Tag: work habits

6 Strategies for Using Time Effectively During COVID-19

Juhi Bansal essay

When the first chatter about Coronavirus started in the U.S. about seven weeks ago, I was in Hong Kong. There they were better prepared for it, having gone through the SARS pandemic in 2003. People went everywhere in facemasks, cleaning protocols had been increased in every open public place, and many non-essential venues had already been closed back in January. Schools that had already been shut for much of the year due to the protests managed to switch early to online teaching. At that time, there was still a hope that Covid-19 would remain quarantined into a small number of affected cities.

Clearly, that hope was misplaced. I returned early to the U.S. when countries all over the world started locking down their borders, to find that the situation was becoming very serious here as well. This brings us to now – friends, family, colleagues all locked down in different cities, performances and projects canceled, and perhaps more worrisome than anything is the uncertainty that permeates the whole situation. How long will this continue? Will friends and loved ones catch this? Will I catch this? How can I make up for the lost income through this time? My fears come from both the personal and professional directions and mingle in anxiety-inducing ways.

I feel incredibly lucky in that so far no one close to me has become sick, so my most critical fear, while still looming, has not developed into an immediate crisis. And looking at the situation in places like India, where more than 400 million people are struggling to find food as a result of the lockdowns, I’m reminded just how lucky we are simply to have reliable shelter, food, and our health. My worries seem so small compared to the intensity of problems facing so many people. Many of the issues I face are things I can actively work to address, and so that has become my focus through this lockdown.

The personal side is perhaps the more easily handled. I’ve had to make peace with circumstances I can’t change. I worry about family and friends spread out around the world and have instituted weekly Zoom dates to check in on everyone. I worry about family nearby getting sick, so we are religiously practicing social distancing and obsessively cleaning. I and my husband are both working from home through most of the day, so to battle the claustrophobia of being indoors we go for lots of walks and take frequent yoga breaks while working. With myself (a composer) and my husband (a pianist) now both working from home, there is now music in our house around the clock and not a lot of silence. To create a quiet space in our home, I invested in an affordable set of noise-reduction headphones. I’m worried every time I hear about the lack of supplies available locally at hospitals, so we have been donating masks and blood.

Professionally and economically, my concerns are more within my control, so I have been trying to treat the lockdown as an opportunity rather than an imposition. While I am certainly frustrated about canceled concerts and events, one unexpected bonus has been the time that lockdown has created where normally I would have none. (In less-stressed moments, I can almost pretend that this is a composer retreat – after all, there are few distractions, many opportunities to go for long walks, an instrument and computer at my disposal throughout the day.)

In my lockdown-imposed, self-guided-composer-retreat, these are the strategies I’ve found to make the best use of time:

1. Reconnecting with the music community

One big part of this has been using this time to reach out and connect with my community, particularly since I tend to fall off the radar in the middle of a normal season. This has involved email, social media, Zoom calls, and phone calls to see how old friends and colleagues are doing, to catch up about life and what each of us is working on.

2. Self-directed composing – writing for fun, writing as gifts, writing in styles I wouldn’t normally

I’ve been taking some of the time during these past few weeks to write short pieces as gifts for friends, colleagues, and mentors, and – as these are self-directed projects, they don’t come with a lot of compositional parameters in the way that commissions sometimes do. So I’ve been using this as an opportunity to stretch myself in terms of technique – writing in styles that I wouldn’t typically, limiting the materials I can use in unusual ways, pushing myself to write to tightly restricted sets of performance standards. Not only is this forcing me to dig deeper before I put pen to paper, but also pushing me towards ideas I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It has been a challenging process, but a great one to break out of the habit of reverting to what comes easily, and to express gratitude to people in the community who have helped me in the past.

Cimbalom inspiration

Stravinsky wrote on cimbalom for many of the same reasons.

3. Discovering and listening to new music

I’ve been listening to a lot more music – the number of virtual concerts appearing in the last few weeks has been wonderful. Everyone from the Met to LA Opera to NPR to American Composers Forum to individual artists are streaming music online, in versions ranging from full productions to solo living-room concerts to virtual ensembles. It’s been a great chance to not only hear new music but also to peel back the veil from some of the larger companies and artists and see them making music in the simplest possible ways. It has also given me the chance to dig through lesser-known music on other platforms – YouTube, Spotify, iTunes – specifically to create playlists for music by women composers in various genres, something which has been a passion project of mine for a while.

