This is a guest post by John Lavido. From “aha” to “oh shit”, John’s sharing everything on his journey to 100,000 fans. Follow his journey here.
If you want to make great music that touches hearts and makes people feel something – whether they’re dancing in a nightclub or relaxing in their living room – there’s one guy you need to pay attention to above all others:
Anders Ericsson is the world’s preeminent expert on learning and elite performance. He made a name for himself studying chess champions, violin virtuosos, star athletes and memory mavens.
He recently teamed up with Robert Pool, a renowned science, technology and medical writer, to author the fantastic book Peak. Peak explains the latest findings from the new science of expertise (and it’s extremely helpful for aspiring music producers).
Maybe you’ve heard of the 10,000 hour rule? The “10,000 hour rules” states that the only way to become a master of something is to practice it for 10,000 hours.
Well, get this…
Anders Ericsson is the scientist who did the research behind the “10,000 hour rule”. In Peak, he explains that it’s not a rule at all. Rather, it grew out of a misunderstanding of Anders’ research (Malcolm Gladwell, a famous author, coined the phrase).
But more on that later…
With Anders being the world’s preeminent expert on elite performance and mastery, I decided to interview him on how to apply his research to become great at electronic music production.
This article is about that interview, and how to apply Anders’ strategies to electronic music production.
What sort of progress can you expect with Anders Ericsson’s learning strategies?
I’ll let you be the judge.
I produced this in January 2016:
That was shortly after I began producing. It has a bunch of problems. Vocals are not processed (or recorded) properly. The low end is horrible. The overall soundscape is boring. The mixing needs a LOT of work. And so on.
It’s nowhere near good enough for the club, YouTube or any respectable label.
Now, let’s fast forward 14 months, to March 2017.
I produced this:
Big difference, right?
In other words, you do not need to grind for 12 hours a day for 4+ years to make music that sounds professional – IF you approach your learning correctly.
In a recent case study about my rapid progress with music production, Sam said that:
In this article and interview with Anders Ericsson, you’ll discover how to make the same kind of progress that I made, while working on your music only 3-4 hours a day.
The 4-Step CODA Process
For the sake of simplicity, I’ve broken down my learning process into a simple 4-step process that uses the acronym CODA:
- Deliberate practice
(I’ve also created a PDF checklist of this process. Download it here.)
I’ll explain the 4-step process first, alongside quotes and insights from my interview with Anders, and then I’ll provide some examples so you know exactly how to apply it to your own music production career.
Anders research relates mostly to steps 2, 3 and 4; that is, obstacles, deliberate practice, and adjustments. However, I’ve added in step 1, clarity, because it’s crucial that you figure out your destination before you create your learning plan.
Step 1: Clarity
– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6
I can’t stress how important this first step is.
If you don’t know where you want to go, it’s impossible to learn effectively.
Therefore, before you can properly apply Anders’ learning strategies, you must get clear on exactly where you want to go with your music production career.
How to decide what you want
While it sounds easy, figuring out what you want can be surprisingly difficult.
It’s not an overnight thing. It’s not something you can figure out with a notebook and pen in a coffee shop.
You need to think through your various options and their consequences.
If you want to be an artist, you’ll need to be prepared for some level of fame (assuming you’re successful). Some people want that. Some people don’t. You’ll also need to develop your creativity and uniqueness, as well as market yourself and make connections. You can’t simply make music and hope for the best.
If you want to be a songwriter or ghost writer for other artists, you can skip the fame and just work in the studio. However, you probably won’t get to perform. Some people want to perform. Some don’t.
If you want to be a mixing or mastering engineer, and work for other producers, artist, labels, and so on, you can spend all of your time geeking out over your mixes, your software, and so on.
If you work as an engineer in someone else’s studio, you can focus entirely on making good mixes and masters. If you want to have your own studio, or you want to freelance, you’ll need to study marketing, in order to get clients.
To decide what you want, you need to think carefully about which path you want to take. When thinking about this, you need to consider the various pros and cons of each path, as well as the consequences and tradeoffs each.
