Turn Stop-signs into Detours on the Road to Your Creative Passion

Photo: Sigmund via Unsplash

It takes different forms and comes at different times for all of us, but at some point, we all hear that call: the call to be creative. We can try to ignore it and in most cases, there are external obstacles, but the call continues whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we allow ourselves to be derailed or not or whether we choose an easier, simpler path or not. The call keeps calling.

Recently, I found a video of a Creative Mornings talk by Canadian artist Danielle Krysa where she was exploring the subject of humility. At one point she told the story of when a professor in art school told her she should never paint again… 5 weeks before graduation. So she stopped.

Hearing that story is infuriating for sure, but it was also the catalyst for much of her success as an author. Sometimes the roadblocks that life throws up are actually mysterious detours that lead to a greater purpose. She has inspired countless people with, not only the telling of her story but publicly working through the trauma and finding her way back to answering the call.

I related to her story in that I have had my own rejections and obstacles over the years which could have stopped me from becoming a musician. Instead, I think they helped shape my approach to music.

The piano

When the men showed up with the big truck I had no idea what was going on, even though my mother had told my sister and me that we were going to start taking piano lessons. When they carried in the Kohler & Campbell upright piano it felt like an alien invasion. I had never seen a real musical instrument up close. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the day my whole world changed.

At this point, I was just following orders. Mom said, “Go up the street to these nice people and they’re going to show you how to play the piano.” I didn’t even really know what that meant with my 8-year-old brain. There was a book with some notes. “Ragtime Raggles” is all I remember. I started picking up television theme songs at home. That’s when it got weird.

One time I came to the lesson beaming with pride because I had figured out how to play the theme to Hill Street Blues, the hottest new cop show on TV. I started to play it for the oldest daughter of the family and she slapped my hands away from the keys. “That’s the devil’s music. If you continue messing around with that you’re going to end up in Hell.”

It stunned me. I went home after the lesson and said I didn’t want to play piano anymore, but I lied. I just didn’t want to go back to those crazy people again. The piano continued to call to me. My sister quit soon after I did, but my mom kept the piano. Every time I walked past it, there it was, tempting me. Eventually, I sat back down at the piano and started writing my own music.

The drums

One of my earliest memories of my mother is riding down Terminal Blvd. in Norfolk, Virginia in her 70s Buick Skylark listening to the radio. She asked me something like “what instrument would you play if you could play in this band?” and without hesitation I said the drums. I was probably 5 years old and I knew that eventually I would play the drums and I did. When I was 14, as part of an agreement, I passed all of my classes and she bought me a used, red-sparkle drum set. Wow, what an amazing feeling!

When we got it home, I already knew how to set it up from studying videos of Stewart Copeland on MTV. I could even play some basic beats I had figured out in advance. My parents thought I was a genius. “No lessons and the kid can already play!” they exclaimed. I wasn’t a genius, just obsessed with music.

They also took advantage of Apple’s educational discount and bought a IIGS computer with some music software right around the same time. Without really having any idea what I was doing, I started writing music on the computer and would play along with it. I figured out how to record the computer and hooked up a cheap mic to my boombox to record my drums at the same time. However, my parents thought it would be best if I took proper lessons and found a teacher for me.

The teacher

The first lesson was the typical stuff: nice to meet you, hold the sticks like this, buy these books and see you next week. He seemed like a nice guy and so at the next lesson I brought a cassette of me playing along with my computer. He listened to it and by the end of the lesson told me he didn’t think I should be a drummer and that I should take piano lessons instead. I didn’t tell anyone what he had said, just that I didn’t want to take drum lessons again.

That was a serious low-point for me. I felt deeply that I was on the right path, but here was this authority figure telling me I had it all wrong. And just to be clear, he wasn’t rude about it. He didn’t tell me the music was awful or that I had no talent, just that whatever I had in mind about being a composing drummer was not going to happen.

That could have easily been it for me. I was still into skateboarding and writing short stories at the time. I had other options. But instead, it made me mad. Really mad. I decided I would be my own teacher, follow my own path and work incredibly hard to prove this guy wrong.

During the week, I practiced as soon as I got home from school until dinner was ready and then until it was time to go to sleep. On the weekends, that’s all I did. I wasn’t working on the typical stuff, but mostly playing along to music or making up my own patterns.

Granted, there were drawbacks. For instance my grades suffered, I didn’t really go outside much, my social life suffered and I developed a serious imposter syndrome complex since I really didn’t know what I was doing. It was several years until I knew what a rudiment was and I didn’t really learn to read music in a functional way. It might have been better, in some ways, to have had a supportive teacher who would have harnessed my curiosity, but I’m not sure I would have practiced as hard or been as inventive. These days I’m grateful for the rejection that this teacher gave me because I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.

The band

In high school I played in a rock band with two other guys who were a grade ahead of me. I also started getting into jazz and took an advanced placement music theory class which the band director taught. He was always trying to convince me to play in marching band which I knew would involve reading music and probably taking lessons. I was done with teachers. I had no interest in that.

There were auditions for the All-State Jazz Band and I asked my father to take me. The band director was there with his best drum student and I figured my chances were pretty low. Still, I went ahead with it and pretended to read the music while playing along by ear. I was so used to playing with the radio and winging it that it actually went quite well and I got the audition. Yay!

However, when I showed up to rehearse the other drummer was there and apparently some strings were pulled to get him in and we took turns. I was fine with that. However, on the concert they left my name off the program and didn’t announce me. It was as if I wasn’t there. My parents were furious. I just shrugged.

The drop-out

I think that had a lot to do with my decision to drop out of high school. I answered a “drummer wanted” ad in the music store and ended up joining one of the most popular local bands in the area. Everyone in the band was in their 20s while I was 16, so when we had an opportunity to start touring the college circuit it meant I would miss a lot of school. It was a difficult decision but it was the right one. I went back and got my G.E.D., which allowed me to enroll in college after a couple of years of touring… and here I am now with a bachelor’s degree in music and a teaching position in Iceland.

The choice

Of course, other people have had it much worse than I did. I’m quite lucky to have had two supportive parents and found local musicians who graciously took me under their wings. Some people have much the opposite experience at home. However, we all have a choice when confronted with rejection, disappointment, disillusionment or trauma. These obstacles have the potential to completely derail us, but if we focus on the feeling of joy we get from doing what we know we are meant to do, it can reaffirm our commitment to answering the call. As the Stoic saying goes “the obstacle is the way.” What might seem like a stop sign could actually be a detour to a more scenic route.

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