It is over 30 years since I graduated as a music student. My final year was such a painful experience that I thought I would never play again.
A big chunk of the final mark was awarded to our degree recital. I was a flautist and had been preparing for the recital for two years. There were three other flautists in my year and I was the weakest of them. I wanted to use my recital to show my tutors that I was a worthwhile musician and that I had something to say musically. I was the underdog and I desperately wanted to shine and be recognised as a capable, valuable person.
Throughout the final term I was plagued with fatigue which made it a struggle to revise for my exams and practice enough for the recital. The fact that so much was riding on the recital, both from the weighting of the marking for the degree and for my personal need to speak and express myself, made it doubly frustrating when I was too tired to practice. This took me into a negative spiral. The more I stressed about it, the more ill and tired I became. Outsiders, such as my doctor, who told me to relax didn’t help – they just didn’t understand the emotional pain that I was in and this caused me further distress.
I did the recital. It was OK, not the best performance, not the worst. But I have always been haunted by that intense pain of not being able to speak proficiently enough from my heart via my music.
Thankfully, I discovered Buddhism a few months after graduation and this was the beginning of healing those creative wounds. Within a couple of years I was playing flute in the Buddhist orchestra and I had a rented piano in my bedroom in the shared flat in which I was living.
Further healing occurred when I discovered Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way in 2000 and found that writing was a perfect creative outlet for me.
When I look back over that time I wish I knew the three lessons I outline below. It would have lessened the pain and pressure, and helped me to realise that I had a choice about how events turned out.
1) People who were better than me practised more
As a music student I thought that people who were better than me were more talented and that there wasn’t much I could do about that.
In recent years there has been much talk of the 10,000 hours required to master of a skill. In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell references a study which identifies that proficient classical musicians have a similar level of talent, but the thing that separates the top end concert soloist from the capable amateur is the amount of time they spend practising.
In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp debunks the myth that Mozart was a natural genius. His father was well schooled in music and taught his young son everything he knew.
She says: “Music quickly became Mozart’s passion, his preferred activity. I seriously doubt that Leopold had to tell his son for very long, ‘Get in there and practice your music.’ The child did it on his own.”
With that passion came the willingness to spend hour after hour practising, experimenting and learning.
Twarp continues: “Nobody worked harder than Mozart. By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing and gripping a quill pen to compose.”
Looking back at my fellow flautists I can now see that they were better than me because they practised more.
I was satisfied with an hour a day of practice. Sometimes I even looked scornfully at them when they spent extra hours in the practice rooms as I skipped off to drink beer with my mates. If only I had known that the pain of not being good enough could have been easily remedied.
Thirty years on, as a writer, this knowledge brings me choice. When I look around at the bloggers and writers I admire, I know that they have large followings and books in the marketplace because they have done a lot of work.
I can be envious of their success – but I understand that they have accomplished more than me because they spend more time doing it.
I accept that they get up earlier than me, watch less TV than me, tame their bad habits more than me and are obsessed about their craft more than me.
Today I can accept that I am choosing to do a certain amount of work and that will get me a certain level of attainment. It is not a reflection of my skill, my voice or what I have to say – it is a reflection of how I am choosing to spend my time.
The bottom line – If you want more results, do more work.
What separates a good creative from an exceptional one is not talent. It is the passion and obsession to work and get better.
2) You never know how life will turn out in the future
The pain of my unsatisfactory degree recital was so immense that I couldn’t see beyond it. At the time it felt like my one shot at showing the world my true self. Because I couldn’t do that to my satisfaction I thought it was all over for me creatively.
If only I had realised that there would be other creative opportunities and my worth was not bound up in this one moment.
Creativity is a process which is ongoing. Some manifestations of your creative work will satisfy you, others won’t. Some will be well received, some won’t.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing in one situation. This is an awful pressure to put on yourself and your creative spirit. No wonder I buckled under that stress.
Even if something goes spectacularly wrong, you will still get to speak and express yourself in the future. The person who allows you to do that is you. And the person who frequently stops you is, you guessed it – you.
I graduated as a music student and became a chartered accountant, resigned to the fact that I wasn’t good enough to be a musician and I didn’t have what it takes. For many years I made the best of my corporate life, thankful that I was blessed with the ambition and drive to ‘get on.’ But always my creative side itched and threatened to unseat my hard won corporate façade.
Thirty years on I have this amazing combination where I work part-time and use my corporate skills to earn money, and I have time to be creative – but without the pressure to have to pay the bills from it.
When we are younger we tend to think it “has to be this way” or “If that happens then this will never be possible.” As we get older we learn that life is less clear cut and that if we are open to different possibilities we may get unusual opportunities.
I was wrong to think that my final year degree recital was my one and only chance to “show them” and speak in a way that was uniquely me. I have found many ways to be me. I have made peace with some of the ways that didn’t work out. And I have found a new way of speaking that I hadn’t even thought about 30 years ago.
3) You do have something to say. You are worthy of expressing your truth
As a music student I was looking for my worth as a musician from my peers and from my tutors. I didn’t realise that this worth could only come from myself.
We all have value. We all have something to say. There is not one way to say it. It could be via several art forms.
And it doesn’t have to be anything to do with Art with a capital A. It could be in your work as an accountant. It could be in the way you defend your clients in court. It could be in the way you support the customers of your employer. It could be a combination of many factors.
What matters is that you are motivated to speak. In doing this you have to realise that you can’t control the reaction your truth might get. You might get criticism. You might not get the external validation that you were seeking. But you can absolutely express yourself.
Now I’d like to hear from you
How have your creative struggles shaped your life? If the future, how can your current struggles become your greatest treasure? Leave a comment. I’d love to know the one thing that would have made a difference to you if you had known it earlier.
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