Sources of Inspiration for Creative Lives

On a trip during the summer of 2015 to South Dakota I visited the Crazy Horse Memorial, which has been under construction since 1948 and Mt. Rushmore National Monument. Gutzon Borglum’s Mt. Rushmore was financed by the Federal Government and thus had sufficient monetary backing to progress rather quickly with a large staff of workers and ample equipment to work with. Crazy Horse was commissioned by the Sioux Nations for all Native Americans, but was privately funded and still is. Work on the monument was initially started with a crew of one, the sculptor himself, Korczak Ziolkowski. The projected size of this monument dwarfs Rushmore which could fit itself in the space occupied by Crazy Horse’s head alone. Construction is ongoing and the monument, now about 70 years from its beginning, is far from finished. Crazy Horse’s face was unveiled and dedicated in 1998, fifty years after construction commenced and about 16 years after the sculptor died. Construction continues, carried out by his sons and daughters who are as dedicated to the project as their father and mother were.

Neither of these monuments has anything small about them, nor were the men behind them. The sculptors both spent their lives dedicated to their projects and neither was without an ego nor lacked self-confidence. This is the work of large egos and supreme self-confidence. It is also the work of passion and dreams. Neither of these monuments would have started without these aspects, and while they are indeed monuments to the heroes they depict, they are also monuments to dreams and the creative human spirit. They are monuments to the long game that encompasses human existence and indomitable spirit and will. The men who envisioned and then created these immense sculptures were not afraid to attempt the impossible, nor were they willing to entertain the possibility of defeat or failure. They took on the projects and gave everything of themselves to see them through. As an individual who has been involved in the creative arts through writing and music through much of my life, I find these monuments and the men behind them to be points for self-reflection and self-evaluation, as well as definitive sources for inspiration.

Most people would view an undertaking such as the one that Korczak Ziolkowski started when he commenced work on Crazy Horse as one of insanity, particularly when noting the size of what was planned and the fact that he was initially the only crew member at the start of the project. The amount of hope and self confidence this presents truly boggles my mind, but I am convinced that he wasn’t a madman, nor a megalomaniac. He was a man with vision who was fully committed to his art and his means of creative expression. He believed in dreaming and pursuing his dreams as a life long process, not simply for the short term. He was also dedicated to encouraging others to follow their dreams as well, and the bigger the dream, the better. One could find ample inspiration in Borglum’s Rushmore, but Ziolkowski went bigger and further, pushing through self-reliance into an even larger than life existence.

When I am confronted with a creative human being such as Ziolkowski, and the obstacles he faced, and his work still faces long after his death, I must take stock of my own day-to-day existence in regards to my creative work. I feel small in comparison, because in comparison it’s as if I fear dreaming, and fear pursuing the small dreams that I do latch onto. I think most of us start out our existences with huge dreams, and welcome these huge dreams. Somewhere along the way we allow these dreams to be beaten down or simply leave them along the road of our existence, losing our vision of large lives and instead opting for the lower arc for whatever reason. I know that I for one miss the passion of my younger days and dreaming on the large scale. At that point life seemed an endless source of possibilities that were only limited by how far I chose to reach. Our lives come with individual issues, roadblocks, distractions and dead ends. Mine certainly has, and I have often permitted these to derail my own personal visions for my life and in particular my creative pursuits.

The truth of the matter is that it is never too late in our creative lives to ignite passions until we have passed out of existence. Until that point we should dedicate ourselves to kindling our passions, whether they are part of our creative lives or any other aspects of our lives. We must find our purposes, our whys for existing, and dedicate ourselves to nurturing them and pursuing them to the best of our abilities. This is our responsibility and creative duty as occupants of time and space. Not all of us were meant to blast 450,000 tons of rock off the face of a mountain in search of the Presidents’ faces lurking within, but all of us were meant to do something and to dedicate ourselves to the creation and pursuit of our own particular passionate creative dreams. Individuals such as Gutzon Borglum and Korczak Ziolkowski should serve as reminders that while there are obstacles in our creative paths, as well as in every aspect of our lives, none should stop us from achieving our creative goals, and the path in pursuit of these goals is as worthy as the goal in and of itself.