This is an exciting step.
Remember, it’s about figuring out what YOU want… what YOUR dream life is… and then figuring out how to create it.
There’s no “magic” way to figure it out… everyone’s different.
I like going for long walks and talking out loud to myself. It helps me to think. That, and journaling.
Long walks, talking to yourself and writing might help you too.
Or maybe you prefer surfing. Or talking to friends. Or something else.
If you’re struggling with this step, I recommend reading Principles by Ray Dalio.
Before continuing onto step 2 of the CODA process, get clear on where you want to go with your music career. Once you have clarity on where you want to go with music, it’s time to figure out what obstacles are standing in your path.
Step 2: Obstacles
Once you’ve chosen a goal, you need to find out what stands between you and your goal.
If you don’t know what obstacles you face, you won’t know how to practice.
You could apply Anders Ericsson’s ideas on deliberate practice perfectly and still fail… simply because you practicing things that didn’t matter towards your goal (more on deliberate practice shortly).
If you want to be a well-known artist and tour the world, you’ll need to be doing much more than just making music, including networking with managers, labels and tastemakers, managing your social media presence, and so on, especially in the beginning.
It’s about matching your daily routine and practice to your goal.
How to figure out what obstacles you have to overcome
The best way to figure out what obstacles you have to overcome is to talk to a mentor, teacher or coach.
In our interview, Anders explains:
This needs to be someone in the music industry, who has either done what you want to do or works with people who have done what you want to do.
The reason you want to find people who have done what you want to do, or have worked with people who have done what you want to do, is that they’re the ones who are most likely to know what it takes to get the result you’re going for.
How to find a good teacher
– Anders Ericsson
Good teachers know how to get results. They’re not necessarily the most entertaining, the coolest, or even the most well-known. What they excel at is primarily how to learn and improve effectively.
The good news is that – contrary to what most people think – finding a good teacher is relatively easy.
I’ve enlisted the help of several music production “teachers” (Sam’s one of them) by offering to help them with their marketing. Instead of asking them to teach me for free (or for money), I offered to help them first (by leveraging one of my skills as a business owner), and then asked if they’ll teach me.
It’s a win-win.
While you might not be able to offer someone marketing help like I did, there’s usually something that you can do.
For example, most people are busy, so find out what’s taking up their time, and offer to do it for them. The trick is making it EASY for them to work with you.
Don’t ask them to dream up some task for you, because that takes effort on their part.
First, engage and chat with them if you can, and subtly try to find out what they’re struggling with, and what they might need help with.
Maybe they need someone to manage their social media accounts for them.
Maybe they need great content for their website.
For example, take this article. Sam doesn’t usually post articles from other authors, but he made an exception for me because I made it a win-win. Sam gets great content that helps his readers. Anders Ericsson gets publicity and new readers for his book. You learn how to make better music.
After you have been working with a teacher for a while, you’ll eventually surpass their abilities.
Once you’ve surpassed their abilities and you’re no longer learning rapidly from a given teacher, it’s time to find another teacher.
Got money to spend on teaching?
If you’d rather pay for teaching, you’ve got plenty of options, including:
- Sign up for Hyperbits’ 8-week masterclass
- Sign up for coaching with Basskleph
- Sign up for mentoring with one of Pyramind’s mentors
The third option – Pyramind – deserves a special mention.
Pyramind is one of the top electronic music production schools in the world. The problem is, their courses are expensive. For example, their electronic music producer course is $21,995.
So what if you don’t have $22k to drop on a course?
Turns out, you can sign up for a 1-hour coaching session with ANY of their teachers… usually for less than $100. I signed up for a coaching session with Matt Donner – a Pyramind music theory and composition teacher – this week… for $60. We’re going to review one of my recent tracks and I’m going to find out what I’m doing wrong, so I know what I need to focus on over the coming months.
