I am a musician. I always will be. I produce and record music professionally. I make records. As they say, “music chooses you, you don’t choose music.” I also recently started a construction company, specializing in old home restoration and remodels. I spent the last half of a year transitioning from being a full-time recording engineer, to the point of launching this company officially. And when people would ask me about it, I would tell them (and myself) that “recording music is a hard way to make a living, and I needed to pay the bills, you know?” To a certain extent, that is all true, but there is much more to my decision, which I am only now in the process of figuring out. In fact, I’m beginning to see that creativity ultimately is what drives many of my actions, and that it constantly demands an outlet- be it music, building, cooking, or writing.
Musicians drop like flies. So many people study music seriously (either in a formal institution or not), and have great intentions of working in music professionally. Then the reality of how difficult it is to make a living in music hits them (or they realize that being a professional musician is work, just like anything else), and they ultimately wind up getting a real job, getting married, having kids, and essentially they become hobbyist musicians, or quit altogether. I am married. I have a real job. I plan to have kids. I am not a hobbyist. And for a long time, I have felt the need to emphasize to people that I am a serious musican/recording engineer, and that my dabbling in construction was “just to pay the bills.” In fact, as I’m beginning to figure out, building things is an essential part of who I am, regardless of whether I do it for a living. Yet, it feels as though, by having construction be my main source of income, I am somehow sending a message to the universe that “music was too hard, so I’ve given up and gotten a real job.” This in turn threatens my credibility as a musician/producer, perhaps because I’m not willing to suffer through the “starving artist right of passage,” or go to every show, or be up on every new band.
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“You LaBelles are so creative!”
That was a typical message left in the comments field of my Catholic grade school report card. I am the youngest of five siblings, all of whom attended the same grade school as me, and had many of the same teachers. And it was true, we were all very creative. I have fond memories of my brother and three sisters producing elaborate variety shows for our parents. And I recall a particularly monumental “Barbie Wedding,” wherein they had crafted an entire wedding, including a pool-side resort for the honeymoon, and carried out a formal wedding service.
I suppose our creativity stems from having parents who encouraged it, and from growing up with humble means, and needing to keep ourselves entertained cheaply. Each of us is creative in our own unique way, which benefited the necessary collaboration of our childhood play. There is an age gap between me and the other four siblings, however, so I was not involved with the collaboration and play in the same way that the others were. My recollection of my childhood is that I spent a lot of time entertaining myself, usually with creative activities. For as long as I can remember I have loved to create, to draw, to build, to compose, to envision something and make it real.
A good friend and mentor, trombonist Don Immel, once asked me “what was I into when I was twelve?” Don had observed that, for many people, the types of things they were into when they were twelve bespeak certain truths about their personality. This makes a lot of sense if you consider that at twelve (give or take a year), a person is on the brink of becoming a teenager, but has a fairly developed brain and personality. He is adult-like in some ways, but still innocent. We spend our teenage years, which for many extend well into college, navigating a complex minefield of social challenges, not without casualties. Often we sequester some of our true personality traits, and many people never recover them after their teenage years.
It certainly took me a few years of college to shed my teenaged self, and feel like I was an adult. Of course, this process was not a conscious one. Ironically, as I got further away from my teenaged self, I found myself once again interested in the sorts of things I liked when I was twelve. I spent my undergrad and half of my graduate degree pursuing the noble goal of becoming a professional orchestral trombonist. It became increasingly apparent to me, however, that I would not find satisfaction working as an orchestral trombonist because, frankly, a professional orchestral position does not allow for much creativity, even if you’re the concertmaster. Like my twelve-year-old self, who enjoyed LEGOs and drawing, I needed an outlet for my creativity. At the same time that I was becoming disenchanted with the prospect of an orchestral career, I was also discovering how much I enjoyed recording and producing records, which can be a very creative process. I was also working on the side as a handyman/carpenter, finding myself falling in love with old homes, and the creativity that went into building and maintaining them.
