Dealing with creative blocks; when things aren't working

After two years or so of creating no music that I’m happy with, and feeling no great urge or inspiration to do so, I’m gradually having to accept that I’m in the middle of an extended creative slump. I’m still working on music in piecemeal fashion, creating little sketches or loops which sound… okay, I guess, but I seem incapable of forming them into satisfying or worthwhile finished pieces.

Making music currently feels like a pleasant and inconsequential pastime, a means to while away a few hours without it ever leading to anything more meaningful or inspiring: like playing Tetris, maybe, or knitting. This is fine, but far less fulfilling than the role it’s played in my life the past, and which I’d like it to resume; it’s fair to say it’s now not only cramping my creative output, but also exerting a downward pull on my mood and my sense of self.

I’ve tried taking a couple of months off and coming back to things afresh; buying new bits of kit to freshen up my setup; limiting my process to introduce new challenges (e.g. working with just one piece of gear); learning new skills or exploring unfamiliar areas (building Max patches, learning the details of FM synthesis); giving myself concrete and specific creative goals, or loosening up to try and work without placing any such pressure on myself.

In every case, I’ve had a brief spark of renewed excitement, before the process reverts to feeling like either an irrelevance or a chore. I’m fed up with the pressures of making music (let alone releasing and marketing it) but also terrified of becoming one of those people who has a room-sized modular setup but produces nothing but generic bleepy bloops, or a middle-aged bloke reciting tedious facts about his collection of spotless and untouched Stratocasters in the spare room.

Has anyone else experienced this sort of thing? How did you get over it? Are there resources to deal with either the creative block itself, or the emotional complexities around it? How do you pull yourself out of a slump?

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I suffer the same cruel affliction in every manner you’ve described. Finding tools to “streamline my workflow”. Leaving all of my gear arranged and on for when “lightning strikes” to then find the possibilities overwhelming and go minimalistic. Forays in max and synthesis. Spitting out loops and tracks that inspire for maybe a few days that end up in the trash soon after.
What got me out of that slump was giving up. I found i wasn’t only overwhelmed by all of the outlets that I had acquired, but also the expectations I had made for myself in their wake. Remembering how I could spit out tracks weekly in the beginning just with my laptop and ableton manually adding notes by mouse click.
Now I like to throw things together. A piano piece, some electronic dreamscape, a sweet guitar lick. I save them, work them up and release them to my close friends as is. If I fall out of love with them I give them away (I hate the concept of waste, why should music be any different?). If i like it I’ll work it out and ask for suggestions.
On the side I might make a theme piece as an exercise (like a group of tracks inspired by the Odyssey, each written as I read through it).
There are a lot of people out there that would kill for the things that we have built for ourselves. It shouldn’t be squandered. That’s served as my best motivator, producing and giving to others and at the same time enjoying and tucking away the things that i stumble across in the process.

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Take a long walk in the woods. Maybe several. Clear your mind a bit. Realize that you are under no pressure to create.

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I also know this feeling well. My last official album of electronic music before a few months ago was in 2006. When I finished it I felt done, I had no more ideas. After a couple years off, doing what you’re describing in the original post, I started a band. Working with other people, and playing in a totally different way, was exciting and reinvigorating. Getting away from the process that I had been using for years and playing an instrument live with a group was totally different… it used different aspects of my skill and creativity.

Now, after a few years with the band, I’m back to my electronic music with many new ideas and approaches. It feels fresh again.

I’ll also echo @carvingcode’s comments. There is no pressure to do anything. Try just listening and reading without feeling like you should be creating music. Just enjoy it. Try new things, try creating with others, try walking in nature and just listening. All these things have helped me feel better, and ultimately sparked some new creativity once the pressure was off.

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Or take a walk in a city…

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I think setting and achieving goals is key, I too am struggling with that. I love to noodle around.

Participating in http://llllllll.co/c/disquiet-junto should be an excellent exercise (reminder to myself), also to get to know new ideas and work within constraints.

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I try not to beat myself up for this. Life is complex and multifaceted. At least we are keeping our heads in the music so we still have some musical muscle tone available to flex when the time for musical pursuits expands as some other demand contracts.

I think you may simply be describing what happens to everybody. We get older. Responsibilities multiply. Unless you are a professional musician, these responsibilities are probably more likely to distract you from music than pull you deeper into it. Is that “bad” or are we just living?

I’m glad music is a part of my life. I always wish it were a larger part of my life. But I don’t see the benefit in getting mopey about it.

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I find that my happiness with what I make is inversely related to the amount of that art form that I’m consuming. During the period of time that I last felt how you feel, I stopped listening to as much music, and have since been able to make things I am happier with. For me, having a whole heap of loops/patches that I like but haven’t created fully formed ideas from is nothing to be annoyed or upset about. Often, I find they come in handy when a project materialises down the line and it’s almost like the hard part (getting the first idea for a project down) is already done.

