Plans For My Empty Semester

Because of the way my course is organised for part time students, I now have a semester without classes while the full time students do their third semester. I’ve been looking forward to this, not just to take a bit of a break but to work on new music with the skills I’ve learned, return to hobbies I haven’t had the time or energy for while doing the course, and to just generally catch up with things, be productive, and get some long awaited projects done. Of course, everything changed with the pandemic and subsequent lockdown.

So my list is different now, depending on what is possible and what isn’t. I’d started collating this list – this post – before lockdown was announced and I’ve been reluctant to simply scrap it all just because it no longer fits with the future I’d expected. So I thought I’d post it anyway, just divided into different categories, for posterities sake if nothing else. I guess I just want to remember what I’d thought this summer would be like versus what it ends up being like.

Impossible:

  • Get back to swimming regularly – That’s obviously not possible as all the gyms are closed.
  • Mental Health Awareness Week Assemblies – For Mental Health Awareness Week, I was supposed to go back to my old secondary school and do a series of assemblies, talking about mental health, my experiences with it, and play some songs. I was really looking forward to it but then we went into lockdown and schools had closed long before Mental Health Awareness Week.
  • London gigs – I was scheduled to play a couple of shows in London but they were cancelled due to lockdown. Hopefully they’ll happen when it’s safe again.
  • Concerts – I was due to see several shows over the summer including Taylor Swift at Hyde Park and The Shires in London and Brighton but they’ve all been rescheduled or cancelled. I understand it, of course, but I’m still gutted because I was really looking forward to those shows.
  • See Waitress The Musical again – I was hoping to see Waitress at least one more time before it closed but it’s run ended during lockdown and they’ve announced that it will not be returning. I’m so, so sad that I’ll never get to see it again. But I’m grateful that I got to see it as many times as I did and that the last time was Sara Bareilles’ last show. That made it extra special.
  • Get caught up with my photo albums – I’ve wanted to get my photo albums up to date for months but there’s a problem with the external drive that holds my Photos library and since all the shops are closed, including the computer repair shop I go to, I can’t get it fixed until they reopen and it’s safe to go there. And therefore I can’t catch up with my albums yet.

Difficult or Different:

  • Music Theory lessons – I had a plan to improve my knowledge and understanding of music theory during this time, to prepare myself for the next semester but now, my teacher and I can’t meet or even travel to meet for lesson. In theory (pun intended), we can still have lessons using Zoom or FaceTime but it’s definitely more difficult when we can’t sit side by side at the piano, when I can’t lean over to watch his hands, and when he can’t adjust my hands on the keys, and so on. I’m sure we can find a way but it’s definitely more complicated than it was before.
  • Have as many cowriting sessions as possible – I really wanted to spend as much time as possible writing with my friends and course mates. They’re all so amazing and unique. Of course, we can still write using Zoom and FaceTime but it’s not a creative process that I’m super comfortable or productive in. I’ve been doing some but I find them exhausting and just not as much fun as I usually find collaborating.
  • Catch up with my friends – To be fair, I have been catching up with friends but it’s obviously always over Zoom or FaceTime. We can talk and I’m grateful for that but we can’t hang out or hang out in groups and I miss that. I miss just chilling out together, doing things companionably, and my god, I miss hugging them.
  • Sort out my bedroom – This is another project I’ve wanted to do for so long and while there are still aspects I can do (and still plan to do), there are a lot I can’t, which is very frustrating.
  • Create my studio space – Again, this requires changes that aren’t possible right now because having aesthetic building work done obviously doesn’t come under the lockdown advice but there are things I can do and have started to do. Despite the difficulties, I’m creating a space to work – some of which will be permanent and some which are makeshift and I’ll change later when it’s possible – so it’s a start.
  • Create a space to make YouTube content – This project I have yet to figure out and I’m not sure if it’s even possible without certain changes in my room, changes that won’t be possible until life is more normal again. But I’m still turning it over in my head, how and where to create an aesthetically pleasing space to make videos from. So we’ll just have to wait and say when it comes to this one.

Still Possible:

I feel like it’s important to add an extra note to this one because, while all of these plans and activities are physically possible, they’re not necessarily possible. I’ve been seriously struggling with my mental health, especially with my anxiety and depression, and my creativity has taken a serious hit too. So, while I do want to do these things and they are within the rules of what’s allowed and technically possible, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to achieve them, or achieve as many of them as I would like.

