Selling Time

Day 320 Week 44 Q4 Thursday, November 16, 2023

Have you ever finally completed a work, which could be a product that represents who you are in the world and what you want to be, and that you are proud enough of the result to go out and really sell it? And to also have the understanding that you are also selling yourself with this product.

It is a glorious feeling. All creative outliers have to earn a living along with everyone else unless they have inherited wealth or have a patron. I prefer the stakeholder path, where a group of people helps you, and you also try to make sure they get something in return for helping you. Just as I do not want to receive money without turning it in, which is why I am no longer interested in running a nonprofit. I am not comfortable asking for money, but I am comfortable earning money.

This is not so simple. I am not comfortable earning money doing something that I either do not want to do or do not think is producing any value in the world. I had no problem going out and selling the acoustic wave piano because I knew that it would positively change people’s lives, and it did. It also created a brand new mark for the self-contained electro-acoustical piano, which to this day sells at least in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year, if not billions internationally.

That product came into being almost 40 years ago, and it was the last product. I was really excited about selling. I was also excited about bringing audio to the computer world and selling it while working at Apple.  But this is a different feeling. This time, I am not working for a large company. I am working for myself. I own all of the intellectual property, rights, and credit; although I had a lot of help, it is indisputably my work, and I can finally say that to the world, and this will not be the last one. This is the first of many.

This is clearly the path for me. I do want to have a me-sized company with a single person; although there could be contractors, there will not be people with equity. There is a single person in charge, and it is me. I very much like this feeling, and I am very much up to accepting the responsibility to make it succeed or fail.

The democratization of technology has reduced the barriers to entry to commence new enterprises. You do not necessarily need to have a manufacturing plant or a laboratory, or even a studio. You can have an idea and some skills and judgment and some capital and a lot of hours of work, and you can make something happen.

And as my father-in-law says, Go Forth Mightily!

MeaningPlace Flywheels 

Day 121 Week 18 Q2 Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Creative Outliers derive much meaning from creating. It is part of their identity. And although they do not always voluntarily gather in groups, some places spring up. These places are generally founded by innovators who do come from the population of creative outliers.  Innovators generally value innovation and the conditions that lead to it being maximized. This is why entities created and led by innovators support both. All organizations have a culture, and it is derived from the values of their founders. When founders strongly value innovation, they try hard to create innovation cultures, for that is where they are most comfortable. 

These innovation cultures also act as innovation flywheels to bolster innovation activities in individuals, managers, executives and hopefully board members when they are present. Places combining being a MeaningPlace with being a Flywheel are very special places. They can have many names depending upon the field of endeavor ranging from research labs to salons. They can be company or institution-wide or reside within a single department. In the past, there were more research labs than at present. They have tended to be absorbed by or eclipsed by development teams, and now even teams seem to come together specifically for projects and are dismantled at the end. 

All of this change is due to a desire to increase profits by reducing risk. Exploration is less open-ended and more focused on achieving specific results. Most tech companies used to have R & D, and now they mostly only have D.  Research sometimes lingered in labs and never made its way into the world. Development teams are only concerned about getting things out into the world. They can both be innovation cultures, but it is harder to justify in development than in research.

If tech people have their meaningplace flywheels in laboratories, then artists have them in salons, a French word for livingroom that bifurcated into an artistic gathering place or a saloon, a place to drink. No doubt most salons also had something to drink available, but the corner bar seems to have evolved into the corner coffee shop. Most of these places are primarily to eat or drink, but some still support groups of like-minded artists spending time together where the business model supporting the gatherings is still food and beverages.

Perhaps neither the salon nor the research lab are currently in vogue because neither has a viable business model. Still, both have played foundational supporting roles to creative outliers for generations. Watering holes still focus on specific specialty clientele, and they can be MeaningPlace Flywheels.  If you can not find one, simply gather like-minded creative outliers, take over a corner of one, and create your own MeaningPlace Flywheel.

Innovation Culture

Day 37 Week 6 Q1  Monday, February 6, 2023

What is an innovation culture? It is a place where innovation is highly prized, supported and pursued. Having worked at Bose, Apple and DARPA and attended MIT and Juilliard, I have had the good fortune to spend many years in places where innovation was what they were all about. All these companies and institutions went out of their way to find creative outliers and do something with them. This made them outliers as organizations as well. For if you were more normal, you would not be there. 

Although these organizations are quite different, they all share a delight in pursuing new ideas, and as such, they stand out as best of class internationally. This is not accidental but what the founders had in mind. These are not places that pursued windows of opportunity. They created and still create windows of opportunity. 

