In 2005, my friend (and excellent violist) Alyssa Hardie gave me a copy of The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. The book is what some might call kinda New-Age-y: a twelve-week self-directed course aimed at discovering and recovering your creative self. The author describes most of us as “blocked creatives” — artists who have created major psychological barriers to creative success. The course involves daily writing exercises, personal growth challenges, and “taking your artist on a date.” Sounds awesome, right? I’m in Week Eight now, and it’s safe to say it’s changing my life.

When I was a busy undergraduate, I don’t think I considered my violin study to be something that was particularly creative. My songwriting? Definitely. My poetry and fiction writing? Of course. But all of my scales, etudes, and repertoire — already created by others, for me to reproduce — sometimes felt more like a series of hurdles I had to jump through. And let’s face it: with the violin, sometimes you’re either doing it right or doing it wrong. Make no mistake, my teachers were absolutely wonderful. But were they guiding me in a creative endeavor?

It’s a question I ask myself pretty frequently: are instrumentalists creative artists? It might sound strange to folk, rock and bluegrass musicians. But many of us don’t write our own music or even improvise (though we probably should do more of both). Our formal musical education is a funny mix of athletic training, performance psychology, history (revere the masters!), theory (there are rules!), ear training, rehearsal and practice technique — and okay, sure, interpretation. But we’re a bit like ballet dancers and actors, in that our creativity occurs within the boundaries of another person’s work. Case in point: Chicago Q Ensemble was recently in the recording studio with the composer in the booth. We had some small disagreement with her about an articulation matter. Later, Michael Lewanski said: “Yeah. It’s clear who’s going to win that argument, isn’t it?”

I now feel that although being an instrumentalist may not be a creative act in the purest sense, it absolutely requires a deep well of creativity within us. And we all know that individual performers have the ability to transform a piece of music for us with the sheer force of their personality, their insight, their unique take on the work. It’s why we have a favorite Brahms concerto recording, or a favorite take on a Haydn string quartet. Some of these artists simply speak in a way that makes sense to us.

The Jasper String Quartet, whose Haydns I particularly like.

Each week, I’d like to highlight one passage from The Artist’s Way that particularly resonates with my experience as a classical musician. Parts of this book have become indispensable to me as I consider my path as a violinist. I’ve reconsidered my finances, my teaching load, my practice habits, and the things I might be capable of. I’d love to bring a few more musicians along with me. We all know at least one super talented artist who busts his/her ass and still doesn’t feel happy. I really think this book might help us get to the bottom of that. Let’s do it!

Photo credits: Just Here, Just Now and David Long.

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