  • Write new songs/work on old songs – I’ve been trying so hard at this and I’ve managed some but with my creative and concentration struggles, it takes a lot of hard work and is really emotionally draining. It’s amazing when I can break through the fog though.
  • Sort through my clothes – This is something I’ve started to do but it’s tricky because there’s nowhere to take the clothes I want to pass on. It feels good to be clearing out some of my stuff and creating some space though.
  • Catch up with my diary – I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of ‘catching up with my diary’ but I’d hoped to use this time with limited distractions to really get caught up. But with my concentration in such shambles, it seems to be taking even longer than usual, which is endlessly frustrating. I have to keep going though. My OCD doesn’t take a break just because there’s a pandemic.
  • Start learning the Kalimba – I bought a Kalimba and it was going to be a present to myself for finishing my second semester assessment. I love the sound and I really want to learn how to play but, as I’ve already said, my concentration and motivation haven’t been great so I’m struggling to apply myself to it.
  • See a meteor shower – I have technically done this one already but it wasn’t a very impressive show so I’m looking forward to the big one, the Perseids meteor shower, in August.
  • Update my songwriting book – My songs are all over the place (in various notebooks, my laptop, different hard drives, and random pieces of paper) so I’d really love to compile them all into one book, something I’ve just started to do.
  • Watch some of the things on my To Watch list – I’ve been trying with this one but I’m finding it quite difficult to watch new things. It’s like there isn’t enough space in my brain and I don’t have enough spare emotion to invest in new characters and a new world, etc. Does that makes sense? I’m going to keep trying though. I think it’s going to be a case of just hoping that the trying and a moment of feeling okay will coincide.
  • Improve my guitar skills – I feel like my guitar skills have come to a bit of a halt recently and I really want to get out of that rut and get better. I don’t feel the need to be the best guitarist in the world but I’d love to be proud of what I’m playing when I play solo, rather than feeling like I’m playing a really simple part just to accompany myself.
  • Start coming up with ideas for my Masters final project – It’s not for a while yet but I want to have some potential ideas for my final project so that I have time to think them over and make sure I choose something that’s a good fit, for the exam criteria but also for me as an artist. It will just make me feel more prepared and more inspired when the time to start arrives.
  • Improve my piano skills – Just as with my guitar playing, I want to get better at playing the piano. I love playing the piano but I still feel like a really basic player. I want to be able to play more interesting chords and progressions, with more interesting and unique rhythms and melodies.
  • Read some books from my To Read list – During my course, I don’t tend to have time to read anything other than course related material so I was really excited to read some different stuff, especially fiction. But as with watching new films and TV shows, it just feels too hard to learn a new world and new characters and concentrate enough to get through a book.
  • Take some classes on Skillshare – I love learning. I remember being a kid and someone asked me what I wanted to do when I left education and I was completely mystified by the idea that you’d ever want to leave education, ever want to stop learning (obviously you don’t stop learning things when you leave education but I was very little and that’s what I understood it to mean). I never want to stop learning things and I was excited about having a solid chunk of time where I could focus on learning things outside the sphere of my Masters, as much as I love my course. Having said that, it’s hard to take in new information when I’m struggling with my concentration.

Uncertain:

  • Shooting a music video – It was during this time that Richard and I had planned to shoot a music video and now we don’t know when we’re going to be able to do it, given how far apart we are and the infection risk of travelling there. In theory, we’d be able to do it socially distanced so if we can figure out how to get the two of us there, then we might still be able to create the video I’d always imagined for this song.
  • EP gig – I really wanted to throw an event (a gig and a party rolled into one, I guess) to celebrate the EP and all we achieved with it but I don’t know when gigs are going to be allowed again or, more accurately, when they’re going to be safe again so I’m not whether this plan is possible. I don’t want to do it until it’s completely safe but I also don’t want to wait until months after the EP is complete to have this event. So I’m not sure where we stand with this plan.