In my opinion, this is PERFECT for the 4-step CODA process and Anders Ericsson’s deliberate practice, because for less than $100, you can get an expert opinion on what obstacles are standing in your way.
What if you don’t have $100 and you can’t convince someone to make a trade?
SubmitHub is an AWESOME website that allows you to send your song to YouTube channels, Soundcloud Channels, labels, music blogs, and more. It costs $1 per site/channel that you submit to, with small discounts if you spend more (I usually pay $40 to submit to 50 sites/channels). They have 310 active blogs and labels, and the average response rate is 68%.
So for every 10 submissions, you’ll get 6-7 pieces of feedback on what’s good and what’s not so good with your track.
In my opinion, the best part of SubmitHub is the feedback. Each piece of feedback is only a sentence, but when viewed together, it provides a market-backed idea of how good or bad your song is, and what you need to improve on.
I recently submitted a track called Your Face that I sang on. Thanks to SubmitHub, I found out very quickly that my singing isn’t good enough yet, and that while the production was good, it was too simple.
So now I know I need to improve the production complexity, as well as improve my singing (if I want to sing again).
Without that feedback, I might have focused on something else, such as sound design, which wouldn’t have actually made my next track better. I might have spent months working on the sound design for the next track, only to find out that no one cared, because my voice still wasn’t good enough, and the overall production was still too simplistic.
So yeah, critical feedback is ESSENTIAL.
Before you move onto step 3, find a teacher (or use a service like SubmitHub) to figure out what obstacles stand between you and your goal. Once you know what obstacles you’re facing, it’s time to apply deliberate practice.
Step 3: Deliberate practice
Once you know what you want (clarity) and what stands in your way (obstacles), you need to focus on removing those obstacles (deliberate practice). The more obstacles you remove, the closer you get to your goal.
This is where Anders Ericsson’s deliberate practice comes in.
The idea behind deliberate practice is simple…
…to systematically address weaknesses in specific skills, optimizing via short, responsive feedback loops.
Let’s dive deeper.
How to engage in deliberate practice
Not all practice is equal.
The first type of “practice” (if you can call it “practice”) is simply time spent doing a certain activity.
Most people erroneously believe that spending more time doing something makes them better at doing it, but in reality, this is not true.
In other words, if you want to get better at music production, it’s not enough to simply make more music.
In his book Peak, Anders explains that purposeful practice comes next.
Purpose practice is about setting well-defined, specific goals, and applying hard work and focus to achieve them.
For music production, this would be like doing tutorials and courses and working hard to improve.
But while it sounds good, purposeful practice isn’t optimal.
Sure, it’s better than simply spending more time in front of your computer making music, but it’s not the most effective way to learn.
That’s where deliberate practice comes in.
Deliberate practice is different from purposeful practice in that it requires a well-established field (with a wide body of knowledge on how the top performers train and improve), as well as teachers who can guide you along the path.
In the case of music, this means finding someone who can work with you 1-on-1 to give you feedback on your current results and skill level, as well as suggest exercises and ways to improve that are based on how elite musicians perform.
It’s also worth pointing out that you’ll need different teachers for different skills. Music production is not one isolated skill, but rather, it’s a collection of interrelated skills (composition, sound design, mixing, mastering, etc).
You’ll find that some teachers will be best able to help you with your sound design, others with mixing, and still others, with the marketing.
Why the “10,000 hour rule” is not a rule
I mentioned earlier that the “10,000 hour rule” is not actually a rule, but rather, a misunderstanding of Anders’ original research.
In Anders’ original research (which he discusses in his book Peak), he found that – on average – violin players had to practice for 7,000 to 13,000 hours to reach the top of their field. Malcolm Gladwell, a prominent author, averaged it to 10,000 hours and called it the “10,000 hour rule”.
So then, do you need to do 7,000 to 13,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach the top?
In reality, there’s no “one size fits all” number of hours that applies to mastery.
It’s more like real estate.
Let’s say you’re in the market for a new house, and you’ve just found the perfect place. It’s on the market for $100,000. You put in an offer immediately, expecting it to be accepted immediately.
