Saturday, December 16, 2017

Creating an artist retreat in your own home

Several years ago, my chamber ensemble was selected for a residency at Brush Creek Arts. Our plan was to finally hunker down to select and learn the music for our album.  I knew that being in the same place together for two uninterrupted weeks would make this task much easier than in real life, but I could not have anticipated just how much more productive, and satisfied, I would be as an individual through this process.  It sounded silly to me to say even back then, but I was shocked by how much I got done. 

For those of you who haven't experienced an artist residency (highly recommend), at Brush Creek, we were given free housing and three square meals a day along with appropriate work spaces, and then we were just left to our own devices to do what we wanted to do.  My typical day looked something like this:


  • exercise (I could go to the state-of-the-art workout facilities or, my choice most days, go on a run or hike on one of the amazing trails in the woods surrounding our cabins)
  • breakfast on my own
  • individual practice time: 2-3 hours with short breaks
  • rehearse a new duo with the saxophonist in my trio: 1 hour
  • lunch
  • trio rehearsal (3 hours, broken up with a break or two)
  • go on a long walk with the pianist in my trio and usually a visual artist or two
  • dinner
  • hike up a steep hill to the main cabin, the only place with WiFi, to check email and call home
  • drink wine and talk about the future
  • sleep like a log
Seriously, this was my schedule for two whole weeks.  It was ridiculously luxurious.  The food just magically appeared in the kitchen for us to eat when we wanted. That's something I can't very easily recreate at home.  I live 2 hours away from my other trio members, so it's harder to get together without a lot of advanced planning. But honestly, everything that was most important to my success those two weeks I can recreate, and I continually struggle to keep this in mind. Because what I got from Brush Creek, first and foremost, was the imposition of focus and discipline.  I wasn't checking my email while doing one-handed long tones, or watching the news with the subtitles on while I played scales. I could write on my computer (and I did--8 album or music reviews in 2 weeks!), but without WiFi, I couldn't keep checking Facebook or messing around on Pinterest. And so I was not only working for longer periods of time, I was much more present in every task I completed. I became accustomed to completing tasks in silence instead of having Pandora cranked in the background, and when I took a break from practicing, it really was just a couple of minutes of stretching while still thinking about what I was going to work on next, rather than unraveling a complicated series of emails that all needed "immediate attention" and kept opening the next can of worms to address, and the next and the next. 

When I returned from Brush Creek, these solitary, single-focus habits were easy to maintain for a while--it was June, and I had nowhere to be but home. But as school resumed in the fall, I lost some discipline, and however many years on (?), I have become the stereotype of the keyboard-clicking, smart phone-checking, totally distracted conversationalist I hate being around.  The other day, I honestly got through all of my tone exercise while writing donor letters in my head, and I was totally shocked to land on fourth register D (the end of my exercise) without having any idea how I got there. That was a total waste of my time, and I might as well have put my flute down and just made a to-do list instead.  So, as I settle into this deliciously long winter break and think ahead to new habits I want to create for 2018, I'm resolving to recreate as much of my Brush Creek residency as I can. Here's what I'm going to do:

  • Structure my schedule more specifically; block off practice times rather than squeezing it in between appointments; similarly schedule "office work" (business emails, grant applications, etc.)
  • When practicing, laptop is closed and phone is put away and switched to "silent"
  • Short practice breaks every 45 minutes: no electronics! I can water plants, stretch, look out the window, pet my cats...that's it. 
  • Social media diet: Instagram for entertainment once/day (I love looking at the cat memes and National Geographic photos during my post-breakfast cup of coffee; Facebook news feed once/week (yes. I will do this); Pinterest Saturday afternoon only. 
  • When I have to work on the computer and it involves some promotion on Facebook, I'm now using this app to hide my newsfeed so I don't get sucked in.
  • Closing tabs whenever I can and not opening any for distraction/entertainment until a task is completed (even when grading Intro to Music, my most squirm-inducing computer task)
  • Getting outside for fresh air every day to clear my head

How would you structure your day to be saner, happier, and more productive?

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