5 Tips for Creatives to Bring Wellness Into Their Lives

Anyone who’s ever talked to me about nutrition in the last year has heard me sing the praises of Lucia Hawley from Essential Omnivore, who I worked with to revamp my diet last summer. Or you might have seen me feature her in a Sunday Shout-out early this year. Her mission is “to teach diet perfectionists how to bring calm back to their bodies from the inside out”, and I totally appreciate how she keeps it real while helping people make sustainable changes to their overall health. 

Lucia invited me to contribute a guest post over on Essential Omnivore, 5 Tips for Creatives to Bring Wellness Into Their Lives, which you can read right here. We could all use more wellness in our lives, right? Especially in an easy and actionable way? (Yes!)

I’m also going to be a guest on her podcast this fall, airdate TBD - stay tuned for that!

(Edit: Here’s the link to my episode of the Essential Omnivore podcast!)

 This is the album cover!

This is the album cover!

In album-related news, I submitted my artwork and master this week, so my CDs have begun production! 🎉🎉🎉

The official album release date is coming up soon on October 24, and you’ll be able to buy and stream it through all of the usual places - stay tuned for more details on that.

And, if you’re in Minneapolis/St. Paul, you’re invited to my album release show on October 18, featuring all of the guest musicians on the album (Tim O’Keefe, percussion, Jenny Klukken, marimba, and Laura Harada, violin). I’m also planning on live-streaming it. More details here.

If you want to stay in the loop on the album and upcoming gigs, be sure to hop on my gig mailing list here!

Virtual Office Hours Now Open!

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I'm excited to announce that Virtual Office Hours are now open to the public! I'm offering free 30-minute conversations about the challenges of creative work, including: 

  • Finding and honoring your priorities
  • Making small + sustainable changes
  • Creating more ease and balance in your work and life
  • Developing and keeping healthy habits
  • Managing time
  • Avoiding burnout
  • Adjusting your mindset
  • Moving through creative blocks⠀

If you want some new perspective on any of these things, let's chat! 

Sign up for a free appointment here, and if you don't see any times that work for you, feel free to send me an email to see if we can work something out - I'd love to hear from you! 


And, it's getting SO CLOSE to Kickstarter launch day - just 4 days away. I have a really fun video that I can't wait to share with you on Tuesday, so stay tuned!

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If you want to stay in the loop on the Kickstarter and upcoming gigs, be sure to hop on my mailing list here!

What’s your biggest challenge as a person who does creative work? Let me know in the comments. 

Connecting at the MN Music Coalition Summit

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My word for 2018 is CONNECT, and it’s been in full force so far (setting an intention makes a difference!) I’m open to connecting with any interesting people, but I especially wanted to form and strengthen relationships with women musicians, both locally, and via social media.

Since the beginning of 2018, I have:

  • started a Sunday shout-out series on Instagram where I highlight women creatives doing awesome work
  • kept up with Binders of Women in Minnesota Music, a very supportive private Facebook group
  • performed my music with Jenny Klukken at a MacPhail Faculty Recital in February (video here)
  • met more local women musicians through friends and through hosting another local women musicians happy hour with Lauren Husting
  • made plans to play shows with Susan Shehata (accompanying her in a cabaret performance called “What’s Your Story”) and Jen Bluhm (an all-waltz show - she goes by the name Waltzing on Waves) in May
  • made friends with more musicians on Instagram that seem to align with my values
  • finally figured out that I like networking, as long as it’s in smaller doses, and in a scenario where I’m surrounded by interesting people, like Giant Steps last October, and the Minnesota Music Coalition Summit, which just happened last weekend.

I wasn’t able to attend all of the events over the 3 days of the Summit, but everything I went to was excellent, and I even just realized that all of the panelists/speakers that I saw on Friday afternoon were women:

Andrea Swensson in conversation with Lori Barbero

I loved this conversation - Lori seems very down-to-earth and sounds just like your Minnesotan aunt (if you didn't know, she co-founded the punk band Babes in Toyland. She told lots of great stories about famous musicians of the 90s, and talked about her amazing-sounding project with local artist Chris Larson: MN All-Girls Music Studio, for girls ages 6-15 to come and form bands and make recordings, for free!

Gig Gear w/Molly Maher

This presentation was geared toward guitarists (as Molly Maher is a guitar tech), but I still found it super interesting. She went through her guitar tech gig bag, which has literally eveything someone might need on stage (and I learned that steel wool near a 9 volt battery can start a fire, some solid MacGyver-ish info!) I also learned a bit about sound, how to diagnose troubles on stage (my keyboard setup is super simple but I would feel lost branching outside of that), and some of her opinions on what kinds of cables are the highest quality (American-made, with lifetime warranty).

