The question this week comes from Nicole Concha on Facebook:
Kevin, we know that music is a very hard path... Have you ever thought on giving up on music? Have you ever felt like you couldn't take it anymore? What were and are your biggest inspirations and what made you want to keep going in difficult times?
Thank you for the question! I have to say that since I decided to make music my career, this question has become the “Story of My Life”(no One Direction pun intended). I think my anecdote of writing the piece Renegade sums up the feeling pretty accurately as it has been my most challenging musical task thus far that made me question whether I possessed what it took to be a musician. The process of trying to create a celloboxing piece that combined artistry with a simple, identifiable melody lasted two years, but I learned so many valuable lessons that have stayed with me today.
I started writing Renegade in 2011 when my band Pentatonix was on the NBC TV show “The Sing-Off”in 2011. Each morning my routine would consist of waking up before rehearsal, going to the basement of the hotel, and practicing cello (I was keeping my chops before going on tour with a band called Gungor). One of those mornings a random thought pop into my head: maybe I should try writing something for cello and beatbox. I had just come off the viral success of Julie-O months prior, so writing a piece seemed like a logical way to continue developing that craft. I messed around with some ideas for a while until I came up with the main verse melody, and then I recorded it on my iPhone. I didn’t touch the piece again until after we won the show and relocated to Los Angeles in February of 2012.
Writing the first draft tested whether I really loved making music as much as I thought I did. I never wrote a piece before, and I had a lot to figure out. I first needed to understand my process of writing, which took a while because it compelled me to change certain practicing habits, and I’m not someone who likes to change a process that’s worked well for me in the past. Usually when I start practicing a piece, I’m a perfectionist from the get-go and start fine-tuning intonation and honing in the style of playing for each section. But I quickly realized that doing this was only hindering my creative process. Eventually, I threw those methods out the window and focused solely on formulating musical ideas. My new process became recording all of my raw cello ideas into Garageband or Logic (regardless of how out of tune or stylistically bad it sounded), then recording some beatboxing ideas, and afterwards refining the two parts into one cohesive unit and a product that I liked. Now, creating this new process was one ordeal; actually executing it was a whole other nightmare. Often I’d find times where I just didn’t have any good ideas. Other times, I’d end up getting frustrated at myself because I didn’t like where the piece was heading. There were moments I just got so discouraged thinking that what I imagined couldn’t be brought into fruition or wouldn’t appeal to people. My roadblock wasn’t just creative…it was mental. I knew I had to overcome it, or I’d never finish the piece.
That’s when I turned to watching videos on how successful people prevailed over their roadblocks. I wanted inspiration from the best, so I’d go to YouTube and watch talks from people like Mark Cuban, Biz Stone, Oprah, Sara Blakely, Kevin Hart, Jay-Z, etc. Their stories and their words motivated me. It’s a custom I still do frequently because learning from people who’ve paved the way for success gives me hope that what I’m dreaming of doing, although difficult, is not impossible. Steve Jobs sums up nicely what all these entrepreneurs believe:
“People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing and it’s totally true. And the reason is because it’s so hard that if you don’t, any rational person would give up. It’s really hard. And you have to do it over a sustained period of time.”
So I went back, and after 6 months of messing around listening to tons of music for creative inspiration, I finally finished my first draft.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. In October of 2012, I was invited to perform at a very prestigious cello festival in Amsterdam called the Cello Biennale. As I practiced the first draft, I soon found out that the piece was too difficult for me to perform well. At the showcase, I made a complete fool out of myself and had one of the worst performances in my career. It was so bad that I couldn’t even finish playing the whole piece. Plus, I was playing in front of some of the most highly respected cellists in the world. I can’t even begin to tell you how defeated I felt, especially after being known as an expert in this unique musical combination from the success of Julie-O (granted, it did take me a year to perfect). I’ve always prided myself on rising to the occasion, but here all I wanted to do was give up and quit. So what did I do?
I put the piece away for a while, and focused other on other projects.
I did that primarily out of defeat, but I didn’t realize that concentrating on other ventures was another way to rejuvenate creativity. I’ll never forget the day that Pentatonix was arranging “Can’t Hold Us” in 2013. I told Scott to try a certain vocal run during the “Na Na”section of the song. As much as he attempted my idea, he wasn’t doing it as I had pictured it. He then said the words that changed my musical mindset forever:
“Listen, I know right now that I will never be able to get that specific run as much as I work at it. But if I change it in a way that I can do it, it will still be just as impressive and will get the same point across. Plus, I’ll never worry about doing it on stage.”
Talk about mind blown. I never had thought of it like that; I’ve always been trained to work at something until you finally get it. But if you know there’s something that doesn’t work for you, then constantly attacking it through sheer force will do nothing but aggravate you. If you change the way it’s done that will relay the same message, you can make real progress. And to think that this idea came about from doing something completely unrelated to Renegade. I started to rework the piece with that concept in mind so I could perform it live. Even though that process took another 6 months, it was well worth it. I finally performed it throughout the 2014 Pentatonix tour, and when I saw the reaction of the crowd, I knew I had tapped into something special. I recorded the piece and it became the title track of my first album The Renegade EP, which debuted #1 on Billboard Classical and Classical Crossover Charts.
I think that if I’ve learned anything, it’s that finding ways to continually inspire yourself is the key to persevering when you don’t have the strength to keep trekking the unbeaten path. It may be watching videos or reading books from people you admire, it may be looking at quotes, it may even be taking a break from your what you’re doing and gaining other ideas and perspectives from other places. But as long as you hold tight to the inspiration you receive, the fire for your passion will stay burning.
Keep the fire burning, my friends. Keep it burning.
For the Steve Jobs quote and other successful entrepreneurs’quotes, click here ——> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoqohmccTSc