Tag: work/life

Support Systems

We all know the truism that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists within the context of the art that has preceded it, and the art with which it is contemporaneous. It exists within the context of the life and beliefs of the artist who created it, and everyone who helped to shape that person’s life and beliefs.

So, too, your career as a freelancer (should you decide to take that path) exists within a broader context of its own. And just as you can shape the context of your art by studying, practicing, and forming the connections to position your art to its best advantage, you can also shape the context of your freelance career by continuing your education, working to refine your practices, and ensuring that you have effective support systems in place.

I’m fortunate to have an incredibly supportive husband, who has acted as both cheerleader and disappointed school teacher as necessary over the years. Both of our families have offered unconditional moral (and sometimes financial) support, and our friends have been at turns enthusiastic and healthily skeptical of my various harebrained ideas.

It’s these support systems that have kept me afloat in more ways than one. They keep me going, and they keep me grounded. If I can get the musical and non-musical parts of my support system excited about a potential project, I know that I’m on to something; and if I’m met with skepticism and confusion, I know that I haven’t thought things through enough.

Support systems keep me going and they keep me grounded.

Sometimes, though, you don’t have the support system that you need. You may have a spouse or parents or friends who stubbornly refuse to understand what you’re trying to do, and who consistently fail to support you when you need it most. It’s frustrating and can be unhealthy if you let it stand in your way. But how do you fix it?

Sometimes, an appropriately timed, calm conversation can help to make some headway. Explaining your goals and your plans to reach them can assuage fears about your future. How many of us have well-meaning families who want the best for us, but think that we’ve chosen the “wrong” path? One conversation won’t fix everything, but it might open the door to more understanding and to a deeper involvement in your art.

Other times, however, you have to create new support systems to make up for the lack of support at home. Maybe that means forming a local group of like-minded people that meets regularly for lunch or coffee, where the members share their successes and their struggles and offer advice, support, and encouragement. Maybe that means finding an online community that you can join to address the same issues. In case you weren’t aware, you’re in one right now. NewMusicBox has built a wonderful community of artists who are trying to make this whole thing work, just like you. Reach out. Ask for advice. Make connections.

You Are Not Alone

Last week, I mentioned bringing my bad habits from my former day job into my freelance life and struggling to get work done. The morning that that article went live, I was on the elliptical machine at my gym, listening to an episode of the Self-Publishing Podcast about time management, and the guest told the story of her early days as a freelancer. While working 60+ hours per week at a corporate job, she managed to get more of her own work done than when her time later became entirely her own. When she said how aghast she had been at that fact, one of the hosts chimed in to say that that very thing is one of the number one issues that freelancers face. It’s an almost universal problem. Most of our lives, we’re on someone else’s schedule (parents, teachers, bosses), and aren’t trained to value our own time in the same way, or taught how to manage ourselves given total freedom. Fortunately, although the problem is common, it’s also easily remedied with the right tools.

We aren’t trained to value our own time.

Over the past few weeks, a number of colleagues have written to say that this or that problem I wrote about deeply resonated with them. I say that not as, “Well done, Dennis,” but to point out that you’ll encounter many of these same problems yourself and that you’re not alone in doing so. Knowing the pitfalls didn’t prevent me from falling prey to any of them, though it allowed me to recognize what was happening and gave me a base of knowledge for how to attempt to remedy the situation. And it was hugely helpful to know that my struggles were not unique—that others had gone through the same thing and had come out the other side.

I Wish I’d Known…

About ten years ago, in large part because of the time commitment required to pursue my master’s degree, I spent a period of two years unable to get a day job. I hadn’t yet done any research into being a freelancer and didn’t consider myself to be one. Nor had I started to learn about the intricacies of publishing or the necessity of approaching my art with an eye toward business and my future. I was a graduate student with no job, only a few, barely paying commissions, and a small handful of web clients who rarely needed my services. I maxed out my student loans and did odd jobs to be able to eat and pay rent. Nearly a decade later, I can recognize that I was severely depressed—mostly spending my days watching Buffy on Netflix while tinkering with client’s sites. I barely composed if it wasn’t required of me. Eventually, I stopped paying rent entirely and was nearly evicted.

I wouldn’t know what I know now if it weren’t for what I didn’t know back then.

Sometimes I look back on those two years and think, “I wish I’d known then what I know now.” Honestly, though, I wouldn’t know what I know now if it weren’t for what I didn’t know back then. Recovering from that period set me on the path that led me to learn about publishing and marketing and distribution models, and to start sharing what I’d learned with others.

