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.

Study Music History Backwards

Contortionist, posed in studio
Contortionist, posed in studio, by Thiele’s Photographic Rooms, ca. 1880
via, George Eastman House Collection

Music history is a vast topic. Even confining yourself to popular music post 1952 leaves large vistas to navigate. If you include classical music you have 1,500 years of territory to cover and folk music is as old as people or possibly even older.

Standard practice has been to start at the beginning and work forward from there. The problem with this is it seldom works in fostering engagement. Convincing young people that Buddy Holly and The Crickets were challenging and revolutionary is not an easy sell. Convincing them that Orlande de Lassus is something to care about is vanishingly difficult.

Geoffrey Himes, writing for Smithsonian.com, looks at studying popular music backwards. He traces a path backwards from Sam Smith to Mary J. Blige, and onwards to Aretha Franklin and, ultimately, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Working this way people are gradually acclimatised to increasingly alien music like boiling the proverbial frog. He’s right, and not just regarding popular music. Continue reading Study Music History Backwards

To Read Music or Not: Musical Tribes and Approaches

Music is like a mountain. There are many approaches to the summit (that can never be reached), and it seems impossible to view the other approaches with all that mountain in the way.

George Crumb, The Magic Circle of Infinity (Moto Perpetuo) from Makrokosmos
George Crumb, The Magic Circle of Infinity (Moto Perpetuo) from Makrokosmos

To declare my viewpoint, I am a conservatory educated musician (reader). I started my musical journey meeting Mister Crotchet in school piano lessons (reader) before going on to become kinetically musical playing punk drums and bass guitar (non-reader).

Nowadays I seem to be identified as a classical composer type and firmly in the reader camp. I run into musicians or their parents who suspect my training must have restrained as well as trained my mind. These folks seem to feel defensive about not reading music and sometimes launch into complicated and passionate defences of this approach. I see this same dialogue played out online too and I think it is worth exploring a little here.

The TL;DR version is that ultimately music is sound used to communicate. The multiplicity of possible ways to understand and communicate instructions for creating that sound are decidedly subordinate to the sounds and their effects. Whatever works for you is great, but understanding some of the implications of the path(s) you choose to climb the mountain is useful. Continue reading To Read Music or Not: Musical Tribes and Approaches