The following the day, the agent calls and says that someone else has made an offer for $110,000, and wants to know if you’re willing to match or exceed their offer.
The value of the house increased from $100,000 to $110,000 not because the house changed… but because the competition for the house increased.
The amount of hours to reach the top of a field works the same way.
When a field is in it’s infancy, the amount of hours required to reach the top of the field is quite low, since few people are competing for the top.
On the other hand, when a field is well-established and quite old, the competition for the top over the years drives up the “cost” of reaching the top (the “cost” being the hours it takes to develop your expertise).
This is why you’ll need to do 7,000 to 13,000 hours of deliberate practice to become one of the world’s top violin players. It’s an old field, it’s extremely competitive, and it’s more about perfect technical execution of fingers on the violin than being creative.
With electronic music production, the numbers will be different.
The music industry is always changing and evolving, and it rewards creativity as much as technical skill. Plus, most people don’t practice properly.
On the topic of the ever-changing music industry and how to compete, Anders explains:
So take heart.
Those big names at the top of the game?
Unlike with the violin, artists at the top are one bad song away from becoming “has beens”.
It doesn’t matter how many hours Skrillex, Diplo, Noisia, Tiesto, or any other big name producer, has invested in music… if you can write a song that beats theirs on Spotify and the other channels, you’ve beaten them.
This is one of the benefits of working in a creative field (instead of a technical field).
However, it also means that you and I are vulnerable to the same disruption (so keep hustling!).
How do you practice creativity since it’s difficult to know what a “good” song is?
It’s easier to practice some things than others (due to objective feedback loops).
With tools like Syntorial and SoundGym, it’s relatively straightforward to hone your sound design and mixing skills in isolation. This is due to the fact that you have an objective way to measure whether you succeeded or not. With Syntorial, you either made the exact sound they asked you to, or you didn’t…
… but when it comes to writing a song (and being creative), there’s no way to objectively say whether your song is “good” or “bad”.
This is the challenge with practicing something creative.
Without objective feedback to know if you’re on the right track or not, it’s difficult to know how to improve.
When I asked Anders about this, he (again) stressed the importance of finding a good teacher:
Anders goes on to explain that in subjective fields such as songwriting and production, the most effective way to find out what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong is to get feedback from an effective teacher, and to track your progress over time.
He explains that the way to know if you’re improving with a given teacher is to assess whether, faced with the same musical opportunity, would you make the same decision?
The simplest way to do this with music production is to compare each song you make with the song you made before it. Are you making the same mistakes? Or are you improving and facing new challenges with each song?
It’s difficult to figure this out yourself, which is exactly why Anders recommends finding a good teacher.
There is more to creativity than deliberate practice…
Deliberate practice can only take us so far.
With creative fields like music, it’s not enough to be technically proficient in your various tools… you also need to make a unique contribution to your field to stand out.
While a great teacher can help you develop the technical skills to make good music, the responsibility for bringing something new to the table is on you.
However, before you can bring something new to the table, you need to study the masters who have come before you.
Anders explains within the context of mathematics:
In other words…
…to make a unique contribution to the world, first, you need to know what has come before you. It’s only when you’ve studied what has already been that you are ready to create something that has never been.
Remember, this doesn’t mean that it’s going to take 10 years before you can write a song that makes people dance… but it does mean that to a certain extent, you need to “put in your hours” and study how the best producers have made music before you. Tiesto and Diplo ARE vulnerable, but you only stand a chance of knocking them off their pedestals if you study how they’re currently succeeding.
It’s sort like learning to surf…
First, you need to catch the wave. In music, this is the stage where you’re developing your technical skills (mixing, sound design, etc), and studying the market.
Second, once you have developed the fundamental technical skills and a good understanding of the market, you may be able to start making waves, and in doing so, compete with those at the top of the game (like Diplo, Tiesto, Skrillex, etc).
What about marketing and all the other tasks you have to take care of?
