Recently, I participated in NaSoAlMo (national solo album month). This is a challenge to create an entire solo album from start to finish within the month of November. I absolutely love these types of challenges because it not only tests your knowledge as a musician, but it also puts your creative process through the wringer. By the end of the month I had written 8 original songs totaling over 30 minutes of music.
Speed challenges are a very important thing to participate in as an artist. It helps you refine your process and discover any bottlenecks in creative flow. It can teach you that while not every idea is made of gold, most of them have genuine merit when given some time and love.
This article sheds light on a few key things to keep in mind when creating things quickly. Keep in mind that everyone’s creative process is different and these are simply guidelines to consider.
Set Deadlines and Goals
If you are able, spend some time before you even start your project to get a general idea of what you want to do. Planning ahead will greatly increase your ability to focus on one task at a time. Setting deadlines for yourself (if the project can be broken apart into smaller pieces) can also help to ensure you stay on task for any one particular aspect. I talked about setting and managing deadlines in the past. This can’t be overstated!
Prepare Your Workspace
This is another step that gets forgotten most of the time. While a cluttered area can be a great source of inspiration for some people, strive toward streamlining your workspace for fast, efficient production. Organize your physical desk or table in a way where things are accessible, put away distractions or anything not absolutely necessary for making things.
Preparing your digital space is just as important. Do you have the right brushes loaded in Photoshop? Do you have too many brushes loaded? Same thing with music samples and loops. Is it really necessary to have 500 drum loops at your fingertips? Choose 20 or 30 core ones you love and if they don’t work then delve into your archives.
The goal here is to minimize friction between any inspiration that comes and the physical space around you.
Get Inspired by External Sources
Once you have a general direction to go, seek out things that inspire you. Obviously, this isn’t used to outright copy other people’s work, but mashing up ideas or themes from two or three other works is a great way to jumpstart your own project. When I’m looking for song ideas, I load up every song I own into a playlist and hit random until something strikes me. After doing this a few times I have a weird mashup of ideas that I can use to make something of my own.
Another thing you can do for this is create a morgue file; a collection of things that you find interesting or inspiring. Dump everything into a folder (either physical or on your computer) and when you need a little boost of ideas, peruse what you’ve selected earlier. Pintrest and other “collection” sites like that are great for this as well.
Don’t Have Set Expectations
If things aren’t turning out the way you originally wanted it, suddenly you are spending time “fixing” a project rather than creating new stuff. It is incredibly important to be able to change your expectations (and sometimes even goals!) on the fly while you are working on things.
It’s entirely possible that you’ve been able to mold your creativity to perfectly align with what you want to create, but there are often times when things kind of happen on their own. Try to not to be too hasty in discarding these extra bits. Sometime things just need a bit more care to grow.
Take the Path of Least Resistance
Similar to not having expectations, it’s vital to find the easiest route to handle issues that might come up. Personally, one of my biggest time sinks is finding drum sounds. I spend too much time going through dozens or hundreds of snare and cymbal sounds when really I could go into the kitchen and bang on random objects to get the exact sound I’m looking for.
If you can economize to save time, do it! Sometimes you need something exact and sometimes you just need something. It’s important to stay mindful of what the situation calls for at any given time.
Know When to Move On
It is vitally important to know when to know something is “good enough” for the time being. One of the most important parts of these speed challenges, in my opinion, is learning how to be happy with something you’re making.
It can be so easy to nitpick all your time away on small things when really the big issues still need to be completed. Keep in mind that you’re the most intimately familiar with your project and will be the most critical of any errors that exist within it.
Allocate Time for the End
With all the corner cutting in the steps above, there are bound to be plenty of mistakes and general issues with your project. Be sure there is a sizable chunk of time at the end to ensure that everything fits together. Go back and fix any glaring errors that might have been overlooked during your rush to create.
I try to reserve about 15-20% of the whole project time to going back and fixing everything up. When it comes to music this can be as simple as fixing a few solos or as complicated as rearranging an entire song. One thing for sure is that you’ll never regret having this extra time.
For my album, I spent a few hours before the challenge roughly planning out what I wanted to do. I spent November 1st through the 23rd focused on writing music and then used that final week to process and fix everything up. I also snuck an extra song in during that week as well because things had been going well. It was a stressful and busy month, but being able to plan ahead, go in with an open mind, and learn when to move on really helped me out.
In the end, these challenges are incredibly personal. I can offer guidelines, but without the experience of actually participating you’ll never know how far you can push yourself. There have been plenty of challenges I failed spectacularly on and that’s OK. Every failure is an opportunity to learn and improve in the future.
If you are curious about the finished NaSoAlMo album, you can listen to the entire album for free on Bandcamp: Abstraction – Covered in Cats