Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Procrastination. That thing that creeps in under your radar, sticking to the shadows of your thoughts, and infiltrating your mainframe before you even had a chance to say no. It moves so incredibly slowly that you cannot detect where exactly it is, or how it got there. All you know is that you started off the day with a resolve to make something happen, and now you're rearranging your wardrobe whilst your mind beats itself into the fetal position. Maybe I get afflicted more than others, and maybe my procrastinatory fits are mixed in with negative thought patterns, but for a full 21 days procrastination released its grip on me entirely. This is the story of how it happened.
It started with inspiration, which quickly morphed into an idea. After watching Cyril Ramaphosa's humbling address to the nation, I vowed to commit EACH DAY of the lockdown to composing, recording and uploading a brand new song. However, I knew this alone wouldn't work for my procrastination/doubt dragon, so I decided to donate every penny I made off the music to the South African Solidarity Response Fund, which was put in place to help communities and small businesses in need during the Covid-19 Pandemic. I named it the Symphony of Solidarity. It would probably not make a big difference, but a difference I would make - and that kept me going.
Going from releasing a song every few months to releasing a song every day, made me learn a lot of things very quickly. Like how to limit the amount of edits I'm allowed to do (cause there's no time!), setting up my studio faster every day, the value of doing things at the same time daily, the strength behind a good routine, and finding inspiration when there isn't any to be felt. I've jotted down some things here, and I hope these will inspire you to one day tackle a similar challenge in your own creative way.
Progress, not perfection
This is a hard one for me, and I know a whole bunch of musos that share this boat with me. We are paddling like crazy, trying to reach the horizon. What we refuse to accept, is that the horizon will just keep moving away from us. Our idea of perfection, by definition, cannot be reached. It. Can. Not. Be. Reached. Yet we battle on, reworking structures, rewriting lyrics, editing, mixing, rewriting the whole song again, and so forth. It can take months and even years.
The paradox lies in that this maddening pursuit towards perfection takes us further away from getting better at our craft. When we change a work of art for the fifth time, we do not learn the lesson that would have come from letting it go at the fourth version. When we let something go (release a song, publish a piece of writing, exhibit an artwork), we immediately internalize what could have been done better. It's like a reflex action. You see your work up there and in an instant you know what you would have changed, and what you will try next time. And if your immediate reaction is complete satisfaction, therein lies a lesson as well.
Do not misunderstand me - I do not let things go easily. It needs to be as close to perfect (my perfect) as humanely possible. And I think we should always strive for perfection. But knowing when it's time to release a creation into the world is perhaps the new challenge. So that it can run its course. So that you can start a feedback loop. So that your mind can start working on what to do next, as opposed to what is wrong now. When you shift your attention towards a new project, you have space to apply new knowledge onto an open canvas. And when you look at something you've set free, you can finally see it from the outside like everyone else.
To create a song a day, I had to let go of this notion of perfection. Often I would catch myself hitting the space bar in frustration thinking "Cumon, can't you just get it right. One more take then we're moving on!" I would redo a whole two minutes of music because one note was slightly scratchy, meanwhile deleting the more raw, honest takes. What was I doing? Making a flawless violin recording? That ship had sailed away very fast when lockdown started. I was squashed in a bedroom, with no acoustic treatment of the walls, sound bouncing off the window, and neighboring kids moer-ing a ball against their house out of frustration. Not to mention the hadedas and Egyptian geese that were now flourishing, to my recording dismay.
So I just focused on creating music. On capturing an emotion. When I felt the idea was put down well enough, I maybe added a layer or two (guitar, synth pads, violin pizzicato), then did a quick edit to neaten the session, an even quicker master (that's when you make everything a bit louder so it plays well online and on big speakers - obviously you should spend a whole day on this, it's a real art), bounced it out and uploaded it onto Bandcamp.
Some songs took 1.5 hours from start to finish, some took 4 hours.
The studio that fits in a bag
So ideally you want to have a nice pleasant space with proper soundproofing and a separate corner to do the actual playing/recording in (I'm laughing while typing this!). I was set up in the bedroom of my boyfriend's tiny flat. I was using the bed as a desk for my laptop, and sound card (Scarlett Focusrite 2i2). Oja, the MIDI keyboard was also kind of on the bed somewhere. My microphone was propped up in the corner (RODE NT2), looming over me while I wasn't playing. There was no space for a chair once the "studio" was set up, so I was either standing when recording or crouching on the floor when editing. Oh yes, and the room didn't have a door. So every time the bathroom (right next to me) got used, I had to pause.
