A Fair Trade

Old habits die hard. It has occurred to me lately that in transitioning from the classical music profession to parenthood and writing, I have essentially made an even trade when it comes to making time to hone my craft. Although I find writing to be the most creative of these three pursuits, all require patience, tenacity, hard labor, and self-discipline. A sense of humor helps, too. I spent half of my childhood training for a career in music, and subsequently earned my degree in music performance. For more than a decade, I was a French horn player in professional symphony orchestras, a studio recording musician, and a teacher. So, the irony is not lost on me that as a parent and a writer, the same issues come up again and again regarding how to carve out creative space within the framework of an artistic life.

Although I often hear people remark upon what a creative endeavor orchestral music is, the daily realities are often quite different. In writing, we are crafting original ideas and bringing them into being, whereas in music, we are merely the vessels for composers’ ideas. The notes have already been written, and often have been played countless times before us. We, as members of a large group, are giving voice to something which has already been birthed. The conductor has more artistic license than the orchestra members, infusing the music with personal preferences involving dynamics, phrasings, and balances among different sections of the orchestra.  

I found little creativity in the daily regimen of practicing a brass instrument. After all, we are not the composers, but rather the interpreters, and brass playing is often more of an athletic feat than an artistic one. This is not to say that I didn’t experience transcendent moments in performances — there were many — but the ridiculous often overshadowed the sublime. In my musical life, my daily warm-up precluded all else.

Over two hundred small muscles in the lips, or embouchure, are involved in producing a sound on the instrument, and they are all subject to abuse, whether through overuse or underuse. There is a saying amongst brass players that goes something like: “Take one day off from practice and you know it. Take two days off and your colleagues know it. Take three days off and everyone knows it.” Diet, liquid intake, and climate can all play a role in determining how one’s “chops” will feel at any given moment. All of these variables tend to make us a bit neurotic about our individual practice routines.

Like athletes, musicians rely upon our muscle memory to execute highly specific physical tasks, so one’s daily approach to playing engraves these skill sets. My warm-up included mouthpiece buzzing, scales, and arpeggios to take stock of my physical condition each day. If things felt good, warm, flexible, easy, I knew it would be a good day. If my chops seemed stiff and unyielding, I knew that I must rely on some tricks I kept up my sleeve which had been passed down to me through generations of teachers. My hope was that in doing this musical triage, I could troubleshoot specific problems and work them out before the rehearsal began. The morning routine was non-negotiable for me, an essential part of presenting myself to the world. Just as my mother would never dream of setting foot outside of her home sans makeup, I found it daunting to air my dirty musical laundry to my colleagues. Showing up to work prepared gave me the confidence to play my best and take appropriate artistic risks.

I also happen to be married to a musician. We met in our symphony jobs and dated for a couple of years before getting married and starting our family. Because we are both brass players (he plays the trumpet), we have similar backgrounds and mostly understand one another’s idiosyncrasies. We used to have a saying that we’d use to describe tidying one’s environment before sitting down to practice. Our phrase was: “Everything at right angles.” We only half-jokingly straightened piles of paper, mail, and books on our desks so they were literally, sometimes, at ninety-degree angles to the lines of the desktop. (No, neither one of us is obsessive-compulsive, though I might be a bit closer to that than he is.) This priming of our workspace reduced or eliminated visual clutter so our minds could be free and open to the task at hand.

Of course, back in the era of “everything at right angles,” there were no children in our lives. Things tended to stay where we put them. Before children, my husband and I each had our own offices with which to do whatever we wanted. We even had a dedicated guest room: How decadent! Then Baby #1 arrived and our guest room, with its decidedly grown-up décor, morphed into a pink and green nursery worthy of the Pottery Barn Kids catalog. And my space became a multitasking office and guest room.

Not that I really had the time, energy, or mental wherewithal to do anything remotely creative in that room anyway. My days were now consumed with caring for a beautiful and high-maintenance creature who, so far as we could tell, never slept more than thirty minutes at a stretch. When I did carve out the time to practice, it was either with her in close proximity to me, tugging at my horn bell to get me to stop, or with a mute inserted into said bell as she took cat naps. (Practicing and sleep became increasingly rare.) I dutifully carted my breast pump to the symphony hall and pumped milk on my lunch breaks. Without the safety net of extended family nearby, we hired a small army of babysitters to cover our random and mutable schedule of daytime rehearsals and nighttime performances.  

Two years later, Baby #2’s arrival meant that the office/guest room hybrid became her room. Out with the computer, music stand, and guest bed; in with the crib and more baby gear. My desk and computer were relegated to my husband’s office downstairs, which we would share. This new arrangement, coupled with still less time for ourselves, meant that music took a back seat to family life. Privacy was a valuable commodity, and in short supply. Every horizontal surface had the potential to morph into a toy train track, a doll’s changing table or even a young artist’s canvas. Post-it notes were transformed into doodle pads and paper airplanes. And the sheer amount of school papers, art projects, and general detritus from my children’s backpacks now threatens to undermine my best efforts at organization and sanity. Shopping for organizational supplies has become an exercise in escapism and futility.

