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Matt's Music Blog

Friday, February 4, 2011

Rest and Play: Enjoying Getting Stuff Done

It's been a while since my last post! It's too bad because there were actually a lot of things that I wanted to write about, but I got busy with other things, and now they aren't as fresh in my mind.  I'm going to try think about doing more frequent, shorter posts in the future.

Even though my last post was over a month ago, I'm still thinking about the ideas of Brene Brown.  I wrote my last post after watching her TED talk.  I have since read her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, and found it interesting, inspiring, and liberating.  In particular, I want to write a bit on my reaction to the chapter "Cultivating Play and Rest - Letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self worth."

In the chapter Dr. Brown proposes that "making the choice to rest and play is, at best, counterculture." Our society generally has been pushing to become more and more busy for many decades now. Speaking from my personal experience as a musician, I can relate to this twisted idea of "exhaustion as a status symbol" (although I think it is common to many professions). It seems that often when one musician asks another what they've been up to lately, the reply is laden with anxiety about being perceived as busy.  The anxiety seems to be that if a musician isn't extremely busy, they're boring, uninspired, disconnected from the music scene, and clearly not a person that other musicians would want to collaborate with.  Sometimes the question is simply stated as "Are you busy?" which is jazz-slang for "Do you have any gigs?" which is, in turn, jazz-slang for "Is your life worth living right now?" I recall one Facebook status update that a friend of mine made which boasted of an almost inhuman amount of music-related work that they were doing in a given amount of time.  I read the status with envy, but looking back on it now, I wonder if that is really something that is right for me to envy. Wouldn't that be incredibly stressful? Would they really be able to do their personal best at every one of those things? Sometimes when we try to do too much, this can lead to botching things up, and in the end it may have been better if we had not attempted any of it.  Speaking for myself, if the only time I feel adequate is when I'm extremely busy, then my choices are to either feel inadequate because I'm not busy enough, or to feel really stressed out - and probably inadequate as well anyway because I don't have time to do the things I'm doing properly.  My only reasonable avenue is to try to let go of this idea that I can't simultaneously have time for rest while being an inspired and talented musician. The reality is that being relaxed and rested no doubt encourages inspiration.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the tricky phenomena of identity and the snags it can lead to.  For example, when I first started playing bass (at the innocent age of 16), I spent many hours a week practicing and jamming, all relatively free from worries about how good I was or how I compared to others.  Then in 2000 I started studying music full time, and I rapidly developed some intense anxieties around these subjects. I think some of this came from a shift in my identity - I started to think of myself not just as "someone who played music", but as a "real" musician.  The attitude was "This is my profession. I have to be good at this. I can't just fool around anymore." Now, ten years later, I've experienced a similar shift in thinking of myself as a "real" composer. The problem is that "just fooling around" - i.e. playing - is essential to the creative process. Dr. Brown quotes another researcher, Dr. Stuart Brown, in her chapter:
"'The opposite of play is not work - the opposite of play is depression.' He explains, 'Respecting our biologically programmed need for play can transform work. It can bring back excitement and newness to our job. Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creative process. Most important, true play that comes from our own inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work. In the long run, work does not work without play.'"
Not every idea I think of when I'm trying to compose is going to seem like solid gold right away. But I've noticed that if I just allow myself to fool around with ideas, then often ideas I thought were bad will lead to good ones - although often in ways I didn't expect at first. If I insist that every idea that comes out of me holds up to my idea of a "professional composer", then I have a sure-fire recipe for writers block.

I now have a sticky-note on my computer monitor that says "PLAY" in large friendly letters, with a happy face underneath it. I think it is helping a bit!

Have you experienced anxieties related to your identity? How did that effect you? How did you deal with that? Can you think of other ways that rest and play can (paradoxically?) help us do more and better "work"? How do you balance your need for rest with your ambitions?

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