Expressing Creativity in Uncertain Times

I never imagined that the many limitations enforced by coronavirus would act as a creative stimulus, but I’ve consistently been astonished to see profound, moving, astonishing and wonderfully silly moments on social media since the advent of corona virus.

It’s got me thinking about creativity and constraint. Constraints can push us into new and unexpected territory. As artists, we often find it useful to impose deliberate constraints upon ourselves as a way of firing up new ideas.

Some poets and writers give themselves prompts, for example including a certain number of unrelated words from a list, writing in a particular form, or in words of only one syllable. Not having access to the words we normally use can oblige us to experiment and thus make new discoveries. It might sound strange on one hand, but, on the other, it can result in fresh and interesting work, and the writer avoids the terror of staring at a blank page and wondering what to say.

Likewise, musicians may give themselves limitations, like only practising a few bars of a piece or using a specific technique, or only composing for a particular ensemble, or using an unusual scale or rhythmic pattern.

In the following clip, we get to experience an orchestra as individuals seen up close and personal in their own living quarters, finding ways to make music together nonetheless.


A scattered orchestra reassembles virtually to play the piece of music we most associate with unity.

In my impro class (theatre games), our teacher often gives us seemingly impossible briefs- for example, in a group of three, only two can sit at any one time, so whenever one person sits, another ends up on her feet. Meanwhile we’re only allowed to speak in gibberish, and move as if underwater. Sometimes, I feel as if my head will explode with all of the simultaneous instructions, but these so-called constraints often lead to unselfconscious and highly enjoyable scenes for both performers and audience.

A couple creates a fun illusion out of nowhere.

Sometimes restrictions are enforced in other ways- for example, a stay in prison, hospital or mental ward. The early 20th Century Swiss writer Robert Walser, who, after early literary success (he was the primary influence on Kafka) spent many years in a psychiatric hospital, and left behind small scraps of paper with tiny scratchings on them. It was only in the early 2000’s, nearly fifty years after his death,  the researchers discovered that in fact the ‘scratchings’ were pieces of fiction, written painstakingly in code in microscopic print ("Microscripts", pub. 2012). The writer himself never mentioned them-- he was content simply to find a way to express himself, apparently without caring whether anyone ever read them.

Below, the separate dancers work as a kind of ensemble, each one responding to the other's impulses.


Dancers from different continents ‘meet’ to dance one seamless piece of improvisation.

Because of more time at home, I’m noticing that people are baking more. Surprisingly, we’ve actually been eating a greater variety of foods than normal, because now we've had to seek alternatives to our usual weekly meals. Other friends are gardening, doing up old pieces of furniture, making home improvements, singing from their balconies in crowded cities during lockdown, dusting off neglected musical instruments, playing board games, and taking online dance classes.

And some are recreating famous paintings, using nothing but their own bodies and the clothes and objects around them. Here's one of my favourites.

So I encourage you not to let the limitations of your surroundings block you-- maybe they will, in fact, be the stimulus for new creations you never imagined possible.

Bon courage,

Valerie


Developing Resilience in Uncertain Times

Dear Creative Artists,

How are you feeling today? How are you adapting to your new reality? If you’re like me, you may have felt really knocked off balance by recent events.

As creative artists, we already have to deal frequently with uncertainty, criticism and rejection from peers, teachers and employers. Dealing with not passing exams or failing at auditions, or even just a tough lesson with a demanding teacher- all of these can be demoralising to a sensitive population. As one client said, “They want and expect you to be so open and vulnerable as a performer, but then the feedback can be so harsh, it makes you want to become very self-protective.”

There’s a particular need for resilience just now, especially amongst those of you whose livelihoods and ways of life are impacted. Rather than tiptoeing around hoping that everything goes well and fearing that it won’t, we can learn to handle getting knocked back effectively and to recover quickly. But how do we start to develop this quality? If you’re feeling low, anxious or discouraged it can be hard to know where to begin.

I’ve developed a process that can help you to take the first steps:

Resilience Process

Take a piece of A4 (or 8 ½” x 11”) paper and draw a line vertically down the middle of the page. Then at the top of the left-hand column write the title “What undermines my resilience?” and on the right-hand side “What builds my resilience?”

Then just start brainstorming.

For example, if you feel better for going out in the fresh air, that would go on the right-hand side. If you feel worse after reading too many articles on the impact of COVID-19, that would go on the left.

