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let’s discuss: Relentless Productivity

June 30, 2010

Hello my little busy bees. As I was perusing the blogosphere today, my wandering eye caught an article by Mark McGuinness for Copyblogger. McGuinness holds up seven lessons for writing that he has gleaned from the immortal Johann Sebastian Bach.  As every good worker bee, ahem, music student knows, Bach’s career was fashioned from various appointments in the church. These appointments were quite demanding – a cantata every week with another for holidays. Not to mention that he fathered twenty children! McGuinness also notes that Bach was composing “an average of 20 finished pages a day.” With that kind of output it is no small wonder that he came out with so many masterpieces. Talent plus smart effort equals more skill. More skill plus even more production equals more masterpieces on the market. As a singer, we want more masterpieces on the market. So here (with a little tweaking to McGuinness’ seven lessons) your loving Sybaritic Singer is presenting you with a guide to relentless productivity.

1. Aim high

Bach was a hired musician, but he approached his work as an artist. He knew that the best job security — and chance of immortality — came from having the highest standards. – McGuinness

This is an “easy to say – not so easy to do” type of lesson. We are often spread very thin as musicians: day jobs, family responsibilities, upcoming auditions and engagements. One can certainly be tempted to “phone it in” now and again. But don’t. Do your best work, always. Remember this axiom when you’re singing at your church job, that wedding next weekend, or when you’re paying your dues in the chorus. Hold yourself to the highest standard.

2. Get into productive habits

20 pages of music a day didn’t write itself. Bach didn’t have the benefit of systems like Getting Things Done and fancy tools like 37 Signals or Remember the Milk. But he obviously had a powerhouse approach to productivity.

Singing well is always about practicing well. You will not (proven fact) ace that audition without practicing for it. Your best bet here is to get into the habit of practicing like working out or taking the pill. Do it at the same time everyday and the best available time for your voice. Make a plan of attack for powering through those dense scores. Like your cardio routine 3-4 times a week, translating, memorizing, and characterization all get a specific schedule. No more aimless wandering in the practice room.

Try to automate as many other tasks as possible. Use the amazing tools all about you to take the worries away during practice sessions. Hunker-down in that practice room foxhole  and focus.

3. Create content strategically

Bach wasn’t an entrepreneur or a business owner, but he was very focused on achieving his career goals, financial as well as artistic. He wrote with his patrons and his reputation in mind, just as much as the listeners in the church pews. He knew where he was headed — and what he needed to do to get there.

Time to think about branding yourself. What kind of singer are you? What type of career do you want? Every work that you perform fits into that strategic plan. Everybody picks five arias. But, do you know what types of gigs you’re going to get with your five arias? Practice the music now that you want to be known for in the future. (Caveat: be smart about your voices, people, don’t sing things that are inappropriate for you. Sing appropriate music for your voice that will flow seamlessly into the repertoire you want in the future.)

4. Perform material that’s strong enough to endure

The St Matthew Passion and Brandenburg Concertos are the ultimate cornerstone content. Bach wrote to a weekly schedule — but with his eye on immortality.

Perform recitals that will be valuable and relevant to you and your audience in five or even ten years. Program material now that you will want to use again in the future. Keep an eye on the works, composers, and ensembles you work with now. Know your “cornerstone content” as a musician and keep ready.

5. Rework your themes

Musicologist Norman Carrell has conducted a painstaking analysis of Bach’s compositions, and concluded that more than 200 of his non-vocal works contain borrowings from his own earlier works; and 65% of his cantatas contain similar borrowings from his earlier choral works.

Similar to lesson 4, not everyone in your audience has heard everything you have ever performed (except your ever-attendant momager.) Mine your performance experiences for themes to revisit and expand. Remember the time you fell in love with a piece and use that as motivation to explore the rest of that composer’s literature. Renée Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli still sing the “greatest hits” in recital. Don’t forget what you have already learned!

6. Riff on other people’s themes

Carrell’s analysis found borrowings from other composers in 80 of Bach’s nonvocal works, and melodies from Lutheran hymns in more than 200 of his cantatas.

(This is the part where I extend huge thanks to Mark McGuinness for being my muse for this article. Check out all of his information at Wishful Thinking and Lateral Action.)

In a more musical sense, check out what other people are programming. What is trending right now in classical music? I borrow ideas for themes, posters, fundraising, and even audition dress from my ever-helpful singing friends constantly. Furthermore, get out in the scene and see what others are doing. It never hurts to go shake some hands and kiss some babies.

7. Re-purpose your content

When he sat down with his quill and paper, Bach could never have dreamed of lavish CD box sets stacked up in music stores, or of people downloading his sonatas from iTunes and listening to them on their morning commute.

You are the creative master of your performance career. Nothing is stopping you from brainstorming the next cool classical music concept. Like the format of (le) poisson rouge? Do it in your community. Wish there was Opera on Tap in Bemidji, Minn? Make it work.

No matter how many times you have heard no in an audition – you have something of value. You have a voice, you have a brain, and you are ready to be relentlessly productive.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2010 8:27 pm

    Thanks for a great response Megan, I’m going to make this required reading for my singer/musician clients.🙂

    And as for the 20 children… I’ve got enough on my plate dealing with two! My admiration for the great man has just increased tenfold!

    • June 30, 2010 8:30 pm

      Thank you again, Mark. I will definitely keep my eye on your articles. “7 Lessons” was such a motivation boost today.

  2. June 30, 2010 10:42 pm

    @Mark, then again, fathering 20 children is not quite the same as parenting 20 children.

    I loved the post, and I love the way you riffed on it here, SS.

    • July 1, 2010 1:38 pm

      Thank you for checking it out Sonia! You’re right, Bach didn’t actually parent all of his 20 children because many died in infancy.

  3. June 30, 2010 11:43 pm

    Yep, a big “me too.”

    I’ve read “Talent is Overrated” about twice now, and it’s heart wrenching to see how close, and yet how far I’ve been from greatness in the past. “If only…”

    Now, the challenge is overcoming the humdrum of basic necessary expenses to have the time to devote to practice.

    • July 1, 2010 1:45 pm

      Dave, thanks for the book suggestion. I will pick that up very soon. There are a lot of “if only” moments in the life of performers. I like to take my “if only” moments and turn them into “and yet…” Basic necessary expenses get me down “and yet…” we’re all rockstars in our own right.

  4. July 1, 2010 1:57 am

    What a great post Megan. A beautiful riff on what Mark wrote, with your own sweet music added.

    #5 makes me think of Martin Luther King Jr. He didn’t give his “I have a dream” speech once as some magic bolt of inspiration out of nowhere. He refined it over many opportunities. When the time came that many would finally listen, his words were ready. His voice was clear.


    • July 1, 2010 1:58 pm

      Thanks for the comment Joe. I love your thought on MLK Jr. Isn’t it reassuring to know that if we do our best everyday that we may also have the ability to change the world?

  5. July 2, 2010 11:40 pm

    Way to take the ball and run with it, Megan. As a musician and Copyblogger fan myself, I was very excited to see Bach used as an example for how to create online masterpieces. Then your riff on Mark’s post for succeeding as a musician was brilliant.

    I think it’s creativity and productivity like what you outlined above that are going to make classical music relevant in people’s lives into the future. Leaving it up to chance or just doing what’s always been done isn’t going to be enough.


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