Case Study: How to Systematically Learn Music Production (with John Lavido)

It’s Boxing Day, 2015.

I check my email to make sure there’s nothing urgent and see the following:

I take a few days to respond. We jump on a Skype call, and within 30 minutes we’ve decided upon a coaching arrangement.

Once every two weeks for the past year, I’ve done coaching calls with John. I’ve given him feedback on his music, answered questions, given advice…

…but John’s done most of the work. In fact, the reason John has made more progress in 12 months than anyone else I’ve ever seen is because of his systematic/deliberate approach to learning, and that’s exactly what this case study is about.

Before & after

I can tell you that John has made immense progress, but I’d rather let you hear for yourself.

Before:

After (11 months later):

What this case study covers

This case study is split up in to two parts: there’s an embedded video interview with John, and an article underneath which expands on points brought up during the interview.

You’ll discover:

  • How to combat overwhelm/concern about how much time is needed to become proficient (as a new producer)
  • Deliberate practice—what is it? How can producers practice deliberately?
  • John’s system for learning melody writing
  • How to create your own systems by identifying weaknesses
  • Why 12 hours a day in the studio isn’t necessary (and why working 12 hours may be a sign you’re not practicing properly or hard enough)
  • How John would coach a complete beginner (for 30 days)
  • John’s work routine

There are also a bunch of book recommendations scattered throughout. Make sure to pick ’em up if you want to learn more about this stuff.

Video interview

Reducing overwhelm

Want to take up music production but feel hesitant due to the amount of time involved?

First, know that it’s normal to feel this way, especially if you’ve been pondering it for a long time. Developing a skill, taking up a hobby, learning how to create something well, takes a lot of time. It’s a craft.

And you’re not going to become good overnight. John’s advice?

“You don’t really need to know exactly where you’re going, you just need to follow the clues. You just need to know what the next step or next few steps are.”

In other words, stop thinking about the end point and how long it will take to get there. That’s a recipe for overwhelm and frustration.

If you’ve never used a DAW in your life and you’re thinking about how long it’s going to take you to headline at Tomorrowland, then of course you’re going to feel overwhelmed.

Instead, take it easy. Just play around for a bit. Focus on the next few steps.

As John said in the interview, he took up music production in a very casual way:

Let’s just—I don’t know, let’s just make a bit of music.

That was sort of my attitude for a while. It wasn’t until April, this year [2016]—so a good 5 months later—when I really decided that I was going to go all in on this and make business my side thing and music my full time thing.

So up until that point, it was just exploration. My intention was initially just to explore music and see if it was something I wanted to pursue. By April I was like ‘Yeah, I’m going to keep going with this.'”

If you’re hesitant, just explore. One of two things will happen: you won’t like it and you’ll quit, or you’ll like it and keep going with it.

Purposeful or deliberate practice

John and I are huge fans of Anders Ericsson and his book Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise (John recommends this in the interview, and I’ve recommended it numerous times. It’s also on the EDMProd book list).

Update: John has published an exclusive article with Anders Ericsson which can be read here: How To Produce Professional Music Within 12 Months (Instead of 4+ Years…)

If you’re not sure who Ericsson is, he’s one of the leading researchers (if not the leading researcher) on the science of expertise and practice. He’s the pioneer behind the deliberate practice concept, which contrasts significantly to how most of us think about practice:

“The deliberate-practice mindset offers a very different view: anyone can improve, but it requires the right approach. If you are not improving, it’s not because you lack innate talent; it’s because you’re not practicing the right way. Once you understand this, improvement becomes a matter of figuring out what the ‘right way’ is.”

The traditional approach to practice suggests that if you want to be a good producer, you should just make a lot of music. If you want to be a good sound designer, just make a lot of presets.

The deliberate or “purposeful” approach suggests otherwise—that you should develop mental representations (what makes a good song? What makes a good preset? How can I get as close as possible? How can I track my progress?), and that you should identify what’s holding you back.

