How Collaboration Can Rejuvenate a Musician’s Creative Spirit

How Collaboration Can Rejuvenate a Musician’s Creative Spirit

Sometimes I find myself in front of a screen or at an instrument, staring, noodling, changing presets — all my tricks and methods failing me. Here I am, a so-called professional musician, and I’m stuck. I know I’m not alone in this.

I’ve been doing this most of my life: writing and performing music. On the one hand, I know a lot more than I once did — and there are even things I feel I might master in my lifetime — but with that comes a kind of fatigue. I get tired of hearing my own thoughts, whether in my head, in lyrics or in my music. I have literally heard it all before — or at least that’s how it feels sometimes.

I have a few ways of dealing with this kind of burnout. Sometimes I try a new instrument or effects pedal. Sometimes I make up strange restrictions to help me find something new in how I express myself. But the number one asset every musician has when looking for something fresh to force us out of ruts, to force ourselves to think and create differently, is each other.

Think about some of the big records out there today. Those sessions and studios are seemingly full of studio musicians, engineers, producers, writers, etc. Some of those connections might serve to expand a record’s audience, to try to reach fans of already well-known collaborators. But, often, the artist or head producer is trying to bring together creative minds that might challenge each other.

The word inspiration is often used to describe what we hope will happen in the studio — but often inspiration looks like frustration at first. We have to encounter an obstacle before we can find a way around it. We have to design an environment that compels us, that gives birth to the need to create. How better to do that than to put artists and our egos in a room together and ask that we make ourselves vulnerable to each other?

When we create, if we’re good at it, we take risks; we show ourselves, we find a way to make ourselves vulnerable. It’s a lot to ask of yourself: to put yourself out there with another creative, a stranger — to trust that what might come of that risk is more than worth the uncomfortability we face in the moment of creation. Ultimately, the way through that uncomfortability is trust. If you can move your ego aside, even for a moment, and begin a real conversation, together you can, if the vibe is right, create a new language together.

A new language — that’s how I think of what comes from a collaboration that works. Not every collaboration will birth a new language. Some will not work at all and fall flat. No problem, dust yourself off and move on. There are a lot of artists out there after all.

Some collaborations won’t do much more than give you and your collaborators a chance to stretch, to build skills, to trade secrets, to make bad jokes about the limitations of software, etc. Work might come of those collaborations and it might not be your best work, but you have to make a lot of bad work to make a little bit of good work. Ask any creative professional and they will tell you the same. This is part of why it’s all the more truly miraculous when collaboration gives birth to a whole new language.

When you make music by yourself, it’s expressed in the language of you: the language you’ve been developing since you were the tiniest version of yourself. When you collaborate, you find yourself trying to figure out a way to communicate in these languages, and, to do so, you make a new language with elements of both of you.

The work born of these fruitful collaborations will be at once familiar and new. You will see reflections of your own thinking as filtered through the other person’s perspective. The work will sound sweeter, run deeper, have new edges, hit differently. The work from these collaborations will take you someplace you would never have reached on your own. But, maybe most importantly, it will change the way you make work. The next time you sit down in front of your screen or your instrument, it won’t be the same, because you won’t be the same. In fact, you’ll be better.

All of these kinds of collaborations serve another important purpose, which is to remind you again and again that most artists who are also decent people — and some who are not — struggle with imposter syndrome. We’re all afraid that maybe we aren’t meant to be where we are, sitting in front of our screens and instruments. Not only is it OK to feel that way, it’s common even among long-time pros and big names.

The truth is that we all have something to express, a truth in ourselves just dying to get out, different from anyone else. What you make by yourself will always be worthwhile, even when it’s bad. Just going through the process makes you better at what you do and more capable of expressing yourself the way you want and need to.

Still, when we get together and let ourselves be free with each other, new miracles are made. It’s then that we grow in ways we couldn’t have foreseen.

(Photo credit: Torso)

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