The Long Road To Becoming An Expert…At Anything
Get ready, this is a long one. Please prepare for my transparency and bluntness….
I greatly dislike when artists lack a certain quality because the dues I’ve paid to acquire said quality. I get low-key insulted when an amateur walks into the room with their itty-bitty skills and a big round dose of entitlement up in my face.
But I curb my rage. I, too, was young once (I mean, younger than I am now) and humility looks good on everyone. I also have grace because it’s one of the hardest things to acquire without other-worldly amounts of self discipline.
Expertise is one of the rarest acquired qualities in this world. Many are born with raw talent, more strive to be “good” at their craft, but few become an expert. For those striving to for their 10,000 hours here are a few words to help you along the path.
What is expertise? Let’s work with this definition: When you know an art form inside and out. You can speak to the craft’s intricacies like it’s your own language. You can describe the way paint behaves with different mediums applied to it— you know how to control it to get the effect you desire and tell it what to do more than it tells you what to do. When you know the history of your art form and the context of the style you are going after. When you can name those who influenced those who influence you. When you are still learning things about your craft, but they build on the strong foundation you already have and are additions to your already vast amount of skill and knowledge.
I won’t spend much time arguing a case for why there needs to be highly skilled artists, even though I know there are some that would give me push back for the following reasons: you have a rose-colored ideal that anyone and everyone can be an artist. I agree, and expertise is a requirement only for those artists who want to make a career and gain a large platform (unless you’re a Kardashian then you can just take a dump and sell it for millions). There are many who just enjoy creativity and keep it as a passionate hobby and that is okay, I am not knocking you… go ahead and do you, boo. Aside from that, I don’t believe that expertise has any socio-economic, class, or cultural boundaries. The elitism that you might be picking up on is only towards those that don’t work hard. Work ethic is everything.
Before I outline practical steps, I need to say that the first thing you need to do as an artist who wants to grow is separate your identity from your art so that you can navigate critique and comparison without spiraling down the dark pit of self-obsession. The risk is two sided– if you soar, your ego could take over. If you tank, you might drown in low self-esteem. Both sides of this coin make you so self-absorbed that your insides get all twisted up. The path to expertise is like getting to Mordor with out letting that soul-denting ring destroy you. Besides that… get ready for a lot of hard work. Expert level is not for lazy people. If you struggle with procrastination, I don’t know how to help you. The best advice, to you, procrastinator, is stop. Either stop procrastinating or stop striving after whatever art form you have been “called.” If you can’t choose…then you are striving after the wind…
For everyone else… here are two options for gaining expertise:
Gaining Expertise: FORMAL SCHOOLING
To many, a degree program is the answer. A setting where you are surrounded by challenging peers and teachers who provide a structured curriculum. Before enrolling, consider what your goals are and if your desired position requires or even benefits from a degree. In my case, the name of the school I went to carries a lot of weight in the gallery world, helps me network with other artists to bring bigger programs to the school I work for, and gave me vasts amount of knowledge on art history, theory, and criticism. Actual SKILL-wise, most of my learning was self-directed. All in all, it was highly worth it.
I also give suspicious glances to those who immediately dismiss the idea of college without having been there. Sometimes underneath outspoken aversion to degree programs is fear— of the unknown, of not being able to code-switch to an academic setting (which is a legit drag), of not being able to meet expectations. Fear aside, racking up a bunch of school debt is still a good reason to avoid getting a degree in a field with no promised pay check. So what’s the alternative?
Gaining Expertise:INDEPENDENT LEARNING
(Even if you chose to go to school, you still need this one for post-graduation, so listen up.)
I believe in social justice, and I believe that educating oneself by any means necessary is one of the most anti-oppressive things a person can do. Most education is regulated— it’s an institution that is only accessible to the privileged few, and even then, it can used to financially oppress young folk via student loans.
When becoming your own teacher, you are by-passing all that mess.