In fact, there are three main types of practice that Ericsson talks about:

  1. Naive practice—this is what most people do. You will progress doing this, but eventually you’ll reach a point where you just repeat what you already know (this is why many electronic music producers become good artists but not great ones).
  2. Purposeful practice—you have well-defined, specific goals and a plan for reaching them, you’re focused, you can monitor your progress, and you’re outside of your comfort zone.
  3. Deliberate practice—different to purposeful practice in two ways:
    1. requires a field that is already well developed (where the best performers in that field have reached a level of competency/mastery that sets them apart from those just entering the field. Musical performance, sports and dancing are good examples; gardening, business consultancy are not because there’s no objective criteria by which to measure performance).
    2. requires a teacher/coach

Whether deliberate practice is possible in electronic music production or not is unclear. It’s not as clear-cut as musical performance, which has objective criteria. Music composition, which is really what we do as producers, is more subjective, and it’s harder to identify top performers in the field.

And maybe getting a coach simply isn’t feasible for most of us. But we can make use of purposeful practice…

“Get outside of your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress.” – A. E. 

So, how can you make use of purposeful practice? John recommends a few things:

John elaborates on the third bullet point:

“Looking at my skill/craft like an entire system as if it was a car or spaceship with many different parts. I have to figure out what the one thing, that, if improved, will move the whole thing forward.

That’s the sort of philosophy I’ve been using, along with feedback from you, friends and family, and people online to figure out where the bottleneck is. Is is the mixing? Is it that my sounds just suck? Or is it that the composition is bad?”

This is crucial. Music production is such a diverse field, and if you try to learn everything at once you simply won’t learn quickly enough (or at all). Breaking the system down into individual components and skills, then developing those skills one-by-one until you reach a decent level of competency or find that there’s a different bottleneck is extremely helpful.

John’s system for practicing melody writing

I remember John telling me during a coaching call that he felt he needed to focus on composition/songwriting more than anything else. Given his goals, and where he wants to go, I agreed and encouraged him.

He developed his own system for learning composition—melody writing to be specific.

Conventional wisdom suggests that if you want to become better at writing melodies, you should write a lot of melodies.

If you do this, you will get better at writing melodies. But it’s not deliberate practice. It’s not even purposeful practice. It’s going to take a long time.

John started by reading Hook Theory I and II (which are great music theory books), to get an understanding of concepts and build mental representations so that he could more effectively practice writing melodies.

He’d then pull in a song. Finale by Madeon was one of them. He’d remake the chord progression and melody, then write several new melodies over the same chord progression, keeping the melodic repetition and style similar.

“After reading Hook Theory, I’d come across a concept, and then I’d take a section from a song like Madeon’s Finale, keep the chords, but then duplicate the tracks. I’d keep the chords, keep the bass, but I’d write a new melody that’s almost the same as the original—it has the same melodic repetition, but slightly different notes. Then, I’d write a new melody but this time change the repetition structure—I’d make the rhythm vary a little. Then, I’d duplicate it out again but this time write a whole melody from scratch.”

As John explains in the interview, he’s not worrying about anything else other than melody writing. He’s not spending time on sound design or mixing. He’s just focusing in on writing melodies.

In short, John’s system for melody writing is:

  1. Drag a song which features a melody into your DAW
  2. Remake the melody exactly
  3. Duplicate the melody track out, mute the original, and make some changes
  4. Repeat the process, making a more significant change
  5. Eventually, write a completely new melody

Creating your own systems

“Definitely read the book by Anders Ericsson. Chapter 4 in particular. 

But the main thing is to sit back and get clear on what you want. Do you want to be like BT? Do you want to go mainstream? What’s your end goal?”

Knowing where you want to go and who you want to be is important, as it will give you an idea of what systems are worth creating in the first place. If you want to make music for the mainstream, then most of your time should be devoted to songwriting not sound design or mixing. If you want to be respected in the production community and make technical music, then sound design and mixing become more important—you should probably create systems for them.

You also have to get very specific on what you need to practice. You can’t just create a system for learning mixing. It needs to be more specific, as John explains:

“I think it’s just about getting very specific on what to practice. So if you say you want to practice mixing, that doesn’t really say much. Like, when I eventually get back to practicing mixing, what I plan on doing is using software that basically plays different sounds at certain frequencies, you have to guess which frequency it is, and just training myself to recognize those frequencies. Not very fun, but a great way to train your ear.”

