Making Music With Depression

I started seriously pursuing music in my mid-teens. I was lucky to find myself in an environment where I had support and guidance to do this. I have not ended up quite where I expected to. There are lots of reasons for this. In my case one of those reasons is my mental health and how long it has taken me to begin to understand the role that has played (and is playing) in my life. In the 2013 UK Wellbeing Survey, nearly 1 in 5 people in the UK aged 16 and older showed symptoms of anxiety or depression. Its impact can vary greatly and it is a daily struggle for all sorts of people. I have found that there are some elements of living with depression that make working as a musician particularly complicated.

I went from working very intensively on music in high school to an undergraduate composition program. I only completed two years of the course. There were lots of good things about being there and I learned a great deal from many of the teachers and my fellow students. In the end I felt I was in the wrong place and following the wrong path. I saw no future for me in studying classical composition.

After leaving I worked in technical theatre as a rigger and sound operator. Music followed me around and eventually that lead to work producing music and sound design for plays. Again, this was not a comfortable fit for me. I worked at this sporadically but without conviction before drifting away and ending up working as a web designer, back before that endeavour required a formal set of skills.

After a few years of this I took, what at the time felt like, a last throw of the musical dice by enrolling in a music for film and TV graduate course. This seemed promising at the time, but again I didn’t feel comfortable in the role the course was steering me towards. I did manage to complete the course this time (yay!) but I knew I didn’t have the energy or motivation to successfully take this role up professionally. I tried to find work in ancillary and technical roles related to film music, but without success. I didn’t have the right skills to be a good fit and by this point I was too old to be an easy choice for entry-level positions.

It was clear that much of the problem was within me, but I didn’t at this point have a simple label for the what and why. Lots of the elements of depression were apparent to me, but it took a while to knit this into a whole cloth and even longer to get (at least some) effective help. Confidence was definitely a problem and in some lucid moments the link between that and self-esteem was clear.

The ebbs and flows of energy made working to deadlines hard. The need to sell myself and/or projects I was part of was very difficult with a pervasive feeling of pessimism and low self-esteem. I do not mean to imply that any of this is easy for anyone or that it is impossible to work in creative fields with depression. The way it hit me lead to this long-term pattern of stops and starts and I wasn’t able to come up with an effective management strategy.

Low self-esteem is a common issue for people suffering with depression. For me this has become almost usual. It is assumed and ingrained in how I look at the world and how I attempt to interact with it. This creates several issues that specifically affect creating and performing music that are problematic.

The first is torpor. It is often very hard to get started with anything. In my experience ideas are not difficult to come by. I suspect that most people have all sorts of ideas about things that could be fun, interesting and/or exciting to make or play around with. The hard part is execution. It is not easy to take an idea and realise it.

When this general problem is coupled with the specific issue of extreme self-doubt inspired by low self-esteem creating anything can be very difficult indeed. To give this some context there have been extended periods in my life where just getting out of bed in the morning would be the cause of a crippling panic attack. That isn’t usual for me currently, but that feeling is often bubbling away on my mental/emotional stove, threatening to come to a rolling boil any moment.

Editing and vetting your ideas is a useful thing. Not every idea is a good one or even a remotely passable one, but I think for most people you need to begin exploring the idea at least a little before you can effectively judge viability.

It is helpful to be able to separate out creating and editing modes, to be able to get something on a page or recorded in some form before the mental red pen uncaps itself and begins its fell work. I find the red pen uncapped even before the idea has begun to emerge.

The problem is that it is very hard to establish any momentum. It is not just about individual ideas (most of which don’t deserve to be completed/published/performed), but about inertia. I believe that most people who successfully create things are able to do so because they get moving and stay in motion. There was a TV show about the composer John Adams where he talked about this saying that being a creative person was somewhat like being an athlete, you had to stay in shape to be ready to make something of the good ideas that came along (or something to that effect).

My hope, or fantasy, is that this is about inertia and that once momentum is established it continues. I have never found that tipping point and I seem to find myself in the early stages of gaining momentum only for it to ebb away as my internal critic cries out that the effort is pointless, doomed and hubristic.