If you are a creative outlier, spending time in an Innovation Culture is a delight, although it may not always seem that way, except by comparison, because they are exceedingly demanding of all present; if you ever find yourself spending a lot of time somewhere that does not value innovation.

So what is this innovation culture about? And how is it different? More importantly, why does it matter?

Innovation cultures are places that are not as risk-averse as the rest of the world. They know that in order to create something new, failure is part of the process. They do not expect everyone to always succeed on the way to their ultimate success. They do expect everyone to perform at a high level, but that does not mean never making a mistake. Perhaps never make a mistake in a final performance, but there are many preparatory steps before the curtain goes up. In fact, they are encouraging almost all the time because they know you have to crawl before you run. They expect to come up to speed fairly quickly and run, but they seem to feel they have already prequalified people before letting them in. They are the opposite of open enrollment, where everyone can enter and then have to prove themselves to stay. This is not to say everyone succeeds, just that they would not let you in if they did not think you had what it takes to do so.

It is not only giant famous institutions and companies that have innovation cultures. The companies and institutions founded by people who share these pro-innovation values also try as hard as they can to operate in this manner. All organizations have cultures based on the values of their founders. In fact, when the founders are n longer present unless terrific succession planning has already taken place, there is a good chance the enterprises will falter, especially in terms of innovation. 

Before it is done, innovation can be fragile, and creators need to be protected while they are getting and metamorphosing.

The most important attribute of an innovation culture is that it is a safe place to have ideas. In fact, if you do not have ideas, it may not be a safe place for you to be. After all, that is why they exist, not to be dragged down by mediocrity or the same old stuff from the past.

By the way, you can create your own innovation culture within your mind, and in fact, need to, because unless you are firmly ensconced in an innovation culture, and they are fairly rare, then you are ogling to have to create the safe place for ideas inside of you.

Tale of Two Keyboards

Day 12 Week 2 Q1  Thursday, January 12, 2023

Some days I feel caught between expression and communication even though striving to do both, hopefully at the same time. I assume most writers are attempting to communicate and express themselves. I am less sure this is true about artists in general or musicians in particular. Perhaps this is projection, as we tend to see the world the way we are, not the way it is. This may be why most writers’ early novels and even nonfiction are autobiographical in some way. It is difficult to both not have a perspective and also have a perspective at the same time. Perhaps this is akin to feeling both special and insignificant at the same time, another balancing act if ever there was one.

Returning from the philosophical to the pragmatic, have you ever acquired something you suspected could be wonderful, checked it out to make sure it worked and then put it aside and never really used it? And if enough time passes by, you might not even remember why it might be wonderful, as you may no longer be on that particular path because something small like a global pandemic got in the way.

In this case, I am speaking of a marvelous but surprisingly rare tool for expression and communication, that is to say, musical expression and communication.  It is a very robust three-octave keyboard with full-size keys that, at 22 inches long, barely fits in a backpack and weighs just under two pounds. Before turning away and assuming this has nothing to do with you because you are neither any kind of musician nor especially a keyboard player, let me explain.

Although pianos, harpsichords and the like have been around for hundreds of years, digital controllers have been around for decades, and some backpacks are 22 inches long, there seems to have come into being a single device that works well enough for a real pianist to play expressively enough to communicate. One would think this should be trivial to create and get updated, but it was not, and I do personally know this, having been involved in and continuing to watch this field for fifty years.  

The ubiquitous two-octave mini-size key keyboard is useful only for single-note (monophonic) expression. And why does this matter?  Because most music requires, in addition to melody, harmony and rhythm. And this is why the guitar and the piano are the two most popular instruments in the world because they are the most self-contained, and neither, by the way, fits into a backpack. Well, there are some, but they are too complex, convoluted and just plain silly to matter to the tens of millions of piano and guitar players in the world. 

The sweet spot to be backpackable is 22 inches maximum, and the sweet spot for musical expression is three polyphonic octaves. And having it be aesthetically engineered in that it is both durable and emotionally pleasing is cream on the top. Evidently, I purchased one some time ago and brought it on a trip for the first time this week. This morning, for the first time, I was able to enjoy at 6 AM, while not awakening the others in the house, the joy of playing the piano I brought in a bag which sounds really very good. Performance-quality good!

What a joy.

I bet there are things in your life just like this, ready to be pressed into service. But for me, this adds to the tourability of my MeaningPlace.