So, when creating systems:

  • Figure out who/what you want to be
  • Identify the main weakness holding you back
  • Be extremely specific—if your weakness is composition, what is the main weakness inside composition. Is it melody writing?
  • Figure out a way to just practice that to the exclusion of almost everything else
  • When you come across a concept—say, in a music theory book—don’t just read it and then move on, actually practice it so you deeply understand it.

Why 12 hours a day isn’t necessary

Note: I’ve written at length about why I think “spend 12 hours a day” in the studio is bad advice here.

“I think everyone would benefit from developing a more scientific attitude to life. Like, if Kanye West, goes ‘I locked myself in my room and made beats all day, all summer for 3 months,’ and then he somehow says ‘Well, that’s why I’m successful.’ — You might think that’s cool, but like, a scientist would look at that and think ‘Yeah well, is that true? I that predictive of success? Does that mean everyone who works 12 hours a day is going to be a successful producer?'”

“Because if they’re not, then working 12 hours a day has no predictive value. There’s some other thing at work, and maybe it would be that four hours a day is effective.”

He continues…

“I think everyone would benefit from this more scientific approach. Don’t do things because I said to do it, or because anyone said to do it. Think about what the data says, is this reasonable? Does this make sense to me? Don’t just believe something just because you heard it on the internet.”

We all have a tendency to create narratives in our head and boil our success down to one factor. It sounds sexy. But in the real world, success comes from numerous factors. A billionaire doesn’t become a billionaire solely because he worked hard (I know a lot of poor people that work very, very hard), the same way a successful producer didn’t get there just by spending 12 hours a day in the studio. There’s more to it than that.

“Then there’s like this gospel of hustle from guys like Gary Vee, who say that if you don’t work for 16, 18 hours a day you’re going to lose.

That’s exciting to talk about, and it’s cool, but it doesn’t answer the question as to what’s actually effective. And this is where Anders Ericsson comes in again.

In his book, he talks about the violinist study he did. Turns out that the elite performers practice around 3.5-4 hours a day, in two blocks, and usually take a nap in-between. They also got an average of 5 hours more sleep compared to the average performers…if you’re practicing the right way [hard enough, deliberate enough] you shouldn’t really be able to do more than 3-4 hours as your brain simply can’t manage it.”

Show me a person who is producing for 12 hours a day and I’ll show you someone who isn’t focusing with intensity—who isn’t giving their craft the full attention it deserves.

Try it for yourself. Spend 90 minutes producing at the highest intensity and level of focus possible. It will be strenuous.

Then consider another 10.5 hours of that. Impossible.

How John would coach a complete beginner

I ask: “Let’s say someone comes to you that’s never made music in their life. They come to you with a lot of money—an amount you can’t turn down—and ask you to coach them for 30 days. Their goal is to become a well-rounded producer, so no specific goal. What would you do?”

“30 days. Interesting. I think in 30 days, without a specific objective, the best result possible would have to be somewhat general. At the end of the 30 days they’d have to be excited, pumped up, like ‘Man, this is what I accomplished in 30 days.’

So I think the first thing I’d teach them would be how to make a basic melody. Just something really simple. Then, over the next 30 days together I’d coach them through the process of turning that melody into a song. 

But if it was an insane amount of cash I’d probably be on the phone with them, maybe even fly to them and hangout with them in their house or apartment and sort of work with them like that.

And I need to know that they’re committed to the point where they’re able to work at least 4 hours a day on it. They’re going to have to track their time. They’re not going to have Facebook or something. They’re not going to do anything other than music when working on music. 

John’s work routine

John starts producing at 7AM.

He puts his phone on flight mode, logs out of Facebook, and doesn’t check email or anything else.

He then sets a timer for 60 minutes, and has a 10 minute break when it ends. He usually repeats this process 4 times.

Conclusion

If there’s one thing I took away from this interview with John, it’s to be more deliberate and systematic about how I practice music production (and anything for that matter).

The common objection to this type of approach is that it destroys the sanctity of the art form, which I think is nonsense, actually. Artists have been designing systems to improve their craft for millennia. Don’t be precious.

Question: have you thought about approaching practice/learning deliberately and systematically? Have you done it? Let me know in comments below.