Sharon Burton is writing a book, and posed a series of curious questions to artists. I was privileged to be asked, and so I have posted my answers below.
1. Have you tried micro-movements or something similar to reach your creative goals? How did that work for you?
This is a tough question for me, for some reason. Everything seems like a micro-movement, especially when you are stuck. Sometimes it is just, do something, anything - start anywhere. But I also have a very strong and reliable inner guide - a sense of when a thing is right, and when it is wrong. There is no doubt what is "yes" and what is "no". Many times there has seemed to be no way forward, but I am very persistent - to a fault - and adaptable. I have had to be.
2. Have you ever had to confront feelings of fear in completing a creative project? How did you get past it?
Yes, quite often! And it is the closest projects, the ones that are most important to me, the most central, that intimidate me the most. It's like Kafka's story of the gate that is open but guarded, and one is told to wait for permission, which never comes, and it turns out the gate was meant only for you. I somehow confuse the importance to me of a project with an impression of its impossibility. I have put off projects for years, just because they mean so much to me that they seem forbidden. I still have such projects, in boxes in the basement. Alas! Nevertheless, I have overcome these feelings (I guess through a kind of grace) in individual instances, and reached my goals. I think of the fairy tale in which the hero is so blinded by love that he does not even see the distractions along the road to his beloved.
3. How do you make time for your creativity with all of the demands on your time? Do you use any tricks or strategies to do this?
I was a musician until the age of 26, when I went back to school to get marketable professional training in another field. Within a couple of years, partly to my surprise, I found that I could not shake or tame my first love, music. I managed with considerable difficulty to fan the flames little by little until I was able to shape a life that included both work and music. It was a drive, a compulsion, not tricks or strategy. At age 56 I took early retirement and became once again a full-time musician.
4. When was the first time you considered yourself an artist? Was this a natural process or did you have to work on yourself to identify yourself as a creative?
Despite my inner drive to play music all my life, strangely enough I did not consider myself an artist until quite recently. Partly this is because I am married to a visual artist, and in that world only composers, but not performers, are considered artists. At some point, there was the "Duh, I am an artist", moment, that explained much about my life. But this probably only happened in my 60's.
5. What has your experience been with setting goals and intentions in the past and how has that affected your creative practice?
Goals and dreams need to be constantly refined. One says "fame and fortune", when what you really mean is just three colleagues who respect your work, and enough resources to get by. I have become better at consulting my inner driver, who is often quite loud and clear. Sometimes I frame it as, "Just the swoony stuff", of which there is a great deal. Nevertheless, I am full of plans, grandiose and small - I list them every day in my notebook, and see some of the same ones appear year after year. But the small goals are like shopping lists - they get done. My wife used to say my big dreams take 3-5 years to materialize, but they usually do eventually materialize - I would say, about 60% of the time.
6. What steps did you take to get the courage to share your work? What would you do differently?
I have always had a very strong drive to be heard. At the age of 21, I realized that there was nothing to fear, and I had nothing to lose. Don't imagine that this made things easy for me! Regrets are impossible and meaningless. This is the life that I had, and it is truly wonderful. I would have been kinder to myself if that had been possible.
7. Who supports your creativity? How do you find support for your creativity?
My marriage has always been based on mutual support of our creativity, and it has served us both for almost 50 years. Psychotherapy has also been essential. Successful accomplishment of my work requires compatible colleagues, loyal audiences, supportive allies, public venues, and funding. Each of these has been a challenge in its own way.
8. Is self-care important as a creative? How does it affect your creative output?
Absolutely! Eating, sleeping, walking, seeing family and friends, travel, household chores, reading, listening to the birds … having a real life. I make use of amazingly wonderful health professionals to keep my body and especially my hands and arms functioning at age 70. But equally important at this age is a backward look at what this life was all about, and for this I am assisted by two wonderful psychotherapists.
9. How do you handle disappointments with your creative work? For example, share a time when your work was not accepted or received a lot of critical comments. What did this situation teach you about handling disappointments?
I have said, only half joking, that disappointments are my bread and butter. Rejections, negative reviews, hostility and sabotage from competitors, and a host of other unpleasant types of interaction between the world and my art have been constant for my entire career. I am learning not to take these things (exclusively) personally - rather, they reflect the human situation and specifically the situation of the artist in these obviously difficult times. A reviewer once described my piano-playing as "overly insistent sound", and I fretted over this comment for years. Eventually I came to a couple of insights: one, he was expressing a covert anti-semitism; and two, I was trying too hard to be heard. I took this to heart and have lightened up a little.
George Theophilus Walker - Violin Sonata #1 (1958). "To my Mother"
George Walker, 1922-2018, studied at Oberlin College, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the Eastman School of Music, and was a pupil of Serkin, Scalero, Menotti and Boulanger. He was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1996.
From "George Walker: Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist", Scarecrow Press, 2008:
Epigram: “I cannot always stand upon the peak and touch the stars.
Sometimes the wind is thick with snow and bleak.
And there are scars of sorrows that are long since past.”