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And Now, Today’s Musings on Self, Music, Writing and Employment

My dog, George, wants my attention. When he discovers that I’m occupied, he makes an old man groan and goes over to the window to look out over the back yard, his personal domain. There has been a trio of opossums out back this morning, resulting in George having to stay in as opposed to roaming around out there. I know it frustrates him, but I’d rather not have to try to either pry a dead opossum away from him, which would result in me bleeding, or have to take him to the vet because he’s been chewed on by the opossum.   Either way doesn’t seem positive so George is staying inside today. He’ll get his afternoon walk, but he’s not going out back until I’ve seen evidence of their departure.

Classes have ended for the semester at the community college where I’ve been teaching. I decided that this was my last semester teaching there. There’s no opportunity for advancement and I’m tired of teaching essentially the same three classes over and over again, which has been the case for the past six years that I’ve taught there. I have occasionally had the opportunity to teach a creative writing or literature course when the full time faculty can’t, but it doesn’t happen often and between that and the abysmal pay check I find it time to move on.

I’m a creative type through and through, which when combined with my personality, tendency toward ADD and various other things, leads to needing to have a certain element of change in my life from day to day. I don’t thrive in situations that are repetitious, such as the one noted above, and when they are I feel like I’m stagnating which quickly leads to losing interest in the project, work, or whatever it is I’m engaged in. This is one of the reasons why I work best as a musician when I’m dealing with multiple projects simultaneously; it builds variety into the workplace and I’m able to shift focus in a way where I don’t lose interest.

I’m also a bit odd when it comes to my creative expression. This is closely tied to my tendencies toward being both an introvert and, to an extent, an extrovert. I seem to function at my best musically when I’m working on projects with other musicians, particularly from a performance perspective, and I creatively feed off the interplay between the musicians in producing the resulting performance. However, when it comes to writing, my other means of creative expression, it’s something that I need to do alone, preferably in a quiet environment with few opportunities for distraction. This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be involved in sharing with a community of writers or workshopping what I’ve written in order to get feedback, because I love that aspect of being a writer. What it does mean, however, is that when I am actually writing, I need that alone time otherwise I can’t get it done.

My blogs are a direct outgrowth of both of my interests, writing and music, and a way to work together the two aspects of my creative life in a way that makes sense. I’ve tried various ways to combine both of my major interests together. Originally I thought about songwriting as a means to do so, but found that while I am, upon occasion, good at writing poetry, that is not the case when it comes to writing song lyrics, so the blog seems to be one area where I can combine both interests well. When it comes down to it, in both areas what has really always excited me most is working with ideas, hammering them into shape and presenting them to the outside world. This has manifested itself in various types of writing, performing in different genres of music, and finding myself teaching both music and writing in one way or another.

So here I am once again down at the crossroads, not to make the proverbial deal, but rather to try to decide which fork in the road to take. I have come to the conclusion that while it might not be the most environmentally friendly route, I’m taking neither fork. What I need to do is not take the road most or less traveled, to borrow from Robert Frost, but instead make my own road and move on from there; so that’s what I’m doing and where this rambling monologue is going, a commitment to the creative life and acceptance of what goes along with it. There will be more on this and my usual topics in future blogs. Right now it’s time to start building, but first, a few minutes for George.

Musicality and the Quest for Technical Perfection

It’s odd, but a real thing. Sometimes musicians, in their quest for hitting the right notes at the right time, forget to be musical and need a reminder to get it together and make actual music. Hitting all of the right notes at the right time is important, yes, but quite frankly I’d rather hear a musical performance with a few mistakes here and there than one that was technically stellar but lacked the soul of the music. Phrasing and dynamics are two key aspects to providing some of the piece’s soul, but in order to make it all make sense the performer must have a solid understanding of what the piece has to say as well.

This is not to say that one needn’t put in the time to work toward technical perfection. The fact of the matter is that more often than not one of the main reasons the soul is missing is that the performer is under prepared technically. In this case the performer is struggling with simply putting everything where it’s supposed to be on the fretboard when it’s supposed to be there and for how long it’s supposed to be there. When one is struggling with this, the ability to focus on the musicality of the piece is severely hampered. So do you need to wait until you have the piece memorized to work in expression and imbuing the piece with life? To put it simply, no.