When it came to listening to less music, I found it beneficial to listen to music which is really different to the type of music I want to make. I also started listening to podcasts, which can be pretty therapeutic in and of itself, depending on the show, and can serve the same purpose as listening to music, like on a commute. As @carvingcode and @Zedkah said, go walking. Go to some art galleries. Watch films. Read books. I always think the best thing do in situations like these is to just focus on general creativity, mostly in other fields, and on your own wellbeing until your musical creativity returns.

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I guess we can all really relate to these kinds of feelings & fears!

I was reading about a phenomena called ‘decision fatigue’ and think for a lot of us (especially those of us with demanding day gigs) this can go a long way to understanding what can feel like creative burnout… The basic idea behind the theory is that making decisions is fatiguing & saps your willpower much like getting sore muscles. They measured ‘willpower’ by measuring how long participants could keep their hand in ice water. I’m always a bit skeptical of this kind of research, but find the idea interesting nonetheless!

For the musician suffering decision fatigue, the myriad chores associated with music-making can seem overwhelming & dwarf the creative/fun part (which is also the inherently fatiguing part requiring many decisions).

Maybe part of the solution to beating such a drought lies in reducing the number of decisions in daily life, leaving that ‘energy’ in reserve for creative decisions. So one strategy is to self-impose more daily routine & streamline/automate ‘pointless’ decisions (e.g same clothes every day, same foods etc).

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I used The Artist’s Way to overcome some serious creative blocks - it’s a little “woo woo” but it’s a wonderful book anyway, I read it and just ignored what didn’t serve me, and the activities in it really helped me to open up.

I also definitely think that noticing your habits, and learning which ones are not serving you, might be really helpful. The key, though, is that AFAIK we can’t just stop doing something - we need to replace a habit or a belief system.

So maybe think about your routine when making music, and different ways you might be able to approach it. Maybe look at some graphic scores, or think about sharing/exploring some of the sketches that you think are going nowhere to someone you trust. Someone else’s ears may find a potential in something that you’re not hearing right now.

A little anecdote - when I was in a free improvisation ensemble last semester, our professor said ‘You’re playing too well. I think it’s time we play badly.’ So we did a set playing ‘badly’, and as a result I discovered some new techniques that I never would have if I was always trying to play ‘well.’ The performance, as it happened, was also really vibrant and full of energy, and really wasn’t bad music. But the thought of playing ‘well’ got in the way of our creativity.

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I couldn’t find a thread on this topic, and wanted to start a discussion about something that I’m sure we’ve all struggled with - how to approach the creative process when it feels like things aren’t working and you aren’t yielding results that satisfy you.

Lately I’ve been having a hard time extracting satisfying and complete works from my modular, and this usually stems from some combination of the following:

  • Lack of inspiration - forcing the process without having any real enthusiasm or sense of artistic direction when I sit down often results in poor results.

  • Lack of patience and focus - as a result of habits related to social media use, internet browsing, etc. I occasionally feel easily distracted or unable to fully immerse myself in the process of creation for long periods of time.

  • Inexperience with new modules and their relationship with the system as a whole - I recently completed my case and as a result of all the new toys, it can be a little daunting to know where to start.

So, I’ve thought of some potential strategies to alleviate these, and perhaps these are things that some of you do, and maybe some of you might want to try them and see how they affect your process!

  • Meditation before/during the creative process

  • Absorbing interesting and meaningful content as opposed to empty content - by which I mean favoring reading, watching new films, listening to new music, rather than skimming headlines, browsing reddit, social media, etc.

  • Commit to a minimum amount of time to sit and work - some of my favorite things have happened as a result of being patient. Modular is tricky and can take time to arrive at a satisfying destination, but you’ll never get there if you give up after 5 minutes.

  • Devote some sessions to the purpose of modular study, as opposed to “making music.” - part of the fun of modular is experimenting, but my goal has always been to use it as an instrument for the creation of actual coherent music. However, I think there is value to be had in setting time aside to truly experiment without placing any expectations on yourself to actually “make music.” Something I’m going to try a few times this week is picking three random modules in the system and purely experimenting with as many permutations of potential patches I can think of. Not only will the familiarize myself with new modules, but it will give me an idea of how certain modules in the system can interact with each other in ways I may have not previously considered.

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Looking forward to trying these few things out and reporting back with what worked and what didn’t. In what ways have you experienced dissatisfaction with your creative process, and how have you overcome it?