Free livestreams from the Met

The Metropolitan Opera is offering free livestreams of many operas.

Free livestreams from the Met

NPR’s website with an up-to-date list of virtual concerts from many genres

4. Tackling freelancer administrative tasks

I have to admit that website maintenance is not usually the task at the top of my list during a normal season, but it is nonetheless an essential one. In catching up on administrative work, I’ve updated my website, created and uploaded long-overdue projects to YouTube, prepared, sent out and shared digital scores, and caught up on social media.

5. Learning new skills and technology

The speed with which so much of the world has had to switch to teaching and learning online means that the number of online classes and webinars available for almost anything increased exponentially over the space of a few weeks. From learning new technology to methods for structuring online teaching to software and apps to use in making and disseminating music, there are suddenly not only quick ways to learn things but more importantly, often live people on the other end you can reach out to with questions. Many organizations have additionally made recorded lectures and classes available for free in response to Coronavirus. Udemy, Coursera, edX all have extensive lists of courses in various fields, as well as recorded lectures from renowned speakers such as Leonard Bernstein, Toni Morrison, and Carl Sagan. I’ve been working my way through a variety of these offerings to improve my online teaching, to expand my skill set in terms of business and marketing, and to learn from authors speaking about the craft of writing in ways that suggest interesting analogues for the writing of music.

6. Contributing to the larger community

This final point is admittedly a little esoteric, but in watching the ways this crisis is playing out across multiple communities, I’m reminded of what it means to be a part of each one, and I feel driven to help in any ways that I can. Of course, this pandemic impacts me as a musician, but also as an Indian watching the fallout there, as a Hong Konger seeing the repercussions there, and as a teacher watching the impact on my colleagues and on my students. In whatever ways I am able, it has been important to me to contribute something – tutoring students struggling with the sudden digital switch in their class environments, sharing what supplies we have at home with friends and neighbors, trying to raise awareness of the unintended side-effects of lockdown on the most marginalized people.

This is a strange time to be living through, and one that is stressful in visceral, uncomfortable ways; but for myself, I’m trying to mitigate this fear by finding opportunities to control what I can. While I very much look forward to the return of things to normal, at least as a freelancer and a musician I feel like this is a situation where we can make our own opportunities if we are creative about it. None of this allays my fears for loved ones, fears about sickness, about the economy, or lack of hospital beds, or anything like that – but these are at least ways of focusing on what is in my hands during this unprecedented situation.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

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Beginning Again

Beginning again

I am, once and for all, the eternal beginner. – Gustav Mahler, 1909

I read this sentence over a century after it was written, six months after leaving an abusive relationship and trying to begin my life, in general and as a composer, again. At that time, everything felt new and nigh impossible; going outside, now ironic, talking, composing, teaching. The quote, later misremembered to “each day I must begin again,” helped reframe my efforts. It helped address the fudge ripple swirl of PTSD running through the classic combo of anxiety and depression and got me to breathe. It gave each day a chance to be another start, without carrying over the baggage from the days prior. Each beginning grew from the foundations of the previous. Life was rebuilt.

When the pandemic arrived, the practice of being an eternal beginner again held particular relevance.

Train to return to attention whenever you become aware that you are lost. And then just do it. Place attention and rest. Return and rest. Again and again. – Ken McLeod, “Forget About Consistency”

As a composer and artist, there is the perpetual problem of the blank page and how to go about filling it. The creative life is one nonstop beginning and the only way to learn your unique way of addressing that blank page is to practice, practice, and practice. And then do it again. I approach a blank page as an architect. An elaborately constructed structure lays out a guideline for the notes so when I become lost, I know where to come back to.

As in music, as in life; in March I returned to structure.

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
– Joni Mitchell, “The Circle Game”

On March 9, I returned from the Darkwater Women in Music Festival. On March 11, the schools I contracted with closed. On March 13, I began again. My schedule was reconstructed to divide the day into manageable chunks, the to-do lists were divided by day, week, and month, and that became the framework to adjust as work from home orders came in, restaurants closed, schools closed for the remainder of the year, concerts and festivals were canceled or moved online.

