Saturday, 5 March 2016

Creative Resuscitation.

Artists (in the most expansive use of the term) like to appear like they have their creative shit together.

(Lee, 2015)

We’ll wake up and put on a pair of dungarees, have feathers in our hair, talk about our recent poem, painting, song. However, what we so often don’t mention are those times when our art falls apart. When no matter what we make, it never seems to come out right; meanwhile our inner critic bludgeons and berates us –how could you let this happen? 

We feel anxious and ashamed, among other things, when our art doesn't work and yet we often hide these feelings and put a smile on them. Perhaps we are afraid to appear damaged or malfunctioning; nevertheless, the ground of the situation is that we as artists do not talk enough about it means and feels like to have a creative breakdown.

We do not talk enough about the cold, stony feeling of not being able to make our art, and so naturally, we do not talk enough about what it means to heal from that. How we can revivify what has withered? How can we bring new life?

I will reveal to you that I have recently come to know the meaning of a total creative breakdown. It was shattering and painful and I’m not completely out of the murky water yet, but just as I have known creative collapse, I can joyfully say that I now know there is also a way to heal.

I want to tell you a story, dear readers.

There is me at 8 years old, having just started the violin. My parents, always the conventional bunch, took me for a ‘tryout’ of sorts with an orchestra conductor to determine what musical instrument I would suit. The conductor made me tap my fingers together for piano, looked at my teeth for wind instruments (?) and somehow by the end gave me the options of violin or cello.

To make my final choice, the conductor invited me to come watch his orchestra who was performing that evening. I would like to tell you that the moment I locked eyes onto the violin I knew that it was ‘my instrument’, but the real truth is that I chose the violin for a reason so silly and uninteresting I can’t even put it in this piece. Nevertheless, I chose it and proceeded to start lessons with my school’s resident violin teacher.

I’m not really exaggerating when I say that this woman is forever burnt into my memory. First of all, she hated children. She was scary, intimidating and had the awful habit of sighing in exasperation every time you, violinist for all of a year, made a mistake. However, the funny (or totally un-funny) part of this is that she taught predominantly at primary schools and high schools. I’m convinced that this lady single-handedly decimated a population of violinists through her harsh teaching. I will never forget my best friend who, after sitting through a lesson one day, nicknamed my teacher the Dragon Lady. I have thought of her as such ever since.

I wanted to quit after three years with the Dragon Lady. I remember drawing pictures of myself playing other instruments like the trumpet and cello –anything but the violin. However, my parents, in an attempt to foster values like long-term commitment, refused to let me quit. Thankfully, my dad happened to sit in on a lesson soon after and realised why I wanted out so badly. It goes to say I changed teachers very quickly after that.

I continued with the violin all throughout high school, playing in various youth orchestras and bands, including the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra.

The Johannesburg Youth Orchestra

Yet, I had always been very clear that I didn’t want to become a musician. I wanted to be a writer, clear and simple. For a time though, I still intended on going to music school, even auditioning at two of the top colleges in South Africa. The fact that I didn't end up going is a whole other story; what is important is what culminated as a result.

For it was last year, after deciding not to do a music degree, that I had a total creative meltdown.

Not having gone to music school meant that my violin playing was reduced to practising at home and performing for the walls. Something about that ascetic environment then drove me to a place where every wrong note, every difficult technique and any piece that didn’t agree with me turned into fodder for a world war of inner-abuse. I would end each session feeling extremely anxious and frustrated.

So in an attempt to bring myself some peace, I stopped playing. At first I did it to put some distance between myself and the heaviness of it all, but soon even the thought of playing again filled me with dread.

I ended up not touching my violin for 6 months. 

It took 6 months of feeling severely pained about my creative block, but I finally came to the realisation that I had two options. I was either going let my violin forever rot in the corner of my room or I was going to have to take a step towards new life.

I chose new life and so that meant that I had to plant something, even if I didn't know what the seed would grow. I somehow knew this time that no small act was going to bring music back to me; that I would have to take a mad, creative risk if I was to ever resuscitate my musical life.

So I applied to audition for the National Youth Orchestra.

It was one of those I-don’t-know-what-the-hell-will-happen-but-HELL-I’m-going-for-it moments, exhilarating and terrifying. There was also an element of oh-shucks-what-have-I-done-here, but something about clicking that send button with my application felt so utterly right.

It was in the last few days before my audition though that I noticed an unexpected, wonderful shift.

Although I was practising probably three to four hours a day and constantly nursing my throbbing fingers, I realised that I was loving music again. I was loving the long, legato streams of notes and the short, staccato beats. I was actually loving playing for hours on end, making mistakes, trying again, and again, and again. Somehow my decision to do this audition just pushed me through all my creative blocks and allowed me to feel the flow again.

When the audition finally arrived, I walked in understanding that I was not really there to get into the orchestra. I was there to brave my musical creativity again. Committing to that, I went in and played the best orchestra audition of my life.

Since that day there has been this incredible space in my chest. It’s a bit cavernous and scary, but at the same time, it’s asking to be filled. It’s saying: I’m all the possibility you couldn’t see before you took that great, creative leap.

I’ve always been the kind of person who says that if you want to reinvigorate something, artistic or otherwise, that the way to achieve that is through small, daring increments. Yet, what I have learnt through my own creative breakdown is that sometimes only an outrageous spring off the edge of the trapeze can bring blood once more to our cheeks; and faith, too, that indeed we will be caught.

Love and light

Lee, C. 2015. The Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki, in her debut with the orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall, photograph. (Accessed 05/03/2016).

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