Crazy Cello Outlier Adventure 

Day 8 Week 2 Q1  Sunday, January 8, 2023

Just an example of the crazy things outliers do. Those of you who are creative outliers will think this makes sense, but your partners and bosses may not. Tomorrow flying from NY to Florida to visit relatives and to pick up an inherited but not being used cello. Even though I have no idea of the condition or value of the instrument, I took the chance to purchase a molded fiberglass cello flight case to bring with me in order to bring the instrument back on the return trip. Why is this crazy? Because after only a dozen lessons, I do not really play the cello, making me mostly unqualified to evaluate the instrument. Still, I do have a crazy idea somewhat supported by educated guesses and a bit of empirical evidence.  

Here is the arc of a really crazy idea. I imagine it to be in terms of regular people’s standards, not making sense, but it was not at all vetoed by those I asked.  Of course, I did not ask any normal people, partly because I do not know too many and partly because I did not want an answer to dissuade me from this adventure.  So bear with me as a creative outlier for reinforcement of your crazy ideas, and if you are not, to get a glimpse into the minds of others, you may know who, at times, makes you shake your head. 

The idea is can a cello be an extended-range bass? I mean, can a cello play all of the notes of a bass and all of the notes of a cello? If so, it could play any kind of music, from rock to jazz to classical. Yes, I know there are cellists who can already do this, but can they play bass lines that really sound like a bass player?

There are already in the world a variety of instruments that can play bass. One even has three names, the double bass, aka. The upright bass, aka the string bass. Hey, it depends on if you are an orchestra, a jazz ensemble or a country band. In any case, you know the beast I am speaking of. It is too large to fit in a standard car and somewhat awkward to play chords or fast melodies on. This makes it not so good for a solo gig.  Unaccompanied bass, even by the handful of world-class virtuosos, is hard to take for more than a few pieces unless, of course, you are a bass player. And even then, getting beyond a set is simply not going to happen unless the bass player either owns the club or is the bandleader and preferably both, because one may not be enough.

But, oh, that sound! A real acoustic bass is totally killer. The electric bass guitar was invented around 70 years ago by Leo Fender. It works great and sounds pretty good for many kinds of music, and you can even get fretless versions, but this instrument does not sound like a giant violin. It sounds like a deep guitar which is pretty good and is undoubtedly artistically valid, but not the same. 

Well, I thought if one added another string on the bottom of the cello, you could get down to that low E1 of a string bass. So, last year I rented a traditional cello, the only kind you can rent, and mainly practiced bowing for several months.  And then, I purchased from China, a student version five-string cello, which I dubbed a bass-cello and learned how to set a sound post, install fine tuners, and more. And did I mention, since conventional cellos are not large enough to produce those deep tones, that this cello needed a pickup to convert the acoustical vibrations into electrical vibrations so I could send the signal to an amplification system capable of producing the deep notes?  And yes, I know no music is written for this instrument, but this is where I come in.   

Okay, so now I have a rented cello and am not taking lessons at the moment because the kind of music I want to play requires a very different approach which I call Stride-Cello., Google defines stride as a style of jazz piano playing in which the right-hand plays the melody while the left-hand alternates between a single note and a chord played an octave or higher.

Now cellos are way smaller than double basses and pianos and bigger than bass guitars, but I think there is a musical sweet spot to be created where one can play pizzicato bass lines interleaved with bowed chords and melodies. Imagine, instead of a vocalist being accompanied by either a piano or a guitar, being accompanied by a cello that could play down as deeply as a string bass and get up as high as a violin.  The traditionally tuned four-string cello already has one of the most expansive ranges of any musical instrument.  Music for it, is already written in three clefs, Bass, Alto and Treble, to accommodate its greater than four-octave range. The addition of the lower string adds to the cello range the range of the conventional string bass, making it piano-like in its range. Pianos do not have vibrato or really long tones that bloom, two characteristics I have wanted for over fifty years.

So what does this have to do with flying to Florida with a cello flight case, and why is this crazy? Well, the first crazy part is I am not a cellist YET. And the next crazy part is why does a guy who does not play the cello have a four-string rental cello, a five-string Frankenstein bass cello, and is flying tomorrow to get yet another cello for which he had to purchase a flight case? And I do have some answers.

I love the bass but do not want to give up the medley and in these post-pandemic times, in part because being musically self-contained is even more extremely advantageous than it was before.  Basically, if you are a composer who is able to perform unaccompanied, the logistical overhead associated with hearing your pieces and being adequately compensated, drops dramatically. Rehearsals are more straightforward and less costly. You do not have to split the earnings. You do not have to manage anyone, and you are more affordable to this that want to hire musical entertainment.