And, more importantly, I simply didn’t know those things then. I can speculate endlessly over what I would have done differently and how, but the infinitely more important questions is: how can I take what I’ve learned, and do better now?

Parting Shots

Before I sign off, I’d like to thank NewMusicBox for inviting me to write these posts and for offering me the opportunity to be so publicly vulnerable, and to thank you for following me to some of the darker places of my career. I hope what I have shared offers you some help and inspiration. I think we can all use a little more vulnerability in our lives. Our art demands it, and we should demand nothing less of ourselves.

Don’t let the fear of failure get in your way.

The thought that I’d like to leave you with is that, whether you follow the path of the freelancer or not, when you first start out at anything, you will never be perfect. Composing, engraving, email marketing, publishing, networking: you probably won’t even be good at the beginning. You’ll fail a lot, but you’ll learn from each failure. And every time you do it again, you’ll improve. Don’t let the fear of failure get in your way, or you’ll never get anything done. So go out and fail. Then fail better next time.

Course Corrections

Tobenski's calendar with color coded post-it notes.

Within six months of starting my new freelance life, things had gone off the rails a little bit. Even though I’d read The Freelancer’s Survival Guide and had done tons of research, I really wasn’t quite prepared to be my own boss. I carried my resentment toward my former day job into my freelancing, along with all of my bad habits, and that’s not a recipe for success. As a result, I’ve found my freelance life to be an exercise in course correction.

One way my resentment toward the day job manifested itself was in not wanting to get up in the morning, and I carried this over into my self-employment. Sleeping in is a habit that I’ve cultivated my entire life, made worse by insomnia and a penchant for reading late into the night. I hate mornings and, given the opportunity, I do what I can to avoid them: namely, sleeping well into the double-digit a.m. hours. It’s a source of never-ending amusement and frustration for my husband and our families. However, for a freelancer, it can be a terrible habit and a difficult one to break.

For a freelancer, sleeping well into the double-digit a.m. hours can be a terrible habit and a difficult one to break.

Being a night owl isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it forces a different kind of schedule on your waking/working life. A good friend of mine has similar sleep patterns to mine and makes it work quite well. He wakes up at the crack of noon, teaches for the afternoon and into the evening, then composes late into the night. His partner, however, works “regular hours.” As a result, they rarely see one another, but they’ve managed to make it work for many, many years. Fortunately, since they’re both musicians and they perform together regularly, they have built-in time to work together, in addition to the specific time that they set aside to be in each other’s company. Otherwise, they would live their lives as ships passing in the night.

Dean Wesley Smith, another night owl, chronicles his daily writing habits on his blog. He sleeps until between 11 and 1, uses daylight hours to manage the small publishing company he co-operates, as well as the antiques and collectibles shop he owns, then deals with his admin tasks and has dinner with his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch in the evening, takes an hour or so for TV, then writes until 3 or 4 in the morning. He’s incredibly prolific and has found a rhythm that works very well for him.

Dean and my friend are fortunate not to have children, which would make their schedules untenable. They’re also fortunate to have partners who are fine with the degree of their absence and don’t mind the odd hours they keep.

For myself, I’ve found that because I want to: a) spend time with my husband (who works regular hours at a jingle house); b) be considerate to my neighbors (and my husband) by not working at the piano after certain hours; and c) have a somewhat normal social life, my night owl ways are a hindrance. Consequently, I’ve had to adjust my sleep schedule to ensure that I have more daylight hours in which to work. Admittedly, it wasn’t easy, and I’m prone to relapse; but my husband helps to keep me honest, and we spend our early mornings together at the gym.

I also later came to realize that depression had set in some time during my first year working for myself. It took hold and grew almost imperceptibly: gradually eroding away my motivation and eviscerating my work ethic. I’d never before had cause to worry about either of these, but realized one day that I wasn’t doing what I needed to in order to achieve my goals. As a result, I’ve had to deal with some of the underlying causes for my depression, as well as implement systems to keep myself on track.


Over the years, I’ve tried a number of different ways of structuring my working hours.

In some systems, I’ve tried scheduling different types of work for different days. For example, only doing web design work on Mondays, blocking off Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for composing and other musical pursuits, and leaving Thursday for anything else that needs to be handled. Or variations thereof.

Other systems involve blocking off time for specific types of tasks and creating a template for the week. A block might be anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours and may be labeled variously “composing,” “web work,” “admin,” “podcasting,” or “listening & walking.” In one variation on this, I have just a morning block and an afternoon block, each labeled “Tobenski Music Press,” “Music Publishing Podcast,” “Perfect Enemy Records,” or “Tobenski Web Design,” and I address the priorities of each business during the corresponding block.

