BY ERICA BRAMHAM
Last year, I embarked on an ambitious project to compose, record, and share a new piece of music every day for the year.
I called it The Song-Chain Project. And while I fell short of my 365-day goal, I managed to produce 180 songs, soundscapes, free improvisations, musical poems, nonsense, noise and other pieces of musical art.
I learnt a lot about my own artistic practice, and about the challenges of forging an artistic career in our digital landscape. I would like to share a few of my discoveries, in the hope that they will inspire you in your own creative work.
1. Define your musical identity by your work, not labels
By removing the pressure to conform to a particular style or genre, I have found a very personal aesthetic emerging quite naturally in my work. I am also learning what elements are interesting and important to me about the music I make, which makes it easier for me to talk about my work when the need arises.
Since releasing my debut album Twelve Moons in 2016, I have struggled to define my musical identity, which sits somewhere between folk music and jazz, but doesn’t fit neatly into either category. The effort I put into trying to promote the album to two markets in which it didn’t quite belong left me very burnt out, with a musical identity crisis to contend with.
The Song-Chain Project helped me forget about creating music that is one thing or another. Instead, I could concentrate on making whatever I felt like on any particular day, with the project itself giving context to my work. I was able to engage an audience in my process regardless of its genre preferences, without the worry of what label to stick on the resulting product.
2. Strive for excellence, not perfection
I always knew I had perfectionist tendencies, but until I started the project I wasn’t aware how badly they affected both my productivity and my state of mind. As musicians trained at a tertiary level, we have been taught to perform at a very high standard, which often leads to a striving for perfection.
One of the traits of perfectionist thinking is an excessive focus on the end result, rather than the journey to get there. In moments when I was inappropriately fixated on the final product of a piece of music, and how it was not meeting my impossible standards, I found myself consumed with anxiety and unable to work.
Creative practice requires a great deal of flexibility, being open to new ideas, and following creative trails to an unknown end. Perfectionist thinking creates a rigid mindset that is not compatible with this flexibility, and ultimately leads to procrastination, anxiety, and excessive negative self-talk.
The project helped me find techniques to manage my perfectionism (see: Embrace The Pomodoro!), and for anyone else struggling with this issue I found this article particularly helpful.
3. Embrace the Pomodoro!
The most effective tool I have found for productivity and managing perfectionism is the Pomodoro Technique. Basically, it involves breaking your work down into timed blocks, traditionally 25 minutes with a 5-minute break in between, and a maximum of 4 x 25-minute blocks before you take a longer break. You set a timer, work for the allocated time, and then stop when the timer goes off.
On days when I was experiencing particularly high anxiety about my abilities or performance, I would set my timer and give myself a task for that 25-minute block. Sometimes, I broke the 25 minutes down further, into three-minute brainstorming, free writing, or improvisation sessions, for example. And if I was working on something musical, I would record where I was up to on my phone in the last few minutes of the block. This removed the temptation to keep working beyond the 25-minute limit, as the breaks are just as important as the working time.
My timer has become just as important as my instrument or manuscript paper in my practice, and I now don’t think I would work without it. And if you’re the kind of person who gets distracted by digital devices, I’d recommend buying a cheap analogue timer instead of using your phone or tablet.
4. Social media is important, and really hard work
The thing I was most unprepared for when I started this project was the amount of work that would go into the ‘sharing’ part of my process. Filming each day’s song, editing the video, writing a blog post and posting it across my social media channels often took more time than writing the piece of music itself.
While I ultimately undertook this project for myself, I was also interested in using it to build my audience, expand my creative network, and provide a window into the creative process that can hopefully inspire others. Social media is vital for this, but it can become an all-consuming monster if not managed well.
Early in the project, I became slightly addicted to tracking the progress of each song through likes and analytics, and when a song would perform badly I wondered if it was no good. It took me about the first month to adjust, and as I progressed through the project I became better at monitoring my analytics to assess my growth and the performance of particular social media strategies, rather than obsessing over reactions to each individual post.
One tool that really helped me balance my relationship with social media was an Android app called Offtime. It let me schedule windows of time when I was and wasn’t able to access social media apps, and it had incredibly positive effects on both my productivity and mental wellbeing.
I have also started putting more time into maintaining and communicating with my email mailing list. It’s old fashioned, but it’s also the one marketing tool we have complete control over, especially as platforms like Facebook and Instagram make changes to their algorithms that can significantly reduce your ability to reach your audience.
We are so lucky as self-managed artists in our digital age to have access to all these tools to share our work, build an audience and connect with a community. I would encourage every artist to think seriously about their online presence and social media strategy, but also to keep their distance from it and not let their worth or ability be defined by how many likes their content receives.
5. It’s okay to fail. The important thing is to pick yourself up and keep going
I ‘failed’ plenty of times on my Song-Chain journey. I missed my daily deadlines and had to catch up the next day. I have uploaded pieces I feel are only half-finished. I have had my work interrupted by my flat flooding. I have run out of songwriting energy and made installations instead. I took a break from the project to rest and recharge, and then called time on it at 204 days, falling short of my 365 goal.
The real lesson of this project is that these ‘failures’ are not really failures. They are learning experiences, first drafts, temporary interruptions, opportunities to be creative in different ways, and signs that you need some time away from your work. The important thing is not dwelling on them, instead letting them go and continuing on with your work when you’re ready. And if you don’t think you’ll ever be ready, I suggest setting a timer for 25 minutes and working with no expectations until it goes off.
Despite the project’s challenges, I found it incredibly rewarding
There were plenty of tears, tantrums and moments of utter despair throughout, but I have produced a body of work I am incredibly proud of, and learned so much about myself both artistically and personally.
I am now putting together ideas for my next creative project, and would encourage you to think about embarking on your own personal creative projects, and sharing your processes with the world.
About the writer
Erica Bramham is a musician, composer, performance artist and music teacher based in Melbourne, Australia. You can explore her work, including 180 pieces of music written as part of The Song-Chain Project, on her website.
You can see her performing new arrangements of songs by Tom Waits with her quartet at the Paris Cat Jazz Club on 2 February. Book tickets to In Our Own Words: Tom Waits.