In short, this instrument enables superior artistic and business models, two things all concertizing composers need. Now, of course, I do have to get these cellos in shape, learn to play them, write some cello music, and learn how to play cello while singing and integrate this into my guitar, piano and bass performances. I am reasonably confident this will also be a substantial artistic and fiscal differentiator. And sure, maybe no one will like it. I may not even like it as I already have numerous other instruments I can play, and the bass cello will have to compete with them.

 One more thing. Although I live in a small town in the New York Berkshires, it happens to be a Cultural Mecca only twenty minutes from Tanglewood, the Sumer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one the very top orchestras in the world today. And because of this, we happen to have on Mainstreet a seriously world-class cello maker and repair person who takes care of the Boston Symphony cellist’s instruments.

And why does this matter? I have been renting the four-string cello; I took lessons on from him and have been establishing an artistically critical relationship. You see, although I did manage to create this Frankenstein bass cello from the student-level five-string cello and additional parts and tools purchased this year, I know I will never be able to make this sound like a “real cello.” Real cellos begin at around $3K used, and there are no used five-string bass cellos in the world that I have ever found. To have a custom one made would probably cost over ten thousand dollars, which would be downright insane for a guy who does not yet play the cello. So far, I have spent well under one thousand, including Chinese student cello, flight-case, parts, tools, and cello rentals, and learned an incredible amount, so even if I do not get “there,” it will have been worth it.

But I will get there! It might take as little as a few months to be able to perform or as many as two years. I am not intending to perform a Bach Cello Suite or anyone else’s pieces, having little interest in being a traditional cellist, as there are plenty of them. 

I know from decades of musical and acoustical experience that there are many cost-effective ways to improve musical instruments.  A $500 guitar can sound as good in performance as a $50,000 guitar, and a $700 saxophone with a terrific mouthpiece can sound like a several thousand dollar one. I also know that cheap pianos really sound and play like cheap pianos. Miracles can not be expected, but optimization can go a long way to provide a professional quality instrument. After all, most professional musicians are not rich, and they all routinely do this. By the way, who on earth knows what stride bass cello sounds like? It is still being invented.

I do intend to become a five-string bass cello player who can perform in many styles with many people, as well as perform as a solo artist. Spending a thousand dollars is probably enough to get there. Of course, a risk exists! But, a world-class luthier can do great things with wood and strings. And an imaginative composer can write things they are able to play.

Even though at first blush, this may seem like a crazy idea, to me, it does not seem crazy at all. Fortunately, my wife and friends agree. Not sure I want to tell anyone else? But I guess I just did.


Personal Fake Books

Day 336 Week 49 Q4  Friday, December 2, 2022

Personal Fake Books

Fake Books are the very fastest way to capture the essence of a piece of music. Fake books are collections of lead sheets, each containing the minimal information needed by a musician to make an impromptu song arrangement. A lead sheet contains the melody line, basic chords, and lyrics when they exist. In the jazz world, the Real Book has been the main musician’s bible for over fifty years.

Most performing musicians primarily perform works composed by others. Orchestras worldwide continue to play standard great pieces, some of which are hundreds of years old. Jazz ensembles still perform the Great American Songbook. Rock, pop, country, blues, world beat and other musicians continue to make up tunes to perform, which are often not written down. Some of these bands have been performing pieces that are over fifty years old, usually without the benefit of any kind of score or written direction. Certainly, music began long before notation.

The interaction between written and improvised sonic renditions of pieces of music is a wonderful way to not only share music with other musicians to permit ensemble playing but also a way to put music under a microscope and more closely observe its structure. This movement from sonic to visual memorialization additionally enables improvements to perfect performances, making an infinite range of directions possible to perfect and convey.

Lifelong improvising performing musicians render songs in enough ways sometimes to create ambiguity regarding what is the actual piece. A potential way to reduce musical ambiguity is to generate lead sheets comprised of the minimal expression of the work, and copyright offices will happily accept and register these lead sheets as unique expressions of musical authorship. 

One need not write down every single explicit chord voicing, harmonization and bass line, just the minimal information needed by a musician to make an impromptu song arrangement. In fact, the less defined score may not only permit more options but force them, for a literally performed lead sheet would be a serious subdimensional expression of a piece of music and a not-very-engaging performance.  