Looping for vocals with Lynn O’Brien

Lynn talked about her setup and process for creating songs with vocal loops. She values the spontaneity of doing this on the spot, but plenty of people also pre-record loops and just play them back live. She uses a Boss loop station that allows her more flexibility with layering and saving more tracks than the previous pedals she’d used.

Behind the Board with Holly Hansen

Holly answered questions about running your own sound at shows, something that I know very little about. She affirmed that the best tool you have is to trust your own ears - no one knows your sound better than you, and don’t let sound people convince you otherwise (especially if you’re a woman, being mansplained.) She also had lots of great advice about recording in studio, such as giving reference tracks to the engineer ahead of time, pacing yourself by not recording too many hours each day, and being extremely prepared (plenty of rehearsal, and good physical condition - eating well, getting enough sleep, etc.) Lastly, she recommended that everyone sign up for a (free!) subscription to Tape Op magazine to learn more about engineering.

Panel on Crowdfunding

This panel was led by local musicians Vicky Emerson and 2 others (a father/son duo whose names I unfortunately didn’t write down), and was one of the most helpful for me, since my Kickstarter is launching on May 29! They talked about the importance of knowing your fan base and what they like (by tracking attendance and sales at shows), making people part of the journey by having a compelling, concise story and a video that grabs people’s attention quickly, and using the psychology of momentum (joiner effect) to your advantage, possibly by doing a campaign that’s shorter than a month (for your sanity, too!) Since Vicky has done a few Kickstarters already, and has one underway right now, she also had some great promotion ideas (release a new track, do a live video, have a giveaway), and tips for reward incentives (watch out for expenses, especially postage, and putting good rewards in the $25-50 range where the most people will give).

Getting to Know the Jerome Foundation

Jerome Foundation president Ben Cameron and Kris Kautzman, Manager of Community Partnerships at American Composers Forum outlined the Jerome Fellowship criteria and typical winners, since the deadline is coming up on May 8. I had to leave this one early, but they gave some good advice about grant writing, such as considering where the funder is listening for (what do they care about?)

Mentor session with composer Will Van De Crommert

I signed up for a 15-minute conversation with Will to learn more about film and TV composing. He suggested that the first step is to become comfortable with self-producing my own music, and gave me a list of the gear and software that would enable me to do that. He also mentioned that some places to connect with filmmakers would be MN Film Board meetings, or looking on campuses like MCTC or MCAD for film students.

Being Your Authentic Self with PaviElle (interviewed by Janis Lane-Ewart)

I always love anything that affirms our ability to show up and be our authentic selves, so, of course, I loved this conversation. They talked a lot about how PaviElle manifests her personal authenticity - by putting her own values first, creating change in her community, and “doing things from the heart” from a young age, though she was different than her peers in many ways. I liked her answer to a question about how to collect inspiration when the opportunity strikes (since she works a day job) - she takes a quick break and goes to a little-used bathroom and sings into her voice recorder, and keeps a text file open for lyric ideas. My favorite part, though, was her quote, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.” That’s what we all have to do as creative people on our own paths that reveal themselves one step at a time, and PaviElle is such an inspiring example of following your own path!

There were also more great-sounding sessions that I unfortunately didn’t get to attend, like Racism in the Music Industry, Creating Safe Spaces for Artists, Protecting Artists in Music Transactions and Against Inappropriate Behavior Toward Women, How To Get Asked Back (about booking etiquette), and a keynote by Venus DeMars, sharing her story as a transgender artist. Music business-related events like this could easily trend toward being very white male-centric, but it was great to see the effort that Minnesota Music Coalition made toward inclusion of a much more diverse group of presenters.

Overall, this was an awesome event, and I’m really glad that I braved the beginning of a blizzard to go (luckily I live under 15 minutes away on city streets). It was great to connect with more local musicians, and being inspired always helps me connect internally with my goals and my overall direction as a musician. I have attended lots of professional development events as a piano teacher, but it was really nice to attend something that supports my own music career as a performer.

Speaking of which, my Kickstarter for my upcoming Brazilian album officially has a launch date!

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If you want to stay in the loop on the Kickstarter and upcoming gigs, be sure to hop on my mailing list here!

What’s the best networking or professional development event you’ve attended? Let me know in the comments!

How I Keep It Together When I'm Busy

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Well, it’s springtime (only according to the calendar - several inches of snow are forecast for MN this weekend 😫), and that means crazy schedule time!

