Ewan Mackay

How to Remain Creative in Isolation

How to Remain Creative in Isolation (image)
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Over the last few months, the world has changed, thanks to our deadly viral nemesis. It has also had a marked impact upon the Arts, and it is likely to have a tight and crippling hold for many more months to come. Who knows how long things will take to return to any form of normality. For many performers, they have seen their livelihoods dry up, relying upon various other parts of their income stream to support themselves. For me as a composer – and a younger one at that, I haven’t noticed that much of a change. I know the same can be said for the vast majority of my composer friends too. By its very nature, composing is a solitary and isolating activity. We work away by ourselves, writing for weeks or months, alone, only to then emerge from our writing rooms to collaborate with performers. For me, composing is similar to creative labour, working on a piece, having it rehearsed, hearing it for the first time, the shock of how real it sounds outside your head, making corrections, then learning to live with the result. It’s an odd thing to put one’s self through, then do it all again the next time, because we have another idea that just has to come out. It’s odd, but it’s inexplicably wonderful at the same time. Over the course of Scotland’s lockdown due to COVID, I have done a great deal of thinking about what being a composer means in this difficult time, and how to remain creative when every day feels like groundhog day. In this article, I want to give you some thoughts that might help you if you too have found yourself in the creative mud at times – as we all have. 



Set Goals:


The first thing I do each week is set some goals; creative and non-creative. These help to keep me on track throughout the week. Think of goal setting as setting your journey plan for the day or week. Without a plan, you are like the captain of a plane or ship who flies or sails around aimlessly with no direction or destination. This is likely a really simple concept, but I lost sight of it during the early stages of lockdown – and I’m sure we all did for a while. It wasn’t until I got myself back on track with preparing and planning my work that I came to understand how important it would be to I) keeping me from going insane due to the repetitive day-to-day life, and II) keep me motivated, III) allow me to see forward momentum and progress. Earlier this year, I began keeping a goals journal, where I write down my goals for life both now and in the future, while also setting out where I hope to be creatively in the next year. I cannot understate how important it is to keep focused on your visions and on your goals. By keeping yourself accountable you are the only one who is in control of your own successes and creative future. 



Keep a schedule:


Similar to my first point, keeping a schedule to which you work is really important. I have always tried to keep some form of a schedule to keep myself on track each day. For you, this will vary, and your life and needs will dictate what your typical day will look like. I get up between 6:30 and 7 AM I make my first cup of coffee and then read the morning news, listen to a podcast, or listen to some music. I’m settled in my study by around 8, where I tackle any admin tasks for an hour, followed by a cup of tea as I begin composing around 9. A 30-minute brain-break for, you guessed it, more coffee or tea and a snack at 11. I then focus on writing through until 2 or 3 PM. I then usually take a much longer ‘break’, but I’m usually still remaining creative. My evenings are my time. Sometimes I’ll make some quick notes for the next day until 7:30, then I spend time with family, or will play my PlayStation to completely relax and I’m usually in bed at around 10 PM. Each day is much the same as the next, but there is always a little variation. The key is finding a routine and sticking to it as best you can. Everyone who is trying to come to terms with the Work From Home (WFH) concept will be struggling to learn this. It’s about adapting what you know for a new working environment for what is set to be many more months. Just embrace the ability to be a little freer in your working practice. 



Finding or Creating Opportunities for Work:


Finding Opportunities for Work:


If you’re a composer sitting around thinking, ‘now what?‘, this is an important concept to understand. No it’s not a guarantee of work or a successful portfolio career, but it is important to keep composing. As a creative, you don’t have to wait for commissions to come along, and let’s face it, that way of working isn’t how 99% of us I work – or at least it’s certainly not the case for me. In these uncertain times, opportunities are still out there. I’ve asked a number of my composer friends of advice on where they look. A common recourse is The Composer’s Site. This online resource has lists of funding opportunities, calls for scores, commissions and much more. People often argue about the idea of writing for a competition or call for scores, but I think they are good things. Besides, even Eric Whitacre thinks you should. His reasons for doing so are sound too; it will force you to complete the work – to a timescale, and even if you don’t win – you likely won’t, you’ll still have a new piece you can have performed later and a sense of achievement. 



