Holding My Breath … To Release My First Album
The late-November afternoon sun cast a gloomy mood on Jackson’s day. The Sunday Scaries haunted him. His dad and he were listening to classic rock on the radio on their way to the grocery store.
At 12 years old, he had been taking guitar lessons for three years. His second guitar teacher, Toby, had recently helped him write his first song. But Toby could not teach anymore. So, Jackson was pondering how to pursue his musical ambitions. He could handle a guitar, but knew that there was so much more to learn. He struggled over three paths forward: learn better guitar techniques, write songs, or study music theory.
As the curvy country road intersected with a suburban thoroughfare, Jackson’s decision came into focus. In his heart, he knew that he wanted to write songs. He mused, “If only I could make songs that sound as good as what I’m hearing on the radio…” “How would The Beatles write music in today’s world?” But songwriting was a mysterious and challenging proposition. And it required personal risk: “What if people didn’t like my songs?”
For the next 10 years, Jackson pursued this dream with tenacity and zeal. Knowing that guitar technique, developing his voice, and music theory would enable his songwriting goal, he tackled these disciplines with the same intensity he put into writing songs. His next guitar teacher, Andy, taught him the structure of rock and roll music, starting with the blues. Jackson mastered fast riffs and complicated picking patterns. After two years, Andy told Jackson that he’d taught him as much as he could, but urged him to keep playing and studying guitar.
Eventually, Jackson found another teacher, John, who taught him about harmony and landing notes on chords. John secured gigs for his students, where they practiced harmonization and performing skills. Through solo gigs in coffee shops, street music, and various bands he formed, Jackson gained performing experience.
During high school, he used his inheritance from Grandpa Jack (who had bought him his first guitar) to attend the Berklee College of Music Summer Program in Boston. His song, One Man Band, was selected for a singer songwriter showcase, which earned him private coaching in songwriting. His coach advised, “You have talent. But you don’t need a music degree to achieve what you want to do. Instead, live an interesting life. Observe the world around you. Write songs. Keep performing.”
As a high school senior, Jackson wrote Louder than Rain, a single that appears on his original EP album, Holding My Breath (available on Apple Music, Spotify, and other streaming apps), which releases in October 2019. In the four years since writing Louder than Rain, Jackson took a final step in his journey: he learned audio technology and music production. Ten years after that gloomy day in the car, Jackson achieved a key milestone in his dream.
A Songwriter’s Creative Journey
I had a front seat opportunity to view Jackson’s journey, because he’s my son. My failed foray into learning guitar when I was 40 played a small part in Jackson embarking on this journey, which I shared in my October 2016 post, A Guitarist Is Born.
Reflecting on Jackson’s songwriting milestones over the last ten years, a Malcolm Gladwell presentation that I heard around that same time comes to mind. Gladwell shared themes from his book, The Outliers, about what differentiates top talent from other experts. I vividly remember “The 10,000 Hour Rule” (it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve the level of mastery necessary to become a world-class expert—in anything).
I haven’t counted, but Jackson hasn’t logged 10,000 hours against his songwriting and guitar ambition. He also pursued athletic ambitions and a college degree in electrical engineering, but his passion, talent, and discipline resulted in him achieving goals that I never imagined for myself—or my offspring. So, what can I learned from my 22-year-old kid, who set a lofty goal when he was 12?
Through a few genetic threads, Jackson inherited musical talent. The talent on my side of the family leapfrogged me. My dad (Grandpa Jack) never had a music lesson, but he taught himself to play the guitar, piano, banjo, and accordion. He sang and entertained people around campfires. Jackson’s Great-Grandpa Bill played harmonica and was always ready to make music and entertain others. Some of his musical pursuits can be explained by genetics. But talent alone does not produce a genius. History is littered with people who squander their talent.
When you love to engage in an activity, it doesn’t feel like work to put in the tedious hours to learn, perfect, and execute a dream. We never made Jackson sit down and practice guitar, piano, or songwriting. He would come home from a football practice at 6:00 pm on dark fall evenings (12 into his day), eat dinner, then play guitar for two to three hours. Then he would do his homework, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. Witnessing that drive, we knew that he was motivated by something deep.
While he currently falls short of 10,000 hours, Jackson has invested the effort to build the knowledge, experience, and skills to achieve his songwriting dream. He put in the time to develop fundamental skills required to be a singer songwriter. He sang in the varsity choir, voice lessons, music theory, AP music theory. In college, convinced a music professor to let him (a non-music major) into a specialized series of courses in audio production. For three years, he worked professional-grade studios alongside music majors, mastering the skills to produce his songs. (The audio technology lab became the spoonful of sugar that helped him swallow his major coursework in electrical engineering.)
Support and Resources
In the Outliers, Gladwell acknowledges that many children can’t access the resources to achieve excellence. The training might be unaffordable or they have to work when they could be logging the critical number of 10,000 practice hours. But Gladwell also cautions about the diminishing return where talent flourishes with sufficient, but extinguishes with excessive resources.
Jackson was fortunate to have family support. We paid for his lessons, drove him to lessons and gigs … and were front-row fans. But he shoveled snow and mowed lawns to buy his instruments and gear. In fact, nine years ago on October 2, 2013, Jackson emptied his savings account and spent his birthday money on a Martin guitar that he still plays every day.
One Man Band Lyrics
The roads get icy to the north
I can’t breathe when I go south
And the east is just a sea of faces hiding doubt
And the west has shiny cars
That let you pay to see the stars
There ain’t a thing in the middle
But clouds and droughts and dirt
And I’m starting to learn
It’s time that I return
Somewhere I don’t have to find
Cuz my home is a state of mind
I’m a one man band
Looking for a harmony
Looking for my drums and my keys
To make us dance
Swing to my mistakes
And hum our woes away
But the ice will someday melt
And the wind will help me breathe
And I’m starting to see
My compass doesn’t read degrees
And I’m starting to know
That I’ll end up right back at your door