I find that my editor-self is always there, front and centre, waiting with a dripping red pen ready to strike out any silly sub-par ideas before they can even coalesce. This compounds the difficulty of making anything as it often seems that to succeed an idea would need to spring from my head fully formed like an Athena armed and ready to defend itself. This is the paradox of any creative person and I suspect that part of learning to make things is to tame this editor particularly as you are learning your craft.

The second significant area where depression and its ugly companions of self-doubt and lack of self-esteem make it hard to be a functional musician is in avoidant personality disorder. That’s just a complicated way of saying being social is very difficult.

One of the joys of music is its cooperative and collaborative nature. Even if music is created in solitude and designed to be performed alone it needs to be heard to become real. There are outlets through recorded music for this, but a significant part of musical culture is a social culture. When participating in that is problematic you are excluded (or excluding yourself) from a significant part of what it is to be a musician.

There is an idea that one of the ways for music to retain value in the age of digital reproduction is as a live medium. Concerts become the focus and recordings are promotional material for live performances that can’t be reproduced and shared willy-nilly. I am not completely convinced of this argument at least not as a permanent state for the music industry, but it poses a big problem for me and for other musicians that find gigging difficult.

For me this is not just about a financially viable career. I have enjoyed making music with other people in the past, but I am fearful of the anxiety of dealing with other people, particularly those I don’t know well, and reluctant to enter into a relationship I am not sure I can carry through to conclusion.

Work using a computer, particularly in a home office, is fraught with distractions. Social media is a constant pull and with its potential for affirmation and gratification it can be a salve for doubt. It is a very tricky path to tread as in any information-rich environment there are lots of interpretations available both positive and negative. It is constantly on with the potential for something new that might make you feel better. For me it has also been a way I have reconnected with people from my past. This is double-edged as I get all the joys anyone does in rekindling old relationships but I also find myself confronted with memories of some very dark time through association.

There are some complex issues to the media. In many ways it is a casual fleeting kind of communication, but as (much of) it is textural subtleties of meaning matter and it isn’t all that ephemeral either. In many ways it feels a perfectly effective bittersweet addiction for someone like me. It may be a function I would fill in another way were the internet not there.

It is difficult to describe trying to work as a musician with depression without being struck by how all the challenges I describe are faced by everyone who tries to make things. Creating stuff is hard. Perhaps the boundaries between normal/neurotypical/healthy and depressed is fuzzier than we would like to believe? I have struggled for many years that the idea of mental illness is an excuse for a lack of some simple mundane quality that others seem to have. Much of life is like that I think and declaring my difficulties is not intended to lay claim to any special status only to shed some modicum of light on my experience.

I hope that this might allow other people struggling with mental illness while trying to make art scope to think about why they are struggling. If it can help others to think about how people with mental illness can be part of creative culture that would be wonderful.

How Well Do You Know Your Gear?

I recently watched a video of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks showing off their home studio. As you can imagine it’s pretty swanky. You could say it’s in a shed at the end of their garden, and that would be true except that their shed is nicer than most people’s houses and it is packed full of lovely instruments and recording gear.

Susan is interviewed and asked why they have mostly vintage gear. The instruments are mostly older; the console is a Neve but they record to a DAW of some kind. The standard answer would be some waffle about vibe and/or mojo. She doesn’t go that way though. Her response is that people know how to use the older gear well. It has finished developing and you can learn its tricks while modern gear is changing fast (particularly in the realm of software) so keeping up is hard.

This resonated with me as I am in the process of switching to a new DAW and it is driving me bonkers. There are lots of great new things to excite me, but they also distract me as I spend hours playing with the new gegaws. There are also moments of desolation as I find that a feature I relied on is no longer available to me. Perhaps the worst aspect is the change to my workflows. This is something that I didn’t think about that much before switching but this has had the biggest impact on my work by far. Continue reading How Well Do You Know Your Gear?

Is Jazz Better Than Rock?

Value judgements about music genres are complex. I recently got into a discussion about the relative virtues of bassists in jazz as compared to rock. The premise put forward was, broadly, that jazz players are more skilled and that the genre as a whole is more demanding to work in. This intersects with several prejudices about music that are interesting and perhaps useful to look at.

