When you are a creative, be it a composer like me, a writer or visual artist, you are required to create content on demand. Your clients do not have to take into account what is going on in your life when they make that request. You may have just had a massive fight with your partner and be told to write romantic music. You may be asked to write super happy music when you are in the darkest stages of grief. Beyond this, often we have to create when we just don’t feel like it. At all. We feel empty. We feel exhausted. So what can we do, practically, to help aid us in these times?
That was the challenge that I was facing this week. I had to finish up two short documentaries and one reason I was finding it so hard was because I simply cared so much about these projects. They were very close to my heart: produced/directed by Tasmanian women about Tasmanian women. Dream gig. My family already had purchased tickets to the screening. I wanted to produce the best work I could possibly do in this moment. So, my friends, I was extremely stressed. But I had a few things working in my favor and I want to talk about them today in the hope that maybe this will help you in your challenging creative times.
When we create we are often pulling from deep inside. Laying our soul bare on the table. Sometimes it it is not so personal. For instance when we are doing a stomp-n-clap commercial track it can feel a little less vulnerable. But even then we are putting our musical ability and creativity up for critique and as a result you feel exposed. That will always be the case. To be in a place where you can actually compose that music you need an environment where you feel free to explore and build.
I love my creative space. It feels good to sit there and make music. Simple concept, but so important. Think about where you create. Do you have a designated space? Is it comfy? Is it warm when its cold outside and cool when it is warm? Is it quiet enough? Do your cats have access? (Or dogs…they are fine too.) But seriously, the space you create in needs to be right for you. Comfortable, free from clutter and always ready to go. One improvement I accidentally made recently is buying a small space heater. My big wall heater broke, and it was weirdly chilly here in LA so I was forced to get a little space heater. The unexpected bonus was that I could point it at my feet during my late-night composing sessions. The wall unit was largely useless during those times. Suddenly composing in the early hours was WAY more enjoyable.
What do you see when you sit down to create? Here’s what I see: Above my main screen is a painting of a grand piano. I commissioned artist Julia Carlson to paint that picture because growing up I almost always lived with a grand piano. Having that instrument nearby (and hearing my mum play every day) made the house feel like a home. It was my first creative space. I can’t afford a grand piano or the space to have it in right now, but it is definitely a life goal.
By my screens I have a picture of my guy. Seeing his face makes me happy and encourages me. Next to my keyboard I have a pad of paper and pen. I also have my full size keyboard to my left, along with a pencil and notation paper. Nearby I have pictures of all my family, who are in reality all too far away and some no longer on this planet. This makes them all feel a little closer. On the bookshelf I have books I love which inspire me creatively. And all my instruments are very close by. I also have blankets to wrap up in, and places for my kitties to hang out. As my needs change, I adapt my space. It is constantly evolving and improving according to what helps me best create.
Once you are ready to create how long does it take to fire up your creation station to record that idea? This is important. Not only do you need a comfortable space but it needs to be immediately functional and efficient. For composers one thing that helps this be a reality is by having templates in your DAW. I can open up a template and have a working palette of instruments ready to go immediately. I use the Vienna Ensemble Pro Server so I don’t have to wait for instruments to load. Then I have both a fast system and knowledge of where everything is so I can quickly load up different instruments to add to my template. My music libraries are organized and labeled appropriately. So are previous projects in case I need to pull from them for a new project.
In line with this, it is so important (regardless of your creative field) to know your software. The more comfortable you are at the tools that help you create the more comfortable you are going to be when creating. The less intimidated you will be to sit down and do the thing. If part of your creative process is constantly fighting with software, hunting and pecking for functions needed in order to do the thing, then guess what: you are not going to want to do that. It is going to be so much harder to convince yourself to get your arse in that chair and start creating. Sidebar: I recognize that no software is perfect all the time BELIEVE ME – Cubase 9.5 I am looking at you – but a major part of this is on us, not on the software. Know your tools.
Some of our most important tools are our actual instruments. How easy it is for you to record your instrument? How long does it take for you to grab it, tune it and track it? It took me some time but I now have a system where I can quickly set up the microphone (or direct line in with the electric guitar), get the instrument (guitars, or uke or violin or voice) and hit record in around 5 minutes. I don’t have my microphone always plugged in because I have a small amount of space and it isn’t convenient to have it there all the time. But I’ve developed an efficient system to make it all happen quickly. I know exactly where my chords are. I know how to use my external audio interface, am familiar with its quirks, so there are generally no issues. I also have the audio tracks with the correct inputs built into my template so I don’t have to futz with anything there. I’ve tracked enough with these instruments to understand the best levels, the best positions to record, etc. I know my tools. Now quickly tracking live is reasonably hassle free.
There’s a secondary aspect of this. Not only do we need to know how to best record our instruments we also need to actually be able to…you know….PLAY THEM. When our focus is on composing we often forget to keep up our playing skills. I am completely guilty of this. I’ve had to track a lot of acoustic guitars the last 2 weeks and my fingers are sore because I had not played for far too long and my finger tip calluses had all gone away. I keep my guitars out, my tuner handy and my keyboard ready to go (I can play it without firing up my computer which I think is helpful) so that sitting down to play can happen immediately when I have the time.
There are two great things about keeping up your playing. One – what we have just been discussing: it makes it a lot easier to quickly track when we are familiar and skilled with our tools. However let’s consider aspect two: it is good for our musical soul. Playing our instruments for many of us is what got us into music to begin with. When we sit down to play and either work on music we know, or learn new music, or improvise and develop music, it can be both a catharsis and a source of inspiration. Setting aside time to play – literally play and have fun – on your instruments can be an excellent musical release with the side benefit of keeping your skills in good shape. Totally worth doing!
People talk about self discipline. Having the discipline to sit down and write every day. I was reading this fantastic article by Mark Manson where he discusses how we have this impression of self discipline as having the will power to do something you don’t want to do. But the people who are disciplined in getting work done, or exercising, or eating the right food all have one thing in common: that is what they WANT to do. They want to go to work. They want to run every day. They want to eat good food. And they want to do it because it makes them FEEL GOOD. If you don’t enjoy it, it is going to be hard to do it.
This week I as really struggling with writing a track. I couldn’t figure out the approach to take. There were many directions to go in and I felt overwhelmed. Then I told myself: how about you just write something you really like. Such a simple concept but as soon as I made that decision everything came into focus and I was just able to get to work.
It is also amazing to me about how I can stress about writing music but as soon as I start doing it something in me says “this feels good, I love doing this” and then it all feels OK. Sometimes the stress of creating on demand makes me forget how much I freaking love writing music. I have had a lot of jobs in my life and this is DEFINITELY my favorite job. I can’t actually quite believe that I am paid to do it. It is a hard job. It is a stressful job. But I love it. I need to remind myself of this as I am struggling to physically move myself into my work area. If I lead with the love then it becomes a lot easier to actually do the thing.
The message I am trying to bring across today is pretty logical: set yourself up for success. I encourage you to be observant of your process this week and make a note of every roadblock you currently have that makes the creative process uncomfortable or difficult. As soon as you identify it, you can improve upon it. I hope you will let me know what you find.
Happy creating everyone. May your creative space be cozy, safe and full of cats.