In the next 2 months, I’ll be: accompanying lots of recitals, playing many/various gigs, practicing and rehearsing for said gigs, planning out my summer teaching schedule, going to Boston for New Music Gathering May 17-19, marching in the May Day Parade, and attending a few family events.

Add to that: planning a recording project (for my first album!) and a Kickstarter (launching May 29), which is awesome, but overwhelming! I have to be really deliberate about how I spend my time, to avoid burnout/meltdown.

Earlier this week, I was thinking, “I don’t know what to blog about this week, I’m feeling really overwhelmed...clearly that’s what I should write about.” So, here is my arsenal of ways that I keep it together during crazy busy times (like right now):

SYSTEMS!

I would be the most hopelessly disorganized person without systems - my brain needs them!

This app is where all of my to-dos live. My system is loosely based on the book Getting Things Done, structured in columns (Today, Working On, This Week, Next Week, Waiting On, Planning Ahead, Done). I’m a really visual person, so I like being able to drag each card from one list to the next.

  • Zooming out to get the big picture

At the beginning of each month, I list all of the upcoming projects and events coming up in the next few months (including preparations like practice/rehearsal). I like to print out monthly calendar sheets and plot it all out. Then, I make cards in Trello for each task or project (you can also add checklists), and add due dates. It also has a calendar function, to visualize all of your due dates, but I don’t do this much because I like the analog version.

  • Reminders

I use the iPhone Reminders app all of the time for repeating tasks that I don’t want to forget (like making copies for teaching, or quarterly taxes), and also for things that I need to remember, but don’t want to take up space on my to-do list. If I’m out and about, I’ll set a reminder for a time that I know I’ll be home and at my computer, then I don’t have to worry about it.

TIME/TASK MANAGEMENT

  • Writing my to-do list in order 

My planner has a space to write the 3 most important tasks first, and if I’m being really strategic, I write things in the actual order that I’ll do them, to avoid indecision.

  • Manageable to do list 

I almost never succeed at this, but ideally, I would make a list that I could actually accomplish in a day. On the upside, I no longer beat myself up about not getting it all done.

  • Time blocking

I’ve tried this in the past, but I don’t do it very often, because it made my days feel too chopped up into pieces, and stressed me out a bit. I do schedule my piano practice time in the morning, though.

  • Pomodoro technique (4 cycles of 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes break, then a longer break)

This works really well for me when I want to harness the power of a time deadline. Bonus: if I actually get up from my chair to take those breaks, it’s really energizing.

  • Create barriers to procrastination and distraction

If I have to, I put my phone in another room, use the Self-Control app (free!) to block distracting websites, and close my email tab until a specified time (email is not an emergency). I also have almost all notifications turned off on both my phone and computer.  

  • Scheduling according to energy

I gauge how I feel each day, but generally plan on doing tasks that require more complex thought when I have the most energy (for me, that’s in the morning, or right after a walk), and save tasks like email for mid-afternoon when I have less energy.

  • Batching tasks

I plan all of my lessons for the week at one time, try to write multiple blog posts in a row, etc. Studies have shown that each time we switch tasks, we waste 17 minutes in the process - if that’s true, it’s a wonder that we get anything done?  

  • Embrace external accountability for important but not urgent tasks -

I have Obliger tendencies (see Gretchen Rubin's 4 Tendencies for an explanation), so I either say publicly that I’ll do something, or I also have a friend that I check in with monthly for accountability and mutual encouragement!

PRIORITIZING

  • Figure out my non-negotiable tasks, habits, and activities

For me, this is exercise, cooking breakfast, spending time with my partner (he’s also super busy, as a grad student), etc. I may have to let some things go temporarily (like seeing shows, social events, or starting new projects), or even permanently.

  • Stop overcomplicating

I have a tendency to make things harder than they need to be, so I try stop and ask myself if I’m overcomplicating, and whether I need to be doing everything I originally had planned on! 

  • Simplify non-work areas of my life 

Let’s be real, this translates to me wearing the same clothing more often, and cleaning less often, but it could also apply to delegating or postponing things until I’m less busy.

MINDSET

  • Be kind to myself

This one is the most important! Being hard on myself when I can’t do it all (no one can!) does not help at all. 

  • Using positive mantras like "I have as much time as I need" to quiet my brain.
  • Accepting that I have less time for creative work

I certainly haven’t been writing as much music as last year, when I did 2 100 Day Projects, but these things go in seasons. I generated a lot of work then, and now I’m working on doing something with it, so naturally I can’t (and might not want to) be creating a lot (and that’s okay). These tips are super helpful for fitting in as creative time as possible.