I truly have no idea what the next few months will look like (especially with the government making a mess of everything, especially the lockdown) so I don’t know how many of these things I’ll be able to accomplish. Each day is unknown and that’s both terrifying and exhausting. I think that, whether you’re a person with mental health problems or not, just getting through this period of time (and managing your health – physical, mental, and emotional) is achievement enough. So I guess, when the next semester starts, I’ll look back at this post and see what I managed to do while keeping that in mind.

Living in Lockdown

When I’m not spiralling into an anxiety-induced meltdown over the pandemic, the resulting quarantine, and (particularly) the thought of a loved one getting sick, I can look at living in lockdown in a somewhat detached, practical sense (something that has taken over a month to be able to do). Intellectually speaking, we’re living in unprecedented times, experiencing something that our parents are experiencing with us for the first time – something that very rarely occurs. There are very few people alive who have witnessed the last pandemic of this scale: the Spanish Influenza in 1918. So this is a big deal, one that will be written about in history books and studied in the future – from political, sociological, and psychological points of view to name just a few. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently and I can’t help thinking how often history is told from the point of view of the powerful and how terribly, appallingly wrong that is, especially given the number of mistakes being made by the people in power during this period (I’m speaking from the UK but I think we’re all aware of the mistakes being made by other governments, especially that of the US). So, if we want that to change, we have to write it ourselves, write our own experiences of living in lockdown, both for the history books but also for our own sake, so that we don’t forget what this experience has been like and how our lives have been changed by it. And as true as it is that we’re all in the same position – all in lockdown with limited access to our families and friends, the world outside, and our ‘normal lives’ – each of us will be experiencing this differently so I think the more experiences written about the better. So here I am, writing about mine, both for the reasons I’ve already listed but also to keep from drowning in it all, in the anxiety and the fear and the attempt to keep going as if this isn’t a traumatic experience.

I was aware of the Coronavirus before it even moved out of China but it felt like such a horror movie scenario and caused me such anxiety that I worked really hard not to think about it too much. It seemed unlikely that it would get all the way to the UK so I focussed on the anxieties in front of me and got on with my life. Besides, surely the government would be prepared should it reach us, given how much warning they had. I didn’t vote for this government nor do I trust them but I assumed that their egocentric motivations would have them preparing the country as best they could, for themselves if not for their people.

But then the virus started to move from country to country and more and more people in the UK began to take the idea that it might reach us seriously. I battled with my anxiety around it, trying to act responsibly without thinking so hard about it that it sent me into anxiety induced meltdowns. To an extent, I felt fairly unafraid of getting the virus as a young, physically healthy person but having said that, I was very aware that I was in regular contact with immunocompromised people and I was terrified of getting it and passing it on to them. So I was careful to wash my hands, use hand sanitiser, and avoid busy areas and travel times where possible. My anxiety had already been high before the virus made the news so it was a daily battle, as it often is.

Then everything seemed to happen at once. One day I was making plans with a friend for later in the week and the next she was on a plane back to her home country because of the travel ban. I didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye (that’s my little bit of self-pity done because I know, without a doubt, that she made the right choice and I absolutely support her decision). Before that week of classes began, our course came together (electronically) and decided that we didn’t feel it was safe for us or others if we were travelling to and from uni, etc, so suddenly my weekly routine was gone, my education disrupted, and my friends were all going home, again without any of us actually getting to say goodbye to each other. I know we can all talk via social media and video calls and that this isn’t forever but depending how long this goes on, we may never come together as a course again and that is an idea I find really difficult to get my head around emotionally.

I think it was the next week that we went into official lockdown. My university pulled out all the stops to support us and within days, our classes had been moved online but prerecorded lectures and a forum aren’t the easiest ways to have discussions and a sudden lack of access to the library and facilities wasn’t an easy adjustment. I found the online classes difficult. Don’t get me wrong – I really appreciate how hard they worked to keep our education up to date and as normal as possible – but it’s not the way I learn best. It’s just a personal thing. It also made working on the assessment essay much more challenging. Fortunately, I had a tutor who was incredibly supportive and with his help (and my Mum’s), I managed to get it in with good time, despite the added stress and the impact that had.

The essay, despite the anxiety it caused me, was actually a good distraction. As soon as it was done and submitted, I really started to feel the effects of being in lockdown. After all, up until then, I was pretty much doing what I would’ve been doing anyway: spending all my time on my assignment. But with that done, it all started to sink in.

