Retune founder and Bishop's Stortford Independent music writer Tom Ryder looks at how creativity is important for your mental wellbeing
Retune founder and Indie music writer Tom Ryder continues his look at the charity's SCALES system for improving mental wellbeing with the letter C, for creativity...
This week, I'm going to talk about creativity. Plenty of us have been getting creative during lockdown by drawing, painting, writing, cooking, crafting, gardening or any number of other outlets.
Creativity can be defined as 'anything you can get lost in'. It makes use of the imagination, so that we become immersed in what we are doing. Not only is this a rewarding process, as it enables us to achieve a satisfying result, but it is also exceptionally good for mental wellbeing.
Music and writing are the two creative outlets I turn to the most; I get thoroughly lost in them. Music in particular has so many facets to it: it can be a passive activity (listening to a playlist) or active (practising an instrument, songwriting, recording, performing live).
I've always felt at home on stage. It's an opportunity to be yourself and lay all your cards on the table. Writing a song allows me to capture a feeling, to channel a moment into something that can be enjoyed again and again, and songs often take on new meanings over time.
Like all creative outlets, music is a wonderful tool for wellbeing. As Bob Marley put it: "One good thing about music – when it hits you, you feel no pain." In my late teens and early twenties I was hospitalised multiple times for poor mental health, leading to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. On the ward, you couldn't do a lot; we were barely allowed outside. I had my guitar with me so I played a bit and wrote a few songs. I was not alone in turning to creativity however.
Many of my fellow patients spent time painting, drawing, writing poetry, doodling, crafting, singing and dancing. I had inadvertently stumbled upon something: being creative aids mental wellbeing, because it makes sense of emotions. We can take what's going on in our heads and pour it onto the page.
This discovery eventually led me to found Retune in 2018. Retune harnesses creative outlets to improve mental wellbeing by putting on live gigs, presenting workshops in schools and universities and (soon) we are launching a mobile app. I've delivered sessions in prisons and a children's psychiatric unit and my theory, that creativity is a powerful tool, has never wavered. In schools, we teach the importance of balance through our SCALES model (Sleep, Creative, Active, Listen, Earth, Social). As I did with my sleep article last time, I wanted to talk to some of my creative friends, so that they can share their experiences.
Amy Willoughby is a key worker. She works in repairs for a housing association and has been fortunate during lockdown as it's been possible to mainly work from home. A visual artist, she has set herself the goal of painting a picture every weekend since lockdown began.
"My other half and I initially feared that we might become extremely bored over the weekends with little chance for activities outside the house," she says. "Instead, this time has been spent creatively. Music is very important in our household, so I decided to paint music icons, focusing on images of the artists either singing or playing their instruments, and showing the passion and love of what they do in their expressions."
Creativity is important to Amy's wellbeing as it gives her something to focus on and become completely absorbed in. "It helps long days go quicker, as once I've started drawing or painting the hours fly by. The piece of art I am working on steals all of my attention and concentration. It also helps break up the week and keeps me motivated, knowing I have a new painting to complete each weekend."
So how do you get started? "Find a subject that you are passionate about and that makes you smile. As long as you have the passion and enjoyment, then the creativity flows more easily. Setting a defined challenge and a time-specific goal (one new painting each and every weekend) has also helped me, as it keeps me driven and rewarded," she adds.
Ben Camburn is a professional musician. He has found it difficult to see many of his colleagues in the creative industries forced out of work in recent times. Having moved into a flat in King's Cross, he installed a 56-note keyboard but was soon hankering for a full size 88-note instrument. Since he invested in one, he has been practising for between six and eight hours each day.
"I set myself the challenge of completing pieces I never finished," he explains. "I'm also a huge fan of film music, so I started to arrange film scores as solo piano pieces. I would say the piano has been a huge coping mechanism for me during this lockdown, but it all stemmed from taking a minute to breathe and to stop burdening myself with the issues of the world."
Music has been a part of Ben's life since he can remember. His father Greg is an extremely talented saxophonist, while Greg's father was an accomplished singing teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. "We had an old upright piano in the house growing up so there really was no escape," Ben continues. "I remember being very drawn to the piano. I would sit down and play little tunes, either nursery rhymes that I could play by ear or just notes that sounded nice. I had no idea what I was doing but it seemed like I knew how to play the right notes.
"I play for myself. The one person who matters when I'm practising or playing is me. This again ties in with mental wellbeing and mindfulness. That's the beauty I find in the piano. It's a truly personal and intimate instrument."
Music has provided Ben with plenty of opportunities across the country. As part of bands Venice Trip and Mellow Gang he has had airplay on BBC Introducing and BBC Radio 6 Music, and has appeared on the main stage at OnBlackheath as part of a bill that included Elbow and the Manic Street Preachers.
Ben has spent a lot of time cooking during lockdown, and has even found a penchant for solving the Rubik's Cube. He has missed performing though: "I believe all of the incredible moments I have shared through performing are important to my wellbeing. We don't write and perform music to get rich and famous. We do it because we enjoy it and it enriches us. It creates a precious bond between us that lasts a lifetime.
"To be creative is to explore the deepest depths of your mind. Expressions of creativity can take many forms. Mine just so happens to be through music."
He says there are three reasons why people create: "It provides varied and complex stimulation; enables you to communicate ideas and values; and you can solve problems."
If you feel as though you've 'never had the time' to tap into your creativity, now could be the time. "To the unfortunate people who have been furloughed or made redundant, to learn a new skill during lockdown could be a new avenue," Ben believes. "We don't fully know what the world will look like after this, so why not equip ourselves with tools that we can use to adapt."
Ben's sister Tabitha is also a well-established performer. She has worked at the highest level of musical theatre for the last 10 years, touring with Mamma Mia, 42nd Street and Fame. "I also moved to Germany to perform Starlight Express and learnt to roller-skate, which I now work in full time freelancing," she says.
"At first I was really struggling to adjust to a quieter pace of life. I'm very social and always busy with work. So at the beginning of lockdown I tried to make myself as busy as possible and complete small tasks to feel I had achieved something. I really took to fitness and running, which really helped with my mental health.
"I think that my need to be busy was high-functioning, but now I'm much more relaxed and settling into the slower pace of life!"
Tabby has been learning some new skills and hobbies during lockdown too, including the hula hoop, and she says that running, which is now easier to fit into her schedule, keeps her in shape.
"I think that if you do something you love, it won't feel like a chore. As with anything, hard work pays off."
Ben fears for the arts and creatives beyond lockdown, because he says that people rely on the arts as a release. "Some may never admit that but it's true," he concludes. "I would urge everyone to keep being creative in whichever field they know. Keep pushing yourself and dive into the depths of your own creativity. Interesting things happen."
How have you been getting creative during lockdown? Follow Retune @RetuneWellbeing or send us an email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about the project.