I keep coming back by nature, and everytime a huge “You should be working!” screen pops up, courtesy of the “No Procrastination” Chrome extension. I have no particular reason to stay off, aside from it being a giant time waster at the moment, and the fact that I get nothing positive from it. More than that, however, the fact that I keep coming back makes me want to see just how long I can keep away. I didn’t have a timeline in mind when I started, but now I’m eager to break the subtle addiction we all develop. Let’s see how long I can keep that going. The one major downside is my inability to keep up my music page; that’s frustrating. In lieu, I’ll gladly share a piece I just wrote with you guys right here:

Another note to self: I’m going to try and make it out to the beach a lot more this summer.