DJs – Feeling Stuck? Constrain Yourself. (Wait, what did she say?)

Milon Townsend

DJs are really good at giving themselves a framework from which to work with.  Especially when preparing for a gig. There are a few considerations already built in to help you make musical choices – what gear you have, the venue, the crowd.  But let’s say you want to work on a mix or experiment with production and you’re feeling stuck, what do you do? It’s hard to have any direction when you have an open road in your mind.  Believe it or not if you set up some rules or constraints you can actually be more creative.  It’s a paradox, set up a mental box, so you can think outside of it.  Your mind can only effectively process a certain amount of information.  So, if you have an infinite amount of options to work with in your mind, you can go into a state of paralysis.

Let’s talk about what some of the symptoms of feeling stuck are.

  • Loss of passion – you actively make excuses to NOT practice or touch DJing.  You do not make creative time for yourself.  This could also be viewed as BOREDOM.  Everything just bores you – music, the scene, your process.
  • Frustration – this is obvious but I’m talking about banging your head on a wall anytime you make an attempt at practicing or trying something new.
  • Negative voices – you start getting down on yourself.  Thinking you can’t do it, or that you’re not creative.  You start asking yourself: why am I doing this?
  • Feeling overwhelmed – you’re having trouble starting something, it’s just not coming to you, or your eyes glaze over when you look at your discography.

If you are experiencing feeling stuck you might want to try setting up a tighter framework for yourself. There are a few kinds of constraints that might help.

Goal Constraint: If you don’t have a deadline, then you have all the time in the world to put something together and it be perfect right? Wrong.  The problem with not having a goal puts even more strain on yourself to have a direction, and you can make excuses or allow other distractions to creep in.  Look at a goal as more of this is what I want to do, in this amount of time.  Also ask yourself, what is my priority here – for example, is it exploring different sounds and making them work or is it working on your sound or style ( I have an exercise at the end of Why Do You DJ? that helps in defining your sound )?  It is something that if you were to accomplish it in a certain amount of time, you will feel you have advanced in some way.  I know some DJs who purposely tell people they will produce a track or have a mix for them just to give themselves a deadline, the pressure for them is the greatest motivator.

Subject Constraint: This has to do with the subject matter of your work. This can be genre or mood. It depends on what you want to experiment with.  Currently I’m preparing tracklists that express a certain feeling.  Things like romantic, dark, revenge, brightness, 7am.  Based on certain words that express a feeling or context, I choose tracks that only define that feeling for me.  Some DJs already do this and it’s an easy way to get yourself out of a rut.  Brainstorm some words for yourself and then see what hits you.  Then collect the music ( and dig deep here – from memory and your “crate” ) – stay true to that expressive word, then work it out on the decks and see what happens.

Task Constraint: Another way to set a constraint for yourself has to do with the tools you use.  Your gear and technique are your tools. Let’s say you challenge yourself to beat match by ear, or use effects ( or scale back on effects ), incorporate scratching, or use a feature in your gear or software you’ve never used before.  Whatever it is you are NOT doing, then add it as a constraint and do it.

So if you are feeling stuck you can set up a constraint like this:

A mix, 5 tracks, breaks only ( the kind in a track or the genre ), Blue, holding the mix for 20 seconds each transition, in two weeks.

The more complex you set up your framework the more your mind has to work with and wrap itself around.  Really challenge yourself – you can do it!  At least, if you do not accomplish the goal in the time you set, you will have learned something about yourself and would have ingrained that experimentation in your mind for future use.

Let me know how it goes!

Recap: Your mind cannot create without a framework.  Constraints are a way to give yourself rules to work with.  Goals have to do with what you want to accomplish.  Tasks are the way you get to that goal – whether they are musical themes, technique, or gear constraints.  The more complex your framework the more creative your process and output will be.  Challenge yourself!

Source: “Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough”, Patricia D. Stokes, Springer Publishing NYC, 2006.

  1. June 28th, 2012
  2. June 12th, 2013
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