The most obvious struggle is that I miss and worry about my family. I have four parents, only one of which I’m living with, and the others are all on their own; my brother is living by himself in London; my Mum’s Mum is also living by herself, a significant distance from any of us, even if we were allowed to visit each other (I’m thinking more in the case of an emergency where we would obviously keep our distance from each other and be very careful); and I have multiple family members categorised as vulnerable. So I have a lot of people to worry about and worry about them I do. The constant anxiety is exhausting. And as grateful as I am for video calls, it’s just not the same. I miss BEING with them. I desperately miss HUGGING them. I try not to dwell on it – or stress about how much longer we’ll be separated – because that is only more damaging to my mental health but it’s hard. It’s really hard.

On a similar note, I also really miss my friends. We have video calls, regular calls, texting, social media, movie dates on platforms like Netflix Party, and so on but again, it’s not the same. It’s not the same as hanging out with them, or hugging them, or going on coffee dates, or having writing sessions. As I’ve already said, I’m trying not to think about how long it could be before I see them again. We’ll manage, thanks to the technology we have,  but it will be really wonderful to see them again.

The other thing that I’m really struggling with right now is my mental health.  For those of you who know me or have followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that, amongst other things, I struggle daily with anxiety and depression. These are the particular problems that have only gotten worse since the appearance of Covid-19 and the lockdown.

  • Anxiety is my constant companion, although fortunately I have my ’emergency’ medication (to be taken as needed) for when it gets really bad, like I-can’t-breathe bad. My anxiety rises to that level at some point most days and the medication has kept it about as manageable as I think I’m going to get in the current circumstances. But my anxiety isn’t constantly that overwhelming (at least not anymore) and I’m wary of going through the medication too fast so most of the time, I’m just left with this relentless pulsing under my skin that leaves me restless and unable to think as clearly as usual.
  • My depression has been really bad too. Some days are a complete write off from the beginning, where all I can do is stare at the TV. Most of the time though, my mood is better but more precarious. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope: one little knock and I’m going to plunge straight into the darkness. It feels like I have to constantly watch my step, be hyper aware of any possible threat to my mental health, otherwise I’ll fall and who knows how long it would take to build myself back up again, given the uncertain, scary times we’re living in. Maintaining my mental health in this period is like trying to build a house of cards of shifting sands. It’s practically impossible.
  • Since the lockdown started, I’ve had serious difficulty concentrating. On anything. Getting my university assignment done took more force of will than I knew I had and while I knew that I’d need some recovery time after that and after finishing an intense semester, weeks later my ability to focus hasn’t returned. I’ve had phases where I’ve struggled to focus (likely caused by my fluctuating mental health and trying different medications) but it’s never been this bad. I can’t read a book, I can’t watch anything, I can’t do anything without my concentration drifting. Everything takes ten times longer to finish and ten times as much energy, if not more.
  • Most distressingly for me is that my creative brain is completely dead. Out of power. It just feels empty and I have no ideas. I’ve suffered extended periods of writer’s block before and usually experience it to a degree along with the exhaustion of finishing a difficult semester and stressful assessment period but it’s scary to feel that it’s still not working, even after several weeks have passed. I’ve tried all my strategies for writing and all my strategies for writer’s block but nothing is working. It feels like my brain is broken and that’s really, really upsetting.

I’ve still been having therapy, but via Zoom instead of in person. In theory, it shouldn’t be that different but somehow it is. I’d never really considered how important it is to have a space to work through all the hard stuff and then be able to walk away from it, which you just can’t do when you’re having therapy in your living room. Plus, Zoom calls are exhausting – here’s a good article about that – which only adds to how exhausting therapy can be. Then, when it comes to the content of a session, it all feels a bit frozen: it’s hard to tackle difficult emotions when we’re in the middle of different difficult emotions. And when I’m just about coping, feeling so fragile, I don’t want to trigger something and make life even more emotionally difficult for myself than it is already. So the whole thing is really tricky and confusing. Having sessions is definitely better than not having them but it’s not straightforward. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be when we made the plan just before lockdown.