When we start working on a new piece we often start by sight reading as much as we can to give ourselves a chance to assess the piece in relationship to our abilities and get an idea of what sections will need the most work, as well as to give ourselves an idea of how long we can expect it to take to get it in hand. From there we should start working on the physical mechanics of learning the piece and start actively listening to others performing it, following with the score as well as simply listening to it. This gives us an assessment of what others have made of the piece, how they phrased sections and what dynamic shifts were present. Then we should start analyzing the score, looking for relationships between thematic motifs and the structure and additionally how much help the composer or arranger has given us through marking phrasing, dynamics, and additional instructions. This sets the stage for understanding how we should approach the piece both from a logical and emotional perspective. What is exactly being expressed in each section is there in the score but often takes some digging on the performer’s part in order to wring out the best presentation of the piece that we can. We need to work on this aspect of the piece in tandem with working on the physical ability to play the piece, because in reality this will often impact the choices we make in fingerings as well as where we are playing on the instrument physically.

Some folks firmly believe that the performer can only achieve a truly exemplary performance of the piece if it is memorized and I understand their perspective on this. Memorization implies an understanding of the music that has become an innate part of the performer; however, I believe that stellar performances aren’t necessarily tied to memorization skills. It is quite possible to be quite musical while having a score in front of you, as long as you have the understanding of the piece and are essentially using it as a reminder. Not having the piece memorized doesn’t mean it’s not ready for performance; it just means it’s not ready for performance from memory. Different people have different skill sets and some folks are simply not good at memorization. If those musicians waited until they had a piece memorized to perform it, they would have vast amounts of time waiting between performances that they could have given quite well with the score present. Let’s face it, most orchestral musicians do almost every performance with a score in front of them and still churn out wonderful performances. They have done the work, understand the music they are working with and bring it to life night after night without memorizing it. Yes, they have a conductor who helps, but nonetheless they have to do the work themselves to ensure the success of the performance.

If we adopt an approach where we learn the piece musically as well as physically simultaneously, the chances of delivering a sterile performance are dramatically reduced. What we want to achieve is a symbiotic relationship with each piece that we perform and in order to do so we have to understand that it is truly a symbiotic relationship. The score needs the musician to give it life and we need the score (or the piece) in order to do what we do. Neither is successful without a solid understanding and emotional connection between the performer and the piece. If this isn’t present we’re shortchanging the music, ourselves, and ultimately, the audience as well.

Rehearsals: Another Run-through or Are We going to get Something Accomplished?

Last spring I went to the Mid American Guitar Ensemble Festival in Fort Wayne, IN. The Festival had commissioned a guitar orchestra piece from Patrick Roux, a French-Canadian guitarist and composer with a long time association with the Canadian Guitar Quartet. The piece was to be performed by a guitar orchestra comprised of about 150 of the participants in the festival. The piece had its inherent challenges and was very much a contemporary classical piece, which I enjoyed participating in the world premier of. I must say that as much as I enjoyed the opportunity to work on the piece and perform it, I relished the opportunity to rehearse the piece under Roux’s directorship. All told we had close to five hours of concentrated rehearsal time under Roux’s baton and it was essentially a masterclass in how to run a solid rehearsal.

To be quite frank, most of the band rehearsals I’ve been involved with since graduating from music school have been poorly run, focused more on running tunes than actually focusing and working problem areas. We’re all supposed to do our homework, but more often than not it amounts to simply sketching out what our parts are and then coming to rehearsal to run tunes, with good enough as the predominant standard and if we went beyond notes into dynamics, it would be classified as an excellent rehearsal.   While this type of rehearsing does keep the frontal lobes tuned into the gross aspects for memory purposes, it does nothing to actually make the performance of the pieces better by fine tuning them, and if this is the type of rehearsal one comes to expect from a band, you can be certain that the band members are going to practice less on their own because fine tuning isn’t expected.

