Sanity vs. Creativity? Robert Schumann Revisited

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Sometimes the point of contact between art and life becomes uncomfortably close.

Last summer, I wrote about Robert Schumann and the dichotomy between his two musical alter-egos, exuberant “Florestan” and introspective “Eusebius.” I half-seriously suggested that some composers might benefit from creatively embracing a sort of artistic schizophrenia and simultaneously pursuing radically different trajectories in their work.

The week after I posted that essay, things got a lot more personal. One of the most talented and brilliant musicians I know, capable of learning music with extraordinary facility and interpreting it with rare sensitivity, had been struggling with mental health for some months and experienced another breakdown. While it can be deeply unsettling to see anyone in the thick of a battle with mental illness, it was particularly painful to see one of the persons who matter the very most to me in the world having to deal with it. Doctors eventually reached a diagnosis of bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depressive disorder, after the two opposing mental states alternately experienced by those who have it). Wanting to learn more about it, I started reading the book Bipolar Disorder by Francis Mondimore, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University. While scanning through his chapter “Bipolar and Creativity,” I was intrigued to find a discussion of Robert Schumann.

While the exact nature of Schumann’s mental illness is debated, most scholars, including Mondimore, believe he had bipolar. Thanks to the numerous letters, journals, and essays of Robert and his wife Clara, musicologists can reconstruct the trajectory of his illness and his creative work fairly well, revealing marked fluctuations between the wild, uninhibited creativity of the manic phase on one hand and severe depression and near-paralysis on the other. For example, Schumann created dozens of works in the calendar year 1840, including most or all of over 20 (twenty!) song-cycles. In 1844, by contrast, he failed to complete a single work. By 1849, he had resumed his frantic pace of dozens of new works a year. But in 1854, in an apparent attack of severe depression, Schumann attempted suicide and eventually entered a mental institution, where he spent the rest of his life.

This perspective on Schumann’s career, combined with anecdotal evidence of numerous other composers reported to struggle with mental instability (everyone from Beethoven to Rachmaninoff), raises a disturbing question: Do some composers pay for their inspiration in corresponding bouts of depression and mental turmoil? Conversely, are artists blessed with relative stability of mind shut out from reaching these highest levels of creativity and invention, since their highs just aren’t high enough? Are allegedly sane composers like kids on a backyard swing who, even at the apex of their flight, still can’t quite touch that certain tree branch?

As it turns out, other scholars have sought to answer this question. Robert Weisberg has attempted to study the relative quality of Schumann’s output from manic and depressive periods in a somewhat scientific manner. Using the number of existing recordings of a work as a (rather imprecise) proxy for its quality, his research found that while Schumann composed far more works during manic years than depressed ones, he did not appear to compose at a higher level while under mania. In fact, the average popularity (as measured by recordings) of his works was roughly the same for works written in manic years as depressed years. He simply created more “great” works in years when he created more works overall. (Incidentally, my favorite Schumann piece, his A-minor piano concerto, was begun during a period of apparent mental stability in 1841 and completed during another calm year in 1845, after the intervening depression and creative dry spell of 1843-44.)

Thus, Weisberg argues that Schumann’s affect affected (pun intended) not the quality of his work, but the readiness, flow, or even motivation with which he worked. In manic periods, he wrote feverishly, but only some works turned out to be high-quality. In times of depression, he may have had more difficulty in starting to write a piece, but when he did manage to work, his output was a similar mix of the great and merely good. (This is essentially the reverse of the common college student’s dilemma that sleep deprivation increases creative and innovative thinking but decreases motivation to actually do any work…)

Thankfully, then, there can be no Faustian bargain, an artist trading their mental health for uncanny inspiration. To be sure, those who struggle with mental illness cannot be held responsible for their condition anyway. But even if someone were willing to pay the terrible price of violent mood swings, there would be no payoff in creativity.

On the other hand, is the dividing line between luminaries like Schumann, others with bipolar disorder, and allegedly “normal” people really so firm? While mental illness is all too real, one could also see the roller-coaster career of a Robert Schumann as merely a more extreme illustration of the ebb and flow of inspiration experienced by all intelligent and creative personalities. We all go through dry spells where it feels like our work is worthless and we just can’t hit on a good idea—which is when we must cling more firmly to the confidence that our muse has not deserted us entirely, but merely left our side for a moment, and will return soon enough. On the other hand, we also experience euphoric seasons when we are so obsessed with a project that we can hardly seem to finish sketching a good idea before the next one pops into our brain. In such times, we must remind ourselves to eventually take a calmer and more measured look at our work, knowing that everything is likely not as brilliant as it seemed at first.

With both mental health and artistic talent, a neat categorization of humans into “normal” and “abnormal” is deceptively simplistic. We all face the same struggles; some brave souls just have to face them more directly, in both life and art.

Athletes and Artists, Part 3: The Soul of Tempo Practice

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I’ve previously written a couple of posts on what musicians can learn from the practices of professional athletes. The first essay explored how the same dynamics that occur between spectators, coaches, and players appear in the music world between listeners, composers, and performers. The second enumerated a few lessons musicians could learn about practicing from phrases a certain professional football team uses to describe their work. This third installment draws from my recent firsthand experience in practicing a sport.