The arts and artists have all started offering new support in the face of the closures. In my base of Seattle, funds were immediately set up and continue to support local artists. The Artist Trust website currently lists 20 links for funding or resources, many of them new. Live Music Project, an organization which normally posts all local live concerts in the area switched gears mid-March and started focusing on livestreaming concerts worldwide. Where before there was an endless fount of places to look, the search for events started from scratch with an empty Google doc. Two weeks later there were over 100 concerts listed. Further away, LA harp and cello duo and current collaborators, Strange Interlude, have joined in the livestreaming concerts and like many artists friends, local and across the world, have started new projects and posted messages of hope, continuance, and support for each other in the face of uncertainty and loss.

Life has abruptly divebombed into new and unfamiliar territory in this time of corona and we all have beginnings to confront and come up with. We are bombarded with contrasting messages: use this time to create a masterpiece; to do nothing and grieve; to connect with everyone; to meditate alone; the list goes on. Despite all that, begin in a way that makes sense for you. Know what works and if you don’t, experiment. Read all the articles about working from home and try some. Then adjust and retry. Start a weekly brunch and connect with people if that’s your jam but don’t feel pressured. Start a new project addressing the fear of the unknown future. Or, give yourself a weekly laugh by featuring every dinosaur-themed piece of clothing you own on Fridays. Treat each day as a new start or if struggling, every hour. Figure out what you need to carry yourself through the next few months and try again.

In the message of the Joni Mitchell song I heard every night as a child, there is no going back, only forward, and so I look ahead, create my structure, and begin.

Creativity in the Age of COVID-19

Work table with books and blank music paper

It’s interesting how priorities change in this time of COVID-19. My petty concerns seem even more, uh, petty. What’s become important to me is to not spend what remains of my life in bitterness over roads not taken or career opportunities that never have arisen—or that I didn’t cause to arise. And let’s face it, in my early 60s, that remaining time may be much less than I might want. What is an effective way to spend one’s time? As musicians, I truly believe that one of the most important things that we can do is to continue to create. And the many musicians that have been posting joint performances online are a testament to this drive.

I believe that one guide for productive survival in these strange times is to maintain a consistency of creative work and to try not and focus on where it may or may not lead. My teacher Charles Wuorinen, who recently passed, taught me to not compromise my creative time. “Do something every day,” he said, “even if it’s just for an hour.” Compose, play, write, paint, every day. That consistency is anchoring for us psychologically and important for establishing a daily mental ordering for other work we may need to do on our homes, with our spouses, pets, and families. In the best of times I feel incomplete if I don’t compose in the morning. In the worst of times, I feel incomplete if I don’t continue the habit—it just seems to signify that things are even worse than I’d imagined. I need the diurnal foundation of the creative act in order to deal with the rest of each day.

Also, I try not connecting to the news every morning because that’s causing me to experience a sense of at least temporary despair. Perhaps one shouldn’t completely ignore the news, but we may quarantine media as well as social media items to a specific time of day, perhaps toward the end of the afternoon. If I look at the news early, then my creative concentration is blasted. If I look at it before bed, then I may have trouble sleeping. One article recommended that you rely on only one or two news services you trust so as to not overload and go down the rabbit hole of Internet links leading to this, that, and the other resulting in increased anxiety. And, let’s face it, while a lot of this may not be sensationalism, some of it is. It’s good to filter what we read and see in order to preserve some positive creative energy.

Better that we connect with one another. I’ve discovered that I have an interesting net of friends with whom I’ve been connecting through phone, Skype, Zoom, or messaging. A number of my friends are performing online. I’m planning long-distance recording collaborations with musicians in a variety of locations. This is an opportunity to connect with one or two musicians with whom I haven’t yet collaborated, and, if my stimulus check comes through, those funds will help support those musicians that record my music.

As an aside, I’ve discovered that happy hours with friends are great stress relievers.

To compose, practice, and play (albeit on the Web) is an act of defiance. It’s saying “to hell with despair” and affirming the prospective and, I believe, bright future of creative offerings, concerts held in communion with others, and the potential for a cache of wonderful works created now while social distancing.

Live and create today for present sanity and for the future. This won’t last forever.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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