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The Songwriting Balance Between Confidence and Humility

“Ideally, when things fall out well, you shouldn’t feel clever, you should feel lucky.” – Tom Stoppard

When I was a full-time professional bass guitarist I sometimes had the experience of being satisfied with the way I had played that day. I had no regrets; I’d been prepared, relaxed, and felt that I had really made music.

Much more common was feeling unsatisfied and that I could’ve done better. And not only was I probably right about that most of the time, it also served as powerful motivation to improve.

That feeling of satisfaction after a job well done is good, right? Well, yes and no. Of course it feels great. It’s even necessary to hit that high every once in a while, just to know what you’re shooting for.

But there were also some negative side effects to that satisfaction. One was that I might get full of myself, think I’m a badass… thereby setting myself up for failure.

I’m not talking about confidence here. You need that, especially in high pressure situations. But you also need humility – music is a big stream, and no matter how good you are at one thing or another, you’re still just a drop or two of water. Humility is perspective – there’s always room for improvement.

All of the greatest musicians I’ve met and worked with have had some combination of confidence in their current abilities mixed with a conviction that there was still plenty to learn, and a hunger to learn it.

Another negative side effect of musical hubris is trying to match yesterday’s good performance today. Pardon the cliche, but you never step in the same river twice. Every time you make music you can’t rest on your laurels; you have to bring it to life anew.

Songwriting is the same; maybe even more so. The tools gained from cracking the code on previous songs give me more craft for the next one, but the next one has its own set of challenges that can only be addressed on their own terms. The elevated feeling that I have because I think I wrote a good song yesterday will only carry me so far. That is, not far. Every song is a new creation that’s never existed before.

There’s confidence (I know what I know, I have some tools to work with, I’ve surmounted songwriting challenges before) and there’s humility (every song is a new song with its own challenges, I may have to be patient and work hard to figure this one out, there’s no such thing as ‘perfect’ but there is ‘better’). Finding a balance between them is worth striving for.

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