When I was a teenager learning to play guitar I was so psyched to learn cover songs. I had this amazing teacher, this long haired 20 something metal dude named Eric Todd. This guy could play. I’d go into the lessons with a song I was into that week. He’d listen to it on the Walkman (I know, I’m old) and deconstruct it. He’d show me the chords and the riffs.
For the next seven days I’d come home from school and sit in front of my crappy amp and play the song a thousand times until I got it right (while my mom screamed at me to turn it down). When I could play something that sounded remotely like Def Leppard, Tom Petty, Bowie, U2 or Billy Idol, I was in high heaven.
Throughout all of high school I played in cover bands. We rocked BBQs, drunken underaged house parties, basements of all shapes and sizes. Eventually I started writing originals. That was a whole other level of awesome. Crafting something that came from my self, from my center— was a new world of cool. And when I got the four track tape recorder and started making shitty recordings in the closet, that was a way to sculpt, finesse and capture the music.
But that all changed the day I met Mike Schmidt at college.
Mike was a stellar guitar player who could play circles around me. I swear, dude was somewhere between a guitar god and a world class stoner. Perfect combo.
I was superpsyched when he agreed to play with me. I still remember it. We set up in a little cinderblock room in the basement of the dorm. With florescent lights flickering overhead I asked him what he wanted to play. Maybe an old Joe Jackson rocker, or a little Rush, or perhaps he’d like to hop on Ozzy’s Crazy Train?
He looked as me and shook his head. “I just wanna jam.”
What the hell did that mean? We needed to play a song, something we both knew or could teach each other. I didn’t understand the concept of ‘the jam.’ I was young, naive. He instructed me to just play the bass. Anything. Just play.
I barely knew any music theory, scales or anything else, so I just played something. I’m sure it sortta sucked but Mike was a genius. He somehow wove music out of the mayhem. It was beautiful in a way I never knew before. It was free, open, fluid. Holy shit!
We started a band and began writing something I coined ‘structured jams.’ Instead of going totally freeform, we would have a few chord progressions, a verse or a chorus, and then we’d trip into free space. Then a nod would send us into a tight riff in the middle of the improv. Then back into the flow.
Oh. My. Goddess.
With this style of music we killed it at house parties, bars and college events. This songwriting format was the perfect combo between a freeform jam and a tightly wound song structure. So cool.
Why am I telling you this?
Because I didn’t realize it until many years later, but the structured jam is also a metaphor for a recipe for a good creative life.
If we plan every aspect of everything— our finances, our dreams, our goals —we will inevitably go off the rails at some point. Or many points. If we have no plan whatsoever and jam our way through, it’s quite possible that we’ll wander in so many different directions that we don’t end up getting anywhere.
But if we combine elements of structure, with elements of freeform, we can find the balance.
Maybe we have a part time stable job before we move to LA to sell the script. Or we can finance the album recording with our savings and won’t go broke if it doesn’t sell a million copies. Or we have some kind of education or job experience before we join the circus or tour the comedy clubs of America.
Of course, the balance is different for everyone. Some people are all-in with the circus. In fact, I photographed a pro hula hooper last summer who was definitely all in. Cool! Other people need the full time gig to pay the rent and feed the family before they can start jamming into the time, money and energy that it could take to pursue their creative dreams.
Finding the balance for yourself is key. When you do, you’ll light up with both the sense of security that you need, and the creative expanse that fires up your heart.
How do you find the balance?