For me, the most exhilarating time in a project is the very beginning, right after I’ve decided to proceed. It’s a time for making more detailed plans, for gathering information, for choosing and purchasing tools, for learning the new skills you’ll need. There are some traps that need to be sidestepped, which I’ll address in a later post. But on the whole this phase presents the most fun, the least pressure, and the least risk, since there is lots of obvious groundwork to lay and you can hardly fail at any of it. The three examples I presented yesterday are also good examples of this.
Once it was decided that recordings of unrehearsed conversations would be of interest to people, I was asked to record and distribute them through Draught Horse Press. I tentatively agreed, provided that it was feasible for me to do it at a profit. I was vaguely aware that the equipment I would need was available—machines that could duplicate cassette tapes, computer drives that could record CDs, software that could be used to record and edit audio, packaging for the cassettes and CDs. I spent some time learning about how those things worked, and roughed out a design for a small, inexpensive recording and duplicating operation.
After concluding that the costs were manageable, I took a deep breath, started purchasing the equipment, and then figured out how to piece it all together in order to create Basement Tapes. I learned to operate unfamilar software and electronic equipment. I ran experiments to test my design, and made adjustments wherever things didn’t work properly. I figured out how to organize things so that in reasonable time I could pack up my equipment, drive across town, set it up in a basement, do a recording, break down the equipment, and bring it back home. I sorted through my options for labeling and packaging the cassettes and CDs we would be making. Eventually, we were ready to do the real work—record a conversation and see if anyone was interested in buying a copy.
Draught Horse Press went through a similar stage. At the beginning I knew that it was possible for a lone individual to create, publish, and sell a book—for one thing, I’d bought many such books—but I knew very little about the details. I learned about publishing software to lay out a book, about book design, about working with an author to edit his words into final form, about contracting with a printer to get a book printed, about creating a website that was capable of taking orders for the book online. Eventually, I had boxes and boxes of my book in hand, and I was ready to start the real work of offering it for sale.
In both these cases, you might think that what I’m calling the initial stage is in fact an entire project, since at the end we were able to produce a Basement Tape or a book. And at some level they were little projects of their own, exhibiting the same properties of the large project—fun in the beginning, grueling in the middle, requiring diligence to bring to completion. But both small projects were really preliminaries to larger, riskier projects; it’s much easier to produce a product than it is to sell it, and there’s no glory in producing a product that can’t be sold, so I didn’t think of producing a book or recording as a project in itself, but merely a step towards a larger goal.
In this respect I’m particularly pleased with how the Ridgewood Boys project has evolved. Because we never had any pressure to achieve a large goal—all we ever wanted to do was have some fun, challenge ourselves, and not leave any opportunities untested—it has turned out that our progress has come in the form of many modest but significant goals, goals which were quickly achieved and which also put new goals within our reach. This means that not very much time ever went by before we were once again in the exhilarating initial stages of a new project—attending a music camp, encouraging friends to dust off instruments and jam with us, playing onstage, making recordings at home, creating setlists, playing for dancers, learning a new instrument, writing an article for publication, exploring regional repertoires, attending a professional musicians’ convention, arranging for private lessons with world-class musicians, creating promotional materials, playing at local festivals. Each of these little projects has given us the chance to learn many new things. Completing them successfully has given us the courage to take on new and scary projects. And even without an overarching goal, we still have managed to make reasonable, tangible progress towards becoming better musicians.