And just to add to that, I’ve been struggling with sleepiness as a side effect of my medication for months but that’s gotten a lot worse since self isolating (perhaps from the increased anxiety – I don’t know). I’m exhausted by the smallest things and I seem to need so much more sleep. And that hasn’t been helped by a sudden, intense bout of hay fever, which has bestowed upon me the additional symptoms of an itchy, blocked nose and sore, itchy eyes. It’s been so bad that even having the windows open makes it dramatically worse so going outside definitely hasn’t been an option (I can’t take antihistamines because of my other medication). So I can’t even go in the garden, making me feel all the more trapped. Inhaling steam helps but only for short periods of time. The recent rain has been a blessing, giving me several days of relief. I’m cautiously hopeful that it’s started to settle – I’ve managed a couple of trips into the garden without incident – but I don’t want to speak too soon.

And lastly, for now at least, I’m really struggling with how uncertain everything is, uncertainty having always been something that causes me anxiety. We don’t know when the lockdown will end, we don’t know when we’ll be safe again, we don’t know when we’re going to see our friends and family again. I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of my university course. And so on and so on and so on. So on top of the ongoing fear, there’s nothing solid to hold onto. Many of my summer plans have become impossible or at least difficult, while some have been cancelled outright, which has obviously been very upsetting and left me without anything to look forward to or anchor me. I feel very lost. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people at the moment. I try to focus on each day as it comes but it’s hard. We’re all so used to looking and planning ahead.

One more thing… I found this on Twitter the other day and wanted to share it:

I found it really helpful to have various explanations as to why I’m struggling, to know that my brain isn’t actually broken. Of course, knowing this stuff doesn’t actually fix the problems but being able to take a breath and reassure myself that there is a reason and that it won’t last forever has been helpful.

I hope you’re all safe and coping the best you can. And if you’re in the UK and they do loosen the lockdown this coming week, please continue to be careful. I hate being in lockdown but I’m absolutely terrified of what will happen if the government relax the rules, of how many more people will get sick and die. I’m scared out of my mind that someone I love will catch it. I can only speak for myself but I’m sure I’m not the only one with such fears. So please, please be careful. For all of us.

The Second Semester of My Masters

So, that’s it. I’ve finished the second semester of my Masters Degree. That’s a very weird thought. I kind of can’t believe I made it. But I did. And I wanted to write about it, like I wrote about the first semester because all of this is weird and wonderful and difficult and part of the journey.

This semester, the module I studied was called Musicology (“the scholarly analysis and research-based study of music”) and my classes were split into two different blocks. The first was a series of lectures, each based around a different artist/songwriter and a specific element of their career, like David Bowie and identity, Prince and authenticity, and Max Martin and his use of melodic math (not all of them were men – these are just the ones that are coming to mind as I write this). I’d expected it to be based more around elements affecting music and it’s creation and consumption, like the history of certain genres, feminism, the constant evolution of technology and social media, rather than specific artists but maybe that was a misinterpretation on my part or simply a different approach that could’ve been taken. I don’t know. It was interesting and I learned a lot but a lot of the reading was very academic which I struggled with, given that I’m having  some trouble with what you’d probably call my cognitive processing. Having said that, we had a great tutor who is really passionate about the module, which made it so much more enjoyable and engaging than a lecture heavy module could’ve been.

The group was larger than I was used to but there were a lot of familiar faces, including my two closest friends on the course. That was definitely a positive, both because I love them and because it helped me to adjust to all the changes. But it was also nice to meet some new people and get to know better the ones that I sort of knew and wanted to know better. So that was really nice, even if it took me a while to adjust to the new group dynamic. I’ve made some good friends from that class, even though it was cut short by the lockdown (I’ll get onto that in a bit).

The second block of classes were practical classes where we discussed in further depth the techniques we’d covered in the lecture class (the technical skills and application) and then we’d go away and write a song based on those techniques. Some of the briefs were really inspiring but on the whole, I found the whole exercise frustrating and a bit of a waste of time. We’d just spent a whole semester working on our creative process and tackling our blocks and weak areas and suddenly we had no time to work on them any further because we were focussing on and trying out other people’s techniques. I just feel like I was finally making progress, particularly in my musical ability (I’ve always struggled when it comes to experimenting with different chords and chord progressions), and suddenly that progress was being curbed dramatically, making it really hard to invest myself in the songs I was writing for this class.

