Artists and Creative Residencies (Part 2)

In my previous post, I mentioned that I recently returned from a month long creative residency in Bamfield, BC.  This was the result of a collaboration between Bamfield residents Nancy Hendry and Steve Clarke, and Music By the Sea.  I then reflected on the purpose of such residencies and some of the benefits that artists can gain from them.

In this post, I’d like to be more specific about what I learned and accomplished after a month in Bamfield.  Here are 9 reflections – in no particular order – on my experience in Bamfield.

1. Living Without Alarm Clocks

I’m convinced that sleep deprivation issues would be solved if we didn’t set morning alarm clocks.  Go to sleep when you’re tired, and wake up when you’re awake.  Listen to your body!

In Bamfield, I was usually asleep by 10:30pm and would wake up anywhere between 4:00am and 8:00am.  Also, if I went to bed later, I didn’t necessarily wake up later.  When I was ready to get up, I got up, and felt much better having listened to my body.

2. Practicing Away from the Piano

I’ve read that visualizing a task activates the same parts of the brain as if you were actively carrying it out.  Here’s where you can read about mirror neurons and mental imagery. The study I’m referring to is here.

Practicing requires lots of physical energy and mental focus.  In Bamfield, I didn’t always have convenient access to a piano. Considering all these things while I was in Bamfield, I tried something that I’ve been meaning to experiment with for a long time – practicing away from the piano.

I took a piece of music that I had already memorized (Brahms clarinet sonata) and practiced visualizing it. I would visualize the piano, my fingers and the music. I would visualize these things at slow tempos, fast tempos, with the music, without the music, listening to a recording, or in silence.

Interestingly, while doing this, I never made “mistakes.” I never flubbed a note. Instead, where my memory was incomplete, my visualizations would become blurry. This is fixed simply with visualizing the music at a slower pace, and repeating smaller sections.

I hope this kind of practice better reinforces an archetype in my memory. Though I plan on experimenting with this more, my first impressions is that it is more efficient and longer lasting than practicing in front of the piano (at least where memory is concerned).

3. West Coast Living

Here are some pictures of Bamfield and Vancovuer Island.  One of the most beautiful places I’ve visited.  I already miss the fresh air and the smell of the ocean.

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4. Exercising Daily

I’m in the best shape of my life.  This is because I exercise almost everyday.  For the past 6 months, I’ve been exercising to a combination of P90X and Insanity.  I kept up this habit in Bamfield.

I’ve noticed three things. First, my energy and well being is much more abundant and focused. Second, taking time away from work to do something completely different has enhanced my work.

Third, since exercising daily in Bamfield, I feared that it would be difficult to keep up the habit when back at home in Toronto.  In fact, taking time off from exercise now feels unusual.  My body craves it, and it feels great to oblige!

5. A New Practicing Philosophy

One of my main goals in Bamfield was to listen to my body.  If tired, sleep. If hungry, eat.  If full, stop eating!  Simple right?

But sometimes our habits make this easier said than done. I used to practice as if it was a day job, from 9 to 5, with minimal breaks.  That was four years ago, and I’m still recovering from the negative associations my mind and body have with practicing.

In Bamfield, I strived to break that association. Again, easier said than done, but it started with listening to my body.  If I ached, I stopped.  If I still ached, I figured out why.  If my mind wavered and I thought about stopping, I stopped and did something else.

This is still a work in progress and is something I’ll be monitoring and correcting for as long as I’m practicing. In the end, I may only practice for 15 minutes at a time, but it would be more focused, efficient and agreeable with my well being.  I much prefer that.

We’re pummeled with images of the devout, inflicted artist spending hours and hours everyday practicing and perfecting her craft.  I would only encourage a student to practice eight hours a day to explore her extremities.  Then she can figure out what works for her.  Most likely, she would discover that extreme, disciplined practicing isn’t normal and does more harm than good.

6. Bamfield as a Microcosm

One great thing about living in and interacting with a small community like Bamfield is that you see how it’s a microcosm of larger societal structures.  The issues cities face are generally the same issues that Bamfield faces, but on a larger, more complicated scale.  Further, after living in a small community, it becomes more apparent how communities are built, sustained, developed and/or destroyed. For a city-grown boy like me, this can be eye-opening. City living is quite complex, with many things taken for granted.

For example, in Bamfield, it’s common for the power to go out, especially after a storm.  Outages can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the severity of the storm.  It’s one thing to learn how to entertain yourself during a power out. It’s another thing to learn how the problem is fixed and how the system evolved that way.

Small communities may have ingenious solutions to these kinds of issues.  It would be prudent to study their efficiencies and see if/how they can be related to larger communities.  In fact, I bet the best city planners, politicians and the like already do this.

Power is one issue. There are also issues of food, water, job creation, transportation, crime, education, growth and many others. Even in Bamfield, these issues are complex.  Solving them requires expertise completely unknown to me.

7. Eating Healthy, Eating Small and Eating Frequently

While in Bamfield, I tried eating 5 or 6 small meals/snacks everyday rather than 3 large meals. Not that my eating habits are a problem, this was an experiment more than anything.  I’m not even sure eating 5-6 small meals a day is a healthier option.  My plan was to listen to my body.

This was an easy habit to establish in Bamfield because I was living more independently – I was free of all the circumstances in Toronto that I positively associate with eating.  Plus, there are no restaurants in Bamfield!

Creative residencies are great opportunities in this respect.  It’s easier to free yourself from all the associations, habits and guilty pleasures that cause you to act against your well being.  If you want to quit smoking for example, participating in a creative residency may be a great way to start that process.  That being said, eating healthy, eating small and eating frequently has been difficult to keep up since returning to Toronto.  Societal pressures can be very hard to manage!

It makes me wonder about some of the other structures society has set up for itself.  Why 3-meals a day? Why 7-days in a week? Why are there 5 days in a work week?  Why is school out in the summer months? Are these structures truly beneficial? Or were they created in a different time, for different circumstances?

8. Reading Reading Reading

I read four books while in Bamfield:

  • Collapse by Jared Diamond
  • The Interpretation of Cultures by Clifford Geertz
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

I also started, and am half way through Barney’s Version, also by Richler.

The Geertz was the most insightful, yet heaviest book to read.  The first 100 pages, all dedicated to theories, concepts and the growth of culture are enough to keep me studying for a long time!  Here’s an excerpt:

“Undirected by culture patterns – organized systems of significant symbols – man’s behavior would be virtually ungovernable, a mere chaos of pointless acts and exploding emotions, his experience virtually shapeless.  Culture, the accumulated totality of such patterns, is not just an ornament of human existence but – the principal basis of its specificity – and essential condition for it.”

Barney’s Version, by the way, is hysterical – I highly recommend it.

9. Discipline is a Weight

One of the most significant things I’ve learned is that it’s ineffective for me to keep a daily, disciplined work routine. After a while, my work time will become less productive.

Practicing every day at 10:00am is effective if it happens naturally and spontaneously.  But if I make deliberate, disciplined efforts to practice everyday at 10:00am, I get uncomfortable, unhappy and after long periods of time, depressed.  My time is better spent if I spontaneously oscillate between three or four projects, which may or may not include practicing.

Discipline is a weight.  Managing disciplined schedules and activities is weight lifting.  After a few days, engaging in a disciplined activity at a disciplined time becomes too much for me to handle. If I’m more free and spontaneous with either the activity or its scheduling, I’m more productive and more content.

In Bamfield, I got to experiment with weights, though they involved more than working and practicing. This point encompasses the whole purpose of my residency in Bamfield – to learn how to live!


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