Ironically, my involvement in athletics this year came about due to an injury sustained while practicing music. Last spring, I developed a mild case of tendinitis in my left arm, likely from excess tension during a hard week of preparation for a guitar competition, and had to take several weeks off from playing. With extra time on my hands and favorable weather beckoning outdoors, I decided the thing to do was, quite naturally, run a marathon. (In reality, I had been taking longer and longer jogs over past few years and was waiting to make the leap to an actual long-distance race, but the timing of my injury had something to do with it as well.)

Also ironically, running the Baltimore Marathon this fall gave me the chance to not only compete in an actual spectator sport but also to visit a couple of professional sports venues. The Baltimore Ravens’ stadium was open before the race, being the only place with enough restroom facilities to accommodate thousands of runners, so I hung around in the concourse to stay out of the predawn chill before heading to the starting line. The last few hundred yards of the race also passed through Camden Yards, the nearby home of the Orioles, but by that point I was too exhausted to be more than vaguely aware of the field’s existence.

Once the immediate physical fatigue of running 26.2 miles had dissipated, however, I started to feel a strangely compelling desire to do it again and to learn how I could improve my time in the future. After reading a couple of highly informative books by Hal Higdon, I realized that although my training had certainly increased my fitness and stamina, it had fallen well short of optimizing my potential for improvement. Furthermore, I was falling into exactly the same pitfalls in practicing running as in practicing my instrument. In the rest of this post, I want to show how the principles of training for a race can also apply to learning a piece of music.

Higdon’s training approach rests on systematically alternating different workouts specifically targeted at developing different skills. On some days, athletes will run long distances at a consistent slow pace to gain endurance. On others, they run faster in short bursts to practice speed. On still others, they try to sustain a moderately fast pace for a longer duration to build strength and combine it with speed and endurance. Thus, Higdon’s runners don’t need to worry about how fast they are going on endurance days or how long they can hold out on speed days; the important thing is that each workout accomplishes its specific purpose.

While I had been aware of this principle as I was preparing to run a marathon, I had found it surprisingly hard to put into practice. Most days, I treated my workout as if it were a race and ended up running at the fastest pace I thought I could keep up for the given distance. Naturally, this meant most workouts left me feeling almost completely spent. In addition, having never run a marathon before, I had no concept of what an appropriate pace for that distance would be, nor was I used to running at that pace, since I had mostly practiced running faster than that for shorter distances. Fortunately, I was able to manage my speed reasonably well on race day and avoid a major collapse, but as I staggered away from the finish line, I was left wishing I could have made things easier on myself.

Higdon convinced me that if I wanted to really train well for a race, I would need to run both slower and faster in practice. Slow workouts would need to be not just comfortably slow, but uncomfortably slow (at least until I got used to it), so as to stress my body as little as possible. On designated fast days, on the other hand, I ought to have pushed myself even harder than I did, knowing that I would have plenty of time to recover before attempting another such effort. Previously, I could only manage to change my speed when running with friends whose comfortable pace was either faster or slower than mine, forcing me to adjust in order to stay with them. A true distance runner, however, could determine and execute their proper speed for each training session on their own.

A few days after the marathon, as I was practicing for my first recital since my arm injury, I realized I had fallen into the same mindset in my practicing. Not only had I been treating each workout like a race, I had been treating each practice session like a concert, trying to go at concert tempo with concert-like intensity, both physical and mental. This had no doubt led to over-pressing and straining and contributed to the injury. I realized it would be necessary to separate the speed, intensity, and thoroughness aspects of my practice in order to prepare optimally for a concert.

To concentrate on each physical and musical gesture I intend to execute in performance, it is necessary to play at well under performance tempo. Trying to go faster before the piece is fully performance-ready just leads to crossed signals in your neuromuscular system, increasing the potential for injury. On the other hand, you can’t play fast without ever practicing fast, so some speedwork is necessary as well, but it needs to be coupled with lightness, perhaps even softness, freed from the weight and tension of everything else you intend to do with the piece. On days when I do seek to combine speed and intensity under performance-like conditions, it would be healthy to end my practice early, sacrificing quantity for quality to avoid injury.  Finally, on days when I want to cover lots of music thoroughly, I need to allow myself ample time to take breaks and stay relaxed so that tension does not build up over a long practice session. By combining these various “workouts” into a regular weekly rotation, I can ensure that I develop each piece sufficiently without overextending myself physically.

For all the physical and mental effort required to prepare for a long-distance race or a musical performance, both endeavors provide valuable practice in paying attention to your body and concentrating on the task at hand. Last week, I was spending time with family on the afternoon before the concert. Things took longer than planned, and suddenly I realized I had barely an hour to finish my mug of hot chocolate, travel home (a distance of three miles, with no transportation arranged), change into concert attire, warm up, and set up the video camera before the concert. I calmly took the last few sugary sips of energy, excused myself, and started down the street on foot. After telling my legs to settle into an easy jog, I tried to focus on—and even enjoy—the rhythm of my heart rate and breathing and the feeling of the breeze on my face. I arrived home, barely winded, and went about my normal pre-concert routine. Far from being distracted by the stress of the evening, I felt more relaxed than I ever have for a recital.

Having a challenging goal for which to train forces you to practice with conscious and intentional focus, but the reward of this ability to focus and be present in the moment is beautiful, both in running and art. Just as the musician who lacks intention in practicing has much in common with the runner who lacks intention in training, so also the soul of the distance runner is closely akin to that of the true artistic performer.