Roux, on the other hand, focused more on timing, phrasing, dynamics and sections rather than consistently running the entire piece. Out of the time we spent, he maybe had us run the piece in its entirety four times, which accounted for about 40 minutes of the rehearsal. The rest of the time was very focused, with no breaks, nor time misspent by relating anecdotes or going off on tangents. We were gathered for one purpose and one purpose only, to work on the piece in front of us and present the best version of it possible in the limited time we had, and that is exactly what we did during the time allotted. One might think that this was all accomplished through a rigid approach and an iron hand at the wheel, but this was not the case. Roux was demanding, yes, but everything was couched in good natured terms and requests, even when he was essentially giving orders. He did what he needed to do, so did we, and we were all quite happy with the results.

This approach carried over to the performance master classes given under Roux and the current members of the Canadian Guitar Quartet. Once the performers finished their performance, the critiques began. All of them were good natured, and while their delivery varied due to their different personalities, the critiques were solid, focused with precision, and involved working on sections, phrasing, attack, dynamics, breathing (both physically and within the piece), matching tone and color, and numerous other aspects. None of it was running through the piece repeatedly, but instead was entirely focused on what needed attention. I was impressed with the sometimes even radical improvements that were made within the allotted 30 minute time slots. This, in total, seven hour window into their world gave a solid experience with what exactly a good rehearsal consists of and just how much can be accomplished through doing so.

Since my experience this spring, I’ve been back in rehearsal with the band I was with when I went to MAGEF. I wish I could say that my experience at MAGEF has wrought change in how the band I’m currently with rehearses, but that hasn’t been the case. I have seen changes in how my classical group rehearses, but it has yet crossed over into my other genre-oriented group despite attempting to instill some changes in how the rehearsals have been run. Old habits can be extremely difficult to change, particularly when everyone isn’t on the same page. It is frustrating to experience the way things could be and then come back to the way they are, but once you’ve done it the right way and seen the rewards, changes must be made.

How does Success become a Source for Band Conflict?

Conflict within a band is one of the most disruptive elements that can occur. Everyone has a disagreement with someone else at some time or other; it’s something that goes hand in hand with being a human being. Usually this type of situation doesn’t have a lasting impact, because if the band members who are experiencing contention actually discuss the issue at hand most frequently the issue will be resolved through the discussion and folks get back to work. The type of conflict that does the greatest harm is ongoing and long lasting where it becomes the usual order of business. This can develop into a downright toxic relationship that affects the entire group, not just those directly involved in the conflict. It develops into a poison, which creeps through the group and eventually will result in the band’s demise due to irreconcilable differences between the sources of the conflict, and/or other band members leaving due to the unnecessary stress that has been created. It can even get to the point where replacing departing band members can be a problem because the musicians auditioning witness the conflict at hand, or sense it during the audition and want nothing to do with it. Let’s face it, who wants to work in a hostile environment?

Many bands are comprised of people who initially come together as individuals in a start up situation and end up spending quite a bit of time together, working as a group to get the project off the ground and into the club circuit. This type of situation builds a sense of comraderie, friendship, and unity that can often be seen on stage and becomes a basis for long-term relationships between the members. The start up stage of any band is actually the easiest when it comes to building and maintaining relationships because, for one thing, everyone is clearly on the same page in terms of the goals for the band. The immediate goals are simply to gather and polish enough material to get out there and start gigging. Often the members have day jobs, and place limits on what the goals entail, like gigging, say twice a month, with a once a week rehearsal schedule. The members tend to be enthusiastic, partly because it’s a new fresh experience, and also because any issues or problems are in the future. Things continue to be good as the band starts to get the one to two gigs per month they were targeting.

Some bands simply continue with this model, either because they’re only good enough to do one or two performances a month or the person booking the band only has enough time to book one or two. Booking also becomes complicated by the individual members’ schedules and attitudes toward availability. Family time takes precedence and the members are content with being occasional weekend warriors. However, some bands discover that they are actually good bands that are capable of doing more than the occasional gig, and usually what happens in this situation is that it turns out that some members are more than willing to expand beyond the one to two gigs per month format. They want to see the band grow into something closer to their inner dreams, so as the doors start opening they start saying yes to performing more often. This is fine until one digs in his or her heels about it, particularly if that individual is the front for the band.

