how to “get good”

a tourist asks the musician “How do you get to Carnege Hall?” he plays a few more bars, pauses and says, “Practice man, practice.”

we get asked about doing production and what it takes to get good at doing it. but it’s not just about production. you can apply everything that we talk about to programming, science, flying or cooking. the what really doesn’t matter because it all has the same root problem. which is, the problem that I have seen with students and people wanting to make something is that there is a lot of talk about making but making never happens. this is a concept called “rocking later.”

the extremely important to take away here is to get the need for gear out of the equation of making your success. a RED camera won’t automatically make your movie better. recording with a Sound Devices 722 won’t make the script better or enhance the actors performance. just like a MacBook Pro won’t make you a professional. technology is not a substitute for doing.

at every single writer workshop that I’ve attended one person asks the same question which is, “how do you get good at writing?” the answer is always the same: “write. write every day. write when you don’t feel like it. write until you can just write.” that’s how you get good at writing. but the same thing can be applied to anything you want to get good at doing. one Phd scientist has said that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve the level where you are an expert.

this makes the joke where a musician misunderstands a tourist even more funny. the tourist asks, “How do you get to Carnege Hall?” the violinist plays a few more bars, pauses and says, “Practice man, practice…”

this article from the New York Times tells a story that I’ve noticed but didn’t know how to say. that is watching a TV show somehow equates to an “I’ve done that” experience in your brain. and this can be worse then rocking later. the lesson I learned Ms Childs as a kid is that cooking isn’t hard. but you do have to practice. “you have to have the courage to flip the eggs,” she said. so while it looks easy, there’s a moment when your minds eye sees egg flying all over the stove making a mess. and that’s exactly what happens. I wanted to learn to flip omelets and to get over the fear of the flip. I got four dozen eggs and started flipping. at first this seemed incredibly wasteful because I was ruining lots of eggs and making a mess. but by the 8th or 9th toss I had gained confidence. by the time I was out of eggs the flip was perfected. the cost of learning a lifetime skill was five bucks.

there is nothing wrong with letting the unscene satisfaction from reading MAKE Magazine, Popular Electronics, Wooden Boat or watching Monster Garage, Jacques-Yves Cousteau or anyone else who is “doing things” in front of the camera. just don’t get trapped into letting watch or read becoming the substitute for doing. this is a  problem that I have seen with students and people wanting to make something. there is a lot of talk about making but making never happens because the brain can’t tell the difference between the show and your own actions. the act of watching steals your ambition to make.

not getting trapped by Rocking Later is just one part of the “make mantra”. the mind set that can be broken down into a list. in the spirit of the lifezero 10 list. here’s 11.

  • no “rocking later”.
  • RTFM.
  • practice.
  • mind your levels.
  • use what you have. no pining.
  • always learning.
  • test it before you commit to it. aka sound check.
  • pretend that you can’t fix it in post.
  • if it’s broken fix it or replace it.
  • you can’t polish a turd.
  • don’t tweak what works. which is the Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance problem.

there’s the story that I have about recording a show for 20 minutes with the cable plugged into the wrong port. nothing got recorded making us start over. and everyone did the same thing on cue. pretty awesome but unneeded had I paid attention. which brings up  the idea of  “don’t tweak what works”. you want to have a consistent setup. one that you can turn on and start rocking without thinking is this pulled in correctly, is it working? you’ll know because you’ve checked it and you haven’t changed it since you checked it.

at some point you will have a process. one that works every time. one that you don’t have to think to do. it just works. every single time.

artists don’t want rules and lists and directions. but every artist that I’ve told, “you can do anything you want!” will return two weeks later with nothing to show for the time. they “want to be FREEEEEEEEE!” but freedom to do anything more often means that you will do nothing because you will want to make something “really great,” it’s always better to have limitations. you have to use red, it has to be 2 minutes (no more) long and you have to use this camera. there now you know exactly what to make.

somewhere out there is a list of common mistakes that programmers, filmmakers, photographers or any job that get made over and over. things is, I’m pretty sure you have to make them for the lesson to sink in.  the consequences of not following a checklist are that you will make a mistake. thus, you learn to use a check list.  as an audio engineer a check list might reveal problems that are really hard to fix later — bad room acoustics, echo, improper mic placement, levels too hot, grounding issues, failing to account for environment changes (e.g. doing your tests/sound check in an empty club that is later filled to capacity, trying to record on a windy day without windscreens, etc.) the problem with lists of common mistakes is that they won’t help you from a hindsight point of view. experience that you gain from making mistakes are things that you know to check “the next time.” and they certainly don’t work unless you always use a check list.

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4 Replies

  • So.. this was my first day on the job as a want to be roadie, and the old guy (why is there always an old guy) walks up to me and asks

    “Let me see your gloves”

    So I show him and he grunts. Then he takes me aside and hands me a new pair if dykes. You know diagonal wire cutters, and says.

    “Here this is the most important tool you will need if you want to work for me.”

    Then just walks off. I have no idea what he is talking about. But I jam the dykes into my back pocket and forget them..

    The next day we are setting up this huge stage and rolling in all thees amps and monitors, taping down miles of cables and shit.. and I see the old guy walking furiously across the stage, he bends over and grabs the end of just one mic. cable rips it off the floor, winding it up as he walks back to the mixing board. He is truly pissed off about something so I follow a bit behind him .. Suddenly he stops and yells at me.

    “God damn it, pay close attention to me now”

    I frieze thinking shit I have done something terribly wrong. When he says

    “Gimme your dykes”

    So I hand them over. and he says

    “Ok kid watch”.

    He then cuts both ends off the mic. cable destroying 300 feet of expensive cable. He slowly picks up the decapitated cable ends putting them in his pocket. and now a bit softer hands me back the dykes and says

    “Shit I told someone yesterday that this cable was buzzing, and some stupid asshole put it back on the truck, So this is the first rule kid. If I tell you a cable or line is bad you kill it right away first thing, no messing around… you got that”

    I am still in thinking about how much that cable costs. but mumble

    “Ya I got it”…

    So the moral … The only way to kill a zombi cable is to cut both it’s heads off.

  • Just listened to this one today, and it was dead-on. Super lessons for anyone in *any* field, not just tech/programming/production. Especially (1) prepare, and (2) practice. If you do only these two things, you’ll get not only good, but great.

    I know John’s genuine (not that there was ever a doubt!) because a few years ago on This Week In Media he told the exact same story about rotating the camera 90 degrees to enhance resolution. It’s a great story on the perils of not preparing. Keep up the excellent work!

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