A bulletin board with an elaborate vertical and horiztal arrangement of large post-it notes on which various task reminders are handwritten

An attempt to organize my life that seems to be working.

A third system I’ve tried doesn’t parcel out time in increments at all, but sets weekly deadlines for different projects. One week, my priority may be to finish a piece I’m writing, and the next week is devoted to podcast production. Whatever else is on my plate, I have to meet that particular deadline by the end of the week.

I’m still tweaking my systems to find the best solution. Each of the styles I outlined above attracts me for different reasons, as does a more “go with the flow” approach.

The more diverse your activities are, the more difficult it can be to schedule them concretely.

I’ve found that the more diverse your activities are, the more difficult it can be to schedule them concretely, especially when they involve working for clients. Anyone who has done client-based work knows that clients can be the most demanding at the least opportune times. They may have an issue that absolutely needs addressing immediately (or that they think needs addressing immediately), and it can be difficult to say no: both to the client and to the money. With these types of interruptions, which can eat up an entire week or more, it’s difficult to keep a system consistently in place.

Finding Balance

As with diet and exercise, the best system is the one you can stick with. Johnny B. Truant, one of the writers I follow, structures his days in flexible morning and afternoon blocks, with family time built in. He’s up before dawn, writes for four hours, then spends his afternoons on the admin side of things. He’s adamant that the writing and the business stay separate, and he’s equally serious about both. He refuses to work past 6:00 p.m. and never works on weekends, instead devoting that time to his family. With this schedule, he and his writing partners publish a yearly word count equivalent to the entire Harry Potter series, while running a network of eight podcasts, managing four publishing imprints, mentoring other writers, and putting on the yearly Smarter Artist Summit.

Aaron Copland was reported to rise at 9 or 10 a.m. each day, linger over the newspaper, then handle correspondence and business every morning before lunch. In the afternoons, he would engage in score study, prepare lectures and articles, meet with musicians, or read. Finally, he would only compose after dinner, but would carry on until after midnight. On average, he composed around an hour of finished music per year.

Prolific, bestselling authors C.J. Lyons and Joanna Penn completely eschew daily schedules. Lyons thrives on keeping her days varied, and Penn merely blocks off a period of days or weeks for individual projects but keeps her schedule otherwise flexible.

At the moment, when I’m asked how I balance composing with web design and engraving and running two podcasts and being a vocalist, et cetera, I respond, “I don’t.” Right now, what works for me is taking things as they come, prioritizing on a daily and weekly basis while trying to maintain a long-term view of my career at the same time.

What works for me is taking things as they come.

As I write this, I’m within spitting distance of finishing two website redesigns for clients. So until we launch the sites in the next week or two, those clients’ needs (and the checks they’ll be writing me) are my top priority, while writing these weekly columns, because they’re on a short deadline, are a competing priority. Once these columns and the two websites are finished, composing and podcasting will once again move to the front burners. And because I’ll be recording my second album in the coming months, that will take on a larger and larger share of my time until that project is finished. By the end of the year, I have plans to revitalize an old business that has lain fallow for some time and add yet another income stream, while phasing out my reliance on web design and engraving.

Flexibility has become my watchword, and it allows me to juggle all of my pursuits.

One of the best, as well as most frustrating, things about freelancing is that there’s no one way to do it. There is always room for improvement, but the important thing is that you find what works for you. Mimicking others can only get you so far.  It can give you options for how to handle your own scheduling, but—in the end—the only thing that matters is what works.

Pitfalls of Living the Freelance Life

Wednesday, April 17, 2013, was my last day as a full-time 9-to-5er. That day, I organized the last few bits of work to pass off to my successor, drank too much at the company farewell party, then went home and packed a suitcase. I had two out-of-state premieres in the ten days that followed, and I was excited to embark on this new adventure of full-time freelancing.

I knew that the freelance lifestyle was fraught with difficulties, so part of my research in the preceding months had been to learn about potential problems that might arise. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Freelancer’s Survival Guide (get used to hearing about this book) was an invaluable resource in this respect. In it, she talks about burnout, dealing with client issues, worrying about income, handling the problem of unstructured time, and any number of other pitfalls that freelancers face. I was convinced that I was prepared for whatever life threw at me.