Is complexity a virtue?

There is a tendency to view complex things as more challenging and therefore more valuable musically. This may not be completely wrong, but there is value in simplicity too. The pro-jazz prejudice can run that only using three chords is easy compared to the harmonic subtlety of a tune like ‘Round Midnight.

The value of complexity depends completely on context and execution. A great tune like ‘Round Midnight uses harmony deftly to shade the subtleties of a beautiful melody. It highlights shifts between major and minor voices and modal relationships elegantly and cleverly. Most rock songs are much more simple harmonically, but this shifts the focus to different areas of the work.

Removing some of the density of information in a work greatly increases the impact. It provides a focus. Whole Lotta Love is not harmonically complex in the least. It is a tune with a great deal of impact, in part because of this. With little (to no) harmonic movement the focus of the listener is placed firmly on the rhythm and drive of the main riff. This is driven into the listener over and over with great force and enthusiasm.

I am definitely not comparing like with like here. These are not even apples and oranges but apples and lobster thermidor. My point is exactly that. These examples are trying to do completely different things so to try to compare them directly is difficult at best.

What about technical skill?

It is possible to make fairly objective judgments of technical ability. Can you play fast? Can you use extended techniques? Can you make your instrument dance like Fred Astaire?

Having technical skill as a musician is useful. The skill itself is only potential. Etudes are not concert pieces. Pure demonstrations of skill are not very interesting to listen to. They have to be put in to practice in context to have real value. It doesn’t matter that you can switch between 16th notes and sextuplets at 210 bpm if you can’t use any of those notes to make people feel something.

There is an easy bias as a musician to value technique very highly. We spend most of our time developing these arcane skills. If it’s not important why am I spending all this time sitting in a room with a metronome?

The debate around technique crosses genre boundaries. Interestingly in rock there is a prevalent reverse prejudice, that virtuoso players are somehow stunting other areas of their music. Steve Vai gets this particularly strongly.

Vai is derided in some circles for not having “soul”. This is interesting as he has played some great songs with a lot of feeling. The most apparent of these are often not his own compositions. His duet with Nell Furtado on her song I’m Like a Bird is very sensitive and musical. Even his hair-metal work with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake is full of humour and joy. Much of his solo composition is based around his formidable technique and this seems to create an emotional distance for many people.

Who is the music for?

While in pop/rock technique is viewed with suspicion in jazz it can be lauded sometimes beyond reason. It is complicated in this context. Charlie Parker lit the jazz world on fire playing fast solos, extending harmonies and stretching the boundaries of what music could be. The same things in the hands of other musicians becomes dry and lifeless.

There is a bragging culture in some areas of jazz. Bop and its variants are particularly prone to this. It becomes very similar to rap rivalries in some ways. Musicians end up speaking to the other musicians in the audience or even in the same band.

There may well be cultural value to this approach. While the music may not be of wide appeal the effect it has on other musicians may well drive them to assimilate the techniques in ways that are more musically accessible. I think you can make this argument about the value of rock musicians like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. While lots of folks don’t like their music a generation of guitarists have grown up listening to (or at least aware of) what they do. This frames musical possibility. Even if you don’t ape what they play the gravity of it pulls your playing into a new shape.

Tallying the scores

In thinking about this I find myself, currently, in the cultural relativist camp. Music needs to be evaluated in context. You can say that jazz tends to be more complex than rock. You can even stretch to generalising that jazz demands a higher level of technique than rock. Neither of these claims come close to establishing an objective hierarchy of the genres.

I love lots of music that fits into both camps. I have spent time playing both. They are both useful, exciting and entertaining in different contexts for me. Thankfully art is not a competition and there is no Hunger Games of genres so I can continue to enjoy both musics as my whim leads me.

The dichotomy of popularity and credibility is deeply limiting to musicians in all genres. It is useful to have huge reservoirs of facility and technique but it is not a requirement. More popular is not better either. There are many wonderful musicians who are obscure just as there are wealthy hacks. Don’t judge yourself just play.