While Anders talks about deliberate practice mostly within the context of improving technical skills, such as golf, violin or insane memory games, I’ve been applying it to everything within my music career – the production AND the marketing.
Like I mentioned earlier, with a music career, there are a lot of moving parts and a lot of different skills you need to master…
Songwriting. Sound design. Mixing. Melodies and hooks. DJing. And so on.
Plus, there’s the non-music skills…
Email marketing. Social media. PR. How to get labels interested. How to launch tracks. How to be charismatic when you play live. And much more.
A great artist – assuming you want to be an artist – is able to combine these various elements into something that makes people go “wow”.
So you can’t just apply deliberate practice to your studio work.
You need to apply it to your marketing and the business side of things too.
This means figuring out your goals business-wise, the obstacles that stand in your way, how to eliminate those obstacles (with deliberate practice) and how to optimize the process over time (by seeking out critical feedback).
For example, it’s a good idea to track your growth over time. I track my fan count and email subscribers across all relevant platforms (and I publish it on my homepage for fun). This allows me to see if my fan base is growing, how fast it’s growing, what platforms are working well (so I can double down on them), and so on.
Once you’ve got the deliberate practice train rolling, it’s time to make adjustments based on critical feedback so your learning plan evolves with you.
Step 4: Adjust
Instead of a static plan that doesn’t change, you need a dynamic plan that evolves over time, based on your needs as well as feedback from your teachers and the open music market.
This is what step 4 is all about: making adjustments to your plan based on critical feedback you receive from teachers and others.
How to get feedback and adjust
After you finish a song (or even something as simple as a drop), take it to someone – a teacher, a friend, YouTube, SubmitHub – and get critical feedback. While it feels good when people say nice things about your work, pay attention to the negative feedback you receive.
Negative feedback is more helpful for showing you how you need to improve.
Expertise and mastery is about making better mental predictions.
The reason you need to get feedback from other people – preferably teachers who have much more experience with music than you do – is that your ability to predict and understand what sounds good is currently unrefined.
See, becoming a better producer is fundamentally about making better predictions.
For example, let’s suppose you made a track that you thought was great, but when you showed it to your teacher (or submitted it on SubmitHub), you found out that the melody sucked.
The question is…
If the melody did truly suck, why didn’t you fix the melody before you finished the song?
Because you weren’t able to predict how people would receive the melody.
Your inability to predict how people would receive your song (and your melody in particular) is the reason you “finished” the song even though the melody sucked.
It follows that if you had your teacher’s ability to predict how a given song and melody would be received, you wouldn’t have made a song with a bad melody. You would have fixed the melody before you promoted it.
That’s why you need critical feedback on what people don’t like about your music.
Because each time you discover that one of your mental predictions was wrong, your ability to predict how the audience will respond improves. Instead of leaving a bad melody in the song, you fix it before you show it to the world.
Here’s Anders again:
He goes on to explain that it’s not enough to use your intuition and hope for the best. You need to constantly stress test your intuition:
In other words, you need to painstakingly review what you’re producing and instead of simply calling something “good” or “bad” or “average”, you need to figure out exactly what makes your good songs “good” and exactly what makes your bad songs “bad”.
Other ways to develop your ability to make better predictions about music include:
- Listening to great music (such as The Greatest 500 Songs Of All Time)
- Analyzing music (instead of simply listening, analyze the lyrics, chords, etc)
- Ruthlessly reference your tracks before completing them (use Magic AB)
An example from my own life
Let’s quickly review the 4-step CODA process I created:
- Deliberate practice
Now, let’s apply it to my own life (so you see how to apply it to yours).
First, I need to get clarity and decide what I want.
So what do I want?
I want to be an artist, and I want to take it as far as possible… headlining festivals, songs on radio, and so on.
Second, I need to find out what obstacles stand in my way.
To become a mainstream artist, I need to do a wide variety of things well, including songwriting, composition, mixing, sound design, DJing, plus all things marketing, especially in the beginning.
