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Break Through Your Mental Block: Tips to Inspire Creativity & Productivity

May 28th, 2018

Break through your mental blocks

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Canadian Musician magazine

By Mike Schwartz

So much of coaching is based on trust. When someone comes to me looking to improve their quality of life, they are 10 times more likely to succeed in achieving their goals if they remove their expectations. I coach a simple theory: “Success comes from putting ourselves outside of the box of comfort.” Comfort zones are the breeding grounds of mediocrity; when was the last time you got excited about somebody that wanted to excel at being average?

Now, as a musician myself, I’ve found that overcoming creative blocks is oftentimes the hardest part of the lifestyle. There’s just so much pressure to perform or to write or to deliver day in, day out. My fascination with finding ways to help other musicians get through these creative blocks led me to the understanding that mental and physical health go hand in hand. If you’re distracted, busy, or just generally stressed, it’ll show in your performance; however, if you aren’t setting a solid framework to have an amazing performance, that’ll stress you out when you aren’t your best. It’s a vicious cycle! So, what do you do?

Well, I asked a few other artists and industry pros and compiled some tips and tricks that you can implement today in order to stay on your A-game! Whether it’s the first night of tour or six weeks in when you find yourself sleeping in a van outside the bar in Thunder Bay, we’ve got ya covered.

Let’s get to it.

SET INTENT: Implement a Routine

Whether we’re talking about eating better, practicing our instrument, balancing work-life schedules, or exercising, we have to admit we’re habit-driven. Fact.

Teresa Cirillo is a vocal coach, the owner of Studio E Music and Arts in Stoney Creek, ON, and the author of The Vocal Compass. She suggests establishing a pre-performance ritual, such as “visualization, meditation, or just taking time to breathe and get into the zone,” to really help to fuel a solid performance.

According to a study in the Journal of Physiology-Paris by K. Richard Ridderinkhof and Marcel Brass, there is a direct correlation between the effect of visualization and motor expertise. They explored the effect of how simply imagining scenarios in performance enhanced the outcome of certain motor skills, and my personal experience tells me they’re onto something.

I encouraged some musicians to step away from the venue before a set and sit in the car or somewhere private just to get their headspace right. Sure enough, they killed the show. I personally like to imagine a crowd full of people just having a great time and my group killin’ a tough, high-energy song. Visuals helped keep the goal of having a rad show in view, no pun intended.

TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY

Get Active

Andre Kaden Black

Andre Kaden Black [Photo: Jaden D., Tinkerbox Creative Media]

Notice the word active. This means do whatever you’d like that gets your heart rate up a bit each day. It’s not about hitting the gym if that’s not your jam; I find getting up first thing and walking my dog around the block a few times gets the juices flowing and helps me stick to the plan for the day. It’s just something I do. It’s engraved into my lifestyle. It’s great to get out and get some fresh air.

I encourage all of my musician-athletes to aim for an hour of movement per day. Not only do we feel better when we move, but we see the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure decrease while vitality and mood increases, so that’s a huge win.

It really doesn’t have to be a lot. In conversation with producer and songwriter Andre Kaden Black, he brought up the importance of taking a break to beat the creative blocks artists tend to hit. “Going for a walk has been my default creative block-breaker. For hundreds of years, writers, artists, and musicians have always known the power of a meditative state that occurs when you surround yourself with nature. Let your subconscious begin creating new ideas and new perspectives on stale ones.”

Stretching, yoga, jogging, hiking, playing sports… Anything! Move more. “Sweat once each day” is a pretty good standard to live by.

Next up, the fuel to perform…

Eat Well

Yep, it may be hard to believe (it’s not), but we musicians have a difficult time with nutrition. With the readily available booze and pub fare, it’s no wonder. I could write a whole article on proper fuel for musicians, but I want to hammer home one thing we can all improve: hydration.

Drink more water. Water is kind of like the oil in your car. Without it, the engine runs pretty rough. Water keeps your whole body loose, reduces brain fog and risk of injury, and increases focus. For an added kick of awesome, squeeze a wedge of fresh lemon in there. It’ll keep your digestion game on point, plus it tastes great.