This makes the lead sheet’s minimal documentation faster to generate and more powerful and less constraining for a strong improviser to render a performance from. For me, a fake book is far more real, emotionally relevant and engaging than any fully more formally documented piece of music because it minimizes the musical and their ability to collaborate with the composer. If you happen to be both the composer and the performing musician, it destroys the essence of jazz because it ruins the ability to even collaborate with yourself, which is the most joyous act a creative outlier can engage in.

Just sayin’

Crazy Shifting

Day 334 Week 49 Q4  Thursday, December 1, 2022

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you just got rolling on a project or a lifestyle change and had almost solidified the set of habits and routines needed to ostensibly get you where you wanted to go and found something looming threatening to wipe out the entire path?

Sure, you have. We all have. Well, all creative outliers have, at least.  And there were large parts of you wanting to say no to whatever was looming, but you had just been telling yourself that Whatever is happening in the outside world does not have to negatively affect you? I mean, have you ever gotten to a sort of transcendent chill kind of place where you felt ready for anything but wanted to adhere not to just anything but to a specific thing?

Okay so here is where I found myself yesterday and determined to do a Crazy Shifting exercise. I decided to come up with something so outlandish and improbable, that if I was very likely about to seriously perturb the entire painstakingly established pattern and path, I might as well shoot for some nonlinear gains out of the deviation and turn it into an adventure.

And completely by accident, it seems to be occurring close to the beginning of the New Year, which begins a month from today. Okay so here is the Crazy Shifting thing I decided to do faced with taking my first airplane trip since before the pandemic began, to go and visit some people I like but have never spent more than a day with. And if one is to fly to a destination a thousand miles away one would not just stay for lunch. Somehow the powers that be manifest this long overdue trip as a week-long affair.  

So here is the Crazy Shifting part. I play a few instruments and am a composer singer-songwriter who, somewhere along the way was told by some teachers that a good way to write better orchestral parts for a family of instruments I was inexperienced with to get one. As a mostly self-taught and involuntarily improvising pianist and guitarist, I never learned to play any stringed instruments. Now bear with me, because yes guitars and pianos do the strings but when classical musicians, composers and conductors refer to strings they mean the family including violin, viola, cello and double bass. So I rented a cello and took some lessons, not to become a cellist but to write better string parts.  When an ensemble performs, the pages of notation handed to each player are called parts. A part is a score for one, as the notes and directions you hand to a cellist has different notes on it than say for a violin unless you want them to play the same thing. 

Back to cellos. I am still renting and not playing the one I took lessons on six months ago, and I have accumulated and modified a nonstandard cello with five instead of four strings to entertain some fantasy about being a bass-playing cellist even though when a cellist gets s five-string cello, which is rarely, they assume they are getting a high string to get up into the viola territory to play higher notes. 

So, now I own a modified five-string bass cello and am renting a four-string cello to have a reference instrument that is known to work properly. And yes, I have written pieces with string parts that made more sense but have wanted to figure out how to play five-string bass cello because I like bass notes and bass parts. Well, it just so happens that the people I am visiting next month, are relatives I like very much and my cousin mentioned we have this cello which belonged to his father, my brilliant and somewhat renaisanceman uncle, and do I want it?

Well, this seemed like a perhaps crazy opportunity to explore. Except for two things, I really do not know how to play the cello, and the cello does not have a case to permit me to bring it home on the airplane. Here is where the crazy shifting kicked in, internally before agreeing externally to make this routine perturbing trip.  

Basically, I need to learn how to play the cello and buy a TSA-approved airline cello case in a month. Because it is crazy for a person who does not know how to play the cello to have three of them, right?

Okay, so why is this not an insane and very distracting endeavor? Because I have no intention of playing conventional cello classical music which I can not learn how to do in a month. But I do have an unrealized concept and plan to play something I call Stride Bass Cello. And yes, I know there are not really any bass cellos, and there is no such thing as a stride cello either, and yes, I do not know how to play the cello.

But here is what I do know, at least a little. I can fake some stride piano which is a style that alternated bass notes with chords in the left hand while the right-hand plays a melody. And I can play bass guitar, not upright double bass (yet). And since I am a composer, I can write music that I could learn to play. And this will kill several birds with one stone.

On the way to stride bass cello, I need to learn to play bass cello which is sort of on the way to playing double bass, and that might be handy. And if you have ever gone to an open mic, you will usually see performers strumming guitars and singing, and occasionally piano players, but certainly never will you see a stride bass cello player accompanying themselves singing original tunes. 

