When I was at secondary school, a new head of music arrived who wanted to fill the music department with energy.
I played the violin and the piano, and those were the things I took seriously – hours of practice, weekly lessons, orchestras rehearsals and theory classes.
But Mr Clark grabbed the school choir and turned it around. He threw open the doors to anyone who wanted to join. Before long, Friday afternoons saw a music hall packed with children. We had lunchtime rehearsals, and extra rehearsals for concerts. We sang Monteverdi and McCartney, Danish folk songs and high central European church music. I sang because I was a musician, because it was there, and because my friends did. And what wasn’t to like about it?
My violin was always the important thing. But with that came pressure of a different kind. With my violin, I had standards to reach, technical mountains to scale, the prospect of competition with all the other violinists wanting orchestral seats and music college places.
Most of us need some kind of pressure. That’s what forces us to be better and better, to drive ourselves forwards, to set ourselves impossible goals.
But we need to be rejuvenated, too. And this can be a problem. If our creativity has become our ‘life’, or our career, our most natural outlet has become that source of pressure. We still need a way to nurture our creativity without the pressure or the expectation.
I see now that singing was the release that I didn’t even realise I needed.
Of course, it was also far more than a release. I realise now that those hours of carefree but concentrated singing taught me essential musical and life skills. Sight-reading, listening, how to shape a line and how to fit words, how to create a shape with words that the audience can understand. How to stand up and perform without nerves, but with excitement. How it feels to re-create great music and be part of the extraordinary buzz that group music creates. And I was building friendships that are still there, over 30 years on.
The challenge of nurturing our inner artist
It can be hard to step away from what we’ve become ‘good at’. Richard Gerver and I talk in The Creative Life Show about how as children we gradually lose our instinctive, collaborative enjoyment to a world where we focus on getting things ‘right’ (if you missed it, come across and take a listen – Richard is a wonderful, inspiring thinker). And if we make a living from our creativity, it’s probably core to our own sense of who we are.
All this doesn’t make it easy put our time and energy into something that doesn’t appear to help you get to where you want to be. And yet it’s essential. We can’t create unless we have new ideas and new stimulations.
That means doing something that isn’t about your core creativity. If you write, it might mean going to a gallery. If you paint, perhaps going to a film, or theatre. Richard Gerver suggests going into a bookshop and finding a book on something completely new, and I love the reading app Blinkist for the same thing.
Matisse played the violin, and Picasso wrote poetry and plays. Many of my Creative Life Show guests have a secret ‘other’ creative passion that they follow – dance, painting, writing. It’s clear that a low-profile creative outlet can become a sanity-saver when the pressure elsewhere starts to build.
Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, puts ‘artist dates’ at the core of her work. This means deliberately making time to take your inner artist out, each week, for something that is only about nurturing and supporting it. This is so powerful because it makes it a routine and a habit, not something that you continually ask yourself whether to prioritise or not.
When you were a child you knew how to nurture your inner artist, so instinctively, that you may not even realise how you did it.
You may well have asked yourself in the past, ‘what did I enjoy doing as a child?’ But every time I’ve done that exercise, it’s never occurred to me that singing counted, simply because it was so much part of my daily life.
Singing. Writing. Running. Being a buddy to younger students. Helping out in the art room. Finding new books in the library. Just life stuff that you did, every day. Not even a formal ‘hobby’.
Your artist today is still there, still in need of care and attention and variety. Ask yourself: if I was a child, what would I be doing to look after it today?
PS: As for Mr Clark, he’s still inspiring children to sing, and opening the doors to anyone who wants to be there (and I suspect that for him, running a choir was the release he needed from the classroom). Thank you, Keith.