I don’t care about impressing other producers, so I probably don’t need to get too technical with my sound design and other elements. My focus needs to be on the overall composition, and I need to create extremely catchy hooks.
I also need to dive into the specifics of what I’m struggling with.
So I’ve sought out people like Sam, as well as used websites like SubmitHub, to find out how I need to improve. This has opened my eyes to various weaknesses, including:
- the drops don’t hit hard enough
- the transitions aren’t smooth
- I can’t sing properly
- the production is too simple
- too generic; sounds like every other EDM song out there
Third, once I know what my obstacles are, I need to apply deliberate practice to address the obstacles and overcome my weaknesses.
If I want to improve my drops, I’ll make 10 drops, and compare all of them together. I’ll also get feedback from Sam and others to find out what’s missing.
If I want to improve my singing, I’ll take a singing course. If I want improve a specific aspect of my singing, such as my vibrato when I’m singing harmonies, I’ll specifically target that during my singing practice, as well as seek out critical feedback on my vibrato.
The more specific, the better.
Fourth, I need to adjust my plan and learning program based on the feedback I receive.
When I released Your Face, a track that I sing vocals on, I honestly thought my vocal was good. I also thought the production was pretty tight. The whole thing sounded great to me, and I thought people were going to love it.
But when I submitted it to 50 blogs and labels, I quickly found out that the track had two major problems:
- My vocal was nowhere near good enough
- The production, while good, was too simple
After receiving the feedback on Your Face, I made sure to make my next track (War – the song I used in the comparison earlier) more complex and more like the other tracks I heard out there.
Crucially, I didn’t just guess what was missing… I spoke to another mentor and coach in the electronic dance music industry. He told me that Your Face was missing a lot of background FX and percussive hits. After adding lots of things like that into War, it sounded more complex and professional than Your Face.
Soon, I’ll find out if War is actually better than Your Face, based on whether it gets more traction, and what the feedback is like.
Remember, it’s a dynamic process that evolves over time.
The obstacles that stand in your way will change and evolve over time.
After working on songwriting and composition for a while, you’ll find that songwriting isn’t holding you back anymore, now it’s your drops. They lack energy and don’t get anyone dancing.
So you go apply deliberate practice to making SICK drops for a while (ideally, within the context of a whole song). You make 1 PHAT drop a day for a couple of weeks, and you get feedback on them from a teacher or mentor. Based on their feedback, you’ll make more drops, working hard to improve the specific problems your mentor brought up.
After applying deliberate practice to drops for a while, you’ll move onto another obstacle, such as mixing. After working on your mixing, you might find that you need to go back and refine your songwriting again, because now that your sound design and mixing skills have caught up to your songwriting, your songwriting is now holding everything up again.
And so the process repeats…
…onwards and upwards…
Do something, get feedback, repeat.
It’s really as simple as that.
First, you figure out what you want.
That’s always the first and most important step.
But once you’ve gotten clear on what you want, it’s simply about running the “do something, get feedback” cycle…
- Write a song.
- Get feedback from people that matter.
…until you reach your goal, or you decide that you want to do something else with your life.
Anders’ final words of advice?
At the end of the day, everything in this article is moot if you can’t sit down and practice every day.
Like Sam and his podcast guests have said elsewhere, if you want to make music production a career one day, you need to view yourself as a professional.
Show up. Do the work. Every day. Again and again.
Hungry for more about how to learn effectively and rapidly?
Start with Anders Ericsson’s book Peak. It’s the perfect starting point for your journey into the world of elite performance.
For more information about Anders Ericsson and his work as a scientist and research on elite performance, check out his website.
Anders also recommends reading biographies of people you admire.
Get a PDF checklist of the 4-step CODA process…
This article is a lot to take in.
For a simple one-page overview of the 4-step CODA process, plus a list of all the resources I mentioned, download the PDF checklist here.
This is a guest post by John Lavido. From “aha” to “oh shit”, John’s sharing everything on his journey to 100,000 fans. Sign up and follow his journey here.