Why do only writers get a name for dry spells in creativity (aka writer’s block)? All artists, whether it be painters, dancers, actors, or musicians, are prone to slumps in inspiration. Henceforth, let’s start referring to this as musician’s block (or musician’s Bloch is you like a good composer pun).
An unfair advantage writers and other artists have over musicians is that they usually have a tangible stopping and starting point from which to resume. If a writer is stuck on the ending of a novel, their existing work doesn’t vanish. Musicians’ work is dependent on daily practice – a drop in creativity during an important performance or audition can be extremely detrimental to our career. Therefore, it is important to find ways to cure and prevent musician’s block.
What causes musician’s block? Short answer: anything and everything. Stress, fatigue, low self-esteem, and other general energy-sucking issues are obvious causes, but there are a number of events you may not realize are triggering declines in creativity, including:
- A less than stellar audition
- Not working on repertoire you enjoy (this one’s tough, since musicians don’t always get a say in programming selection)
- Poor practice habits (either getting distracted easily or not having specific goals in mind when you’re practicing)
- Placing too much pressure on yourself (conversely, others placing too much pressure on you)
- Trying to learn a large amount of repertoire in a short amount of time
As you probably know, musician’s block can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks, or even months. Don’t feel bad though – even great composers like Brahms “retired” before finding inspiration and motivation to continue. (In Brahms’ case, he heard clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld – who wouldn’t be inspired by the clarinet?)
It’s fairly easy to pinpoint triggers of musicians block, but finding cures is a little more tricky. Sometimes inspiration returns on its own, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case. Here are some suggestions I follow to get those creative juices flowing freely once again:
- Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. When I’m tired, all I have on my mind is a long nap and a massive cup of coffee – not rubato and nuances in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Proper sleep is necessary for proper focus.
- Don’t practice on autopilot. Be present when you practice. Don’t treat practicing like another item on your never-ending to do list. Block out a chunk of time to really focus on your instrument and the music – turn off your phone, hide your laptop, turn off the TV, and focus on the tasks at hand. If you want to go the extra mile, practice meditation or mindful thinking regularly to clear mental clutter and distractions as well. Don’t “practice” just to say you’ve practiced. If you just have too much going on right now to properly focus, you can still improve without playing your instrument.
- Take a lesson with someone who doesn’t play your instrument. At a certain point, we stop learning as much about our instrument as spend our time learning about music. Music is universal – take a lesson from another instrumentalist to broaden your musical perspective.
- Discover where you are the most creative. Most of us are not lucky enough to have our private music studio (if you are, I’m jealous!). Experiment with practicing in different locations to see where you feel most productive. For me, I have a hard time practicing in my room, where the allure of my laptop (or my messy desk) is strong. This goes for more than just practicing – sometimes solutions appear for the right fingering, phrasing, or other nuance outside the practice room. Most of my blog post ideas happen on my commute to Versailles or in cafes. For me, ambient noise helps me concentrate on ideas (although I don’t think I’ll try practicing on the train or in cafes). Figure out where you are most productive and creative.
- Have a close circle of friends and an active social life. The public loves to label musicians as dark and brooding introverts (which some of us certainly are), but having an active social life and close circle of friends can really help boost creativity. This isn’t an excuse to forgo practicing for happy hour with the gang, but keeping in touch with loved ones offers a creative boost. A slew of studies show that having close friends can prevent and improve depression, which is creativity enemy No. 1. Also, just the simple act of being around other people (whether it’s strangers or friends) forces us to think and act differently than when we are alone. If all else fails, when you are practicing, pretend you are performing for a friend or loved one. This can shift the focus from negative to positive energy. (Bonus points if you have fellow musician friends you can vent about Rachmaninov expecting you to grow Hulk-sized hands for his piano music or what a jerk Nielsen was for writing that darned clarinet concerto).
- Listen to music and musicians you love without a goal in mind. No matter how much I like a piece, it’s not as fun listening to it for analysis, breathing, or other “scholarly” pursuits. I appreciate music the most when I accept it as what it is – just music. Part of the magic of music is in the inexplicable, and analyzing it until it becomes a science robs us of the joy of music. Stop thinking so much when you “listen” (Where did they breathe? Which fingering did they use? What is their tempo?) Sit back and enjoy the music. (Side note: if you listen to music online, minimize the screen and close your eyes. You can’t “listen” to music and check your Facebook news feed at the same time. I know this trick, because I’ve been guilty of it too. Live in the moment and listen to only the music.) Don’t limit yourself to your instrument either. Some of my favorite performers are violinists, cellists, or singers. (All 3 of the hyperlinked YouTube videos are some of my favorite pieces and artists – these always get me out of my musician’s block).
- Explore someplace new. I’ll admit, I’ve become spoiled in Paris, having dozens of museums, art galleries, and architecture at my doorstep, but inspiration can be found anywhere. Go somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit. Get in your car, drive aimlessly, and stop randomly. Eat food you’ve never tried before. Read a book genre you’ve never read before. Attend a concert. Go to a local festival. Read up on weird traditions from around the world. Break old habits to make your mind think in new ways.
- Cross a few items off your to do list. Nothing is worse than trying to work on music and thinking about all that you have to do. If I have too much to do, I’ll take a day off from practicing to knock as many items as possible off of my list so I can focus on practicing the next day.
- Take a practice break. If all else fails, take a break. Forcing creativity usually stifles it, so take a step back from your instrument until inspiration strikes.
Part of improving creativity is truly knowing yourself – when you are most productive, environments in which you work well, creativity-zappers, and other individual quirks.
Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to overcome your musician’s block. After all, it’s just music. Sometimes you have to take a step back and remind yourself that lives are not at stake if you play the wrong note. Create music for the joy of its beauty. Inspiration will come.
I hope this helps anyone dealing with musician’s block – if you have any other suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment below!