Time Management

One of the things about being a freelancer is that your time is entirely your own. Your days aren’t structured by the policies of whatever business employs you. You’re also completely responsible for your own success or failure, so quite often that means that you end up working long after normal “business hours” to meet your clients’ deadlines, or to stay caught up on all of the projects that you have going at once. Sixteen-plus-hour days can come to be commonplace. They’re equally commonplace with certain types of day jobs, but there’s a special white-knuckled frenzy that can come with being your own boss. The concept of “weekend” loses all meaning, except that it’s the time of the week that your friends with day jobs want you to come out. You don’t have paid vacation, you don’t have benefits, and it feels like the only way to keep up is to keep working more and more.

“Weekend” loses all meaning, except that it’s the time that your friends with day jobs want you to come out.

The danger here is burnout. You work such crazy hours for such a long time without any sort of break—and without rewarding yourself—that something finally just snaps. You’re either a frantic, stressed-out wreck who can’t handle anything anymore, or you’re a vegetable and can barely bring yourself to get out of bed. Burnout can be the kiss of death for a freelance career and recovering from it is a long and difficult process.

One of the other things about your time being entirely your own is that you set your own hours. You have no boss, no supervisor, no timesheets, nobody making sure you’re in the door and at your desk on time. So why not start a little later? Why even set an alarm? A midday nap? Yes, thank you. Feel like knocking off a little earlier? Okay! Just not feeling it today? Don’t worry—you’ll catch up tomorrow. Probably.

Without structure, it’s very easy to slide into laziness. And if you’ve spent your entire life abiding by someone else’s schedule, it’s easy to want to rebel against the clock, especially when you first start freelancing. You want to give yourself a little slack for the first week, and so you wake up later than you really should; but within that week, you’ve formed a habit of sleeping in. There are countless ways that you can train yourself to be lazy when you never were before.

Without structure, it’s very easy to slide into laziness.

Burnout and laziness are two extremes of poor time management. But the good news is that with some self-awareness and self-discipline, you can find a mode of working that uses your time effectively, and that takes into account your scheduling/motivational strengths and weaknesses.

For those predisposed toward slipping into laziness, it can be important to create self-imposed daily work schedules and artificial project deadlines. Keeping written logs of the work you do can help to keep you honest and motivated. Breaking projects down into component parts and scheduling them out can keep you moving forward.

I keep a bullet journal in an attempt to keep myself honest in this regard. Every weekend I survey the projects on my plate, take stock of the appointments I’ve made, and come up with a loose plan of attack for the coming week. Then every night, I plan out the next day’s agenda. I find it satisfying to check off the things I’ve done; it gives me a sense of accomplishment and motivates me to keep moving. Sometimes, though, I get cocky and think that I can keep my plans in my head without writing them down. Inevitably, I slip back into bad habits within a few days and need to pull out the bullet journal again to get back on track.

A bad week in Dennis Tobenski's bullet journal.

Here are pages from my bullet journal during a bad week; pages from a good week appear at the top of this post.

For those headed down the path toward burnout, it’s incredibly important to take breaks and vacations. Schedule regular breaks for yourself—and actually take them! Make it a weekly habit to go to the movies or relax over a nice dinner out. Schedule in time to read a book for fun, check out a museum, or go hiking. And take a vacation from time to time; set aside at least a few days when you’re not allowed to do any work. You’ll thank yourself for it.

Work Load

Probably the most terrifying thing about being a freelancer is knowing that you could have a bad couple of months and suffer financially because of it. Consequently, one of the ways that many of us choose to deal with this possibility is to diversify our income streams. We can take on additional work in other areas to help keep us financially stable if one source of income becomes temporarily unreliable.

One problem here, of course, is that you run the risk of working yourself too hard or spreading yourself too thin, and the specter of burnout once again rears its ugly head.

It’s possible to take on too many different types of work so that it’s impossible to prioritize tasks or schedule them effectively. Personal projects can take a back seat to easy money and clients’ urgent deadlines, making your days feel disjointed and frenzied.

A friend of mine was telling me recently about his freelance situation: he focuses in two primary areas which earn him some income, on top of which he has a time-consuming but stable part-time job and a reasonably low-maintenance yet profitable side business. He would like to shift more of his efforts into his primary areas of focus, but making this shift happen requires that he extricate himself from one of his other, more reliable sources of income. Given extra time to dedicate to his real passions, he could make those areas more profitable; in the meantime, however, he would be removing one of the pillars of his family’s stability, which is frightening.

Juggling all four sources of income plus his family life requires an enormous amount of time and energy, and it has taken its toll on his mental state. He’s constantly exhausted, always feels behind, and knows that the situation is unsustainable. Fellow freelancers in a similar position know this exhaustion, and also know the illogical complication added to the equation by the facts that he takes pride in and genuinely enjoys everything he does, and that he isn’t a “quitter” and doesn’t want to feel like one.

