Below is a recent conversation with composer and writer Dale Trumbore, whose book “Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety and Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life” was just released (find out more on Amazon). Dale graciously shared her time providing some insight into issues related to anxiety and musicians.
Your book, “Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety and Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life” was just released. First, congratulations and thank you for writing on this important topic! What led you to want to write this book?
When I was 23 years old and graduating with a master’s degree, I desperately wanted something—anything—to show me steps to take forward into a full-time career as a composer. I had so much trouble finding those resources. The closer I got to having the career that I wanted, the more I struggled with the uncertainties of working as a freelance musician, both on a daily basis (How do I overcome the days when I don’t feel like composing?) and a much larger scale (What do I do when no new work is coming in?). So much of the time, I just wanted someone to sit me down and tell me that everything was going to work out.
Staying Composed uses specific anecdotes about composing in order to make broader points that are meant to apply to any artistic career, not only a musical one. It shares the answers I’ve found in my career thus far—the strategies I use to cope with the many uncertainties of a career in music. Some strategies offer the answers I wish I’d had at age 23, and many more offer advice I still need to follow on a daily basis, even as a successful working musician.
I hear many musicians talk about feeling the “imposter syndrome”—essentially feeling like they don’t really know what they are doing, or that they aren’t good enough. Or, they might look at those around them (other students, professionals, teachers, etc.) and feel like the others are the “real” musicians. What are your thoughts on this?
I think everyone feels this way sometimes; sometimes I still feel that way. Earlier this year, I went to a dress rehearsal for one of the biggest performances of my career and promptly locked myself out of the hall and into a stairwell. I found it funny on a few levels; not only was I locked in a stairwell, but it felt like a literal embodiment of a feeling I’d been trying to suppress, which was that I didn’t belong there.
I treat imposter syndrome the same way I treat self-doubt: by recognizing and naming it, then consciously turning my thoughts to something more productive. The hardest part can be recognizing that these thoughts are happening and dismissing them without letting them tell you a false story about yourself or your work. Locking myself out of my rehearsal wasn’t a sign that I didn’t belong there; it was an indication that the security on that concert hall is absurdly tight, and literally every backstage door locks behind you. Once I acknowledged and named my irrational line of thinking, I was able to push that imposter syndrome aside and turn my attention back to the rehearsal.
For musicians (or other creatives) who struggle with anxiety in some way, what are some strategies you can share that might help?
For me, prioritizing exercise, yoga, or meditation—even in small doses, like a ten-minute walk or a four-minute meditation—gives me more creative time later in the day. That productivity math can seem off at first, in that you’re taking away time you could be spending creatively, but at least for me, that positive boost in my mental health gains me more creative output later in the day.
And in general, my well-being is more important than anything I’m creating. It took me a long time to recognize that; it took even longer to actually prioritize my mental health above my creativity. But with those priorities straight, I’m much better at making my art without anxiety whenever I do sit down to create.
Above all, if you think you need help beyond what advice from a book or a trusted friend can provide, please reach out to your doctor and/or seek out a therapist. If your anxiety is interfering with your life on a debilitating way, you might need more than any self-help strategy can offer, and there’s no shame in that.
Being a musician sometimes requires periods of deep work – either composing, practicing, writing a grant, etc. How do you get yourself in the deep work zone where you can do productive work?
I treat the urge to procrastinate the same way I treat thoughts that pop up when I’m meditation: I recognize them, dismiss them, and turn my mind back to something else. Repeat, repeat. In meditating, the point isn’t to have a completely blank mind, but to get better at recognizing and acknowledging your distracting thoughts. Getting distracted during your creative work functions the same way; your goal isn’t not to get distracted, but to recognize and dismiss those thoughts as often as needed.
I also usually leave my phone in another room when I’m working, and I try to compose on the piano for as long as possible before inputting my score on the computer. And I very purposefully carve out time in my day to create, whether that’s half an hour or 3+ hours. That way, my designated block of time for composing is there whether I use all of that time or not.
I’m guessing lots of people think “Hey, I’d like to write a book about something, but I don’t have the time.” How did you write this book amidst your existing schedule?
Writing Staying Composed required a mix of carving out time specifically for writing and revisions plus using the down time I already schedule between composition projects. After a big initial push towards getting the first draft written, I worked on the book a lot on airplanes and whenever I had a spare half-hour or hour and wanted a break from composing. I’d “cheat” on my composing work with the book, and then, as the late stages of the book became more demanding, I’d cheat on the book with composing.
I do this throughout my usual creative routine, too: I’ll use composing to put off answering emails, and then I’ll clean the house to avoid composing, and then I’ll send emails to avoid cleaning more, and somehow I trick myself into getting everything done by procrastinating productively.
Do you feel like writing this book has had an impact on your musical work in some way?
In a way, it’s made me appreciate how predictable my process is. It’s strange to write about your process and see the same issues you’re writing about pop up in real time. Now, when I’m composing, I’m hyperaware that I’ve given a named strategy to the parts of my process where blocks arise. So not only am I thinking, Oh, this is the part of my process where I feel like everything I’ve written is awful, but I’m also thinking I need to “ask more helpful questions about my work,” which is one of the named strategies in the book. It’s a little weird and meta, but ultimately, naming my process helps through me move through the hardest parts of that process.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
That if you get to know your creative process, you can label and anticipate what stages come easily and what will always be a challenge. Ultimately, you get to know that process so well that you can anticipate even the most frustrating parts—a stretch of self-doubt, a temporary dry spell, etc.—and move through them with ease, without adding more anxiety or false stories to what’s already difficult. Your process may look completely different from mine, but I hope that reading this book will help you identify how to build more ease, as well as comfort with uncertainty, into your unique creative process.
Dale Trumbore is a composer and writer based in Los Angeles. Find out more about her work here.