Week 2: Tool TLC

Our question this week is around how we’re treating our creative tools, and what happens when we treat our tools with more care. This starts as a painting story, but turns into a music tool prompt.

So, one of my all-time favorite painters is Catherine Kehoe. I spend a lot of time admiring her work. A few weeks ago, I was looking carefully at this painting she made, trying to figure out how she gets such clean angles and sharp lines. After zooming in on her brush strokes, I could tell she was using a small flat brush to achieve a high degree of precision and detail in her marks. You can see this happening in the upper middle section of this painting where the black and light grey shapes intersect.

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(Stanley, Helen and Emilia 2020 by Catherine Kehoe)

I’ve had an ongoing frustration with my inability to make these kinds of marks, so honing in on this technique was inspiring to me. (A great example of how tools, techniques and inspiration interact with each other to build creative practice . . . )

I went for one of my brushes to give it a spin, and noticed they were all unwashed and had been soaking in a jar of solvent for weeks.

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Which meant my brushes were rough, bloated with muddy gray paint and slowly decomposing.

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And then, I had a creative practice insight:

It is physically impossible for my brushes in their current condition to execute sharp corners or fine lines. I’m never going to be able to paint with precision if I keep treating my tools this way. And this is going to keep being objectively true, no matter how many hours a day I paint.

My issue here isn’t about skills or capacity. By ignoring the way I’m treating my tools, I’m giving myself a completely optional, profound, and endlessly frustrating limitation. I’m doing this one to myself.

So, I spent a few hours getting my act together. I threw out all the brushes I had damaged beyond repair (RIP) and replaced them with new ones. I got a proper brush cleaning jar, and started a new routine of cleaning my brushes after every painting session (which takes a few seconds per brush).

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This simple, easy change made a big and immediate difference in my work.

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Which leads us to the prompt for this week:

Take a good look at the tools you use to make music – cables, instruments, gear, computer desktop – and notice their living conditions.

Some questions you can ask yourself:

  • How are you treating your tools?
  • Do any of your current habits (or lack of habits) negatively impact your workflow, process or end result?
  • Are there any quick, easy fixes or some thoughtful changes you could make?
  • And if you already have this dialed, give yourself a solid high-5! I clearly do not, so I will be keeping my eyes open for other rehab opportunities in my tool setup.

2. Experiment with addressing any tool barriers you may be accidentally giving yourself.

3. And then, notice what happens.

  • What changes?
  • Does anything get easier?
  • More fun?
  • Do you notice any breakthroughs?

Sean’s reflections on these prompts: “I realized that my synthesis tools were in pretty good shape, but the USB situation was rather dire, so I got myself a new powered USB hub and am currently working on rewiring the smaller synth rig. I also ordered new strings and a string winder/cutter for my guitars, as I had been letting the strings get super dull!”

If you feel like it, report back and let us know what you found!

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Comments (9)

  • john.whynot

    Right on post, and the demonstration of an instant result is especially impactful.

    I live part of my life on each of two coasts of the USA, which means I have two domiciles, one of which I mostly occupy on my own. It’s a nice place and I like being there, but it’s also big enough that if I don’t observe a couple of good habits, the cleaning becomes onerous. Forget about getting down to work on what I actually do when every surface is occupied with things I looked at weeks before and didn’t complete the thought.

    My mom is quite old, in her late 90s and has lived alone for 12 years. Once when I was visiting her I noticed that she picked up a sponge or dishtowel every time she was in the kitchen and looked around for a surface to give a quick swab to. I asked her about it and she gave the quote: “Well, one way to keep the place clean is to never let it get dirty”

    It’s not as if she was obsessively cleaning every nook and crevice of her home. Just opportunistically nabbing the odd smudge or crumb. I have tried to adopt that to my own house and it’s really helped.

    It sounds so silly, but ya know, if I just do little things like that – put away what I’m working with when I’m done (WHY IS THAT SO DIFFICULT?) and every time I have some kind of cleaning to do, just look around and pick the one thing that could use a quick going over, and do it right then. It works even if I am far from perfect at it. Which is good, because I am far from perfect at it.

    Now, I rarely have one of those all-day full project call out the national guard cleaning days. It’s all more or less ready to go.

    But please do let me know a day or so in advance if you are planning to visit.

    As all this pertains to my actual creative work, the surfaces that need a once-over are my email inbox, my desktop (the computer one), my desktop (the big physical one which right now is beckoning me to tidy it), the files in my project SSDs, and my record-keeping. Any or all can pretty much always use a look. So I try to do one little thing to fight the forces of entropy, as an entry fee to the milieu in which I’m about to work.

    I’m also getting in the habit of doing tone sweeps in my mix room whenever I wonder if I am hearing what’s on the tracks. My mix room is pretty good, but now and then… a sweep will tell me whether I am really hearing something “off” or it’s me that needs calibrating. A night’s rest is usually the most effective calibration tool for me.