Since delving into the writing life, I have deliberately gone against every piece of home decorating advice I’ve ever heard and put a new desk in my bedroom. Plenty of experts in the interior design field advise against putting anything in one’s bedroom not pertaining to either sleep or sex, but really: Can we please add creative work to the list of acceptable bedroom activities? Writing in my room at my desk with the door closed seems just as tempting and rejuvenating, if not more. I need peace and quiet to write much more than I needed it to practice the horn. I could often be found with a copy of The New York Times on my music stand while I was warming up. Itzhak Perlman is said to enjoy watching baseball while practicing the violin. The British horn player, Dennis Brain, recorded Mozart’s “Horn Concerti” while reading car magazines. This is clearly  a common phenomenon among musicians, but such multitasking seems absurd when writing.

To write, one needs a space and quiet and the freedom to respond immediately. Having the space set means that I can do that. I never had those moments of urgency while playing the horn — moments when an idea pops into your head and you must express it before it vanishes. I would often feel the need to practice, but the basic skill set for that was already ingrained, so even if family responsibilities got in the way, I didn’t have this sense that my ideas were fleeting and ephemeral: It could wait. With writing, some of my best ideas come amidst the bombastic chaos that defines parenthood.

Yet, one must make time to write. Back in those carefree childless days, I had to constantly guard against procrastination. There always seemed to be some household task or errand competing for my time, and I think that may be why I settled on the morning warm-up. Putting practicing off until later in the day never felt right to me. The proverbial monkey was on my back until I took care of business. Things are different now, with writing and with parenting, but I have discovered similarities between procrastination and writers’ block. I find that if I apply the same adherence to my writing routine that I did to the horn, there is a Pavlovian response that jump-starts the process. Sitting down to write, in the space I have created for this purpose, serves as the springboard to creativity. Anne Lamott, in her witty and honest book on writing, Bird by Bird, discusses her process of making daily time to write:

You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten at night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind—a scene, a locale, a character, whatever—and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.

But even this routine isn’t always foolproof:

The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratched-like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk. There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you have meningitis. Then the phone rings and you look up at the ceiling with fury, summon every ounce of noblesse oblige, and answer the call politely, with maybe just the merest hint of irritation. The caller asks if you’re working and you say yeah, because you are.

Whether the distractions materialize from within or without, they come with the territory of parenting. The following account of a recent morning in my life could easily describe music or writing. Here is a list of things that prevented me from sitting down to write on this particular day:

Coffee needed to be made.

Breakfast for four needed to be on the table at 7:00 am.

Two children’s lunches needed to be packed for a day at camp.

Coffee needed to be consumed in amounts substantial enough to accomplish the above tasks. Bonus points for it tasting good. (We artists cultivate beauty, after all.)

Instructions needed to be barked out to husband and offspring regarding appropriate camp apparel.

Sunscreen and bug spray needed to be applied to two small children, necessitating removal of maple syrup base coat left over from said breakfast.

Teeth needed brushing. Again, see breakfast involving maple syrup.

Husband, en route to day two of camp drop-off followed by day seven of jury duty — which kept him out of symphony concerts for a week — needed to be tracked down when it was discovered that child forgot to pack beach towel for camp.

Now that I was out of the house, a workout to burn off aforementioned coffee and maple syrup seemed reasonable. So did a trip to the grocery store to purchase oats for oatmeal, to avoid maple syrup sugar rush in the future.

Back at home at last, a post-workout shower was necessary to avoid self-loathing induced by layers of sweat and possibly maple syrup.

Ravenous hunger after this large expenditure of physical energy overwhelmed my desire to sit down and work. A snack devoid of maple syrup, with a potent chaser of leftover coffee, would help me to stay focused, I reasoned. The chaos in my brain at this point resembled a Rube Goldberg cause-and-effect type of contraption, and also one of those Laura Joffe Numeroff children’s books (see If You Give a Mouse a Cookie or If You Give a Pig a Pancake).  

So, out of the frying pan and into the fire for me. Music and writing seem to be flip sides of the same coin. I view my musical life and my writing life through very different lenses, but both have taken on the patina of parenthood. At least it’s a familiar feeling, like coming home. Home to a small oasis in a sea of dishevelment teeming with maple-syrup-encrusted children, a supportive spouse, and really excellent coffee. Besides, I’ve heard it said that neatness is the sign of a dull mind. I’m just going to go with that as I ignore the visual cacophony around me and note that there is likely not one right angle to be found anywhere in this monument to creativity we call our abode. Did I say that things don’t stay where I put them anymore? Some are exactly where I left them.

Katie Hagen is a classically-trained French horn player, mother, and writer. She lives with her husband and daughters in Nashville, Tennessee, where she hikes, runs, cooks healthy food, and drinks enough coffee to stay awake for it all.

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