At this point we have a classic situation where the goals that were set have been met, but now the group wants to establish a new set of goals that will take the band’s growth beyond where a member or members is/are willing to pursue. If the band member doesn’t want to lose his or part in the band but is unwilling to move forward, conflict will ensue and become an ugly situation rather quickly. If one key person within the band doesn’t want to do something, he or she can very easily disrupt whatever progress the band is making, simply by saying no to bookings. The power of a key member’s “I’m not available on that date” can be the death knell for the band’s ability to work with booking and management agencies. It is the killer of the dreams of other members and the blockage to building the momentum required to take the group to the next level. It then becomes the catalyst for conflict due to escalating frustration levels on both sides of the coin, and can readily be the cancer that kills the band.

Ultimately what should happen in these situations is that there should be open and transparent discussion about what the entire group wants to do. If the bulk of the group honestly wants to welcome the opportunities as they come, then the outlier must either concede, come up with a shared role option (such as there being two front people in the band), or accept that the situation has changed and give notice while the band searches for a replacement. Fighting growth and the natural order of things is the surest way to kill a band, and any relationships that have been established in the band. It also shows a lack of professionalism, even if you are one of the founding members of the group. When conflict escalates to the point where people start leaving the band, particularly when they aren’t even the ones creating the conflict, it not only hurts the progress made by the band, but it also damages professional as well as personal relationships. If you are the source of the conflict you are basically ensuring that the people who leave due to the conflict aren’t going to be in any hurry to work with you in the future, nor are they going to recommend you to anyone else who is in need of a replacement or sub. This is not the type of drama people want to experience in their bands, nor is it what they pay for when they go to see a band.

Dealing with Emotional Difficulties and Performance

Fear is something we all face at some point or other. Fear ranges from the subtle undercurrent of unease to light and deep levels of anxiety into absolute terror. It affects us in many ways, but more often than not is debilitating, affecting the quality of our day-to-day lives and inevitably our ability to perform. The more powerful fear becomes the more it links to our fight or flight impulse and the farther it gets from our ability to reason. It can become an obsession very quickly and monopolize our lives despite our desires for it to be otherwise.

As musicians, fear can have a disastrous effect on our performances in various ways. We’ve all experienced stage fright at some point or other with dry mouth, shaky hands, sometimes accompanied by nausea and memory slips. Usually this passes during the performance, once we get going with things, and for many of us after we gain experience performing, we find the incidences of stage fright to fade away, never or rarely to be experienced again. But that doesn’t mean that we’re no longer subject to fear and the accompanying debilitations, because we are human beings with complex lives, relationships and potential health problems. What happens in our non-performance lives does impact us holistically and crosses over into our stage lives all too frequently.

As performers we have all heard the cliché “the show must go on,” and we do our best to adhere to that maxim. As musicians we have it drilled into our heads that unless you, or someone you love has died (even then there are caveats), you’re hospitalized or otherwise incarcerated, you will still perform the gig you’ve been contracted to perform. A case in point was when my paternal grandmother died whom I loved very much. I was in college at the time pursuing my musical dreams. On the day she died my parents called to let me know and make arrangements for me to picking me up in the next day or so to go to her funeral. I had a performance that evening, and that’s what I did, perform. I was an emotional mess, filled with a sense of loss I’d never truly felt before, but I still had a job to do, and I did it to the best of my abilities. It doesn’t matter how sad you are, how afraid you are, how sick you feel, or whatever is affecting you personally, you are supposed to show and perform to the best of your abilities. There is no paid vacation, sick leave, bereavement leave, or any of the other benefits of a formal job in the corporate world. You perform, or someone else takes your job.

When you are dealing with a strong emotional influence, such as debilitating fear, it makes it extraordinarily difficult to perform at any level, particularly when you’re approaching panic levels on a regular basis. Fear is a major point of stress, so it basically boils down to stress management. First, try to step back from the emotion as much as you can so you can try to engage your logical self in the situation. Physical activity also helps, so hitting the gym, going for a run or walk, or cycling, can help put you physically in a better place through getting the endorphins pumping. Meditation helps many people settle into a more peaceful state. Making lists of things that need to be done and then getting busy working on them helps too. In other words, try to occupy your mind and your body as much as you can. It will yield benefits that help to counteract whatever is having the negative influence on your emotional well-being.