So this morning, I thought I would shake things up for myself, and while my wife was booking the plane tickets, I ordered a cello case suitable for airline transport of a cello. And then all three cellos can be transported (not at once) to a gig or an open mic. Also I have no idea if this cello is wonderful or terrible and am only barely able to tell the difference, but I do assume this instrument will need some work and has not been played for at least twenty years.

Well, now I am going to have to write something for the stride bass cello and wait as a composer, I must have already written something I can adapt to this new instrument and situation. Ah yes, I have just the thing, an instrumental tune which I can write lyrics for, to sing while I play the cello.

Sounds crazy, right? Except I can do this and am now on the path, so I am beginning the New Year a month ahead of schedule on the New Month, which is today, December 1st.  And no, this was not going to be a project I was going to begin in the new year, there never was a clear start date, but now there is. And by doing something so crazily shifted away from what anyone expects, after all, there are no references for this sort of thing, I get to continue being a creative outlier which I have never had a choice about.

We will be visiting a household with, I think, a once very nice piano, that I believe I played once, more than fifty years ago, when it lived more than a thousand miles away from where it is now, and I kind of like this off the charts brilliant uncle who not only played cello but violin and piano as well. He also painted and sculpted, and oh yes his career was as a brilliant engineer and inventor who founded several companies with my aunt. 

I think having this cello in my life will connect me with some part of my past with my present, and my family members will probably not think it is not crazy at all that I am going to do something as crazy shifting as this. This crazy shifting behavior runs in the family. 

Didn’t Have a Choice

Day 331 Week 49 Q4  Sunday, November 27, 2022

Okay, Creative Outliers, it is Sunday Morning, and what are you up to? Are you on a path that just will not let go of you, or you will just not let go of it? When people ask you what you are up to, do you tell them? Do they sometimes ask you, Why?  As creative outliers with a lot more imagination than the average bear, do you find yourself on nonmainstream paths some of the time? Of course, you do. You are more curious than normal and more imaginative than normal so why would anyone expect the normal paths to hold all of your attention? Yet, those who are not .like you, do exactly that, because they can not imagine what you can. And if you continue to tell people about things that do not yet exist, which you can see very clearly, they eventually will stop listening to you. This is why you need to find people to hang out with who will listen to you and not disparage your trips into the unknown.

And there is an easy answer to the question, why are you doing this? And the answer is I didn’t have a choice. Seriously those who pursue diminishing returns really do not have a choice and this although an inconvenient truth just like climate change. The weather inside of your head is quite real, and you do have to respond to it, and sometimes you really do not have a choice, and you feel obliged to complete something or explore a direction, and should you shut down those feelings? Well, you do it at your own risk. 

Over the years, I have met many talented creative people who shut it down to pay the bills and sometimes they are still happy, but often they are not. Whether you feel the need to move to another place, far away, either physically, mentally, or artistically listen to that feeling. You may really have to shut it down because the logistics are just too rigged against you. But sometimes, when you feel like you really do not have a choice, you actually can make large changes. 

No one who has ever accomplished something major, like a discovery or an invention, is 100% in control of the direction, which seems to come about like a tractor beam pulling you toward it. Could the feeling be nuts or displaced? Sure it can.  But sometimes, fifty years later, you still feel the pull in that direction. And when that is the case, you really should listen because it probably means something.

I had a friend a long time ago who used to say, “genius is passion.”  He felt that if you felt so strongly about something, to never stop, that this was where genius came from. And Roman was an immigrant who arrived in America with five dollars in his wallet as a young man from Poland. He didn’t have a choice and become a political dissident at the time in what was a communist nation. So he came with nothing even though he had a master’s degree in electrical engineering and had to get a job doing anything to survive. It took fifteen years, but he became a researcher at Bose and, ultimately, because he absolutely refused to stop working on it, the father of the Bose Noise Cancelling technology.   He eventually became a distinguished fellow there, and he simply did not have a choice. He was told to stop every year but persisted, and even though it took ten years to get it to work, he simply felt like he did not have a choice.  Of course, a team of people was involved, but he was the single person who would never stop.  He took the same persistence that got him across the ocean with $5 and applied it to whatever he did. He was very stubborn, and the idea was not even his idea; it was Amar Bose’s, but he was the one person who never stopped, and was he a genius? Probably not, but was he passionate about what he was doing? Absolutely.

Sometimes the only answer, when people ask you the question, is I didn’t Have a Choice.

