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I am trying something new.
In addition to waking up at 5:00am each day as a way of giving myself time to nurture myself physically, creatively, and emotionally, I am setting myself a creative challenge:
I have to create SOMETHING every single week.
I am a full-time secondary school music teacher, so this is an audacious ask. But more and more I am drawn to the truth that creativity is so essential to my wellbeing that I need to explore the constructs of it in more detail.
Composing and writing for me are double-edged saws. I love to express myself and get to the heart of what I am trying to say, yet I struggle and circle endlessly in a painful creative agony getting started when I try to be creative during the term.
I know exactly what it is; it’s the fact that my “creative craft” during the week is teaching; this is where I am being my most imaginative, where I am have the playful and creative conversations, and where I am problem-solving like a MF. All my energies are poured into the classroom.
But I am giving outwards, this is not a creativity that necessary nurtures me fully.
I’ve also discovered that when I am confronted with a choral commission, or a creative piece of work, or even just knowing myself during the term, I am like a stoppered bottle. I feel as if I have to scrape the layer off the outside of myself to find the good stuff, or even just stuff!, and then I wander around with handfuls of words like a sleep-walker trying to figure out what I am trying to say.
I am beginning to see that to care for myself as a creative being, I need to be creative on a weekly and daily basis. Not just for others, but for myself.
So here’s the challenge:
In taking the creative reins I am reaching for a bigger point of healing; while I consider myself playful, imaginative and courageous in the realm of creativity, I haven’t practised the scope of my language, and the repertoire of sounds and words I can use to express myself.
And secondly, I wonder if I have ever written solely for myself. It’s a stark realisation, and one that I am heading straight into with a sense of wild freedom and adventure!
If there was any doubt in the value of Music, or The Arts, then just think: What is it that you say the moment you meet someone who has created something that has affected you like nothing else could, changed you from the inside out, and tapped into the reserves of light and humanity that you didn’t know existed?
You grab their hands, or hug them breathless and say T H A N K Y O U.
As I luxuriate in free time and start to really trust that I am on holidays, I find myself completely engrossed in various creative ventures. With complete freedom from a teaching schedule, from holding the reins, from mentoring, guiding, loving and problem-solving, directing and inspiring in choir rehearsals, and all together doing work akin to air-traffic control on a daily basis, I find my mind absolutely alive with creativity.
I am joyfully alive, and so happy to engage in playful conversation with myself, the world, and all those creative ideas which have lain dormant for months. Oh, the joy of realising that pathway back into myself is still there, despite the hammering my energy levels and creative being have taken through everyday work!
I find myself writing words and looking back on my experiences, re-living events, examining happenings, and honing my descriptions on a daily basis in a way that makes my own heart flip with recognition. I realise that I have been so busy, and so mentally and emotionally stretched by teaching, that sometimes I do not recognise myself in my words during the school term.
Just keep going, you know the drill.
Journalling now is pin-prick accurate. It is both enlightening, and lighten-ing. My mind feels lighter, like there’s more room and freedom for ideas to play and be seen. There is no protective film or professional work-front to get through; I can just be. And it’s not to say that I am two different people, but there is a treadmill and speed that comes from teaching which inevitably puts you into “teaching go-mode”.
Two speeds, on or off.
Being reflective and compassionate in my teaching costs every ounce of energy I have, and it is solely directed at the students under my care. I give my time and energy freely, completely in love with my work.
I am playing the piano as if I am painting my every feeling and emotion, every sound is a colour that I shape like words being formed. I’m not practising accompaniments, or hurriedly cobbling together a transcription, I am playing from the heart. My heart. I am playing and creating for the pure joy of playing, and it is intoxicating. Plus, those of you who know the hoops I have jumped through in the last three weeks as a teacher and accompanist will know that I also have a fierce ulterior motive for practising; a somewhat fiery determination to play + hone my technique (and sass) to play the goddamn arse off my Year 12 accompaniments. But I digress…!
I am composing as if I am speaking. It’s magical to be playing with a palette of words, like coloured beads, and creating a thread of sound which is both an expression of my thoughts, a message I want to bring to life, and a connection of music and living ideas. It’s slippery, frustrating work, catching and refining those beautiful, elusive melodies, and yet it’s a conversation I am absolutely, completely enraptured by.
And I look at all that I am doing; journalling, writing, reading, composing, speaking, creating and I ask myself: What right do I have to be this creative in so many different fields?
Yes, I am on holidays and I have time to indulge my creative self and spirit. But shouldn’t I choose one place to refine? One place to strive for excellence, and to hone my ideas? Why am I being so selfish, so carefree, so audacious with my creativity that I am squandering hours joyfully engrossed in everything expressive?
How wasteful. How audacious. How selfish!
And then I think: Why shouldn’t I?