Public school does not prepare us for self-directed learning because it conditions us from an early age to believe that education can only be given to you by another person; That information is deposited into your brain from someone in a position of authority; That without their help, you could never access what you need to know. These are all lies, and the reason it’s so hard to break out of that mindset is because of the evil powers that be like to keep the masses
I am a teacher. 400 little humans pass through my classroom every single day. I also am my own teacher— but that doesn’t mean I deposit information into my own head. It means I know how to identify what I don’t know, create assignments for myself, and learn by doing. For example, at one point I needed to learn how to make beats/produce tracks to write songs over (before I connected with Ohmega Watts). Let me break down how I went about this so that you can follow this model:
1. I Identified what I didn’t know.
-I didn’t know the components of a beat and where to place which sounds.
-I didn’t know all the names of certain types of beats.
-I didn’t know the history of beat making.
-I didn’t know which software or equipment I need to make beats with.
-I didn’t know how to adjust volume levels to make stuff sound finished(this is called mixing and mastering).
2. I identified solutions that were the quickest/easiest and did them first.
-I asked around about software, picked the most user friendly, bought it off a friend (on the low-low), and bought the cheapest most versatile MIDI controller I could find on craigslist.
-I asked the internet who were the top 5 beat-makers I should start studying. Because I was mostly aiming for latin music, that focused my list so that I wasn’t starting off too-broad.
-I picked 5 or so willing producers to act as my informal mentors/teachers/critiquers.
3. I identified solutions that were longterm & gave myself assignments.
-Learning which sounds go where is hard. I decided to study 1 style of rhythm per week. For the trickier ones, I’d give myself two weeks. I started with the ones I liked the most so that I’d enjoy the process— cumbia, salsa, and samba.
-Learning how to actually USE the software was a giant hurdle. I get easily overwhelmed by 454254 page instructional PDFs so I took it little by little and called more knowledge friends for quick advice. I actually called DJ Efechto one time asking him how to scroll on Logic (basic, right?). For other things, I just googled questions and let message boards fill me in. The more I advanced, the harder my questions got, and the more I learned. If someone were to ask me now how to go about learning a difficult program, the old sage saying “The same way you would eat an elephant” definitely applies— One bite at a time, bruh.
-For both of these areas, I set goals— both monthly, seasonal, and yearly.
5. I brought other people into it.
Like mentioned, there were a few experienced producers that I had access to. I also sent them my first couple of tracks. Guess what— they sucked. These genius producers heard my sucky tracks and let me know exactly what was wrong with them. That takes REAL humility, and I’m grateful for it. It’s one thing to be able to handle criticism, it’s another to ask for it. If you can do neither, you’re not cut out for this artist’s life. Note— my mentors also gave me assignments but I didn’t make it their responsibility to force me to grow. I just ask them for input and they give me the hard truth.
Mentorship is crucial to growth. It’s not supposed to be a happy-go-lucky experience. These are people that you are giving permission to point out areas that are lacking, and that doesn’t always feel nice… especially coming from someone you really look up to.
IN CONCLUSION: Put The Work In
I have gone through both schooling and independent learning— the latter a million times over. I’m in the process of learning how to film and edit videos. At one point I had to learn how to make websites. How to work a loop pedal. How to build a kaleidoscope. How to throw events. How to start a non-profit. I’ve done this so many times with so many different skills that at this point, I have to actively tell myself to stop learning new things. Once you realize how much youtube has your back, not even the sky is a limit.
When I got the feeling of being HELLA READY this summer, I had an entire decade’s worth of paid dues behind me. I had an arsenal of skills to pull from when creating the paintings I’ve been working on as well as the EP that I am about to drop. I don’t know how “successful” this EP is going to be, but one thing that I know no one will knock it for is QUALITY. I have the same confidence with my paintings. I have LEARNT how to paint and that mess took a few years to figure out. PUT THE WORK IN.