Piano Guitar Quality Revolution

Day 330 Week 48 Q4  Saturday, November 26, 2022

Did you know at least 100 million people play one or both of these? Estimates vary wildly, with one article saying there are 40 million piano students in China alone. Another said there are more than 2 million guitars sold annually and over 70 million intermediate to expert level players. Apart from how many, where they are, and why, I want to discuss a different aspect closer to my heart. The democratization of technology has brought about the same sorts of astounding leaps in these musical categories that they have in everything else. 

Why does this matter? Because professional performance quality instruments, which are incredibly more satisfying to play, are now ridiculously affordable. Professional guitarists can and frequently do perform on instruments that range between $500 and $5000, and I am not sure their audiences can tell the difference. In fact, I am not sure the Musicians themselves can tell the difference except for snob appeal. And speaking of snob appeal, more prevalent in the piano world, did you know there were digital instruments costing hundreds of dollars that sound as good as instruments costing tens of thousands of dollars? Now of course, there are people who can tell the difference, but most of the population has never heard live music performed by acoustical pianos or guitars. And listening through most earbuds is going to further blur the quality differences.

But why do I care about this? Because the people I tend to focus on in the world are creative outliers, and a disproportionate number of them play musical instruments but probably do not know they can have super high-quality playing experiences for comparatively very small amounts of money. These experiences can add incredible amounts of joy to people’s lives and do for those who are of this revolution.  I want to drill down more deeply on just two categories of instruments of surprising quality, and this to someone who has been playing both for over fifty years. 

Let’s begin with the piano. I have owned an unusually magnificent Mason Hamlin small grand piano for decades. Most piano players in the world have never had the incredibly enveloping, emotionally rewarding experience of playing such a piano because they are relatively rare and correspondingly expensive.  To calibrate the uninitiated, Yamaha produces more pianos per day than Steinway does per year, and the Mason Hamlins are, for my jazz purposes, even more, rare and better than the Steinways. Hey, I like a lot of bass in my pianos. Classical players typically prefer the Steinways but suffice it to say they are (or can be) in the league. But if you do not have the space or the cash, there is a way to experience something that, although not the same, is pretty darn close for tremendously less. And you can bring it out to perform with, record with it,  play without disturbing others and do a myriad of other things that you simply can not do with a conventional piano.

I learned many years ago as a professional speaker designer and musician who could tell the difference that only a tiny portion of the population could tell the indifference between a $200 amplifier and a $2000 amplifier in a double-blind test. I would wager the same is true here. In fact, the difference in recordings listened to through speakers or headphones is so small that it no longer matters. What does matter, however, is the expressibility of under $2000 physically modeled digital pianos as compared to any acoustical piano sold at that price point. Except for traditionalists locked into snob appeal, I doubt most people who play the piano could ever afford a traditional instrument that sounds remotely this good. In short, I am, in part sad to say digital pianos have bumped off low-cost acoustical pianos, and I used to think, unfortunately, I was part of that process. But now I realize the musical return on investment is astoundingly greater. 

As a musician and composer, these physically modeled instruments have so much more utility for all of the inherent digital reasons, but also simply sound better and are, therefore, more fun to play, and that is a revolution.

Switching gears to guitars, and especially electric guitars, not acoustic guitars, which are a different animal. I can say without reservation that for the same price as a single collectible guitar, whose value is in general, more determined by rarity than by sound or tactile playing quality, you can afford to own ten or more guitars. This is due to numerically controlled mining machines and other advanced manufacturing processes, which have pretty much caught up with the older mass-produced instruments in terms of quality. The major guitar manufacturers from yesteryear are now releasing instruments that are clones of the there best prior, mostly made-by-hand instruments. They look as good, play as well, and sound at least as good as the many multi-decade old instruments collectors buy for absurdly more than any musician would or could. I personally know this as I own a 1968 Les Paul and more recent imitators, which or just as good and in some ways better but are worth much less than a tenth the value. By the way, the original 1968 Les Paul cost me $325 in 1975, and the 2014 clone cost $600. The clone is still worth only $500 or $600, and the 1968 model may be upward of $10,000. The new one, which is in stereo, also has a USB port. 

What is crazy is I find myself playing the digital piano and modern guitar far more often than the far more valuable older instruments because, considering logistics, they are more rewarding and convenient to play, record and compose with. It is a revolution to me when two thousand dollars worth of instruments are more useful to me than 60 thousand dollars worth of instruments, and I thought it worth sharing that with anyone, either involved in or considering getting involved in either pianos or guitars which are the two most popular instruments in the world by far.  

