I got an email the other day from one of my students that made me really sad.
She was talking about how challenging it’s been for her to stay creative while dealing with a scary illness in the family, and other really serious life issues.
She knows that when she creates, everything goes better. But too often she still can’t seem to make it happen.
She joined an online class on sketchbooking, in the hopes that it would get her to keep a sketchbook of her daily life…
…but her sketchbook lies unattended most days.
She did one of my courses, in the hopes that it would help her stay creative in the midst of everything…
…but she couldn’t keep up.
She was able to take a class at her local college several months ago, and she produced several finished pieces, which was so fulfilling…
…but when left to her own devices, she just feels lost.
I replied to her email with what I think is the most important thing in these circumstances (which I’ll get to in a moment), and she said something in her reply (which I’ll also get to in a moment) that reminded me of the first time I went to music camp.
2002. Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. A week of music classes in the woods.
It cracked my heart wide open.
I was still a beginner — maybe an “advanced beginner,” since I knew how to hold the guitar and strum a few chords — and until PSGW, I had kind of felt like I was trespassing.
Like I was somehow not really allowed to be part of this music thing.
And camp was so welcoming and encouraging that, by the end of the week, something had really shifted inside.
It feels very clunky to try and put it into words, but the way I talked about back then (and how I still talk about it today), is this:
Music camp made me realize that I get to have music. I get to have it.
Now, that may sound kind of obvious. I mean, what the heck does that mean, anyway?
Well, before music camp, I had this belief, this mindset, this self-installed glass ceiling, that said that music — playing guitar, singing, etc. — was something that you either had to do as your full-time gig, or you didn’t get it at all.
Obviously I didn’t completely believe that I didn’t get to have music, because I did own a guitar, and I was taking music lessons. But I still felt like a trespasser.
But that story was very entrenched in my mind. So much so, that I didn’t even know it was there.
Until I went to music camp.
PSGW blew the lid off that story. Shattered that self-installed glass ceiling.
It made me realize that I didn’t have to be a full-time, professional musician in order to have music in a really big way. I could dive into music as deeply as I wanted.
I got to set the terms of the relationship.
If I wanted to perform, I could make that happen. And that wouldn’t mean that I would have to drop everything else in my life and devote myself exclusively to music.
I got to set the terms.
This shift from all-or-nothing thinking changed everything for me.
It’s what gave me permission, three years later, to start taking jazz vocal solo classes at a community college…
…which led to me sitting in practically every week (usually two to three times a week!) at a regular jam session at a bar nearby…
…which led to me the opportunity to “open” for another singer at one of her regular gigs about a year later…
…which led to me starting to play gigs of my own, learning to assemble bands and be a bandleader…
…which, over the past couple of years, led to me playing around with looping (with the Loopy HD app), and assembling enough original material to play house concerts — solo! — with just me and my ukulele!
As in, filling two hours of entertainment all by myself!
Tiny steps, born of permission to create my own relationship with music, took me down a path that I never would have gone down if I’d been stuck in that all-or-nothing mindset!
The Stealth Killer: All-or-Nothing Thinking
So back to that email I got from my student. My reply included this:
FYI, I think the most important thing is to keep setting and re-setting the intention, and taking tiny actions — even if it feels like one tiny baby step forward and two steps back. (The most important practice is just getting back on the wagon, remember. )
(Yeah, I know, that’s a lot of “most importants.” But I stand by it.)
And her reply to me really nailed the issue:
All my excuses and all-or-nothing thinking topple with the practice of pushing the reset button as many times as needed. Tiny actions are something I can hold on to.
See, all-or-nothing thinking invariably leads us nowhere.
If I was going to have to be a full-time, professional musician in order to dig my teeth into making music, honey, that was just never going to happen!
If I had to be a full-time, professional artist in order to paint or draw, no way.
And actually, I did become a full-time, professional ketubah artist, and it burned me the heck out… Because I wasn’t creating to please myself. I wasn’t creating for the joy of it.
I was creating to please my clients and to make money.
Nothing wrong with that arrangement, but it’s no longer a deal that I’m interested in striking. (And if it’s a deal that works for you, just make sure you still get dedicated time to play and explore, just for fun!)
And the important thing to remember is that it is not the only deal in town!
Getting back to my student, who signed up for one of my online courses, but “couldn’t keep up”…
When I sign up for a new class, I’m always afraid I won’t be able to keep up. But if I can get really clear on my intention, and see the class not as “I’ve got to do everything, or I’m a failure,” but as “I know I won’t manage to participate in everything, but I want to get X out of this class, and will focus on that”…
…then I can focus my energies on enjoying and appreciating what I’m getting, rather than lamenting about what I’m not getting.
My whole music “career,” I could have spent the past fifteen years lamenting that I wasn’t touring the world as a signed-with-a-label-world-class musician. But instead, I focused on what I do get to do:
I get to stand up on stage and perform for people!
I get to play in somebody’s living room!
I sometimes even get paid!
I get to have the thing that I was really hungry for — as a singer, as a songwriter, as a musician — even if it didn’t come with the kind of “package” that I thought it had to come with.
Creative Sandbox Thinking
There are infinite possibilities for the relationship between you and your chosen creative expression (or expressions, if you’re a passion pluralite, like me).
You get to set the terms.
And if you are feeling stuck, not making the time, avoiding that creative thing that you most want to do, I suggest it’s time to take a hard look at the stories you’re telling yourself.
Is there a voice that tells you it’s not worth it if you can’t spend hours every day?
Or if you can’t be “World-Class”?
Or [insert your own expectation]?
Is there an all-or-nothing self-installed glass ceiling above your head?
What is your real intention?
What are you really hungry for?
If it’s to be famous, or make a million dollars, I don’t have much advice for you, but hey, more power to you!
If your intention is to experience the joy and fulfillment you feel when you do the things you love…
…and maybe to always be pursuing a greater level of mastery (as long as it doesn’t lead to perfectionist paralysis)…
Well, just keep hitting the re-set button on that intention. And keep moving forward, tiny baby-step at a time.
You may be surprised at how far you get.
And even more importantly, you’ll enjoy the journey a whole lot more.
Quotes from this Episode
Resources from this Episode
Puget Sound Guitar Workshop (my first music camp, ever!)
I also highly recommend:
California Coast Music Camp (modeled after PSGW)
Jazz Camp West (where I go the last week of June, every year)
Loopy HD looping app for iPhone/iPad
Thanks for Listening!
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Now go get creating!
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