More Information Isn’t the Answer

I know many musicians struggle with a common problem—they have a vision of where they want to go, motivation to practice today, but don’t know how to bridge the chasm.


Air Sandwich

In the business world, author and CEO Nilofer Merchant coined the term air sandwich: “a strategy that has clear vision and future direction on the top layer, day-to-day action on the bottom, and virtually nothing in the middle—no meaty key decisions that connect the two layers, no rich chewy filling to align the new direction with new actions within the company.”

Musicians struggling with an air sandwich are sponges for information and seek out guidance from multiple teachers, books, instructional videos, and masterclasses. But when it comes to jazz and creativity, ten different teachers may send a student in ten different directions, which can lead to information paralysis.

The Rich Chewy Filling

If you are struggling with an “air sandwich,” more information and more college degrees isn’t the solution. The key to filling an air sandwich is strategythe discernment and focus to craft a series of projects that will get you where you want to go.

You can begin fill an air sandwich by designing and committing to a single project.

Elements of a “Rich Chewy Filling” Project

  • Specific and clear destination
  • One to twelve month timeline
  • Challenging, yet achievable with your current skills
  • Inspired by an internal drive
  • Performance goal rather than an outcome goal (see below)
  • You’re excited about the process
  • Moves you toward your long term vision

Then commit most (or all) of your time and effort to completing this single project.

Committing to a single project may make you feel uneasy. “What do I choose?” “What if I choose the wrong project?” “What about the other areas I’m neglecting?”

There isn’t one right answer. Choose a project that meets the above criteria and get started. You may be undecided what to order at a restaurant, but eventually you eat lunch and move on. Teachers, peers, and mentors can help you along the way, but ultimately you need to design the project yourself.

You might come up with ten potential projects. That’s awesome, commit to one.

A project-centered strategy works because you engage with material on a deep level and build a portfolio of projects. This is much more effective than scratching the surface of a scattered list of topics.

Completing your project is an invitation to start the next one.

Performance VS. Outcome Goals

A “performance goal” puts you in charge of completing your project. “Outcome goals” are controlled by other people and aren’t always a reflection of your performance. Some examples:

Performance Goals
Put together a band and play a show
Memorize three standards and play them at a jam session
Transcribe five solos
Release a record
Compose a big band chart

Outcome Goals
Make the top jazz band
Get a scholarship to your top school
Win a competition
Get a good review

Outcome goals can motivate us, but achieving them is usually the consequence of reaching many performance goals over time. Focusing on our performance puts us in control.

Use Deadlines and Social Pressure

Starting projects is exciting; finishing is hard. Once our enthusiasm to start a new project wears off, it can be hard to push through the hard partsworking when when don’t feel like it, obsessive perfectionism, self-doubt, imposter complex. . .

Social pressures help us finish classes in school. That’s why the average completion rate of online courses is only 10-15%. It’s easy to quit when no one is looking.

Committing to projects publicly is one of the best strategies completing them.

Some examples:

  • Need inspiration to finish a new composition? Book a performance a few months out.
  • Commit to posting daily improvisations on Facebook
  • Book a gig for your new band
  • Work though projects with a group of friends and share your progress every week

In fact, my commitment to posting blog articles is motivating me to write right now.

Craft a project, commit publicly, do the work, ship, repeat.

– ST

Speaking of committing publicly, I’m working on the editing, layout, and design of my forthcoming book Creativity Triggers for Musicians. Reserve a free digital copy.