I'm sitting on a sound stage in Shenzhen working on "The Sing-Off China" while contemplating the best process for the new YouTube channel "Inside A Cappella," so I'm acutely focused on an essential yet rarely discussed topic:
Everyone has a lifetime of experience within well established systems (e.g. school, or a job), but few experience the process of large-form creation from the inside, from conceptualization through realization.
That's a shame, because there's so much still to be created within the a cappella community.
I'm not talking about making an album or putting on a concert. Those are important, but single, finite goals that most people find manageable. I'm talking about creating a record company or concert production company. Enormous, daunting ongoing projects.
We need many more new groups and new organizations in a cappella. Once formed, it's relatively easy to keep them going. The biggest challenge is getting started. Often without much, or perhaps any, money.
The beginning of any process is exciting but fraught with so many obstacles that people usually give up hope early or never even get started. A fear of the unknown and lack of preparation for the process is often to blame.
To this end, I offer the following...devils. The devil you know is better than the one you don't, and when you realize you can defeat these, you'll hopefully realize that your dream is possible. Perhaps even probable. Provided you can overcome...
Everyone has ideas. Lots of them. They're like little sparks -- which are useless unless they catch fire. And the process of gathering kindling and laboriously rubbing two sticks together can be frustrating, exhausting and will not always result in success.
People are used to momentum, such as taking over as music director for an existing collegiate a cappella group. When there's no existing group, there's no momentum. Only inertia. Getting people to rehearsal. Getting people to work on their music. A litany of first times and changed habits.
And yet when something is new, you have freedom and flexibility. Before my last year in the Beelzebubs, the year we recorded Foster Street and went whole-hog into 14-part arrangements and vocal percussion, we graduated 7 guys and lost 2 more. The group was gutted, and I had mostly newbies and some lofty goals.
However, what initially seemed a huge hurdle was in fact, in part, a blessing, as they had no expectations or understanding of the way things had been done, so I was able to change the group's sound and demand more of the singers without as much difficulty as I'd have had from veterans.
To this end, as difficult as it can be to get things going, you get to choose the direction, the method, the expectations.
Paralysis and Doubt
I realize the last sentence scared some of you. Too many options, too many questions. Some people love making choices, but others have difficulty, as going through one door means you're not going through any of the others.
You will frequently doubt yourself, your process, your ability, and your chances for success. Know that, accept that.
Great. Moving on.
My grandfather had a saying: "Never say 'whoa' in a mudhole." Basically, if you're on a horse and hit mud, if you stop, you might never get started again. Keep moving when times are toughest, as the momentum you've created must be maintained.
Remember that you can make changes in the future, but without choosing doors and moving forward, nothing can happen. Set time limits for your choices, then decide. It's better to be singing in a group with a name that wasn't your first choice than not singing. You will not always make the perfect decision. So what. Welcome to life. You'll get better at choosing, but you'll never be perfect.
And then there are those of you who are perfectionists. Nothing but the best.
The expression should perhaps instead be "the best often means nothing" - for two reasons. First of all, the idea of "the best" is flawed. Best by whose measure? Art is subjective, and there's no accounting for taste. People will pay $100 for a sea cucumber here in China, whereas most Americans wouldn't think of eating one. Don't worry about being the best and having the best, just focus on what you like and what you want.
Secondly, striving for the best can motivate you, but it can also result in paralysis. Demand only the best, and sometimes you end up with nothing. Better to aim for good, then keep going once you're there toward even better, and eventually you'll find your personal best. Or, as they say, don't let "the great" be the enemy of "the good."
But if you're not perfect, you're going to get a lot of criticism, aren't you?
I can pretty much guarantee that anything you create will not start out amazing. In fact, you're might be lucky if it's mediocre. New groups don't give world-class performances at their first gig, and new companies are not without major problems up front. That's fine... except that we now live in an online world where people can usually view and analyze your work on day one. Sometimes this will happen in an insulting, derogatory way. Yes, I'm talking about haters.
First of all, realize that you're a hater sometimes. You have made some disparaging comments about an actor, singer, movie, album, work of art, whatever. No big deal. Nobody likes everything, and no one is always brilliant. Exhibit A: Stevie Wonder, who is perhaps my favorite living musician. He's a genius, and yet he's had some stinkers. But he's still Stevie Frikkin Wonder.
Here's what I suggest you do: count them. Keep track of haters. How many people, comments, articles, whatever. Because you know what? The bigger you get, the more haters you'll encounter. You shouldn't be worried about people making negative comments - you should be worried about people making no comments. The opposite of love isn't hate - it's antipathy. If people are hating, it means you're reaching them and generating an emotional response. You're close. That's a good thing.