I haven’t formally looked into the origins or makeup of creativity. I would imagine that there are volumes of discourse on this subject, so forgive me if I’m rehashing here what has already been established. But upon recent reflection on the source of my own creativity, I have come to the conclusion that creativity is a function of language and aesthetics; it is a matter of linguistics. For, when one embarks to create a thing, he first, if unconsciously, establishes some parameters as a reference against which to compare his thing. Those parameters can be divided into two main categories: the first category is comprised of those elements which determine what the thing is. The second category is comprised of those elements which determine whether the thing is good, desirable, or beautiful. That is to say, the second category is the thing’s aesthetics. From a linguistic perspective, if we look at the first category as the thing’s grammar and syntax, then we can define creativity as the ability to recognize and decode the language of that which you are attempting to create, and manipulate it to your own ends. Logically, then, success in a creative endeavor can be defined by one’s ability to organize and manipulate the grammar and syntax of their creative endeavor in a way that is pleasing to others. An obvious example of this idea is cooking. Anyone can combine a given set of ingredients, but the success of the outcome depends on the cook’s ability to combine those ingredients in a manner which is pleasing to others. Success in the creative world comes down to how good an aesthete one is. Of course, it easy to confuse creative success and creative satisfaction. One can be satisfied by their own work, regardless of whether it is aesthetically successful.
Perhaps the message on our grade school report cards, then, should have said “You LaBelles are so good at language!” In fact, we are, as a family more gifted in the areas of language than, say, math. My oldest sister majored in Romance languages and speaks several languages, two of my sisters have written childrens’ books, and my brother teaches high school English. My SAT score was mediocre, because, although I scored well on the language half of the test, my math left something to be desired. But being adept at language, and needing to manipulate it are not one in the same. I cannot speak for my siblings, but I know that I must create. It seems reasonable that creativity and language aptitude are related. The reasons behind why I, why we feel the urge to create are a bit more murky, however. I suppose that part of my urge to create comes from an innate desire to improve. Whenever I cook a familiar dish, I strive to improve it, and I make mental notes about what did and did not work for next time. For some people, the element of surprise fuels their desire to create. They feed off of the idea that this time around, by chance something really special will happen, and they work at mastering the elements which they can control, so as to give chance the best possible opportunity to flourish.
When I am doing something creative, in my mind’s eye there is an ideal, perfect thing which I am striving for. This striving is not always a conscious activity. I also do not want to imply that mastering something is the ultimate goal of creativity. The idea of mastering something is too domineering, too masculine to be associated with creativity. The beauty in creativity is that it is essentially mysterious. Much like how “music chooses you,” creativity chooses you. It can be fostered and cultivated, but it chooses you.
Artistry and creativity are similar but discreet ideas. If an artists needs to communicate something, however abstract, then a creative person needs to make something, however abstract. Two years ago, when my wife and I took on a major home renovation project, I was surprised at how many of our friends offered to help out. It seems as if people have an innate desire to work with their hands. Some people almost seemed to covet, not the house itself, but the satisfaction we got from reviving it. This suggests to me that working with your hands, that making something is not only a basic human desire, it is an activity that for many people is not fulfilled by their day to day routines. Some people take up hobbies to fill the void. I find it curious, however, that many people do not find pleasure in cooking from scratch, for instance, which is probably the most basic and human creative activity! Many people treat cooking as a chore, something to be done quickly, something which, after a long day of work, impedes getting other things done, or gets in the way of relaxing at the end of the day.
It is tempting to be nostalgic about some sort of mythical old-fashioned lifestyle, where most things were made lovingly by hand, and everyone was fulfilled because they spent their days working with their hands and being creative. But I can vouch that I live an essentially creative life, and it is satisfying. I make things for a living. Concrete physical things. I am hired to make a concrete physical thing - be it a physical sound recording, or a kitchen remodel - and I am paid for it. It feels honest and human. Often, at the end of the day, my muscles are tired, or my ears need a rest, but I feel satisfied. And, when I get home from work, I often cook dinner. More creating. Sometimes I write blogs. More creating. Sometimes I write songs. More creating. Maybe I am imagining that people assume I’ve given up on music because I’ve started working construction. Regardless, I can say that by living an essentially creative lifestyle, I enrich all my creative endeavors. It is creative cross pollination, and I recommend it. The more I pay attention to what makes things aesthetically pleasing, the more wisdom I find in my own creativity, and the outcome is better because of it.