- from Stars by Susan Keeney
“My mother, Rosa King, obtained a job in the Government Printing office in Washington, DC, after graduating from M Street High School (later Dunbar High School) when she was sixteen. She was able to support my grandmother, a single parent whose second husband died when my mother was a young child. My grandmother's first husband was sold at a slave auction and was never seen again. She fled north with friends in the middle of the night from a plantation in Virginia. When they approached Washington, DC, they encountered the Union Army and freedom. They had successfully escaped the despicable tyranny and inhumanity of the Confederacy. When I ventured to ask my grandmother what it was like to be a slave, she replied, "They did everything except eat us."
My mother's gifts were apparent to all who knew her. Her mind was remarkably agile. Her speech, flawless (without any regional accent) and quick to respond, dominated every conversation. Slang, even the ubiquitous "okay," was never used by either parent. She had a very special talent for arithmetic, and she was a superb bridge player. The unassuming bond between her and my grandmother was remarkable.
There was an unusual, innate directness about my mother that was evident in her gaze and her ability to convey an opinion that was not coated with malice or envy. She enjoyed laughing about the foibles of others while understanding the fragility of their situation. She was a magnet to which persons with problems gravitated because they sensed her empathy. She also had psychic powers. Forseeing in a dream the closing of banks by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first days in office in 1933, she withdrew our savings the next day.”
It looks like WMV has given birth to a Piano Trio, the Milo Trio,
unpretentiously named after Richard White’s house concert venue in Bethesda where we played our first concert. A Piano Trio rapidly develops its own identity, like an infant becoming a toddler, and it is a challenge to keep up. So we sat down over ice cream and berries to have our first business meeting last night. Marilyn, an experienced group leader, had plenty of good suggestions, and I also sought advice from Bonnie Thron, a veteran of Piano Trio-ness (who introduced Emma and me).
Both agreed on certain principles: have a business contract, in which nuts and bolts are discussed so that there will be fewer unpleasant misunderstandings down the road. For instance, money, the big one. Where does it come from, and how much can we expect realistically to earn through performance.
How much rehearsal is enough, and how much is too much; what to do about unexpected schedule conflicts; who decides programming; how do we handle marketing and social media; and what to do about inevitable criticism and jealousies. We are urged to be open about each other’s dreams and goals, which can be very distinct, but not necessarily in conflict, and seek how to accommodate these as much as possible.
We all agreed that we are keen to perform music by women composers, as well as the masterpieces of the standard repertoire. Emma and Celaya want to explore baroque Trio Sonatas, and I am game for that. Celaya wants to perform programs multiple times and in larger venues. Emma wants to make recordings. I have a repertoire dream list and want to commission new works. Emma and Celaya would like to maximize the proportion of their income derived from the performance of chamber music.
Emma has offered to maintain an Instagram presence, Celaya a Facebook page, and I will continue to do Constant Contact email announcements. Marilyn will continue to make short videos.
There is the obvious fact that Celaya and Emma are in their 20’s, and I am 70 years old - the time horizon is different for us. Nevertheless, we have been encouraged to think individually about one year and five year goals, and develop corresponding plans.
All that said, we are pretty excited. We have agreed to schedule a bi-weekly (every two weeks!) concert series surveying the Piano Trio literature, starting with eight concerts. The first concert is September 21. We all agree that eight seems far too few, and that is what is so exciting.
Maritza Rivera’s poem, written at the Musica Viva 4/17/19 concert:
the stone steps of night
and fills our empty crevices
like water in a glass of pebbles.
It is alive and echoes
like hello in a dark cave.
It is the call of a dinner bell
that nourishes us
so we gather obediently
lest it stop playing.
We look and listen in wonder
but mostly we imagine each note
drifting gently like whispered wishes
never wanting such magic to end.
I have collected my journal entries from the last year, extracting music-related, poetic, and philosophical writings, and leaving behind shopping lists, concert planning, public relations, etc. Mostly single sentences, in chronological order, about music and life. Some of them I continue to mull over. Some of them, even I don't know what I was thinking. I am posting these because some of the ideas may be useful and/or entertaining to you, and I find it helpful to have them collected in one place. Here and there I see the germs of new projects. For instance, the magic watering can image/idea led to the commissioning of new works by local composers. They are posted in three pdfs:
I have recently had the great privilege of performing three programs back to back in North Carolina with Bonnie Thron. Here is a review of the third program by pianist and writer Chelsea S. Waddelow. I am looking forward to repeating this program in Takoma Park on November 25.
I am especially thrilled to be performing the great Chopin g minor Sonata with her, a piece that has long been on my "bucket list". Learning, rehearsing, and performing this piece has given me a whole new toolbox for revisiting Chopin's immense body of solo piano music. Thank you, Bonnie!
Marilyn shot this video clip from the Trout at Milo, Saturday Feb. 18, 2017. Full house (60 guests), Richard White set a fine table, and we all consumed every bit of food and drink. The music room and living room were completely full, and there was even a crowd on the balcony.