Saturday 12 November 2011

Looking Under The Hood When The Dream Stalls by Helen Yee

Last last week I realized that I have not worked as consistently as I would have liked with my composing project. It made me uneasy because I had just felt like I had hit my stride, and yet here I was, stalled.

Somehow, instead of my more typical reaction, criticizing myself and labeling this as failure and proof that I'm never going to succeed at composing music, I wanted to look at this as an opportunity to learn what works for me. I wanted to pull over to the side of the road, open up the hood and look inside. What are the things that support working on my project and what doesn't?

I decided to ask two questions: Why has my project stalled, and what might I do differently?

It is more challenging to write when one's time is being pulled in different directions: the everyday life stuff, commitments to other music making endeavors, having house guests for a few days. What could I change? To be honest, I couldn't have done any work while hosting visitors so I gave myself a pass for those days. But for the other days I could see I might need to establish some kind of routine. For instance, I've noticed that once I'm at the desk with my tools around me and I begin, the creative process starts rolling easily. It doesn't seem to take much more than telling myself I'll only spend a short time on it, and (surprise, surprise) that timer is beeping in a blink and I wish I had more minutes remaining.

Or sometimes, my project stalls because it just doesn't feel fun anymore, especially when it seems I'm not making enough progress, or fast enough progress. I'm slogging away and I only move an inch, and I can't be so sure that's even an inch in the right direction! What might I do differently? I try to trick myself into making the work feel more like play. Putting aside pre-planning, relying on following curiosity and intuition might help me reduce the pressure of trying to produce a "great" work. It might mean finding some tools and methods that allow for more spontaneity. But I've also discovered that maybe I need to find tools that are more fun and inspiring for me to work with. It is like a garden tool that doesn't fit one's hand properly.

If the tool isn't a good fit the gardener winds up with muscle strain and blisters, the time creeps along slowly and the work of weeding seems interminable. But if she finds the tool that fits her hand, using it is a pleasure and the tool almost seems to do the work by itself. Or maybe making working on my dream more fun and pleasurable means taking the work to a cafe, or sprucing up my desk area. I believe the key is to keep trying different things.

I don't know yet how the experiment with establishing a routine to help me arrive at the desk ready to create will go. I don't yet know yet what the tools and methods that fit best in my "hand" are. What I do know is just by changing my approach from seeing "failure" to looking into how I can improve my creative commitment and process, I am already declaring to myself that my creative dream is a priority in my life. It is worth taking a look under the hood and starting up again when it stalls.

Helen Yee is an improvising violinist, multi-instrumentalist and composer. Currently violinist for the eclectic string trio, Trio Tritticali she also performs on yangqin with Music From China. She considers the practice of improvisation in all its forms a profound teacher in art and in life.


  1. Good for you for having being confident enough to stop and ask those questions. And what great questions to ask!

  2. Thanks for sharing your process, Helen! This is helpful for me, too--I recognize the ups and downs and the need for variety in the writing life. I'm curious to hear an update--how has this evolved since you wrote this piece?