The revolution produced great-sounding stuff that is affordable!

Guard Rail Rules of Thumb

Day 325 Week 48 Q4, Monday November 21, 2022

I speak to myself and other creative outliers often about the power-of-routine, or habits that are nothing more than automated behaviors. Once you know what you need to do, the degree to which you habituate it makes it much easier. In fact, it becomes difficult to not do it, that is what a habit is. But there is a problem. I like other creative outliers, do not love routine very much. We like mixing things up and changing what we do and who we are. We tend not always to drive the same routes or order the same meals in the same restaurants.  In other words, we like to take the road not taken. This can be stressful to partners, bosses, colleagues and anyone who wants to be able to accurately predict our behavior.

So how to reconcile the pull toward diversity of thought and action against the usefulness of routine and predictability? Well, I call the middle way Guard Rail Rules of Thumb.

Here are examples. I have not used an alarm clock for most of my life. This has meant the day does not always start at the same time, including when I get to work. Fortunately, I have had the luxury of being accommodated in this. If some days you show up at 6:30 and other days at 8:30, no one cares too much. If I get to the gym at 7 or 10 in the morning, it also does not matter much. And if my morning journaling is 800 words or 1500 words, this, too, does not matter much. What these all have in common are ranges of behavior. If I try to go to the gym between 7 and 10 PM instead of AM, it just does not work. I rarely get there, and even if I do, I no longer have the energy to do much. So for me, I have these guard rails which have evolved over years. I noticed that if I intend to leave for the gym later than 10 AM, I almost never get there because the day has already launched, and there are too many things to do that are already engaging me. My rule of thumb is I try to leave by 7 or 8 but the guard rail is 10.  This is not a very constraining routine, but it has become a habit. If I have not left for the gym by 10 AM, there is no point in even trying to go.

Some of you may be saying, what planet does this guy live on where he can have this much freedom in when he does what? Well, guess what a lot of creative outliers have enormous degrees of freedom in their lives because they crave it more than wealth, fame and keeping score. To some of us, the notion of being rich is having freedom.  Now of course this may also mean the freedom to work all of the time. I know of many marriages that thrive because the two parties do not see each other that much and when retirement looms, look out!

Seriously degrees of freedom are very important to me, and I suspect to many of you, my fellow creative outliers. For if you do not have the freedom, it is hard to create. Nothing kills creativity faster than an over-specified life.  A few years ago in Silicon Valley, when consulting to the VP of engineering of a Fortune 500 company about how to make his engineers more innovative, I noticed the executive piled so much work on his staff that they could never finish it in even an eighty-hour week. In Silicon Valley, this is sometimes seen as a badge of honor and a lifestyle choice. This is not a culture that supports a balanced life. When I was a CEO, I sometimes had to go in on Saturdays on holiday weekends and kick everyone out of the building to go home to spend time with their families. Yes, my teams of high-performance people got mad at me, but their spouses did not.  I knew everyone worked plenty hard enough, and more than a certain amount is simply not sustainable. 

Now, if you worship the god of more, more money, more products, more customers, more everything, well, good luck with that. Creativity and Innovation are not Quantitative. They are qualitative. This does not let you off the hook from routine, but this is where I find rules thumb to be more flexible. If you violate a rule of thumb, you do not get put in the dog house or go to jail. Or send yourself into whatever rental prison of your own making you choose.

But rules of thumb can function as excellent guard rails, kind of like lanes in the road. You can not stay imprisoned in between them always. You have to cross them. But if you notice you are driving over the line too much, it is time to pull over and take a nap or something. I do not beat myself up when violating my own rules of thumb, but I do notice it and self-modify my behavior. In this manner, the rules of thumb do function very much as guard rails.

Having a pile of rules of thumb, functioning as guard rails, do effectively act as routines, but not overly constraining routines. These are more creativity-friendly routines.  They are guard rails to be sure. And they form habits of automated behaviors, drastically lowering the overhead associated with getting things done.

But by using ranges instead of absolutes, imagination is given a freer space to roam. And predictability becomes more like guard rails than like prison walls. For a person like myself who tends more to worship degrees of freedom than accumulation, this works very well. And it is very sustainable.

But if you worship the god of more stuff, more status, and more money, this is probably not great advice. But if you are a creative outlier like me, you may instead want more freedom which is a different kind of wealth.  

The wealth of freedom to be true to yourself.