Prioritize Sleep, Rest & Recovery

Regardless of your goals, you will optimize your performance with a healthy sleep schedule. How? Well, it can be tough. Not all sleep is created equal. Our bodies are tuned to the circadian cycle (aka the sun cycle), so try your very best to hit the hay shortly after sundown. Optimal recovery occurs from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., but the lifestyle we live as musicians often sees us wide awake during much of that window, usually performing or tearing down our gear and getting back home in the wee morning hours.

That said, do what you can when you’re not performing. Your body associates white light with the sun, so turn off screens and harsh lighting and replace it with dimmer lights, candles, and blackout blinds to ensure sound sleep.

Fun fact: magnesium is a sweet recovery nectar from the gods. I discovered this golden nugget during my days as a competitive athlete. It’s a great recovery agent, but it’s also a common deficiency in the standard North American diet, so we need to supplement it.

Hayden McHugh

Hayden McHugh [Photo: Will Geier]

Head to your local holistic foods shop and look for some topical magnesium chloride (not all magnesium is the same). Spray or rub it in on your neck and any areas of your body that are sore and set a couple of alarms. You’ll sleep like a rock. Magnesium is also great for skin care, reducing hypertension and cortisol (the stress hormone), and will let you get some much-needed rest. This is important when conditions aren’t ideal, like when you’re away from the comfort of your own bed. Your body will appreciate the TLC.

TAKE CARE OF YOUR MIND

Journal

I like to keep a diary to get my thoughts out. I prefer the old school pen to paper, but there are some great e-diary options out there nowadays. I’ve used Daylio in the past. I like it because it takes about 30 seconds to log in and it’s based on how you feel. Check out that bad boy in the App Store or Google Play.

Unplug

As a society, we spend far too much time on social media and in front of screens. While the postural problems that can occur from endless hours of sitting is damaging enough, the emotional turmoil and constant desire to feel appreciated can wreak havoc on a positive mindset.

Delete the apps that you use the most for a few days and see how it feels to be offline. Turn off your phone after 8 p.m. Spend more time in the outdoors. It’s amazing what we can connect with when we disconnect with social media. To double back to Black’s earlier point, nature connects us with incredible inspiration.

EMBRACE CHANGE

Write with, Listen to & Draw Inspiration from Other Artists

Cirillo mentioned that in order to keep things authentic, you should “write about things that make you feel uncomfortable.” If you’re still struggling with the process of songwriting, she advises writing with other people or even trying out an(other) instrument.

Teresa Cirillo [Photo: Kathy Spence]

Teresa Cirillo
[Photo: Kathy Spence]

Black suggests to “borrow, without stealing, ideas from other artists’ songs – maybe a chord progression or a specific bass line. Lots of music, especially in this climate, is directly inspired by other music. It’s not ‘stealing’ to listen to music and find inspiration.”

I totally agree, so naturally, I wanted to find some artists that could speak to this and came across Calgary singer/songwriter Hayden McHugh. He ensures he gets out to other shows to fuel the inspiration in his own music and suggests other artists do the same. That’s a solid reason to get out and support your local scene if you ask me.

Change Your Environment

If you want to change your outcome, change your environment in search of a spark. “If you are in the city, try heading to the country. If you play guitar, try writing on the piano. If you usually write rock music, try stepping into another genre like R&B or country,” Black suggests.

The process is also something an artist needs to consider. It can be tedious work. With that in mind, I reached out to Jay Bowcott, a household name on the Western Canadian touring circuit, and asked him what strategies he uses in order to keep the creative process flowing.

“I switch up what I’m working on,” he begins. “I go from exercises on guitar to rehearsing songs to writing and then throw a little drawing in there. The ticket is organizing your time into sections and making each of those things productive. For example, a half-hour of scales, half-hour of applying said scales to songs, half-hour of lyric memorization, and half-hour of guitar part rehearsal. Songwriting is interspersed in there whenever I randomly get inspired. Drawing is for when my ears get tired.”

QUICK TIPS

Jay Bowcott

Jay Bowcott

Ideas to Put into Practice Now!