And not to be underestimated here, too, is the investment—of time, of money—that goes into each and every endeavor. There’s a feeling of ownership that takes hold, as well as a reluctance to “throw away” that investment when the time comes to move on. My friend has spent years building his side business to what it is, invested countless hours learning that trade, and spent no small amount of money acquiring the proper tools. For myself, I’ve easily spent thousands of hours and untold dollars learning HTML, CSS, PHP, and MySQL, not to mention what I’ve invested in learning and purchasing all of the software and content management systems I use for my web design business.

Moving on from these businesses, when it’s time for us, will be difficult. But not moving on from them when we need to will hold us back in our true pursuit of making music.

Mental and Physical Health

Last on my list of potential pitfalls this week is your health.

Traditional day jobs can be bad enough for your health. Sitting at a desk from 9 to 5 with only a few breaks to get up and move around has turned us into a very sedentary society, but it also requires that you at least get up and move to go to the office. Most freelancers work from home, so the trip to the “office” doesn’t require a commute. Or pants. Consequently, it’s far too easy to live an even more sedentary lifestyle than if you worked for someone else. And without coworkers to judge you for what you eat in the lunchroom, your diet can suffer as well. It’s easier to snack out of boredom, and you don’t have to hold up any pretense of eating like an adult.

Self-discipline and time management skills come back into play here. Scheduling breaks, taking walks, setting aside time for the gym, getting enough sleep: all of these are necessary not just to avoid burnout, but to avoid health problems, as well.

Breaks and walks don’t just keep your heart in shape and your waistline from expanding. They prevent injuries, too. I can’t count the number of freelance writers I know who have had to deal with carpal tunnel syndrome. Repetitive stress injuries are far too common among the self-employed because of our drive to keep working and working and working. This can ultimately be deadly to productivity, as recovery is painfully slow. And without employer-provided insurance, healthcare is already expensive enough without inflicting completely avoidable injuries and health problems on ourselves.

And finally, breaks, walks, workouts, sleep, and socializing are necessary for your mental health. Being shut away from the world, seeing only your significant other and your cat for days on end does some bad things to your state of mind. Take it from me.

Seeing only your significant other and your cat for days on end does some bad things to your state of mind.

Depression has far-reaching effects and can undermine all of your motivation, planning, and self-discipline. It’s all well and good for me to say, “Be disciplined,” but when depression sneaks up on you and gets a foothold, your discipline is slowly eroded away. It’s insidious. My comment, “Or pants,” earlier may have seemed flip, but in my opinion, repeatedly making the “commute” to your desk without pants is the canary in the coal mine. So in addition to everything else you have to know about the business side of things, know the basic signs of depression, too, and be prepared to seek out help. Because although you’re “going it alone,” you’re absolutely not alone, and the people around you are as much the key to your success as your drive and talent.

Your physical and mental health are closely linked. Being proactive about your physical health can buoy your mental health and boost your motivation, productivity, and self-discipline. Both the upward and downward paths can be circular: poor health can contribute to depression, which contributes to decreased productivity, which contributes to greater depression, etc.; and good health can foster a positive mental state, which boosts productivity, which improves your mental state, etc.

So set yourself up for success by taking care of your health, as well as your career.

Last week I wrote that within months of starting this new freelance adventure “everything had gone wrong.” Next week, I’ll tell you why, and which of these pitfalls I fell prey to (despite knowing about them in advance!) and how I’ve tried to course correct over the years.

Beyond the Margins of Self

The super-charged, caffeine-driven potentiality that draws so many to New York City felt more confining than anything I’d ever experienced when I first moved here in 2007. I came directly from Houston, Texas, where I had finished my undergraduate degree at Rice University—and where I imagine the wide-open spaces, drawling speech, and expansive stretches of emptiness might feel gratuitous to native New Yorkers. The speed and density of New York, its hustle and might, was compounded by a piece of advice I continually received upon beginning to navigate the freelance music scene: “stay tough.”

photo 2

What does that even mean? However it was intended, my original interpretation of this advice was that we should harden ourselves against “rejection,” present an image of warrior-like strength at all times, conceal our vulnerabilities, and fight tooth and nail for anything we can get our hands on. Sound like fun? This kind of “lack” mentality, where we assume there are a limited number of opportunities and that we must compete to be one of the lucky ones, promotes fear and hinders our ability to feel generous and inspired by our music-making. Sure, the limitations of space and over-saturation of musicians can incite our frustration and defensiveness—or, out of pure necessity, they can inspire incredible creative and collaborative possibilities.

In her 2014 article “Find Your Beach,” the writer Zadie Smith articulates this paradox so well, and with the perfect dash of cynicism: “Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue.”

