”It’s not what you are that holds you back, it’s what you think you are not.” -Denis Waitley
Looking back on 2020, I’m pretty sure I spent the majority of the year feeling inadequate. As a collaborative pianist, the bulk of my creative energy comes from working and exchanging ideas with other artists. I craft my schedule in conjunction with others and love working on an array of projects.Then suddenly, all that was gone, or it seemed to be, and I descended into a pretty serious funk.
The negative self-talk included things like:
Well, now I really will have nothing to show for this year
I was just getting going and now it’s over
I feel like a failure
I feel so powerless
Our Inner Critic is not only often cruel, but also usually counterproductive. It hardly ever offers solutions or strategies, just a magnifying glass so you can scrutinize your perceived mistakes and failings more closely.
Artists in particular have a difficult time separating ourselves from our art, and when we aren’t actively creating and performing and getting paid for that work, it’s easy to feel like you don’t have value. I still remember my first serious piano teacher in middle through high school saying that she was relieved she couldn’t travel with her instrument, because it forced her to actually take a real vacation. She also advocated for a day away from the piano every week or every other, for score study, listening, or just rest. I still do this when I can, because for me it’s a healthy way to reset so things can gel and some of that excess tension can leave my body.
Granted, this time has been totally different not only because of the longevity, but because it’s been forced upon all of us as we do our part to keep others safe. Now it feels like we’re all in limbo, and we’re all wondering when we will be able to perform for live audiences again. Not only that, but it’s unclear when this time will be.
Now that we are well into the start of 2021, I’m trying to see the silver lining, not only to quell the negative self-talk, but to keep me moving forward. The truth is that distance from our art can be healthy. It gives us time to develop ourselves in other ways, as humans, which in turn makes us better performers. For instance, my husband and I married in 2017 and since then I’ve mostly been traveling out of state working at young artist programs, local tours, and summer festivals. Amazing and fulfilling career building opportunities, but also late nights moving into packed weekends. We ate late, weren’t working out, and when we were together we were both so tired.
With that kind of schedule, it’s almost impossible to find balance. When that was all stripped away, the pendulum swung so far in the other direction that I didn’t know what to do with myself. My husband is my biggest champion and was encouraging me for weeks that I should use the time to learn about recording and craft a home studio, as we had recently bought a home and finally had the space. He kept reminding me to see it as time to build something for myself, but it turns out that it’s much harder to get out of a funk than to let yourself slide into one.
Through self-reflection, you can learn or relearn (just as important, if not more so!) some crucial things about yourself in challenging times. For example, I relearned I am not great at making a schedule for myself and sticking to it, especially when I’m feeling down. While I have no trouble coming up with ideas, something holds me back from really putting them in motion, especially when I’m not collaborating directly with others. What holds me back? Imposter syndrome? Fear of success? These are all topics worthy of an infinite number of posts.
I don’t know that I’ve figured anything out, but I do know that I need to keep developing myself, to keep music in my life more than ever. Instead of making my usual list of resolutions that I know I’m not going to keep (because if I valued them, I wouldn’t be waiting until the New Year), I’m starting this year thinking of intention. For instance, this year I intend to find the most effective morning routine to set myself up to have the most productive day, regardless of how externally busy it is. So far it includes: setting an alarm, waking up early to work out, making coffee, and taking my laptop to catch up on emails in my home office before practicing. Since the summer, I’ve already been working towards setting up a recording and coaching studio, and it’s been giving me so much joy. I love having my own business, and it took having things stripped away for me to even have time to start it. No matter what is going on around me, this is something I can control. These realizations are powerful. When you discover just how powerful you truly are, this is when your light can really shine. And as your light shines brighter, so will your artistry.
If I can offer any advice for people who may be struggling, start by creating a space. Create a space where you can self-reflect (journaling, therapy, talking with a confidant, walking and observing your thoughts, meditation), and actually name what you are feeling. It’s so easy to allow ourselves to get swept away of the busyness of regular performing life and not take the time to do this. For me, I realized that I felt out of control because my day did not have a fixed structure. Through self-reflection, I realized I needed to focus on prioritizing a healthy routine that would give me the energy I was missing to fuel productivity. This routine includes a regular alarm no matter what, coffee, exercise, email, and practicing, and gives me confidence to break larger, more daunting tasks (like starting a home recording studio) into smaller, sequential steps. My husband has been telling me forever that I am bad at hobbies, so I’ve finally picked up a couple: crocheting, and my husband and I are teaching ourselves how to cook. We love Asian food, so we’ve been trying to master all our favorite dishes so that we aren't tempted to go out too much as places start opening again. Our current favorite is homemade Vietnamese spring rolls. Bonus: we get to spend more quality time together.
Your accomplishments might look a little differently as we continue to navigate this pandemic, and that’s okay. It doesn’t diminish them, or you. It’s so easy to feel unsuccessful as any kind of performer when we aren't on stage sharing our stories. A piece of ourselves is missing. However, it’s equally important to take time to be with yourself, to develop yourself, especially through hardship, so that you can trust in your unique self and let your light shine even brighter.