John Burke: 4 Strategies to Continually Elevate Your Work

03/18/2017 08:01 pm ET
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I had the pleasure of driving from Clemson, South Carolina, to Atlanta this morning. The occasion was to interview composer and pianist, John Burke, for a book I’m currently writing. Less than a month ago, I had never heard of John Burke. However, my wife was listening to NPR and heard an interview where John was discussing his recent Grammy nomination.

In the interview, John discussed the creation of one of the songs on his latest album, Orogen, entitled “Earth Breaker.” When he wrote the song, he couldn’t actually play it. It was too fast and difficult. However, the act of writing the song acted as a motivational mechanism leading him to improve his skills as a pianist. To quote Darren Hardy, “To achieve what you have not, you must become what you are not. You have to grow into your goals.”

(photo taken on John's iPhone)

We met at a church where John spends a good portion of time playing and recording. We spent one hour together, wherein he taught me his strategies for developing new albums, each of which pushes the boundaries of his last.

Here’s are a few things John taught me today:

1. Always Work on Something You’ve Never Done Before

John believes that not only should every creative person be working on something, but they should be working on something beyond anything they’ve currently created.

This forces you to continually improve and evolve in your craft.

2. Map It All Out From the Beginning

The moment John realizes he’s going to pursue a new project, he begins by thinking about the timeline. Firstly, he sets the date the album will be released. From there, he works backwards to all of the milestones needed along the way.

He adds an initial layer of pressure by getting onto his piano studio engineer’s schedule, sometimes 4-6 months in advance. Once on other people’s schedules, he’s now committed.

Before even really starting, he now has several timelines. He knows when the album will be done, he is scheduled a few months out to record the music. Which means he now has a timeline for writing the music. He’s all mapped out. This not only makes it real for him, but it creates urgency.

3. Apply More Layers of External Pressure Immediately

“Pressure can burst a pipe, or pressure can make a diamond.”—Robert Horry

John told me he loves pressure. It keeps him going. In order to create more pressure for himself to complete his goal, he does the following:

  • He tells his fans what he’s up to. This “creates an expectation” and John highly values the trust of his fans. So, by creating the expectation up front, this adds another layer of commitment. He doesn’t want to let his people down.
  • He begins sharing the work with his closest friends and family. He does this to seek criticism and feedback on the music, but also to get deeper into the creative process.
  • He begins playing the music at venues where he plays his music to see how people respond.

John seeks additional pressure because with every album he creates, he tries to push his boundaries. He embraces the risk involved in doing something he’s never done. The risk is in the art, but also relational. He doesn’t want to let people down.

4. Put Creation Time On Your Daily Schedule

The final component to ensure he gets his work done is by literally putting it on his schedule. He does this as “an obligation.”

For example, on his calendar, he’ll have written “Write song #5 for three hours.” Because it’s on his schedule, if someone offers him a gig during those hours, he tells them he can’t. “I’m booked,” he says. He sees writing and developing music as an investment, as part of his job.

As a writer, this strategy makes perfect sense. I know so many other writers who have told me they write when they put it on their calendar and they don’t when it’s not on their calendar.

Conclusion

John Burke was recently nominated for a Grammy. He’s pushing his personal boundaries, and the boundaries of music in general, with every album he writes. His music is brilliant and so is his process.

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