Comparison and competition can be natural instincts in a city that is teeming with musicians of all kinds looking to make their mark or find their niche or pay their rent. But being “hard-bodied” and “hard-minded” is precisely the opposite of what we should aspire toward as a community of creative musicians with unique contributions. Toughness puts up walls, brings contraction to our bodies, and breeds isolation and resistance. I felt there had to be another way that benefits us both individually and collectively.

Who are we and how do we want to define ourselves authentically in this cacophonous blur of a city? At any moment, our frazzled attentions could be pulled in any number of directions—we could choose to be one thing or another, to create a perfectly filtered image of ourselves to send out into the ether. I have found this to be both the beauty and the endless challenge of this city. As Zadie Smith says, “Finally the greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next.”

With an immediate aversion to the “toughness” advice I’d been given, and looking for any excuse for some peace and quiet, I began taking yoga classes at Yogaworks on West 65th Street. I had finally found a space where I could hear myself breathe, explore being vulnerable, and cultivate an internal sense of trust and connection. It was the best medicine for my over-stimulated nervous system and sore, stiffened body.

As I began studying (and now teaching) yoga more seriously, I was introduced to some gems of wisdom that I now aspire to live by as a musician and creative person in New York. When I see these concepts in action, I silently rejoice; whenever doubt sets in, I return to them as guiding lights of inspiration and reassurance.

photo 3

On the first day of my yoga teacher training, I sat on the floor in a beautiful sunlit loft with twenty others and listened to the formidable scholar of Hinduism Douglas Brooks lecture (a mile a minute) for three hours straight. My mind was blown. I’ve chosen to share three of the main points Dr. Brooks spoke about, which have completely altered my way of thinking and being.

  1. The first concept is Adhikara, the Sanskrit word meaning “studentship.” This can be translated as “how one cultivates his or her inherent gifts.” The beauty of this idea is that our gifts are not meant just for us, but for the greater benefit of our community. Because our gifts are unique to each of us, it is actually detrimental to us all if we try to fit ourselves into defined roles or compare ourselves with those around us. Cultivating humility and understanding our inherent gifts is the best way to bring more value to everyone.
  2. Dr. Brooks says, “You become the company you keep, so keep great company.” No need to have anyone else’s specific gifts, as we are all constantly absorbing the gifts of those we hang around! It’s wonderful to admire people. There is no need for jealousy—ask questions, defer to others when appropriate, and let everyone do what they are great at.
  3. The word in Sanskrit for freedom is Svatantrya, which can be translated as both “self-loom” and “self-extend.” We have the freedom to simultaneously stitch together our own lives and engage with those around us in an generous way. We get to choose how we participate, show up, and contribute.

I love appreciating the many ways there are to make more space for us all in this city by constantly weaving and extending the tapestry that is our community in unexplored and completely authentic ways. There are many in the new music community here who are doing just this, constantly redefining what it means to make music and what they want to stand for.  It’s simultaneously inspiring and confounding to be in the midst of this dynamic, evolving landscape, as we combine and stretch the perceived roles of composer, musician, audience member, activist, writer, and educator (to name a few).

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I’m inspired by those who constantly come back to themselves, who get quiet enough to listen to their unique gifts, truest desires, and best avenues of service. That’s really when the idealism at the heart of New York City shines through the chaos, and our fleeting projects and days take on a greater purpose. As my favorite poet Mary Oliver so beautifully writes in The Poetry Handbook, “If it is all poetry, and not just one’s accomplishment, that carries one from this green and mortal world—then lifts the latch and gives a glimpse into a greater paradise—then perhaps one has the sensibility: a gratitude apart from authorship, a fervor and a desire beyond the margins of the self.”

Heidi photo 1Lauded by The New York Times as “colorful, committed” and “finely polished,” violinist Heidi Schaul-Yoder enjoys a varied career as a chamber musician, teacher, arts advocate, and yoga instructor. A passionate voice for contemporary music, she has recently premiered multiple works on The Museum of Modern Art’s Summergarden Series, at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and in Tokyo alongside musicians of the Ensemble Modern. Fascinated by the mind-body connection and its function in fostering creative expression, Heidi is a Certified Aligned Flow yoga teacher and teaches classes at Twisted Trunk Yoga in New York City.

What Else Would I Do?

With the sad loss of Elliott Carter last week, I keep reflecting on my favorite aspect of his career: that he kept producing new music throughout his life. Instead of retiring and resting, Carter became ever more prolific throughout his 90s and 100s. When I attended the American premiere of his opera What Next? in 2000, I thought that this would be my last opportunity to witness the unveiling of a major new work by this iconic composer. Rarely have I been so overjoyed at having an assumption of mine proven so utterly incorrect.