If you’re stuck for what to write, think about the different areas of your life such as family, friends, work, health, creative expression, fitness, fun and recreation, spirituality, money, primary relationship, and so on, and that will help generate items for your lists.

Frequent items for my clients on the left-hand side include going to bed too late, dwelling on past negative experiences, skipping instrumental practice, imagining the worst possible future outcomes, drinking a bit too much, being unwilling to adapt to current circumstances, being self-critical, judging your partner, eating junk food, spending too much money, being a couch potato… you get the idea.

On the right-hand side, clients report such items as keeping their commitments to themselves and others, making creative expression a priority, being kind to themselves and others, treating life as a series of experiments, getting good rest and exercise, focusing on helping others, staying present, finding healthy outlets for feelings, meditating, looking for the funny side, and so on.

You may find that there may be direct correlations between the two lists, for example, going to bed too late on one side, and getting plenty of rest on the other, and that finding those correlations is helpful. Or there may not be a direct opposite, and that’s fine too. Trust your instincts. You can add things you already do and things you’d like to put into action in the future.

Your list will be very individual. For example, binge-watching box sets might be really helpful for one person and really detrimental for another, depending on their needs and circumstances, their state of mind and the effect the activity has on them. So notice how you feel afterwards and adjust accordingly.

In my experience, what clients find valuable about this process is becoming aware that they already know what works and what doesn’t, at least to a certain extent. And having a process to turn to in challenging times is really grounding. Taking action, even on a microscopic level, doing small experiments and thus becoming aware more and more of the results of our actions is an empowering and enlivening process that is ultimately transformative. And being kind to yourself when you don’t feel like taking action is vital too.

Bon courage-

Valerie


Thriving as a Creative Artist in Uncertain Times

Dear Creative Artists,

I hope you’re staying well and taking care of yourselves. After some recent discussions with clients, I thought it might be worth sharing what I’m finding helpful, in terms of how we can support ourselves and each other under these unique circumstances.

Addressing emotional and mental wellbeing

Artists are a sensitive and empathic population, and I know at the same time it’s been tempting to just be stoic, to push down unwelcome feelings and just “get on with it”. However, letting yourself know honestly how you are feeling is amazingly helpful. Take time to be quiet and still each day and check in with yourself.

This crisis is bringing up very different challenges for people on a mental and emotional level. For me, for example, it’s brought up fears on a very basic level of not having enough to eat. For one friend, it’s brought back old memories of stress he had at a previous job during the 2008 downturn. For another friend, it’s fears of loneliness during a period of recommended “self-isolation”. For yet another, it’s “survivor guilt”, knowing that she’s ok, while so many others are suffering. It may be fears of illness or even mortality.

If old fears and anxieties are being triggered, the easiest thing to do is just take some time to scribble them down on paper, however they come out, and then tear up the paper or burn it. It’s best to take a few minutes daily to do this. Or if you feel you need to trace the feelings backwards more mindfully, do some journaling. There’s increasing data to support the theory that journaling actually has a tangible effect on mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/style/journaling-benefits.html

For me, once I discovered that my fears could be traced to some specific experiences I had as a child, something relaxed inside of me and I was able to reassure myself that I would have enough to eat- which markedly reduced my stress levels.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but having fun is also incredibly vital right now- I recommend watching comedy, playing games with friends online, holding Netflix streaming parties, and so on. It can be easy to feel that we shouldn’t be enjoying ourselves during a crisis, but actually, it helps no one if we’re suffering, particularly unnecessarily (for example, worrying about situations that are outside our control- of which there are many). And laughing is great for the immune system!

It’s also helpful to notice what we have, and to appreciate it- being grateful to have enough food, a roof over our heads, a beautiful sunny day to go out in, and so on. There may be things about this new way of life that are actually better. Look out for them.

Addressing practical needs

Of course, there are new aspects of your work and study to deal with. For some of you, your working lives may have been drastically altered at short notice.

I encourage you to be flexible and adaptable, and to experiment. I’m sure you’re already brainstorming possible options to continue earning and to keep your business afloat. One of the trickiest parts of this challenge is that it has come so suddenly.

I know some of you are considering teaching online and needing to research the best modality with which to do this. For others, you might need immediate revenue and will need to start looking for temporary jobs. And for others, there may be extra unoccupied time to fill.