Let's just say I had many dark thoughts and also lavish dreams of one day owning my own studio space with a mountain view, and serene quiet :)
What I can take away from this challenging setup, is the fact that it still worked. It was a small space, but it was my space, and a safe corner in which to be creative, and do whatever I felt like. What I loved about the setup, was how I needed to set it up and pack it away every day, so that the bedroom did not remain a constant work area. The ritual of meticulously setting up the mic, sound card, keyboard, and instruments was essential in keeping me sane. Even more so at the end. When each song was done and uploaded, I relished the calming effect of slowly rolling up cables, returning all the equipment one by one to their designated box in the lounge.
I will definitely be relying on this newfound system in future. In the past I've never really given any thought to the possibility of a ritual in my creative process. It's always been morphed into the daily mix of admin, practicing and meetings. Yet it seems evidently crucial to success. Surely many creatives have found this to be true, and I applaud them for noticing and harnessing this unexpected (but obvious) tool.
Where willpower stumbles, habit pulls you through
Humans have a lot of willpower. Or at least we think so - that's probably our will wanting it to be so. But sometimes willpower is not enough to get me out of bed. And as many smokers will attest, when going head to head with habit, willpower trembles a little bit. Routine is perhaps not as sexy, but it gets the job done.
I also had a routine - which I followed about 70% of the time. Meditation in the morning has always been super important to me to keep the unwanted thoughts at a relatively harmless distance (this worked about 40% of the time). Following through with this habit is somehow easier with the promise of breakfast. I also try to get outside in the morning, even if it's just a quick walk around the parking lot.
With so much time on my hands I also took up online studying with Coursera - a course in Sustainability. Highly recommended. This got my academic brain going, and allowed me to do something non-musical as a break. Lunchtime is always something to look forward to (foooood), and I try to do something off the screen like reading a book or looking at the mountain. Then the studio setup begins. Getting the studio ready is my mental preparation as well. I'm prepping my creative juices to get going and be ready when I pick up my violin.
The afternoon melts into one mush of recording and flowing until the song is done and uploaded. My cellphone is in a different room for about 3 hours during this creative time.
In a different scenario I would probably do the creative work in the morning, but in this specific case the afternoons were quieter and thus better for recording. I also wanted to create a song about each day, so had to live a little before attempting to create.
The fact that my day was split into two manageable sizes, helped to get the work done. I would definitely try to apply that to life after Corona ;)
Here's a fantastic article about The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers.
Harnessing the muse
Now I know how the muse normally works. It leaves for weeks, and then randomly hits you whilst you're shopping for milk. Leaving you scrambling for paper and pencil in the shop and leaving the milk to sour at home on the counter whilst you are putting that immediate force into music, art, words, whatever creation it is you do. Once the idea for lyrics came to me in the car, and I had to pull over and write it down on the back of a wheel alignment certificate thingy. I still think it's one of my best songs.
But I've come to realize that it doesn't always have to be that way. These moments are extraordinary, and I doubt they will ever cease to control us, but there are many moments inbetween that are subtle, but very useable. You have an enormous storage of memories, emotions and inspiration inside of you that can be tapped at any given moment, as I'm sure you've experienced during very busy creative periods (deadlines, lots of artwork required over short time). On top of that, you have access to your daily moods - and these are also delicately different each day.
Accessing and producing work from this underground fountain takes a lot of self-awareness, which can be daunting for some. I think I'm so used to living inside my head, analyzing my own thoughts, that it is relatively easy. When I pick up my violin, I am fully aware of what I'm feeling, and I pour that into the instrument from the very first note. It has become the tool to express what I'm afraid to admit, and the songs that emanate from it's wood is the language that I cannot speak aloud - afraid of being judged as fearful, depressed, crazy. Converting this muse into music is a way of releasing some of the pressure inside, a way of harnessing the wild horse that is creative power.
Many have committed themselves to create on a regular basis before. Mike Brennan made an artwork every day for six years. Murakami, like dozens of successful writers, commit to writing a certain amount of words every day. I now understand why, and will without a doubt challenge myself again. Maybe not so intensely as to produce daily, but perhaps weekly. It took a lockdown for me to stay in my room and produce work, and once I'm free to roam the mountains again, I sincerely hope that most of this knowledge will still work itself into my creative life.
I hope that you finally pick up that pencil, paintbrush, laptop, guitar, keyboard, typewriter or canvas, and try to do things consistently for a while. Just to see how it feels. It might just bring out more than you thought was possible, and why not challenge your muse to show up everyday, in the same way you do?
My Symphony of Solidarity, and its 21 songs is available for listening online. You are most welcome to purchase it for $15 (or more) to support the Solidarity Fund and my music. If you do like my music, please share it - it would mean the world to me.