Farewell to January
I love the opportunity for a fresh start. I love Mondays (it’s true), I love a new month, and I love beginning. Januarys are often about beginnings (or at least pretending to), and I’m doing my best to squeeze out every drop.
It seems strangely inspiring to me that this fresh start happens in the coldest, darkest, most bitter winter months. There’s usually always a few snow/cold days in January, when everything shuts down and we get to be quiet and isolated together, but apart. That damp, quiet snow-sound feels like it insulates the whole month. It’s probably my favorite time to write music, when everything is frozen and quiet and bitterly lonesome. and this month has been no different.
Slowly, we start growing from within, and week by week, we start to expand and come back alive. Since January 1st, my slow growing is committing to practicing everyday, and the results this first month have been inspiring. I’ve tried this in years past with some success, but ultimately would let go for a few days eventually. But it has been a month now, and it feels comforting and encouraging. Especially towards the end of the month, I am noticing concrete improvements in speed, and I am getting through more material.
Probably the most powerful advantage, though, is to my mental health. I am definitely someone who feels the Seasonal Affective Disorder strongly, and practicing everyday always seems to re-align my brain, like some sort of mental chiropractor. It’s some time to myself (especially after a day of teaching), and some time where I can focus on improving myself. I remember one specific lesson at NIU, when I was in a lesson with Greg and he talked to me about practicing. He said practicing is like a prayer. It’s sacred, special time for you to not just learn something, but to improve on yourself as a human being. I love that sentiment, and I’ve tried to approach my practice time as A practice, as opposed to just practicing.
I’ve always struggled with practicing, and have had lots of moments in my life where I’ve created elaborate rituals and processes around feeling better about practicing. I don’t do well with negative pressure, and it always felt like if I didn’t make the best use of my time, I’d be falling behind. I felt a constant negative pressure where there should have been light. Recently, I was hugely relieved as I watched a video of Esperanza Spalding and Andrew Bird, and she confessed to hating practicing until about a year ago. She said she practiced so she could play with other people. I was astonished, and felt so validated in the years I spent wrestling with it! Turns out we’re never alone.
The rules for me now are simple: Do it. No time requirements, literally just touch my instrument once a day. Of course, once I sit down and get through warm ups, I explore and play and do my best to balance vocabulary building and composition learning with experimentation and literal play, and then an hour later, sometimes more, I’ve done some things. And I am always back the next day. This also keeps keeps my priorities right in front of me every day. I’m here to create and improve, and this is how I do it.
My momentum for these new beginnings was actually launched this fall. I was feeling burned out and disconnected with teaching, and I knew I needed to recharge in some deeper ways. I decided to go through The Artist’s Way with a friend. If you haven’t heard of it - it is by Julia Cameron, and it is a 12 week course in unblocking your creativity. It was a wonderfully unsettling experience. The book sets you up to put yourself in touch with the many negative and self-berating thoughts that float around in all of our heads, and then to counteract them. It posits that creativity is a fluid, playful, child-like process, and that we need to be open to it, and open to the multifaceted ways it lives in our lives. I’ve often fallen in the trap of thinking that I am one way or another way, and not allowing myself to try something different for awhile. I wrapped it up in December (it took me about 4 months to get through), and I’ve even started it’s sequel. It is similar, but like the Artist's Way, it’s full of things anyone who is trying to make art today needs to hear regularly.
One of the most important things I’ve taken away from this book is letting all the facets of your creativity and personality go free. There are lists of things I’d wanted to do, but music always seemed like the only thing, and I sacrificed for it regularly, without question. Since having gone through the Artists’ Way, I started taking a hip-hop dance class, played at an open mic, started sharing my process more generously (#tablatuesday), and its actually why I am writing this blog post right now. I want a way to share all the things I am working on and processing in a way that’s honest, and I also want to write more.
Throughout this month, I’ve been working on writing music and applying to as many things as I want (grants, extra jobs, extra grant jobs…). Writing is a pretty significant emotional process for me sometimes. I stand up for my work once it is finished and I know it, but I have a hard time sharing while I am in the process, which is necessary sometimes. I reached a critical point in a piece I was working on, and I felt stuck and emotional, when the first couple of lines from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese popped into my head. The first few lines, especially, have kept me moving on this path of acceptance and creativity in this icy, bitter time. Remembering those lines felt like the little seed of hope in January, that’s just starting to crack open under the soil. Her reading is beautiful and moving, please do yourself the favor of checking it out here. I’ll leave you with these few lines to say goodbye to January.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
~ Mary Oliver