Composers rarely retire. When we are fortunate enough to live into a ripe dotage, we generally continue to write for as long as our strength allows. Although there have been exceptions like Rossini and Sibelius*, most composers continue to create new works for as long as they are capable. To us, the act of producing music isn’t a job, it’s life itself.

Recently, a doctor was discussing methods for reducing occupational stress with an artist friend of mine. The physician asked what the artist would do if she no longer needed to work. “Produce more art” was her response. The doctor suggested that perhaps she hadn’t understood the question, and that this was in a world where she didn’t have to work and could pursue any of the various activities in which people often engage post retirement: travel, sports, gardening, hobbies. Now my friend was confused. Why would she want to do any of these other things if she had more time to create?

Artists do not recognize a distinction between our vocation and avocation. We organize our lives in order to have more time to pursue our creative objectives, and consider every aspect of our existence as feeding into our artistic output. When we travel or engage in a hobby, it’s in order to learn more about the world, knowledge that we utilize in order to bolster our expressive output. In a sense, we can never truly relax because some part of our mind is constantly thinking about current or upcoming projects.

Since I learned of my friend’s visit to the doctor, I’ve been pondering both the question and her answer. I would like to see more of the world and also would like to have the time to return to long distance running or even to go see more movies. And yet all of these other activities would obviously be secondary to creating music, the central activity that I intend to pursue for as long as I am able. For me, every other venture appears trifling when compared to music. At this point I can’t even imagine any other life. What else would I do?

*Philip Roth’s recent announcement notwithstanding, it’s also a relatively rare phenomenon among writers.

Motion and Rest

Sometimes—generally during the summer—my schedule clears and I find myself endowed with the gift of large swaths of free time. Although I treasure these periods that allow me the type of liberty within which I can reconsider my basic artistic impulses and can begin to push my compositional aesthetic into new areas, I find that I rarely leave these intervals with as much new material as I had anticipated constructing in my mind’s eye beforehand. Instead, my most productive compositional phases tend to be those stretches that have me running from one task to the next seemingly nonstop.

I had a teacher who introduced me to Parkinson’s Law and helped me to fight against its tendencies by learning to create useful deadlines. Sure enough, I rarely produce much written work when no scheduled completion dates loom large. Instead, there are always larger issues to consider, questions that cannot be answered but engender artistic growth in the very asking. In addition, during those times I can catch up on the books and movies that I’ve been waiting to finally peruse, not to mention the articles, the serial dramas, and the indolent lying on the couch and snacking. Somehow, the empty stretches get filled without producing the sort of work that is ready for public airing.

This is not one of those vacant times. When I look at the planned activities for each day, I find myself wondering how it will be possible to complete even a fraction of my assumed duties. And yet somehow the tasks that need completion get completed, albeit not always in the most timely fashion. Emails get answered, exams created and graded, classes taught. And more. In the unstructured periods, I would find myself waiting for the perfect moment before putting pencil to paper, but during these busy phases an hour of uninterrupted time suddenly feels like a gift—a great window for composing. When I don’t have anything on my plate, I tend to hole up at home, but in these bouts I often utilize the few unscheduled moments to catch up with those people who I avoided during the less encumbered intervals. Ironically, the busier I am the more time I’m able to find to complete my own work and to enjoy the company of others.

I wish that I could carry over some of the openness of the eras of independence into my daily life, and I aspire to be more productive during those unimpeded spans. Yet instead, I continue to vacillate between the extremes of utter inertia and headlong rushing. It appears that my life functions as an exemplar of more than Parkinson’s Law, that it also represents Newton’s First Law: when I am in motion, I tend to stay in motion, and when I am at rest, I tend to stay at rest.

People Do Look Like Their Pets

About five months ago a new family member came to live with us—a stray cat that we have since named Longfellow. We refer to him as our “foster son,” but the reality is that he adopted us. Though we tried for months to find him a good home (other than ours), he made it quite clear that he would be staying.

I’m trying to train him up to be my administrative assistant, but I’m not so sure that’s working…

Longfellow the Cat

As it turns out, Longfellow is quite well-behaved when he is indoors but tends to get into fights with other cats when he is outside. We have now managed to get him onto a schedule that keeps him healthy, happy, and less prone to injury by in part keeping him indoors overnight. He’s not always happy about staying in, but it seems to really help his overall quality of life.