  • Remind myself that resistance and overwhelm are normal.

If I expect that resistance is part of working really hard, it's easier to handle. I don’t have to want to do the work, I just have to do the work.

  • Thinking about only one thing at a time 

I know that I expend a lot of energy thinking about and projecting into the future, anticipating how overwhelmed I’m going to be, which actually brings more overwhelm to the present moment. This used to be really hard for me, so I started by making my daily walk a no-thinking-about-work zone.

  • Refusing to create more overwhelm

I can choose not to fixate on it, and not to rush while going places. This actually does help a lot.

SUPPORT MYSELF PHYSICALLY

Exercise, meditation, and eating good food are non-negotiable for me - it's even more important to support myself while super busy.

  • Prioritize rest and breaks (especially anything mind-focusing like meditation, short walks, stretching, etc.)

We’re not machines! I know that I can’t focus for long periods of time, especially when I’m already mentally or physically exhausted. I’ve noticed that when I’m struggling to work productively, that’s not just a sign that I’m feeling lazy, it’s a message from my brain that it’s tired and needs support (via food, water, movement, or rest).

  • Scheduling time to regroup

During a busy season like spring, I have to pace myself, or my brain will turn to mush. I actually schedule rest days on my calendar (yes, they say “CAT/COUCH DAY” - Rusty the Cat is my relaxation mentor.) And, if I don’t have time to regroup, that means that I’ve overscheduled myself unsustainably, and hopefully I will learn from that and not do it again.

I've written a lot about self-care for musicians, too - links here, here, and here

These are all things that I strive to do, but of course, this is all a process, and there are ups and downs! The good part is that healthy and productive habits build on each other, allowing more and more of them to happen. If your spring is as crazy as mine, I'm wishing you well!

What are your favorite tips for keeping it together and staying efficient during busy times? Let me know in the comments!

How I Became A Composer

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My path to becoming a composer has been roundabout, but I thought I’d share a bit about how I got to the work I’m doing today - and it’s not through a whole lot of training specifically in composition!

Much to my regret, I don’t remember many opportunities to be creative in my piano lessons as a child - improvisation and composition weren’t part of my experience. (That’s why I have all of my students do both, and even improvise at the very first lesson!) Looking back, I remember more of a perspective of right notes vs. wrong notes. I can’t remember my early piano education fully, but I know that I was a very shy kid, and could have used more encouragement to create my own music, instead of just playing others’ music (although, that is great, too).

My first experience was an elective music theory/composition class in high school, in which we were given very little guidance - the class was basically spent going through modules of music theory software (most of which I’d learned already in piano lessons), and working independently on our pieces. I don’t remember any criticism that I received on my writing, constructive or otherwise (and I would remember that, since I was such a perfectionist back then), so I assume that we just got a few comments on our final projects. I learned something from trying to write, but didn’t get to develop my skills like I would have if there were feedback throughout the whole semester.

My path to becoming a professional musician had some fits and starts, too - I actually quit piano lessons with my longtime teacher after 11th grade, with the idea that I was going to switch to a jazz piano teacher, but I never followed through on that, and when it came time to apply to colleges, I didn’t consider majoring in music because I didn’t believe that I could do it. Back then I had a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset (read Mindset by Carol Dweck!) - despite years of practice and learning on the piano, I didn’t have confidence in my abilities to grow. I eventually decided to audition to be a music minor at Ithaca College, started with the required theory, sightsinging, and lessons, while trying out other types of classes, too. Toward the end of my freshman year, my advisor had commented to me that she thought I had too many classes in my minor, which then solidified my feeling that music was indeed supposed to be my focus. I decided to audition to be a music major soon afterward, was officially admitted into the program, and still managed to graduate in 4 years! So, even though I didn’t initially choose music, it kind of chose me.

My lack of confidence about my playing abilities at that time also extended to my composing abilities. I didn’t do much more writing, if any, after that high school class because I still didn’t feel “qualified” - I hadn’t yet gotten comfortable with the idea that you have to do something more (and more!) to become better at it and gain confidence. During my last semester of college in 2005, I decided to sign up for another composition class, which was (unsurprisingly) much more helpful, since we wrote weekly assignments, and got useful feedback. (I was going to show an example here, but sadly, I think that those files are lost, and my office closet is too scary to dig through and maybe find a paper copy!) I do remember that my style back then was to overcomplicate things because I didn’t want it to be TOO EASY - I used some interesting rhythms and melodies, but things often got too clunky because I tried to cram too many ideas in - I was using my brain too much, and not trusting my ears enough.