I am not being creative to strive toward excellence, even though I know that if I do it for long enough, excellence comes off what I create naturally, like a heat and light that others gravitate toward.
I am being creative for myself. I have a voice that is fluid and alive in many different mediums, why shouldn’t I delight in using it?
It actually doesn’t matter if I don’t reach a level of excellence in anything that I do at this moment in time; the only thing that matters is that I create.
That I create because I am human, with a heart that works, and a spirt that is alive.
That I create because I feel, and that alone is enough for expression in any medium.
That I create because I am moved to do so, filled with inspiration and something to say.
That I create because it creates freedom, movement and life within my cells, mind and body, to allow new ideas to connect, and new understandings to form.
I am not creating for anyone. I am creating because I am human with a voice.
I can hold as many paint brushes, notes, sounds, keys, words, threads, and ideas as I want.
Create with quiet regularity and commitment long enough, with enough openness and courage, and excellence and uniqueness will resonate from my words, my music, my playing, my conducting, my voice, and my ideas. The authenticity will be unmistakeable.
Let me remember that I am creating for myself first, and if it resonates with others, then I am lucky and joyful indeed. If my creative and artistic endeavours gives voice, understanding, and connection to others, then what a privilege be allowed to affect them.
If I’ve moved someone with my creative work, well then, T H A N K Y O U.
For allowing me to move you.
I have recently come back from directing the Young Composer School at Gondwana Voices National Choral School, a role that I have relished as it combined the paradox of creativity with the responsibility of quality choral education.
Creatives who are choral composers are always asked to straddle the line between imaginative possibility and what choirs are able to do for them. Write a work that is too specialised, and only the very best choirs with well-developed technical ability can perform them. Write a work that is too juvenile and simple, and choirs will find it unsatisfying on both counts. Even more than for instrumental writing, choral composition requires the composer to write as both a creative and an educator.
Write a piece that resonates with choristers of a certain age-bracket and ability, enhances their vocal development, and expands their performance confidence + sound, and you will have a sustainable and well-loved piece of repertoire which has the power to affect choristers long after the final performance of the piece.
And this is where I find complete joy; trying to find that sweet spot. I write like an educator, always looking for words that will stick, and what feels good on the voice, and how to create a choral framework whereby a developing choir will feel and sound good performing my pieces. I also seek to extend and develop quality vocal technique but in the “Mary-Poppins-spoon-full-of-sugar” kind of way, through embedding choral technique in a way that it is unnoticed until you have reaped the rewards of it through rehearsing and performing an engaging piece of music.
And this is what I have spent that last week mentoring and teaching to the young composers at Gondwana NCS.
I had an incredibly nostalgic realisation during the choral school; that when I was 25 years old, someone took a chance on me as a young composer. That someone was the artistic director of Sydney Children’s Choir, Lyn Williams, who saw something worth developing in my writing and in my love of choral education. Now, at age 37, I realise that my time for looking for mentors is being overlapped by actually doing the mentoring myself. Rather than cold-calling for mentorship, I am now cold-calling to mentor. When I see that spark of determination, uniqueness of voice, a love of the voice, dedication to developing as a composer, resiliency, and a talent that resonates with my own creative values, it is my job and privilege to offer to nurture that talent.
And so I did this. There were two stand-out composers in my small group of 7, and I wrote emails acknowledging the manner with which they embraced the composing school, their quality of work, and their ability to collaborate in a healthy and productive way whilst still maintaining their creative voice.
It’s now my responsibility to look for places where I can shine the torch on the brilliant and innovative young talent coming through. And what an honour to look at things so differently, whilst still having the chance to work as a creative myself.
It feels enlightening to be holding the torch and illuminating the journey from the other side!
Each day, we do our best. And each day, we need to look for ways to strive to be more, to push our boundaries, to be inspired by others, and to be humbled.
This is today’s dose of all that for me. Beautiful, inspiring, and humbling. A reminder of how strong and supple we all are, how innately beautiful, courageous, and creative.
Don’t live within the boundaries. Nobody knows they can be pushed up against and broken unless someone does it. You can’t live life always looking for an example of “someone who’s done it”.
Why don’t you be in the front line, and go and do the impossible?
Oh, that war with creating + creativity which drives us creatives mad. And, if you’re a working-creative, as most of us are because we like to eat, then finding snippets of time can be such a challenge.
But, for those of you out there who love to create, answer me this. How much more yourself and alive do you feel after you’ve directed that creative, imaginative energy someplace? Even if starting the project is absolutely excruciating, when you are in it up to your armpits, making, generating, imagining, dreaming, gathering, speaking, composing, writing – whatever your means of creating, after you share a little bit of yourself with yourself and the world, you cannot help but feel more whole.
As Brené Brown advocated from her research, “Un-used creativity is dangerous. It metastasises.”
