“If you don’t push, you’re lazy.”

Around 15 years ago, I sat in on a little talk with Apostolos Paraskevas, a Greek composer and guitarist (among other things) working at Berklee College of Music (in Boston). I got to spend a couple of days hanging out with the guy, but the best thing he said came in that little informal talk with some composition students.

He said once to me, “For many years now, I have been obsessed with DEATH.”

One of the college students asked, “How do you compose music?”

Apostolos got this odd look on his face, then he smiled slightly and said, “Asking a man how he composes music is like asking a woman how she gives birth.” The he shrugged and went on, “You just push, and if you don’t push, you’re lazy.”

I think the student was hoping for a more technical answer, like what part of the music he thought of first: melody, harmony, or instrumentation, or what sort of tonal systems he uses, or even whether he uses software, paper or works at an instrument. Some people thought the answer was silly, but Paraskevas gave a professional’s answer.

The point was, doing the work was more important than the technical process employed. In other words, work habits are far more important than formulae.

This is a great part of why I don’t put much stock in writing manuals – not because the advice they give is bad, but because writers read them and focus on the wrong thing, namely doing their work a certain way and striving for a certain product rather than first establishing their capacity to simply work.

It’s the same thing with music composition. There are so many different ways to approach the art, so many different approaches to tonality and harmony, and so many different interfaces to utilize that no two people can be expected to work in the same way. What’s important is that an artist put in the time to work in which he will develop his own process that works to produce the art he wants.

Regardless of the art, you won’t develop your work skills without first working. You also won’t develop the technical capacity to produce the product you want without experience. You’ll never find your voice while trying to figure out how other people do things.

Apostolos said later, “I am Greek, so my music is Greek and will always be Greek. Your music must be yours.” This was mostly as a response to technical discussion of certain aspects of his music, particularly his use of mixed meter. The point was the same: You’re focusing on the wrong things.

This is part of why I wrote Keys to Prolific Creativity – artists are often focusing on the wrong things. Get your creative life in order, build your process, and the rest will start to fall in line.

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  1. You’re right about just putting in the work and gaining experience and not to hyper focus on some specific thing an artist does or have. I remember an animator named Richard Williams said in regards to students wondering what made Disney or Warner Bros animators so good, and the truth was that those animators had a deep understanding of the basics from years of working, not a special pen, not a secret skill set, Williams called it a “sophisticated use of the basics”.

    • I like that term, “Sophisticated use of basics.” After two decades (and more, really) as a performer that’s what it really comes down to. Skill isn’t about special techniques, just the standard ones used well.

  2. Kyrie Paraskevas gave the perfect answer, and it’s so quintessentially Greek. Far more often than not, Greeks tend to be feelers rather than thinkers. This sounds strange given it being the land of Aristotle and Socrates and all of the other fathers of philosophy, but that was a long time ago. And it’s not to say that Greeks don’t think; it’s just that it’s a much more emotional, instinctive culture than the United States.

    “If you don’t push, you’re lazy” might be my new favorite saying. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thanks, I thought you might identify. I actually re-aligned my composition style after hanging out with him for a week, mostly because I realized that you didn’t have to play to these constructed “styles” – he always just did whatever he wanted artistically.

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