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. Continue reading Making Music With Depression

Don’t Study Composition (yet)

In the past couple of weeks, I have been asked twice about my opinion on studying compos­ition as an under­graduate. First by friends of mine who have a son that is devel­oping into a fine young musician and once on Reddit. Studying music is a tricky thing, and studying compos­ition is even trickier. You are putting your devel­opment as a creator of music in the hands of a few people. This is a big decision, but I haven’t seen much useful advice about it online so I thought I would add my opinions as something to ruminate on if you or someone you know is orbiting this decision.

My Story

My story starts in high school in New York. I started out playing in the school jazz band as a bassist and started writing some tunes for the band. A couple of the music teachers at the school encouraged me to try writing more formally organised music for the school’s various ensembles; wind band, recorder consort and string ensemble. There wasn’t any formal instruction but the high school music teacher guided me and I studied harmony and counter­point from books.

Over my four years at the school I learnt a huge amount. I was very fortunate indeed to be supported by the staff and even my fellow students who were willing to have a go at playing my music. It was exciting to hear my music realised. There was a wide variety of talent levels and exper­ience in the school’s musical people from profes­sional level players on the staff to young middle school recorder players. This placed all sorts of different constraints on me in writing for different people, which was incredibly valuable in making me think about how music conveys complexity. Much of what happened to me was simply good luck, the exper­ience worked for me and I developed a naïve but enthu­si­astic approach to writing music.

In my last year of high school I put on an evening of music that I had composed. I put my head down to write and rehearse an hour and a half of music. Making something like that, at a young age, was very cool indeed. Marshalling all the people involved was perhaps harder than writing the music, both were valuable exper­i­ences. I developed a very strong sense of authorship, both of the music and of the evening as a whole.

Applying to Conservatory

While this was all playing out I decided to apply for a place on a conser­vatory compos­ition programme. I assume one of my teachers suggested this as a possib­ility at some point. I am no longer sure of the genesis of the idea. I do remember feeling excited that this was even possible. Going to conser­vatory was intox­ic­ating stuff. That was what really good musicians did. I had come to this game fairly late by tradi­tional standards and had little formal training so that good adult musicians were encour­aging me felt intox­ic­ating.

Applying for compos­ition programmes was my only option to go to conser­vatory. I defin­itely was not a good enough player. At this point my main instrument was bass guitar. I played piano but in a rudimentary way. The keyboard was a tool for getting music out of my head rather than an instrument I could perform well on. I had played double bass for a year and a half and trying to teach myself clarinet for about the same amount of time. There was no way I was getting in as a player, but looking at the compos­ition entry standards for the conser­vat­ories in New York City where I was living, I had a shot. Continue reading Don’t Study Composition (yet)

The Two Hemispheres of Music Production and The Struggle to Keep Them Separate

BrainModern music production software is brilliant stuff. It gives us the capab­ility to do so much that was previ­ously only possible in expensive studios and with the help of several musicians. There is even the potential to sync to picture and even some (pre-)mastering capab­ility. In the words of Harold Macmillan, “[we have] never had it so good.”

Power brings respons­ib­ility though and one area where this capab­ility can introduce friction is in writing music. The problem is that there is just so much to tinker with, synth patches, eq, effects, bussing, display colours… It just never ends.

Most of this capab­ility has little to do with creating music. It falls firmly in the realms of editing. The problem for me is that writing can be a difficult process and the desire to procras­tinate huge. There may never have been a better procras­tin­ation tool for me than ProTools.

At the other extreme when I was at music college in the 1980s there was an ongoing debate among the compos­ition students as to whether one should even use a piano or other instrument while writing music. The idea was that the purity of the music was better served by creating it only in your head and jotting it down on paper immedi­ately. There is a certain purity to this idea, but it was only taken seriously by us students. The professors, being more exper­i­enced, stayed well clear of such matters and just stuck with whatever worked for them. Continue reading The Two Hemispheres of Music Production and The Struggle to Keep Them Separate