The most important thing to do is take care of yourself and your relationships. If you do so then ultimately the primary sources for stress will be maintained to the best of your abilities, thus lowering the potential for stress. There will always be the unexpected to deal with, from mild to catastrophic, but if you are taking care of your business, health (both mental and physical), and working toward your goals, then chances are you’re going to be hitting more in the way of bumps in the road than downed bridges.

Disconnectedness: I’ve Done this 100 Times Before so Why Can’t I Today?

Some days things just don’t work. No matter how hard you try, nor how many times you approach the issue, it’s just a doomed scenario from the start. We all experience those days where there’s a disconnect, whether it’s mental, emotional, physical, or even some combination of all of the above. It happens during performances, rehearsals, and practice sessions; nothing is sacred when it comes to the disconnected moment. I even had a moment once, where I was about to start playing a gig and I had forgotten how to play. For a brief moment it was like someone had pushed the reset button on my brain and all knowledge about the instrument had been wiped clean. It was quite brief; then I felt an almost physical snap inside my brain and it was back almost like a fuse had been reset. Not fun, but it worked out. Thankfully that was a matter of seconds, but the point is sometimes for whatever reason beyond our understanding, things don’t just work. So what do we do as musicians to deal with this?

One way we work through this issue is simply going through the motions. If we’re on a gig, we play the notes, work through the night and are thankful when our instruments go back into the gigbags and cases, chalking the night up as water under the bridge that we’d rather forget about. When it’s a rehearsal, it usually results in apologies to bandmates for underperforming, but can also lead to an evening or afternoon of uneasy conflict because several folks are having the same issue and frustration levels start to rise and spill outward. But we keep plugging away and chasing a brief moment of focus so we can salvage something from the rehearsal. The same goes for our individual practice sessions. We simply keep slogging forward, figuring that if we go through the motions we’ll at least reap the benefits of putting in the time.

Another way we deal with it, when we have the luxury, is to simply pack it in for the day, figuring that since it appears that it’s not in the cards for today we might as well refocus our energies elsewhere where we might feel like we’re making some progress. This can be advantageous in some situations such as a practice session where you’re making mistakes repeatedly in passages that are normally not an issue. Stopping prevents remapping these passages into future problems through a steady stream of negative reinforcement, essentially learning the mistakes and memorizing them to be drawn upon at a later date to our increased frustration. Sometimes we accept the pattern for the day, and instead of packing it in immediately, we run through things just to keep the fingers moving, at least. This is often the case with the rehearsal situation as well with the end result being a shorter rehearsal than scheduled but everyone just sighing and figuring the next rehearsal will be more productive.

The worst thing we do in these situations is start to rail at ourselves because for one thing it simply makes the situation worse. Getting angry compounds the inner resistance to the flow of musicality and assists in throwing up walls preventing progress. It also has the tendency to carry the issue further along the time line, effectively lengthening how much time is devoted to the affliction. Anger also has the tendency to spread the negative vibe to your bandmates who have all experienced the same thing, shifting their empathy to resentment of you’re being an ass on top of being disconnected. This is particularly a nasty way to deal with it when on a gig because the disconnect is now being broadcast to everyone in a massive flow of negative hostile energy. What went from a quiet personal issue is now everyone else’s and nobody wants that.

Whatever way we choose to deal with our bouts of disconnectedness, we need to ensure that we accept them for what they are, temporary setbacks that everyone experiences. Usually they are short experiences that disappear the next day. Sometimes they last for longer periods and can be linked to other issues we’re experiencing that are messing with our subconscious trains of thought, upsetting our inner balance and causing us to be preoccupied with other things than the immediate moment. No matter what it is that is fueling the experience, empathy helps. Don’t be afraid to extend that empathy to yourself. Allow yourself the understanding you would extend to others, and remember, tomorrow is definitely another day.