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Seasons & Spirals

For years, my professional calendar has followed roughly the same schedule. A deadline or several the first week of January, followed by a lull in performances. A spring schedule busy with travel and premieres. In May, score sales dip, but July and August bring more plentiful royalties. I spend the end of each summer composing frantically, because my deadlines tend to cluster around the start of school semesters. A new piece, or several new pieces, are inevitably due around September 1st. A final push for deadlines comes in mid-November through mid-December, before everything slows down at the end of the year. Then the cycle begins again.

I know these patterns now, but I never saw how clearly this calendar affected my own state of mind until I started keeping a five-year journal. In that journal, each page is dated and leaves space for five years' worth of brief daily entries. 2020 marks my fifth year of the journal, and by now, I can revisit my exact thoughts from up to four years ago each day.

At the start of the second year of keeping this journal, I noticed that while seasons without new work always worried me, those seasons of stress happened around the same time each year. Looking at, say, the second week of January, I can see remarkably similar entries over the last four years: “Feeling really anxious and stressed lately.” “Such an unproductive week.” “Another useless day.”

I used to believe that these barren or anxious seasons reflected some career misstep on my part. I panicked when a creative or financial dry spell arrived, berating myself for not composing more each day, sending more emails to conductors, or posting about my work more frequently on social media.

But in this five-year journal, it’s so easy to see that these worries pop up around the same time every year. I may feel anxious in January, but a productive February inevitably follows. May will have fewer score sales than other months, but score sales and commissions will reliably pick back up in July and August.

For better or worse, this is the shape of my creative year, and so many aspects of that cycle are out of my control. But at least this creative cycle—and within it, the deadlines and income that make composing my livelihood—is reliable, even steady.

Each year, I’m better at passing through these seasons. I’ve been trying to view my own personal “concert seasons” less as a man-made musical concept and more like a natural phenomenon. Just as a tree shedding leaves in winter is not actually failing to thrive, a lack of productivity or income during certain months does not indicate a professional failure. Given that August/September and January/February both see a spike in commissioning payments and royalties, I've also learned to stash money away during these more fruitful months to cover any months that naturally dip in income. I use quiet, barren periods to reassess personal goals and consider future projects I'd like to initiate on my own, like forming another commissioning consortium or writing another book. I may not have control over these seasons, but now that I know their form, I can shape my creativity around them.

As a whole, I’ve come to view each passing year as not only a cycle, but part of an upward spiral. A circle is the same each time you loop around it, of course, but a spiral has direction. A spiral can still ascend overall even if it dips down before it rises. And even with an occasional barren spell, a creative career that spans years and years can still spiral up, up, up.


As a result of keeping a five-year journal, I've also learned to look at my worst moments of self-doubt and anxiety with, if not perfect solutions, then at least the perspective of time. Now, when I write something like “What a horrible day” in that journal, it's as if I can already feel my future self over my shoulder. Even in the present, I can sense what she’ll think as she rereads today's entry a year or more from now. An incoming wave of future days, blank lines ahead, are ready to sweep each new entry into the past. Even the most fruitless seasons pass.

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