1. Alternate Nostril Breathing

Take a big, slow inhale in through your nose while holding your right nostril closed. Then, switch your finger over to close your left nostril and slowly exhale back out the nose. Repeat that drill a few times over and feel the tension go away. The oxygen alternating between your nostrils focuses your brain power on a very simple yet specific task, relieving your worries about the performance.

2. Write & Hang with Other Artists

Teresa Cirillo suggests changing up your process and collaborating to inspire new ideas and beat the creative blockage.

3. Try Yoga

Down-regulatory exercise like yin-yoga calms the nervous system, resets the body and mind, and allows us to focus with clarity and get back to being productive.

4. Pick Up An(other) Instrument

Teresa Cirillo suggests challenging yourself by learning a new skill to break through writer’s block.

5. Take a Walk

Andre Kaden Black likes to bust through creative blocks by going for a quick walk outside and surrounding himself with nature. Rather stay inside? There are plenty of ways to get your body moving for the better indoors.

6. Drink Water

Stay hydrated with two to three litres every day. Carry a water bottle around with you with three elastic bands on it. Each time you re-fill the bottle, remove an elastic band. Also, squeeze some fresh lemon in your water to increase alkalinity and support nutrient absorption!

7. Meditate

A great way to refocus and reenergize. Don’t know where to start? There’s an app for that. Check out the one I use called Headspace for easy, guided meditation and soothing sleep aides.

8. Journal

There’s an app for that, too. Pick up Daylio or, if you’re old school like me and prefer handwriting your thoughts, I actually have a journal available called “Start With U: 21-Day Self-Love Challenge” Get your personalized copy at Musicfit.ca when you claim your all-access pass!

9. Borrow & Build on Other Music

As Andre Kaden Black says, it’s the highest form of flattery and a great way to generate new ideas and inspire new directions.

10. Unplug

Reduce your screen time and watch your productivity and creativity increase. Delete the most common time-wasting apps on your phone and stay off of social media for a week. You’ll live, trust me.

11. Draw, Build, Create

Put yourself outside of your comfort zone to spur creative growth. Try a new art form and don’t be afraid to fail. Your confidence will grow every time you try something that makes you uncomfortable. Give it a shot. Do something awesome!

I hope you were able to take something away from this read, and if so, reach out and let me know what’s up. Until next time, stay sweet.

Ready To Change? MusicFit Collective Can Help

Staying on top of your lifestyle can feel overwhelming, I understand that. These tips may or may not be news to you. They’re meant to introduce health and wellness into your lifestyle. I strongly encourage readers that are struggling with their mental or physical health to reach out to a trusted health professional. When you break an arm, you see the doctor. If you have heart problems, you see a cardiologist. If you’re suffering from a mental illness, you talk to a mental health professional.

One musician-specific service I’m an advocate for is the Unison Benevolent Fund. Check them out at www.unisonfund.ca. They can connect you to professional counselling, emergency funding, and everything in between. The Canadian Mental Health Association also has plenty of resources available at its website, www.cmha.ca.

These are just two of the many services and resources we have compiled for your convenience on an online service designed to improve the quality of life of musicians. It’s known as MusicFit Collective. You’ll find strategies to manage stress and inspire creativity, coaching techniques to level up your performance, and all the hook-ups to develop every aspect of your professional career as a musician. It’s a community of growth, wellbeing, and support. Head to www.musicfit.ca and claim your all-access pass. It’s completely free to join and you can opt out anytime if the content no longer serves you.

Mike Schwartz

Mike Schwartz

END

Mike Schwartz (Ba, HLC, PTS, Pn) is a Certified Personal Trainer, holistic lifestyle coach, nutrition coach, author, musician, and the lifestyle tech of the music industry. Hailing from Calgary, AB, his passion to improve the quality of life of others has led him to found MusicFit Collective, an online service that provides every musician with access to a network of professionals and the knowledge and support to help alleviate common lifestyle issues. When he’s not coaching, you can find Mike playing drums, producing music, cycling, running his dog Darwin along the river, or sipping a smooth Americano. Reach out to Mike at hello@MusicFit.ca.

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