Christians know that Christ uttered the words “It is finished” before temporarily giving up the ghost on Good Friday. The “It” to which He referred was His Own Sacrifice for our sins. Of course, Christ wasn’t and isn’t finished—He arose three days later, and He has promised to return again. He’d finished the key moment of offering His Blood as atonement for our sins, but that closed one chapter and began a second, better one.
The question of completion is always an interesting one, especially for artists of every stripe. My real-life buddy and poet Jeremy Miles wrote a post yesterday entitled “When Can You Call a Piece Finished?” It’s an interesting reflection on some of the major questions that plague artists, chiefly “is the piece done” and “who am I to be putting this stuff out there?”
Like Jeremy with poetry, I’ve recently published a collection of absurdist short stories, The One-Minute Mysteries of Inspector Gerard. I’m fairly shameless about self-promotion—why be shy about asking for money?—but I still have moments where I think, “is it really right for me to put out a collection of ridiculous stories I wrote in high school and college”?
Ultimately, I take Jeremy’s advice here: “stop.” That’s the same advice I’d give to my students, too, and to artists in general: stop doubting yourself, and just do it. In the world of music, the cardinal sin I see musicians commit is not charging enough for their time and talents. Apparently, jazz pianist Thelonious Monk missed out on a lot of gigs because he demanded a fairly high rate for his playing. That may have limited his exposure somewhat, but he knew what he was worth.
I charge $150 per performance hour for a local gig. A three-hour gig (which really works out to three forty-five-minute sets) is $450. I figure that covers setup time (minimal for a solo singing pianist), driving time, prep time, etc., pretty well for gigs within fifty miles of home. Obviously, there’s some wiggle room worked in, as not everyone’s budget is the same, and there are exceptions: I’ll play a coffee shop gig for tips and to move merch—and for fun. Those gigs don’t pay much of a guarantee, if any at all, but they’re great fun.
Similarly, I charge $30 for a half-hour music lesson, and I’ve found that my clients don’t bat an eye at that price. For years I charged $25, and before that $20. I bumped up my price from $20 to $25 when, upon telling a mother of a budding clarinetist what I charged, she blurted out, “That’s it?” I realized very quickly that I was not charging enough for lessons.
I’m not even the most accomplished or talented musician (though I do think I have a knack for teaching it), but I’m willing to try to teach anything, and I value my time and talents. I’m sure there are more talented musicians who are underselling themselves when it comes to lessons. I know that most musicians don’t ask enough for gigs, and too many (myself included, at times) will play for free. Middle-aged dad bands that play three-hour bar gigs in exchange for a few beers and wings do a disservice to working musicians.
But I digress. The point is, Jeremy is right—stop doubting yourself. Put your stuff out there. Be confident, but also be humble—take feedback (I definitely need to edit Inspector Gerard more carefully) graciously.
To Jeremy’s second point: when is a piece finished? My personal metric is “when you know, you know.” That’s not very helpful, but at a certain point, I just kind of know when I’m done. For a song, I shoot for around three or four minutes—a nice pop song.
I often will have fragments of lyrics or music that I sit on for years, only to uncover later and finally finish it. I work well with a deadline (my self-imposed daily blog posting deadline really keeps me focused), and I used to write a song every month for a local songwriting competition (my songwriting dried up substantially when that local competition ended). “Greek Fair” started as a fragment of chords on a sheet of paper, which I fished out two years later and finished in one frenzied night of songwriting.
So, how to finish this post? I could just stop.
Instead, a quick recap: charge what you’re worth, and get stuff done.