Creating Opportunities for Work:


This is an area of my compositional practice I have been exploring with increasing focus over the last few years. I am fortunate to have built a fairly strong and supportive creative base of performers, composers and Arts organisers – and in turn their organisations. This has taken years of coffee dates, creative meetings, FaceTime calls and dead-end conversations and leads most of which have taken years to come to fruit. This is commonly known as prospecting. As I recently discussed in my blog How to Find Compositional Inspiration, I discussed the idea of planting seeds. It is exactly the same as building up your base of creative contacts. As with everything in life, quantity doesn’t mean quality. If you are new to this concept, start by building a base of performers; those whom you know, those whom you have worked with, and those you want to work with. Offer your creative and collaborative support and services and tell them you would like to write for them, it’s very rare they will say no. Now, you have to build up your Arts contacts – or more formal professional contacts and those you can lean on as mentors. This is a little harder, as you will find that people who are valuable to you – i.e have something you want, their knowledge and expertise, are harder to get in contact with, or to begin building that relationship. This is where you have to think a little outside the box. Write a nicely thought out letter in your own hand if possible and send it off. They would never expect it, and let’s face it, who writes letters anymore? The pleasant surprise of your well thought out introductory letter will likely mean they are compelled enough to reach out in response. From there you can begin to build your relationship. Most established members of the creative community will be happy to offer support, or give their time to answer a few questions. Just make sure to not abuse the relationship. Draw on their experience and knowledge to become better and work on your creative work, then doors will open in unexpected places – I speak from experience here. Once you get the idea of how to create your own work it becomes an important skill you can continue to leverage over time. The more you work at it, the more skilled you become. 



Make Creative Friends:


We all have a great many creative people on our Facebook pages or profiles and other social circles we don’t talk to. From performers to composers and other creatives. Over the last year, I have made it a habit to make friends. I have reached out time and time again to keep building my creative circle. I have even reached out to performers and composers I have worked with or been programmed with before with an offer of collaboration. Here’s the cool thing, there hasn’t been a single rejection. I’ve used this concept when working with performers I have collaborated with in the past. Pieces such as Monologue, Soliloquy, The Dreaming TreeReflection O the Hills and a number of future projects, have all come about as a result of strong collaborative partnerships and a common desire to create new music. Even in these uncertain times when concert halls remain closed or are at risk of never opening again, creative people still want to create work, and there are people who want to help get it out there. Find them, ask them if they are interested, and not just a ‘Hey I’m a composer, want to play my stuff some time?‘, message either! Put some real thought behind it! Be as professional as you can be and craft a thoughtful email or Facebook message. Who would say no? I think in these times, it would be a very slim chance of a performer saying no to the opportunity of sinking their teeth into new music! What have you got to lose? Give it ago and get creating and collaborating. Many years ago when I was just starting out, I stumbled upon an interview with Violist, Nadia Sirota. In an interview for New Music Box she discusses making friends from performer’s perspective, however, it can be easily flipped to take the view of a composer I the best thing you could do for your creative practice and it will force you to write new music and build on everything else I’ve touched on in this article.  



Fully commit to your work:


Throughout this article, we’ve touched on the important elements of working in isolation as a composer. I) You have set your goals, II) You’re keeping to a schedule, and III) You’ve made new creative friends. Now, you must fully commit to your work. Having established your routine and this new way of working, start to use it. You might not see results right away, but eventually, those brick walls will break through – to paraphrase Holst. Fully committing is important. Don’t do things by halves. If a performer is keen to collaborate, say yes to anything and everything, but make sure you do it justice. If you produce the best work you can and make the collaborative process easy, engaging, and fruitful for all concerned, the likely hood is more will come your way.


There are no guarantees in the Arts, particularly in this current climate, however, it doesn’t mean we should give up on all our dreams and hard work. Keep on writing and furthering yourself every day and seek to become the best artist you can. As I’ve said before, draw on those who have come before. Stand on the shoulders of giants and write because you have that internal creative itch that you can’t quite scratch, then you will be fulfilled and hopefully, you will garner some recognition for your hard work and determination.

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