We are deeply human, and therefore, we must create.
Finding my voice in all the tiredness and noise is an immense challenge, and one I’d like to explore more deeply in 2019. I am a composer + writer, and a full-time teacher. My teaching takes every bit of creativity and energy from me, but I find that when I am composing + writing, I have a voice that is uniquely my own, and I owe it to myself to nurture and celebrate more consistently. How can I be an effective teacher of a creative subject if I do not explore my own creativity? Just as I am a practicing musician, I would like to consciously make time and room to be a practicing creative.
Finding my voice. When I am on the work treadmill, in go-mode, my truly authentic and creative voice takes a while to surface. I would like to find a pathway back to that voice by practising using it, by playing with ideas. I can find time, always, but finding the strength of purpose to commit to practising my creative voice will be a habit which requires focus + persistence. But when I find that voice and I am in the sweet spot of creating, there is nothing more real or authentic. And then, what I have to hand on to my students in composing + creating becomes more relevant + meaningful.
Creativity as a practice. Creativity doesn’t just spring up when bidden like a willing genie. In fact, it’s the most unwillingly, cunning, slippery little son-of-a-biatch that I’ve ever met. Like most teachers, I can find whatever time you need me to find in a week if I try hard enough. But finding the headspace?! Good luck! So, as with practising the authenticity of voice, I am going to commit to practising my creativity like a habit. This will mean writing, performing, playing with ideas, working snippets of melodies, active listening, and analysis. I cannot grow without drinking in all the inspiration around me on a regular basis, and I know that I would like to be purposeful in my creative ventures, rather than leaving them to chance. Therefore, my creativity will be a hobby that I will pick and prod away at with curiosity, purpose, and a new level of responsibility.
Daydreaming. To the complete opposite end of the spectrum to everything I have just said, I’d like to find unstructured daydreaming time, where ideas can be immersed in rich, creative limbo and take shape + structure. These times will very likely be in the shower, on my drive to school, on my morning walks, my weekend runs, or anytime that I have where I do not have to actively be engaged with anything else. I am going to allow myself permission to do sweet nothing and daydream.
Play. I look back at my 25-year-old self and realise I was so innately playful as a young composer + teacher. While the joy and authenticity is still there, I want to be in it all, being the one who throws the confetti into the air, or who asks the crazy “what if?” Being playful in how I approach my daily tasks will strengthen not only my problem-solving abilities, but keep my creative muscle strong. It also requires regular leaps of faith, something that becomes all too easy to sidestep the older we get.
Tiredness. This one is an eternal challenge, and the thing which most quickly kills creativity. For this, I would like to tap into my tiredness and temper it with a gentler creative activity; reading, writing, or active listening. I lost a lot of time this year in mindless busy-work versions of procrastination, and if I were able to gently discipline and guide those moments of tiredness, I might restore my energy levels in a much more productive and artistic manner.
Start. This one is excruciating, and if you’re a creative, you will damn well know what I mean. So this one is simple. JUST START. Do the shitty first draft, do the totally rubbish throw-down of lyrics, or chords, or melodic ideas. Because from the rubble will come a gem, and from that start will grow embers of excitement and discipline. You cannot pick when ownership will take shape on a creative project, but it always does. Inevitably, there is always a connection, a moment where you fall in love with what you’re doing. There is ALWAYS a turning point.
Authentically human. Create for the sake of using my voice, and because I am so completely human. Not for an audience, not with untold limits. The fact that I am creating art must be for myself, so that someone else might be moved and see themselves reflected in what I have to say. There is no greater drain on creativity than when you create with the expectation that you will please someone, or conform to someone else’s ideals. Even in a commissioned work, the voice must be authentic. Set down your framework and requirements, be it words, vocal ranges, abilities, and so forth. Then play within the parameters. You voice begins there.
Yes, I’m a Year 6-12 Specialist Classroom Music teacher, but being in a secondary school comes with hilarious and awesome benefits. Like being asked to RIDE A STUDENT-BUILT HOVERCRAFT!
This was the coolest thing ever. We had Year 8 Science Week and a KID BUILT A HOVERCRAFT, from a leaf-blower, piece of wood, and a lightweight plastic chair.
WHAT. A. CHAMP.
The gala piece that became the Olympic free skate for Adam Rippon.
And the story behind it which I never knew until now; a strong capable leader of the flock injured and in recovery, creating a new strength + redefining themselves.
A reflection of Adam’s own personal journey and his confidence in defining his own artistry, which in my opinion stands him apart from the crowd despite not having the technical merit of the top contenders.
Amazing, the light that shines when we each of us commit to being authentic.
My new laptop decal. My students get even more excited about these than I do!
And note the TOTALLY GORGEOUS Tiff Manuell laptop case, a belated b’day gift this year. LOOOOOVE!