    Great post, Kristin! And thanks for the pointer to Kehoe.

    Reply
    • Kristin Farr Costello

      Thanks for your thoughts and insights! I’m noticing a correlation in my own work between focus and entropy – I don’t like stopping to clean stuff up or get organized until I’m all the way through a project, but the quality of my tool set up (gross brushes, mud colored paint, general chaos) goes down the tubes over time and definitely shows up in my work. I love your idea of doing one little thing to combat entropy as an entry fee to your creative space – very cool!!! I’m going to experiment with that idea this week. Thank you!

  • I am quite happy that I decided to exchange all my cheap cables with proper ones. And after some weeks of diving through a lot of cables I got my hardware synth setup running with everything connected via MIDI and routed into my mixer with the maximum amount of freedom my setup allows. I had that in mind for ages but I never took the time to think it all through (and to be honest, apart from my modular system, I hate tinkering with cables) but it took almost two years until I decided to take that important step. Beyond the beformentionend desktop and the ssd drive (which I have been keeping tidy for years) there are some other things I want to talk about.

    A few years ago my PC was drowning in a flood of plugins. I had so many choices I was so overwhelmed that my mind jammed before I even started putting down some compositional ideas. I invested a lot of time comparing those different emulations of synths and effects with each other. I also took a closer look which plugins I didn’t use for a long time (Marie Kondo style) and threw them out. Now that I have conquered these territories there’s still room for improvement: When you’ve cleared your digital environment, your desktop and the other physical areas another very important aspect becomes noticeable: Your mind. In my life I learned (and I learned it the hard way) that everything stands or falls with your mind. I’ve literally written a book about that topic, so I cut it short: Distractions can be your worst enemy. Sometimes they can lead to a creative shortcut, but most of the time they made me loose interest and focus on what I was doing. It also helps a lot having a structure (regarding time and form) when I work. So at least I can realize when I am leaving it. Entropy is an important creative state, too.
    Okay. Enough for today. Thanks a lot for your inspiration (and your beautiful plugins)!

    Reply
    • Kristin Farr Costello

      Congrats on getting your cables routed and plugins sorted! That is a major undertaking. Curious if you noticed any impacts on your creative process and work after you got your tools dialed?

      Also totally relate to your observations about a cluttered mind as the first/last frontier. I have an ongoing mindfulness practice, and I am continually amazed by the chaos in my head, and how it spills over into the physical realm. I’m noticing that a quieter mind = more mental and physical room for observation/collaboration/creation/art. Experimenting with this is becoming one of my favorite lifelong projects!

      What’s the name of your book? Would love to check it out!

  • Marshall Otwell

    Thanks for your post, Kristin. For me, a bit like a splash of cold water in the face. I’m afraid most of my creative spaces are a chaotic, crowded mess. And my living spaces aren’t much better (i must be driving my wife nuts 🙃). I do keep my practice piano fairly uncluttered, and i have dust covers on *almost* all the synths. But my work areas are pretty much out of control.

    Funny, i hadn’t associated the mess with my meager creative output! Seems obvious now that you’ve pointed me to it. I have a lot of work to do to get my act together, but now i have a good reason to do it.

    I’m going to have to do more than “one little thing to fight entropy” before playing in my studio, more like “deal with one pile of irrelevant crap” each day. If/when i notice positive results i’ll report back. :-^)

    Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Kristin Farr Costello

      So glad this resonated with you – I’m right there with you! I’ve been playing around with a few :15 minute blocks of focused organizing time throughout the day, makes it a little less overwhelming. And something about the time constraint feels like a game (a not very fun, kind of boring game, but still 🙂 )

      I look forward to hearing about your adventures with Tool TLC!

  • Dylan

    Thanks for the link to Catherine Kehoe. What a dramatic change! I remember experiencing something similar when I correctly matched the size of my monitors with my room and hung some basic low grade acoustic treatment up.

    I’ve found a really good chair goes a long, long way. Not cheap or exciting but worth it. For a cheap upgrade – an extension cord for my headphones so I could walk around and look out the window (or anywhere but the screen) when I’m working on music. It really helped me to focus in on the sound.

    Reply
    • Kristin Farr Costello

      Thanks for the great examples of studio optimization – I can see how each of these changes would individually and collectively make a big difference, and create an environment more conducive to your flow. So interesting the extension cord for your headphones improved your focus, and so cool you figured that out! Makes me think building/having a creative practice is essentially an ongoing investigation.

  • Plus 10 for a powered USB hub. I own two 7-port (plus 2 charging only ports) USB 3.0 hubs and they have made a world of difference. It has significantly reduced (actually eliminated) the stress on laptop USB socket – how many times have you seen a laptop thrown out simply because a USB or HDMI socket was damaged?
    And there’s ALWAYS a spare socket when you need one.

    Reply

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