The arts don’t exist in isolation.

David Byrne, musician

Musicians, like writers and artists, need quiet time and solitude to pursue their work. The desire to withdraw, often for hours on end, is not necessarily a sign of unsociability nor introvertedness but rather a signifier of deliberate intent and purpose. We choose to withdraw into our work spaces – whether it is a purpose-built music room or studio, or simply a corner of the home which is designated as one’s “creative space” – in order to get on with our work. For those who live with musicians, artists and writers, appreciating and respecting this need, and the creative space, is both important and supportive.

The lockdown in response to coronavirus is seen by many as an opportunity to “get creative” and in the first days of the UK lockdown, my Twitter feed was full of tweets by well-meaning people urging us to “learn a new language”, “finish that novel you always wanted to write”, “take up art” and make use of all this new-found “spare time”. Musicians were told they should think themselves “very lucky” to have all this “extra time to practice”, but while amateur musicians are relishing this time, professional musicians are more ambivalent, and some are quite hostile to the idea that they should welcome this grand fermata in their busy lives.

The trouble is, we didn’t choose this period of isolation; it was imposed upon us. And that affects inspiration, because in normal circumstances when we take ourselves off to our creative space, we control that intent, we have autonomy over our own time and how much of it we choose to spend alone.

It may be true that inspiration is about 80% solitary graft, day in day out, and that most inspiration comes from a regular routine rather than “lightbulb moments”, but the lockdown has, for many of us, caused a massive rupture in our routine. Musicians, for example, are not able to attend rehearsals, where regular interactions with colleagues fuel creativity – and if there’s one truism about creativity, it is that one must “feed the muse”. Interactions and experiences are the staple diet of the Muse, and the richer our experience, the better fed and healthy the Muse will be. For the musician, experiences are not only musical ones (listening to music, going to concerts, collaborating with other musicians), but life experiences in general – relationships, travel, sights and smells, interactions with others, events large and small. Unfortunately, almost all of these experiences are impossible at present, and this physical confinement can seriously limit the imagination.

Another important factor is motivation. Several musician friends have commented to me that without the focus of concerts to prepare for, they see little point in practising. And without regular practising or rehearsals, one slips out of a daily routine, leaving one feeling disoriented, out of sorts, and in some instances, depressed.

In addition, music, art, words need an audience – and this is what I think David Byrne means in his quote at the head of this article. The arts and creativity cannot really thrive in isolation: the musician needs the performance to work towards, the artist the exhibition, the writer the deadline. This is not attention-seeking but rather a significant motivator, and more fuel for the muse.

Of course many creative people are finding inspiration in isolation (and it remains to be seen how many Requiems for the Victims of Coronavirus are premiered when the concert halls reopen, or Lockdown Diaries published!), and for some of my musician colleagues, this pause has been a reminder of just how hard they work in normal times – rehearsing, teaching, performing, travelling, plus all the other admin and minutiae of daily life. If nothing else, the lockdown is an opportunity for a much-needed rest.


(Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash)

“Ideas lie everywhere like apples fallen and melting in the grass for lack of wayfaring strangers with an eye and a tongue for beauty, whether absurd, horrific, or genteel.”

– Ray Bradbury, writer

A very good friend of mine is a writer, and our conversations often touch on the subject of creativity and the notion of “feeding the muse” – how we stoke up reserves of inspiration when these become depleted through our creative work.

Inspiration itself is hard won. It does not come from nowhere. “Light-bulb moments” are rare and most creative people – musicians, writers, artists – will agree that the best way to foster creativity is through a consistent daily routine. But when that creativity fades, “what comes out must be put back”, as my writer friend would say.

In his collection of essays entitled Zen in the Art of Writing, the writer Ray Bradbury set out his techniques for cultivating inspiration. Although primarily aimed at writers, these techniques are equally applicable to musicians, and I have highlighted a number of them below, using Bradbury’s original suggestion as a basis to guide the musician seeking inspiration.

“Collect Experiences Instead of Things”

Experiences are the staple diet of the Muse, and the richer our experience, the better fed and healthy the Muse will be. For the musician, experiences are not only musical ones (listening to music, going to concerts, collaborating with other musicians), but life experiences in general – relationships, travel, sights and smells, interactions with others, events large and small. All feed the creative Muse and have a bearing on our personal music making.

“Read Both Trash and Treasure”

For “read” substitute “listen”, and value every listening experience – the good, the bad and even the ugly! Listening is a fantastic source of inspiration for the musician (something which I feel some younger musicians and students in particular do not engage with enough). Listen to great artists and recordings, and the “pulp fiction” of recordings too. When working on a specific piece of music, listening to a selection of recordings of the same work can offer remarkable insights and enable one to create a personal vision for the music. If one remains open-minded, there is always something to be learnt from a recording or performance one dislikes, or a piece of music one regards as “bad”. 

“Write [Play] With Zest”

Our passion, love and excitement for what we do drives us and feeds the Muse. We should approach each practice session with excitement, asking ourselves “what can I do today that is different, or new?”

“Make Lists”

Make notes of experiences which fuel the Muse and reflect on how those experiences have influenced your music making. Lists enable us to organise our thoughts more coherently and provide focus when it comes to practising and reflecting on our music.

“Run Fast, Stand Still”

Bradbury urges writers to “strike while the iron is hot!” to get ideas down quickly

The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are”

This is tricky for musicians, for whom slow, considered practising is essential to learn music deeply and retain it. But I agree with his statement that “in delay comes the effort for a style”. In order to create a personal musical identity, vision and sound, we should strive to be spontaneous, driven by our musical instincts rather than the desire to imitate or aspire to be someone we are not.

“Choose Your Friends Well”

Musicians, like writers and artists, seek affirmation and endorsement from those around them. The best critique often comes from those who best understand the exigencies of the profession – i.e. fellow musicians. Seek feedback and critique from trusted friends, colleagues, teachers and mentors whom you know will support and encourage you.

As Bradbury says, “Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven’t friends. Go find some.”

“Train Your Muse”

Just as we practice regularly and intelligently, as an athlete trains, so the Muse must also be trained. A well-trained, well-fed Muse allows us to say what we want in our music without feeling restrained and to be spontaneous, making music “in the moment” which brings vibrancy, excitement and genuine expression to our performances.