Ewan Mackay

Finding Your Own Creative Path

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Finding your own creative path on your journey as a composer and as a creative individual is an interesting topic which I’ve put a lot of thought into recently. In this article, I want to delve into what I personally believe has made myself a better composer over the last few years by sharing some insights from my career over the last few years. From my successes to my failures, through which I hope you as a reader can take something from the tools and concepts I have learned to improve the music you write and themselves as creative thinkers – and hopefully, people too. In this article, I will briefly discuss my work over the last five years, the decision to either pursue music as a sole career – or to recognise my work and enjoy it as a passion project.


Educational Context

I want to take you back in time 5 years. At the time, I was preparing to begin my Bachelor’s studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. This was an incredibly important period of my life creatively for a number of reasons, but the main reason being that I was beginning to find my compositional voice. A compositional voice is something which is shrouded in mystery. Where does it come from? How do you find it? Basically, it’s a very tricky question to answer, but I believe the answer to it came for me when I wrote a large body of short experimental works during my early compositional studies at Peterhead Academy, continuing through to my studies at the North East Scotland College. Moving up to UHI, I was full of optimism for my future as a composer and a creative individual. Throughout my compositional studies with Mark Sheridan, I composed a number of pieces which would become important learning-works, such as Soliloquy – for solo Flute, In a Mystic Garden – for Orchestra, and my String Quartet, Scenes of Aden. In finding my voice it was a breakthrough moment for me, however, I am well aware that my voice will continue to develop and will deepen as I continue to compose new music. 

As I moved into my final BA year, I took the module Sustainable Creative Endeavor. This was an illuminating moment for me as it forced me to look at my creative work as a business.  Ultimately, it enabled me to think deeper about my creative work as more than simply a hobby, but as a passion project, with the potential for it to flourish into a career in years to come. Through my engagement with this module in my BA and MA years, I grew to understand the importance of working as a creative entrepreneur. I believe strongly in the idea that in order to work effectively in the Arts in the 21st Century, we must adapt our working practice(s) and finding new methods and models around which we can pivot new ideas as we continue to learn and grow. 

As a recent MA graduate, I paid my bills working in Marketing and Events Coordination for a small tech company for six months. This was a very different field to my degree, however, I was able to use the skills I learned through my degrees in a new area which is allowing me to learn and apply skills which have fed back into my musical life. In addition to my creative I am now looking for more music-based work which can give me a more stable income to supplement my compositional and creative work. Over the last year of my initial career, where I have been picking up new commissions and having my work recorded and performed, I have been extremely fortunate to experience my work from a unique perspective. My creative work now inhabits a space of being a well-developed passion project. While I am working part-time in my Marketing role, I am able to continue working on and developing my passion, with a continued focus and drive to be better with every piece, performance and commission. 


Passion Project or Career Pursuit?

Through my compositional journey, I often suffered from what some may call delusion, but I like to call naive expectations. When I was beginning my musical journey, I believed that composers continued to scribble away under candlelight, and every piece was a masterwork and it was ‘easy’ to build a career in music – if indeed you are talented enough and work hard. How wrong I was. Unfortunately, I was blindsided by a giddy attitude of lust for the artist’s life. Through the years I’ve come to learn that yes, it is indeed possible to work as a successful creative artist who has a number of diverse interests all of which feed into the wider vision they have for themselves and their work. How does that tie into my current situation? I am still actively composing in my free time, making active plans to expand my creative work and hopefully my prospects, which will allow me to work a little more within my creative ballpark. That is the ultimate goal – to build a successful portfolio career within the Arts, however, having matured as an artist and individual I am very aware that the realisation of that goal could still be some way if I am ever fortunate enough to see it become a reality. Yes, talent, hard work and discipline are all major factors, but I realise that so much of my colleagues’ success within the Arts, be it in music or in another discipline has come down to being in the right place at the right time. 

To say that your music is a passion project does not mean that you have failed in your mission to become a well-known composer, musician, painter or writer. It simply allows you to take the pressure off having to rely upon it for your sole income. As we are all aware could be a burden in times such as these when COVID has had such a marked impact upon the Arts, with no indication of the resulting damage, or how long the industry and artist’s livelihoods will take to recover if they ever will. Building up a passion project over many years – as I had unknowingly been, is an incredibly rewarding and worthwhile pursuit. It will also simultaneously build your catalogue of creative work, which you can later use to launch your professional and full-time career if that is the route you wish to take. I personally feel like this perspective is one which I wish I had been able to understand when I was beginning my musical journey, and I know so many young artists would benefit from hearing that sentiment in classrooms or other learning environments. 

No matter your educational background and whatever position you choose to adopt – be it pursuing a career, or building up that passion project with the hopes of one day being able to sustain yourself – which is my hope, the most important thing is that you set realistic and achievable goals and never let go of your creative drive and remain focused on your passion.

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