Sometimes it takes a while to take a hint.
One of the vestiges that I have clung to from my pre-teaching days is the idea that I can compose at any time during the year, regardless of what else is going on in my life. I’ve prided myself on the fact that I could “turn it on” when I found time and could write effectively well into the night, negotiating my composing schedule around any other commitments I may have had. Over the years these ideas became habit and affected what type of projects I would take on and when I would estimate I could accomplish them.
As you might imagine, such habits are not exactly healthy and they have indeed slowly crumbled over the past five years—not surprisingly, the exact amount of time since I took a full-time teaching position. I had been teaching a fair amount before moving to western New York, so balancing my composing and teaching duties was not a new dragon to slay; both visiting and adjunct positions were challenging, but did not stand in the way of my writing projects. But recently—say, the past two to three years—it has become increasingly difficult to find that delicate balance.
The knee-jerk reaction to such a situation is to look at the amount of time that I have allotted towards composing compared to my other duties, as if time is the crux of the problem. And, of course, my calendar has become a bit more crowded—not only with the myriad responsibilities that come with academia (read: committees, curriculum paperwork, guest artists, more committees, etc.), but with the various other projects that I seem to create for myself (read: my interviews/book project, the column you are currently reading, etc.). My initial response to that knee-jerk reaction has been that I’ve dealt with such challenges before and my time-juggling skills are efficient enough that I should be able to manage.
The past few weeks have been nudging me in the ribs, telling me that my old habits may need to be revisited. The fall semester had been quite barren as far as compositional productivity was concerned, which didn’t bode well for the projects that were due by the end of the year. It wasn’t until the day after my final exams were finished that the wellspring finally decided to produce results, and over the following days I wrote more in a week than I had in four months; the works had been thought about, mulled over, planned, and re-planned, but the notes had been elusive till then. Those of us who create know how this feels, and once you’re riding that wave, you don’t question it—just close your eyes and hold on for dear life.
My interviews with other composers have consistently brought up not only the concept of time (which I discussed last year), but also the ability to clear one’s head and allow oneself to be open to whatever comes. I am convinced that it was the combination of unbroken chunks of time to work and the blessed freedom to not think about anything else other than the music in front of me that was the impetus for this latest creative watershed. Time itself is a requirement, to be sure, but the addition of “headspace” is both an obvious and easily overlooked necessity for creativity, and two of my resolutions this year are to explore how to both find more headspace and, taking a hint, to be more realistic when gauging when I can be productive.
I’m very interested to hear what you do to deal with this idea of headspace. The comment section is open for business!