The ONE thing to focus on during lockdown (to promote artistic growth)

With lockdown version 2.0 now in place in Portugal, many of us are now having to face a new round of uncertain, dark and sometimes lacking in meaning days. Focusing specifically in the arts world and in musicians in particular, we will once again witness a series of interesting challenges, of which I would say the most promenint one is probably the effects of lack of motivation and feelings of depression due to the highly uncertain, unchecked and solitary nature of our work. 

There is no easy way of putting it, being a musician is tough as it is. My usual response to people who ask me about job opportunities for musicians is that they exist, but they’re only available for the very best. This is a career that rejects very strongly (and easily) people who are only average in level and commitment, a contrary situation to most careers. So when you think of how the industry has been simply decimated in this past year, it becomes apparent that these are definitely some of the toughest times we will have to endure as professional musicians.

First of all, there are two main reasons why giving up isn’t even on my mind. I think this has the potential to be the absolute worst situation that we will find ourselves in in our lifetimes. It could get worse sure, but historically, things have probably only been this bad in total war situations like WWII. This is close to rock bottom, there is a lot more room for massive improvement than there is to significant worsening. On top of that, the arts and the entertainment industry usually endure a huge boom after long term crisis situations. 

The second reason is:

“Because I don’t a have a fucking choice”

– Russel Corwin, in Six Feet Under

And not having a f*cking choice actually makes things a lot easier in your mind than having one, but that’s a subject for a different post.

It’s not easy to know exactly what one should be doing as a musician in times like this. On one hand the possibility of escaping every social and job related situation, completely guilt free, would make you think that this is the best time to tackle that huge project you’ve had in mind for many years. On the other hand, pushing through on top of an unhealthy mind and spirit doesn’t come without its own consequences. As composer Mary Kouyoumdjian puts it in her April 2020 essay for I Care If You Listen, when talking about composing from a place of grief:

While we’re often encouraged to push through writer’s block and just write something—anything—that period of grief is when I learned a valuable lesson: writing before you’re ready can cause damage. The difficulty can eat away at your confidence, and the self-imposed pressure and potential dissatisfaction with the work you create during a period of trauma can be hard to shake.

MARY KOUYOUMDJIAN

To make my point for this entry I decided to call on the expertise of March-April 2020 André Silva (that’s me) and what he wrote a month into his lockdown in New York City. I’m posting a small excerpt of my journal where I talk about what really felt important at the time. 

I decided to call this phenomenon of artists and professionals turning into amazing productivity practitioners some form of sugarcoating of a (goddamn) quarantine into an artistic residency. And I know some amazing people will do it and be amazing at it, but I fail to believe that most of us will. As usual, most of us will focus on the picture perfect social media examples and forget what it means to be human and to feel and to be frustrated. Most of us will try to do everything right only to realize that once again we’re short of our ambitions, but now there’s no outside world or real life to make us forget about it and move on and find relief in anything else. We’re locked with our frustrations for (and emphasis on this point) an UNDETERMINED amount of time.

Not many of us have experienced being locked inside of a house for two months minimum. Not many of us have an idea of how our brains will behave after days and nights of loneliness, frustration, and hopelessness. A person I know in Wuhan on day 53 of his quarantine apologised for not giving news on the days before as he was unable to leave his bed for five consecutive days due to being so overwhelmed with depression and boredom. That’s what we’re really fighting with as individuals.

That’s why I’m making the call. Taking care of your mental health should be your only purpose in life right now. Doing everything you can to feel good and reduce frustrations should be your only concern. That can mean absolutely anything for everyone but please try to understand what makes you feel bad or less accomplished and try to either stay away from it or practice being not too hard on yourself. If you need to lay on the couch watching Netflix in order to navigate through this as a healthy human being, then do it and don’t feel bad about it. I do believe that at some point the saturation of doing nothing will strike you and you’ll feel a natural healthy urge to look for ways to be productive and to feel more a part of things. 

Our brains are a dark place that we spend our lives trying to avoid and now we’re stuck inside with no real tools on how to deal with them.”

I tried to stick to a reasonable schedule in March 2020

In typical monkey brain fashion I feel a lot more confident about my possible productivity in today’s lockdown than what I felt while writing that entry. But I know where that came from, and I still remember how it felt. And I understand that it’s quite possible for it to return. And most of all, I understand that the only way to feel stable is to participate in a number of daily activities that I’ve seen time and time again having a very positive effect on me. These are of course highly personal, but there are a handful which come up again and again every time mental health discussions come up. The reason they do come up so often is because there is enough scientific data and case studies to back them up. Do not attempt to shoot down the positive effects the usual suspects can have on you without giving them a fair chance – between 4 and 6 weeks of daily implementation (or a full lockdown cycle in today’s lingo). Without further ado I’ll give you my own personal checklist of key habits:

  • 8 hours of sleep
  • Early to bed and early to rise
  • Having some form of a morning routine (cooking and eating breakfast, drinking tea, making your bed, putting on actual clothes and implementing other key habits) 
  • Meditating after breakfast and last thing before bed
  • Some form of exercise or workout
  • Some type of outside activity, like a walk, preferably in nature.
  • Some form of journaling so you have somewhere to dump overwhelming and cyclical thoughts.

I would say this takes up less than two hours to complete and if you are a musician with a very reduced (paid) workload at the moment, I would definitely say that this is the only thing you should be focusing on completing most days. Beyond the obvious and not so obvious benefits (eventually I’d like to write an individual entry for each of these topics) of these practices, there’s something deeper at play here. When you offer yourself these acts of self-care you are signalling to your brain that you matter and that your life matters in the same way that receiving a gift from a friend does. You’re saying “I do care for you, so here is 30 minutes of my precious time that you can spend guilt free, walking around these amazing woods thinking about whatever you feel like” – sounds like a dream right? 

I think any activity does the trick, so far as it is not destructive – like smoking – and doesn’t prevent a deeper form of connection with yourself – like binge watching a show. This list should be enough to get you going most days, my own experience is that I can work from a nice chill and focused place after having gone through it. During this time I also like to focus more on the small tasks that I’m accomplishing every day than on some kind of huge project that might become overwhelming and promote serious feelings of failure further down the line. If I’m working on a big project I’m not really worried about finishing it and setting deadlines for myself. Remember, you want to build up a bag of nice positive thoughts, so keep your ambitions tamed (just) for the time being. Less is more.

Finally and equally important. Be kind and gentle with yourself and your own thoughts. Mastering music is a many decades project, don’t let your mood and practice be affected by short-term perspectives, those will only derail you from the long game.

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