I still didn’t continue the habit of composing after college, but every so often, I would write down a snippet of something. I was pretty intimidated by the thought of writing something for real, so this felt like a safe way to collect ideas.

Then, about 5 years ago, I applied to play at a faculty recital at one of the schools where I teach, with the proposal that I would write a couple solo piano arrangements of Brazilian choros. Before that, I’d written many arrangements for my students (mostly simplifications), but it was the biggest arranging project I’d taken on thus far, with a deadline to motivate me to finish (let’s be real)! Over the next few years, I wrote more arrangements of Brazilian songs for these recitals - this felt like a safe entry point because arranging gives you a sort of template - and began to take on other arranging projects. Each year I got more and more adventurous with my writing, while in the meantime, I would still write down original snippets of things occasionally, but rarely do anything more with them.

In October 2015, I was tired of not taking myself seriously enough, and decided to give myself a personal challenge to write a little bit every day in the month. Although I wasn’t brave enough to share my work at the time, one of these snippets eventually turned into my Brazilian choro Anelante!

That December, my trio played a composition by our cellist Aaron Kerr at the New Ruckus Composer Night, a monthly event for sharing original music (of any kind) here in St. Paul. I thought to myself, “Hmm, I don’t have anything written, but I should get in line anyway - a deadline will be motivating.” (Are you seeing a theme here?) I eventually got programmed on a July 2016 date, and had finished the first section of what is now Anelante to perform, as well as another contrapuntal mini-piece for piano. Performing my music was really scary at first, since I didn’t quite believe that I was officially a composer, but it was a great experience, and to my delight, I got lots of positive feedback.

Showing up in public to share my work was the push I needed to write more - I began to actually feel like a composer, and decided to start calling myself one, which felt like a big deal. I also started to notice my self-critical brain’s grip loosening - less often asking “is this good?” than “do I like how this sounds?” (Still a work in progress, but I do believe in growth mindset - anything can improve if we give it our attention.) I had finished the B section of Anelante over the winter (Brazilian choros typically have 3 major sections), and signed up for another New Ruckus date in April 2017 to force myself to finish it.

The real turning point that increased my output and commitment to the creative process of composing was signing up for the 100 Day Project in 2017 (which I wrote about a lot here), a global art project in which people do a project of their choice for 100 days in a row, and post it to Instagram. I decided that I would write 8 measures of music each day, of any type - the main point was to show up every day and do it.

Showing my work daily was also scary at first, but I quickly became desensitized to it, so it became much more fun. After the 100 days ended in mid-July, I found that I actually missed this daily habit of writing music, so I did another 100 days at the end of 2018, too! (Thoughts on that here.) 

I’ve now shared a lot about how I became a composer, but not yet why - I’ve known for a while that it’s not enough for me just to interpret others’ music (which I also have great respect for). Also, as a recovering perfectionist, I was most often in a right vs. wrong mindset when playing classical music, which felt unhealthy for me. I remember moments of practicing for a concert or audition, playing a “wrong” note or chord, thinking, “Ooh, that sounded cool,” then shutting down that creative spark because I was supposed to be learning that piece, not making up my own stuff (which sounds super sad to me now!) All aspects of solving the creative puzzle that is writing a piece of music are engaging for my brain, and most importantly, it just feels like fulfilling a deep need (that maybe I can’t exactly explain - how do you explain anything that you fall in love with?)

Even though I did go to music school, a traditional path, my path to composing was not academically traditional at all - when I was in school, it didn’t even occur to me that majoring in composition was something that I could have done. Sometimes I wish that I had done it back then, but all I can do is accept where I am right now, and go from there, which is actually kind of liberating - just move forward, whatever that looks like.

It’s a little scary for me to admit that I don’t have a long history with being a composer, but I don’t really think that matters. What matters is that I like the work I’m producing (and hopefully others do too), and that I’m committed to continuing to work on it, and to the experience of the creative process. The way that we build skills is to keep composing, keep improving, look for feedback from trusted sources, and get people to play our music. Anyone can do this - you just have to decide that you will.

If you're a musician who has thought about writing but didn't know where to start, if you're looking for some idea generation, or camaraderie with other creative musicians, I have just the thing - if you're interested, sign up below and join us! Don't wait for years, like I did!

If you're a composer, musician, or creator of any kind, when did you feel like you could call yourself that title? How did it feel when you did?