Their comments can be very valuable (certainly not always), as they've taken the time to give you some direction, some feedback. Usually people are reluctant to deliver bad news, so if one person is saying it, others are thinking it. Doesn't mean you have to change a thing or incorporate their advice, as you can't please everyone, but knowing who you're not pleasing, and how, will help you fine tune what you're doing, how, and why.
Bottom line: no one likes everything, which means the only way you'll have no haters is to have noone caring at all, which is the absolute worst scenario.
And as if all of the above weren't enough, you're going to run into unexpected hurdles. You can plan as much as you'd like, but there's no way you'll anticipate everything.
No one has an entirely smooth path. Which is as it should be. In the first year of the House Jacks, successes were mounting quickly: we'd won first place in a caroling competition (with the same arrangement that made Straight No Chaser a huge hit 15 years later, ironically), had plenty of gigs, and won the regional Harmony Sweepstakes. But when we hit the stage in the Sweeps finals, two of our mics were turned off for much of the first song (vocal percussion and lead vocal!), which threw us all off, and we didn't win. We didn't even place. However, it made clear to me that we can't measure our talent only by our best moments, but also our worst. We focused on flexibility and resilience, and within a few months were full-time.
I personally like the fact that the House Jacks don't have a Harmony Sweepstakes national title. It reminds me that we're imperfect and will always be, that we can't do everything and never will. And that is as it should be. Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Queen, the Who and Bob Marley all don't have a Grammy.
Your failures can be as valuable as your successes, and your successes come only as a result of having obstacles. To that end, don't let unexpected hurdles stop you. Keep running and jumping, even if you can't see the finish line.
You hand someone a dollar, they hand you a candy bar. You take a test, you get a grade. You show up for work and do your job, you get a paycheck. Our world is based on immediate, or at least expected, gratification. Not so with beginnings. You might never get a payday. Or, you might, but you don't know when and no one can tell you.
This will probably weigh heavily on your mind, especially if you're creating something while you have needs and expectations in your life (such as a spouse and children who count on your income and support).
Think of it as a high-risk investment, but one you control. The harder you work, the more you put in, the more likely you are to succeed. Plus, you can change course as you get more information and more resources...
... but let's be honest: you have only so much time, only so much of your own money you can put into getting something started.
So, you have to think about your creation from the standpoint of what is possible and capable within reasonable constraints. If you need more money, maybe you can raise it, or find early partners to pitch in.
If there's too much work for just yourself, share and delegate tasks with anyone who will help you.
Scale down your expectations to something you can initially achieve within your means, then use that success to gather more resources (people, money, or both), and go from there.
Finally, let's destroy some myths, so you have a reasonable set of expectations.
First of all, not everyone can do anything they want. I'm sick of this ridiculous message that's constantly touted by the rich and famous. Kareem Abdul Jabbar could not have been a jockey. End of story. And you most probably cannot be an NBA star. However, you can start a group or business, especially within a cappella, because the playing field is wide open and the need is there and growing. Basically, set a high goal, but a realistic goal, and adjust your focus based on what you find. You can aim too low, but you can also aim at something impossible.
Yes, I realize that twenty years ago, my chances of making a career of a cappella were almost nil. But they weren't nil. So I'm saying you can shoot for something unlikely and difficult, just don't shoot for something that's actually impossible.
Knowing the difference? That's difficult, because the doubters and haters in your life will likely conflate difficult with impossible. Listen to their opinions, and perhaps adjust your sights, but don't let them stop you.
Secondly, it's not a matter of how badly you want it. No, "The Secret" isn't true. In fact, it's a hideous lie. You think European Jews were stuck in concentration camps simply because they didn't want out badly enough? You think poor people just don't want money badly enough? Garbage. The fact is that success is the result of hard work properly focused by someone with requisite talent. Your desire will help fuel your work, but it's hardly the most important element.
The harder you work, the luckier you are.
Thirdly, getting some of what you want isn't failure - it's success. You aim to be a huge movie star and you end up being a minor movie star. Failure? Not by my measure: you've created a career for yourself in the field you want, and being paid and recognized for your work. I'd consider that a huge win. There is only one George Clooney, and only one Bobby McFerrin...but we very much need more than just those two people. The world is such a crazy, chaotic place, that even the best sniper doesn't always hit the bullseye. Hitting the target is hard enough, and should be celebrated. First, find yourself a movie career, and then worry about better roles.
And that's pretty much it. If you can withstand these, and you work hard, you'll be successful. That's not a guarantee, but it is a reasonable assessment.
Fact is, even after 20 years of creating and starting, I'm familiar with all of this, but it's still not always easy. Actually, it's never easy. But that's OK. If everything I want to accomplish were easy, someone else would already have done it. The difficulty is what keeps other people away, and creates the opportunity for you to do something special.
Remember that, don't let fear stop you, and keep going.
I'll see you on the other side.