Sketches of a dry spell
Last week, I shared two videos of my practicing. They showcase my playing at… far from its best. My sound wasn’t there, intonation was off, among other things.
When I first started sharing videos of my practicing, the idea was to be transparent about life as a musician graduating from college into a pandemic.
When I watched the movie "Soul," I loved many parts of the film, but couldn't relate to the protagonist's genius level of musicianship, effortlessly pristine after decades of obscurity. For most of us, obscurity means working twice as hard — not only to keep our playing at its best, but to invest long, regular hours despite the absence of external motivation.
After graduation, I had a lot of confidence about my playing. It expressed the richness of knowledge & inspiration that four years in Carnegie Mellon’s flute studio had given me.
So I started publishing videos of my practicing, relishing the freedom of holding space for less-than-perfect playing. Crucially, my playing was the best it had ever been.
This month, my playing has been frustratingly stale. Despite more consistent practice than other months, playing has felt dry, mechanical, almost forced. Publishing video clips didn’t really seem like an option.
But last week, I recorded myself & published them, anyway. The videos were evidence to myself that I was showing up & doing the work — even with extra bakery shifts, even with the discouragement of not seeing any improvement.
I shared them here, partly to keep myself accountable. Theoretically, if I kept practicing, I'd be able to share better recordings next time. But things were looking bleak — right up until today, when I was practicing scales & my sound finally started to come back.
For me, the quality of my sound makes the difference between making music as a discipline, versus something honestly magical, an escape into another reality. Technical exercises become joyful. Notes become living sound.
Not my best sound, but definitely progress. Here, I'm reading through a new piece. This is the beginning of a fun process of deciding what the notes mean, what kind of energy to give them, what story to tell — but if my sound isn't where I want it to be, it all seems to collapse.
“What kinds of stories are you most interested in telling?” I asked the kids at a creative expression workshop last summer. My own storytelling had been rooted in experiences of isolation & dissonance. I encouraged them to revel in unanswered questions, to find a place for creativity within uncertainty & tension.
(As I look back, this was an alarmingly angsty message to send to a group ranging from 7-year-olds to high-schoolers. Fortunately, someone chimed in about creating from a place of joy.)
In teaching the workshop, I was reflecting on my own creative development throughout college. For me, uncertainty & tension sprouted from constantly feeling stretched between disciplines — knowing parts of me belonged in both, but never being enough for either.
For my senior capstone, I created a short film that translated four years of uncertainty & tension into a story about identity, race, & belonging as a classical musician. This experience shaped my approach to creativity.
On the phone with a friend a few days ago, I admitted how hard it has been for me to stay motivated, or at least focused, on creative work. This summer is the longest stretch I’ve gone without collaborating with someone musically — the longest stretch in which it’s entirely up to me to keep my playing (and in some sense, my identity as a musician) alive.
At the same time, my Patreon now has the support of 32 people (!). While the growth of my Patreon is a profoundly encouraging sign of other people's belief in my creative potential, if I lose sight of my values, it can make a dry spell feel like a ravine I have to claw my way out of, to validate my worthiness of their support.
My friend responded that they would love to hear about what a dry spell looks like for me. Suddenly, possibilities stirred in my mind. It reminded me of what I told those kids a year ago — that it’s possible to be creative, that you can still have something to express, even when life isn’t feeding you any compelling, luminous moments of inspiration.
But it's also okay to have nothing to express, to give yourself time to rest & listen. This has been one of the hardest lessons. I'm learning to trust that people have decided to support my Patreon not because they expect concrete deliverables, but because they support the vision of a career I'm working towards, and are willing & able to express that financially.
Despite the wealth of inspirational quotes about how inspiration matters less than work ethic, I've had to unearth what this means amid the unexplored terrain of being out of school, building my own career.
As someone fresh out of college, inspiration has characterized much of the past year for me. It gave rhythm to my creative process as I worked on some intensely demanding projects — from a 20-minute original soundtrack, to a piece of creative writing about my tattoos.
But inspiration will come & go; creative energy will come & go. Some months will be more productive than others, others will be marked by stillness. This, I’m learning, is part of the flow of being a creative.