If you’re moving your teaching business online, I recommend checking out the Facebook group “Online Music Teachers” run by a colleague of mine, where he spells out how to teach effectively, and what kind of set-up you need. He has an extremely successful online teaching practice and loves to work that way and there are generous resources available.

If you find you have extra time to fill, then, once your life has settled down from this initial upheaval, I encourage you to set some practice, repertoire, composing or writing goals. After all, this situation is temporary, and it would be great to emerge stronger at the end.

In fact, I suggest you ask yourself some good questions- you know, not the kind that undermine you, like “What the hell is wrong with me?” 😉 but more like,


“How can I emerge [fill in the blank- stronger/wiser/more resourceful/happier] from this situation?”

And if you’re not feeling ‘together’ enough to do this yet (and even when you are), then I encourage you to play or write for pleasure and as a release, as much as possible.

Being open to receiving support

It’s vital that we reach out to each other. What kind of support systems do you have? Do you need to create more at this time? I’ve been calling and texting more friends and family members to share about the impact of this new situation, and being honest about the challenges.

So, reach out, even if you haven’t spoken to the person for a while. Many people say they are feeling more connected than ever, right now, and what a blessing it is.

Reaching out to support others

One of the most beautiful things I’ve witnessed so far has been all the kindness people have shown each other. In our village of 1000 people, there are now 200 who have offered to help if someone is in need, through a volunteer-manned helpline. You may have read about, seen or experienced acts of kindness or selflessness yourself. Finding ways to be of service and take action will help you feel more empowered and take your mind off your own challenges for a while. I’m sure there are many opportunities on your doorstep.

I’d love to hear how you are doing and wish you well!

Bon courage,

Valerie


Uncovering the Dream

dream by damselfly58

dream by damselfly58

A while ago, I began to realise that a strange thing was happening to me. Every time I was invited to a wedding, something went terribly and bafflingly awry.

 When one of my best friends asked me to bring something meaningful to place on the altar at her wedding  I knew just the thing– a beautiful wooden statue of two people kissing, closely entwined. I got up early that morning, and it was not until I was halfway to work that I realised that I had left the statue behind. I couldn’t risk being late for my students, so I had to resign myself to attending the wedding without the statue, and hoped my friend wouldn’t mind. She was gracious about it at the time, and it wasn’t until much later that she let on that she had been deeply disappointed. Continue reading…


Facilitating Creative Freedom in Performance

At the PIanoWhen I was an active and successful concert pianist playing recitals in Britain and across Europe, one of my main focuses was practice. I was most often playing repertoire chosen by others, as I was a collaborative pianist working with singers and instrumentalists. One moment I would be working on a Brahms cello sonata, the next a Messiaen song or an operatic ensemble by Verdi. I loved the variety of repertoire and performers — but I often would feel anxious as the performance date grew nearer. With so much repertoire to prepare, practice time was frequently limited, and on the evening of the performance I would find myself backstage thinking:
“If only I had one more week to practice…I’m just not as good as I should be…. Call yourself a professional….I wonder if I’ll make some big mistakes… I wonder what (fill in the blank) will think…”. Continue reading…


Can you see me waving?

I’m always fascinated to meet new clients, particularly when they come from far-flung parts of the globe. I’m an inveterate traveller myself, and started young, living on three different continents by the age of seven.  Maps, globes and atlases have always attracted me.

Here’s a map Robert made for me of some of the locations of my current and former clients. It’s fun to see how widespread they are, and it reminds me of some of the rewarding work we’ve done together over the years. Hello, world!

/map/


Impro as a Lifestyle

impro

photo: Remy Bertrand

Recently, I’ve been taking theatrical impro classes which culminate in a public show, and they’ve sparked lots of ideas in me. Our teacher, Remy is extremely imaginative and adventurous, and so we never know exactly what we’ll be doing from one moment to the next. However, we do generally start the class with a warm-up.

An impro warm-up is designed to get us to a place where we are able to be open, creative, free, bold, natural, inventive, uninhibited. Once we are in that place, anything is possible. It doesn’t really matter how we get there. Recently, we were instructed to improvise several scenes and songs in Spanish, although most of us don’t speak the language. At other times, we will speak gibberish, or mime, or do one action while describing another. It’s more about what goes on inside us- allowing ourselves to experience that moment of daring, the pushing-through of the membrane that usually stops us emerging fully into life. Continue reading…