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To be honest, I often force it. I just don‘t stop until I have something I like. In almost every track there comes a point where I‘m not satisfied. But I gotta believe that something useful will happen when I just stick with it long enough.

The same goes for starting a track. If I waited for inspiration, I would only make a fraction of my tunes.

That might read a bit negative but it really isn‘t. I take a deep breath, make a coffee and just try to be free. There are no rules and that is the most wonderful thing.

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I think this is very important. I spent the first six months or so when I started with the modular just making studies and not caring about making music.

Now I know my way around the modules and the next challenge is making pieces of music. I feel that it wouldn’t have been possible without the study part.

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Coming from a folk background, you wouldn’t even think about composing a tune on a banjo or fiddle until you really knew how to play them. Being familiar with my instrument for me is a big part of having ideas for composition.

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do something else, or better nothing else, get bored, eventually inspiration will strike… listen to what other people are doing until you find something that blows your mind… force yourself to work 1-2 hours a day… start a band…

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I think the period where you just listen is often underappreciated. Often, I’ll work for awhile, and then take a break to listen to the results, I’ll pop on here or other forums while I listen and ponder the direction I’ve been going with a patch/system/themes that I’m developing.

This is definitely a huge stumbling block that I think a lot of people struggle with. I can’t imagine having bought an entire case together or even half. The influx of new tools will definitely slow you down, but as you suggest further down in your post - just have focused study goals to develop a familiarity. That said, I think with any system, there’s going to be a lot of discovery for a long time. That’s part of what is so fun and exciting about music and complex music tech.

See, my trouble is almost the opposite. I will rarely sit down unless I know I have 2-3 hours to work and I wonder if I wouldn’t be more productive if I just took the hour here and there and used it to be productive. That’s a big barrier there for me that I struggle with. As I’ve been preparing for this tour, and in the summer as a teacher, life is good because I am able to sit down for hours on end refining and developing while my wife is at work. Now I’m more in rehearsal mode where I just plop down for 30 minutes, set my patch back up to whatever starting point I have in mind (worth practicing too), and run through it for the 20-30 minutes and then shut down for more World Cup.

Finally, I think the older I get, the more I accept the periods of being unproductive. I don’t want to be a machine that pumps music out without a genuine spark or emotional or experiential foundation. There’s too much music out there probably already. There has to be something deeper behind the music and that comes from living. If life is only music, I think something will be missing. So yeah - it’s a fine line between forcing yourself to create and letting it go and just going out and living, which will inspire the art.

Good topic though, I look forward to hearing more from the forum.

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An hour, or even less. I loved this track put together by recording a series of ever-shorter phrases from friends who had just gotten off stage, or other moments we don’t normally associate with immense songwriting creativity. I do wonder what kind of prompt he gave folks because the bits and pieces fit together remarkably well.

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There’s a great lecture/essay on this (and related topics) by Agnes Martin, “On the Perfection Underlying Life”.

http://anneflournoy.com/agnes-martins-notes/

It’s helped me see “the work” as a consistent practice or discipline, with failure as a cruel but necessary part. I feel the abject cruelty in failure when my desireless efforts result in self-parody, and I miss the occasion of simply laughing at it as a way to embrace it, so to speak, as the “storm before the calm”.

The gist of Martin’s essay concords well with @sellanraa’s realization:

It’s very difficult to extract simple quotes or one-liners from the lecture, but I’ll quote here the central part regarding failure:

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When things aren’t working, I tend to tear all of my patch cables out and start anew. I did this two hours before my first ever live modular performance, and I think I was better off for it.

  • Don’t worry about “artistic direction” or “poor results.” Rather than force the process of working within your defined “style” or artistic perameters, force yourself to work outside of your comfort zone. Sometimes enthusiasm is found in not knowing, and being unexpectedly pleased with something you’ve never done before.

  • Read manuals or watch tutorial videos if you need to, but in my experience, sometimes it’s best to just patch away and learn from the sounds you make and how you react to them. Make notes on what works and what doesn’t work so that you can explore the good parts further in future sessions. Start slow, learn your modules inside and out, and understand them before buying new modules or getting rid of the ones you struggle to use.

  • When working with your modular system, leave your phone in another room, turn off your computer (unless you’re using it with your setup, in which case, full-screen whatever program you are using and turn WiFi off to avoid temptation and distraction).

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I often fire up my modular to answer a forum question, try some new idea, or to play with a particular module or technique in detail. Sometimes that leads to a recording, sometimes it’s just a few minutes of experimenting, sometimes it becomes a long session where I learn but don’t record anything. It’s all good.

And sometimes I’ll go the other way. I’ll start out intending to make music, and just wind up exploring without that creative fire ever lighting. That can be valuable too (but I see why it’d be frustrating if that’s what happened every single time).

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