The assessment for this module was a single four thousand word essay on anything related to songwriting. Most people choose a songwriter and then focussed on some aspect of their songwriting or the impact of their songwriting in a certain area, like feminism or the genre they were part of, for example. I really didn’t want to go through the overwhelming stress I went through at the end of the last semester due to lack of clarity around the assignments so I spoke to my Module Leader (who was also my tutor and a tutor I’ve known since my BA) really early in the semester so that I could be as prepared as possible and when I presented the potential subjects I had in mind, he gave me some really good advice: choose the one you’ll learn most from. So I decided to investigate Taylor Swift’s use of imagery and how that links to the authenticity in her songwriting, specifically in her song, ‘All Too Well.’ I thought that would benefit my songwriting the most, since those are elements that are important in my writing and therefore knowing more about them could only strengthen my use of them. So, alongside my classes, I slowly started to gather research about those topics.

I was still researching (I readily admit with the help of my Mum because I found myself struggling so much with the academic language and with my cognitive functioning) when the Coronavirus reached the UK. Classes continued but as a course (there aren’t a huge number of us and we have a group chat on WhatsApp where we’re in constant contact with each other) we discussed the situation and came to the collective conclusion  that we didn’t feel safe travelling to and from uni, as well as being in the busy setting of a university. Our representatives contacted the senior staff and not long after, our classes were moved online. I think it was a week or so after that that the lockdown was announced.

Initially, not much changed for me, apart from the fact that I was no longer commuting to London for my classes. I attended the online classes, did my work, and researched for my essay. Determined not to go through a last week of panic writing, I got to writing as soon as I had enough material and added as I learned more. My tutor was fantastic in recommending sources when I got really stuck (there’s not as much research on imagery and authenticity in song lyrics as you’d think) and giving me some excellent feedback when I finished my first draft, still with plenty of time before the deadline. He’s been amazing throughout the whole module and I’m really grateful. I, again with my Mum’s help, went through the feedback and did the best we could to improve and strengthen the essay before submitting it just under a week before the deadline. So no last minute panicking. I think I did the best I could under the circumstances. But it wasn’t a solo effort. They’re my ideas and my words but I would NOT have been able to do it without my Mum’s support, and gentle pushing on the days where it just felt too hard. I couldn’t have gotten through the researching, the writing, or the editing without her. It is a better piece of work because of her help and I’m so incredibly grateful, both for her help on this assignment and throughout this module but also for her in general, for the ways she has supported me otherwise: helped me manage and protect my mental health, organised my life for me when it took all I had just to stumble through the days, for making sure I ate, even and probably especially on days when I didn’t want to. I’m so lucky to have her and I’m aware of that every minute of every day.

It’s been a weird semester. In a lot of ways it was smoother than the first, both because I was getting the hang of my routine as a Masters student but also because my mental health was more stable, if not necessarily better. I had some great, cherished times with my friends but then they were all suddenly ripped away without proper goodbyes by the lockdown (thank god for video calls). I got to do some really fun cowrites, which were then suddenly stalled for the same reason. They can be rearranged and done by FaceTime or Zoom but it’s not the same: I find it much harder to be creative WITH someone when we’re not actually in the same room (plus the lag time makes singing or playing together a real challenge). I’ll make it work because I love cowriting and I love the people I’m writing with but I do find it harder. I was also really enjoying the lectures and discussions we had in class and online classes just aren’t the same. So what was mostly a pretty positive semester was cut off in its prime and I do grieve the way things could’ve been.

I’m done now. The full-timers have another semester but I’m free until the end of September ish. I’ve completed the first year of my Masters Degree. That’s a very strange sentence to write out. There were many, many moments where I was sure I’d have to defer, despite the fact that the thought made me feel physically ill. But I made it. It was somewhat anti-climactic, given that we’re all in lockdown: I uploaded my assignment, clicked a button, and that was it. Year One done. I don’t think I could sum it – or the emotions I’ve experienced – up if I tried, not without writing a PhD length post. It’s been good and difficult and inspiring and more stressful than I could’ve possibly imagined. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve met some wonderful people. I guess I’ll leave it at that.

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