Productivity, Pressure, and the Power of Listening: Marcos Balter

In the first installment of our first-person series on music & mental health, Marcos Balter opens up about anxiety, composition deadlines, and each person’s singular path towards happiness.

Written By

Ellen McSweeney

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Welcome to day two of our Mental Health & Musical Creativity series. For a full introduction to the series, start here.

In this first installment of personal stories, I’m honored to present an interview with newly minted New Yorker, former Chicagoan, and Brazilian-born Marcos Balter. We can all gain a great deal from this candid interview, and especially from his honesty about intense productivity, the pressures of composing deadlines, and the struggle to balance work with personal relationships. Marcos is a beloved artist, mentor, teacher, and friend to so many people. I share his conviction that telling our own personal stories is the best way to help others, and I’m deeply grateful for his participation.

Marcos Balter

Marcos Balter

Ellen McSweeney: Marcos, thank you so much for talking with me about this personal and challenging topic. Can you tell me a little about what your experience has been with depression, mood difficulties, or other mental illness?

Marcos Balter: I’ve had a few encounters with depression throughout my life, though I do not suffer from chronic depression. It’s always been triggered by stressful events of all kinds, some professionally related and some more of a personal nature.

I have, though, fought very hard with anxiety, and peak periods that caused panic attacks. Now and then, I still have mild panic attacks. But I can usually identify them, and I have developed techniques that enable me to talk myself out of them. Sometimes it’s easier to do it than others.

EM: And how has this connected, if at all, to your work as a composer?

MB: I think that, in a way, composition is my best friend and worst enemy at once. I feel grounded when I’m productive. Nothing makes me feel more fulfilled than when I am working. It’s truly a cathartic activity for me. Perhaps because of it, I am a bit of a workaholic. I hate long hiatuses in between projects. If I give myself too much time, that’s usually when periods of high anxiety and/or depression kick in. It’s almost like I don’t have a strong sense of purpose if I am not making music, and that feeling is truly debilitating. The longer I wait to write something, the less capable I feel. Jumping from one project to another makes me feel much more empowered, and I feel I create my best works when I’m at a very high productivity level.

EM: It hadn’t occurred to me that the specific pressures of a career in composition are a pretty major mental health factor, but that makes total sense.

MB: Yes. There was a point in my life, not too long ago, in which I experienced a very palpable growth in my professional life. Even when I was exhausted after composing for over twenty hours uninterruptedly (and, I do really mean uninterruptedly), I would lay in bed and I couldn’t sleep. I knew every second I wasn’t producing I was letting these deadlines get uncomfortably close. On top of that, my inbox and voicemail would be flooded with messages from performers and presenters constantly asking if their commission was ready and when could they expect to receive it. So, I would usually set my alarm for maybe two hours, wake up, and compose for yet another twenty hours non-stop. That would go on for almost two months sometimes, every day, and then I would take just a few days, always less than a week, to recover before jumping right back at this kind of schedule. As you can imagine, that nearly killed me.

During that period, I had an extremely difficult year: I was unhappy with my workplace, overwhelmed with work both as a composer and as a teacher, my relationship quickly deteriorated, and my dog was diagnosed with cancer. So, yeah, my work is pretty closely related to my personal life, which in its turn is closely related with my mental health issues.

EM: Although every artist’s work and process are different, do you think there is something about artistic work that might make us particularly vulnerable to depression, anxiety, or other mental illness?

MB: Absolutely. I think nearly every composer that is lucky enough to find a platform and some visibility for her work ends up trading a little bit of her sanity for that opportunity. There are deadlines. There are people always hovering over you, demanding their commissions. There’s the constant need to choose between being attentive to loved ones versus being productive, which many times seem antagonistic to one another. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s a sense of nakedness—unprotected exposure that can be terrifying. To do my job well, I have to be 100% honest with myself and not care about what others may think, which makes you a very easy target for other people’s emotions.

When I talk to other colleagues about the process of finishing a piece, I find that this is a common thread: if you really do it right, it sort of feels like you’re going to die, that you’re not going to make it, no matter how disciplined you are. Composing hurts, both mentally and physically. It hurts a lot, actually. I don’t think many non-composers realize that.

EM: For you, what is the connection between your mental state and the specific works you’re creating at that time?

MB: Composing, for me, is almost like keeping a diary. I do feel more creative when I am happier. But, funny enough, my works that seem to resonate the most with other people tend to be the ones I’ve created during convoluted personal times. I try not to capitalize on it, not to romanticize depression or anxiety. I would hate to be that person that exploits negative emotions as a font of ideas. I don’t think that’s healthy. But, I’m human, and I have low points, and I do produce during these low points. So, these darker works do happen. I don’t seek them out, but they do happen.

EM: One of the things I’m curious about is how mental health issues are dealt with, both privately and publicly, in our artistic community. Is this something you’d spoken openly about with colleagues? What have those discussions been like?

MB: I’ve talked openly about these things to close friends. I have tons of acquaintances and many friends, but only a handful of people I’d consider close friends. I do open up to those about these problems and seek their guidance and support. Funny enough, most of them are performers, not composers.

But I also feel extremely guilty talking about problems that were originated from being in demand. I always think, “I am so very lucky. There are so many people who would love the opportunities I have. I have absolutely no right to complain about my life. I should just suck it up and do it.” So, I censor myself quite a lot for as long as I can, until I reach a breaking point, which is not the healthiest thing to do.

I have to say I’ve become much more reclusive as I get older, and that I share less with others about how I feel. I am always paranoid about being too needy, that my problems will annoy people, that others may think less of me if they think I’m too fragile. So, I tend to hide my problems from most people so as to maintain an image of a tough and productive person. Just typing that, I can see how ridiculous that is.

EM: What resources would you point people towards who would like to explore this issue further?

MB: I’m a true believer in therapy. Having a therapist has helped me so many times. But as for self-help books and articles, I think I’m way too cynical to benefit from them. I think that mental health has become a very lucrative industry to many, and I don’t want to be one more person to be taken advantage of. That said, I think people should do whatever they feel that would help them. Use whatever weapon works for you.

When I want to help others, I try to listen to them. Because, in most cases, that’s what people going through tough times need the most: someone to really hear them out. Giving advice is much less effective than fully lending someone your ears and attention.

I think hearing about other people’s struggles is so much more useful than giving solutions. Each person is unique, and sometimes “how-to” articles on mental health mask the fact that each person’s path toward happiness is truly singular.