At first, instilling the schedule was hard, and to be honest, we all had some commitment issues. I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with schedules, in that I do like to have one in place for my work life, but at the same time I admit that I really enjoy breaking it! After a while I start to feel trapped by a rigid schedule, even if it involves things I enjoy doing, like composing, and will divert the plan of action for a little while before eventually getting back on track. It’s not so much a lack of discipline—I still get the same things done in the allotted amount of time—as it is the glee, and the occasional creative spark that a dose of spontaneity can bring to a daily routine.

However, the current mix of work, composing deadlines, and other assorted responsibilities have required me to kick in a pretty structured map of the weeks and months ahead (as in, there is not really a lot of room for schedule breakage), and much to my surprise it’s a far more positive experience than I expected. Rather than feeling trapped, I find that I’m accomplishing more things in less time, my focus is better during the times when I’m really working, and I finish my days feeling weirdly satisfied. Another side effect of sticking to this program is that I don’t feel as if I’m working all the time. It’s possible to turn it off now and then, which helps when one is in for a long haul. Apparently there is scientific research that proves this is a really good thing.

Our new friend Longfellow is actually being rather helpful with this regimen, in that he is as reliable as any alarm clock (especially when it comes to his mealtimes), and my efforts to keep him on track are also keeping me on track. Like him, I am now on a fairly disciplined routine that has improved my quality of life, and is helping me to be more productive.

Chalk up another win for the composer-cat continuum!


Some days when I wake up, I marvel at the fact that I have the opportunity to write music that some people want to perform and others want to hear. In addition, I have a fun day job that directly relates to my compositional life, allows me to continue improving my musicality, and keeps me continually engaged in dialogue with incredibly interesting colleagues and students. This vocation allows me to accept only those projects that I find most interesting and to experiment without fear that my stretching of artistic boundaries will leave my larder bare. In short, I understand that I am a fortunate son.

Even though I am the first to extol my good luck, at unpredictable intervals I enter periods in which I remain inexorably and unequivocally incapable of work. I can be remarkably gluttonous in my hunger for intriguing opportunities, and sometimes a glut of good fortune can leave me working beyond my constitutional capabilities. Then, suddenly and without warning, I realize that my sources of energy have been reduced to mere embers. I find myself in the state of burnout.

Burning the candle at both ends

This fall, I enjoyed many interesting new tasks at work as I began my first semester as chair of the theory department at the Peabody Conservatory and as I co-organized a conference on distance learning technology. Adding these duties to my relatively full teaching load presented an organizational challenge. During the time that I had allotted for putting new compositions to paper, I found myself needing to revise previously composed pieces as they neared their premieres and composing a large work for amplified toy piano and looping pedal that I performed myself. Meanwhile, as my deadlines loomed ever closer, I convinced myself that winter break would allow for an opportunity to compose like a fiend and to complete a large piece with an imminent deadline in no time flat.


Instead, I found myself spending day after day staring blankly at my sheets of paper. Some days I’d force myself to write passages, only to despair later as I faced the truth that the music I was producing was not worth keeping. I gave myself small side projects to keep myself at my desk, hoping to engender that compositional spark, but to no avail.

One day, I realized that the last time that I’d felt my creative energy similarly sapped was immediately before I contracted a serious viral illness that led to an extended convalescence. Not wanting to compose my way back into the hospital (decompose?), repeating the mistakes of my own past, I accepted the fact that was staring me in the face: I had reached the limits of my capabilities and I needed a break. Stat.

The good news is that once I accepted that I was in a state of burnout, my depression began to lift. This allowed me to begin to complete some of the small bureaucratic chores that needed my attention in order to spark future projects. Each miniscule accomplishment led towards a greater feeling of well-being that I could apply towards the next task. Currently, I finally am finding myself capable of sustaining the level of concentration necessary to complete larger projects (like this column). This new-found energy is arriving in the nick of time, since later this week I’m traveling to Pittsburgh to present a concert with the League of the Unsound Sound, and another semester will begin immediately upon my return.

And what about the composition that sparked this edition of burnout? Eventually, I contacted the director of the organization and told him that I was unable to meet his deadline. Fortunately, he is as good of a human being as he is a musician, so his immediate response was concern for my health, and we worked out a new schedule that should allow me enough time to complete the piece. I am hopeful that I have mentally refueled enough to achieve my goals for this new year.

I find that the more I try to fight the need to convalesce, the longer I’m stuck in the creative rut and the more painful I find my time there. For me, the best lesson to take from these periods of burnout is the need to wallow in indolence, to force myself to attempt to enjoy the suddenly imposed respite. Only then can I begin to walk the road to recovery.