being creative when not alone
April 20, 2018 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Bedroom music producers/singers: Are you comfortable writing and practicing original music in your home when others are around, knowing they can might hear what you're doing? How do you get comfortable with this?

I've made music for much of my life. This has always been a very solitary task - I write, perform (singing and other instruments), and engineer the music by myself. I am super private when I'm making music, and I am loathe to let anyone else hear it until it's a finished project, so if anyone else is around, I basically don't work on music. This worked out well enough for much of my life, but now I'm married and my husband is generally home when I am. We live in a small house.

So I am finding myself feeling stifled in terms of doing any writing, even though I still want to make music, and I still have it in me. I am extremely self-conscious when I'm creating something new, and can't seem to grant myself the mental freedom to go through the frequently loud and sometimes sloppy creative process when I'm not alone. The problem is worst when I need to come up with and practice new vocals and lyrics/melody. I'll frequently try out all sorts of different ways to sing a part and all sorts of different ideas for how a part might sound. I don't want other people to hear that process. So when I'm feeling the urge to work on it when my husband is home, I become very frustrated and want to cry.

My husband cares about this and has offered to leave the house for periods of time if I ask him to, but that doesn't strike me as a sustainable solution. And then on those rare occasions when I am alone, I get angry at myself if I don't spend that time working on music. And finally, I would prefer not to have to leave the house myself to make music somewhere else when I seem to have a decent space here. So what I want is to be able to make my music when he's in the house without being so self-conscious about him hearing me sing weird stuff loudly, or whatever. It isn't like he's hovering over me, but the fact that he's in earshot makes me feel like he might as well be.

Have you dealt with this as an artist? Have you gone through this scenario and worked past it to the point where you are able to get back to creating stuff you're happy with in the presence of your supportive spouse and/or family? If so, how?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, this is totally me! It has gotten better over time, to some extent through sheer force of will and to some extent through acclimation. Part of what has helped a times is, yeah, my wife being aware of and willing to accommodate it by getting out of the house for a bit if I need to do some writing but am feeling self-conscious.

There's really a couple different things here that I recognize from my own experience: wanting to not be overheard while doing the messy development part of songwriting, and feeling bad about not maximizing efficiency when you have an alone-time window for it. And my main main main advice here is: dissuade yourself from that second point. Beating yourself up for not being able to just throw a creative enthusiasm switch will get you nowhere and feeling bad about that impossible arbitrary thing is a vortex that helps nothing at all. Whatever else is involved in figuring out good solutions for alone-time writing opportunities, you need to accept for your own sake that sometimes the work'll happen, sometimes it won't, and both are totally normal and fine.

If you are worried that your husband getting out of the house sometimes is unsustainable, why? Have you talked about that side of it? If it actually is a problem, y'all should definitely sort that out and look at other possibilities (what if he does something with enclosed headphones on for a while sometimes? What if you hole up in a cubby to whatever extent is accomplishable in your housing situation? What if both simultaneously?) but if you're just assuming it's a long-term problem when he's actually totally fine with it, that's something to figure out and cross off the stuff-to-worry-about list.
posted by cortex at 7:57 AM on April 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

I work in a noisy open-plan office and got myself some Sony MDR-V6 cans. I listen to music pretty much all day, and turn it up if someone starts a noisy conversation near me. If your husband is open to the idea, you could set him up the same way. Might get you used to working on your projects with him in the same building? (Yeah, sure, he might hear you, or choose to listen to you, but you’re giving your anxious brain plausible deniability?)
posted by Alterscape at 8:04 AM on April 20, 2018

I've had this issue. Ok, who am I fooling, I still have this issue, I really feel your pain and awkwardness. It's gotten a bit better over time, though.

I don't play at home (practice/learn/create/anything) nearly enough, because I hate playing when my husband is around. However, times that I've had a specific goal, like a 3-minute piece I need to get really solid on for a performance, or a new thing that a friend has asked me to learn, I've had to knuckle down and play anyway even though I felt really self-conscious about it.

When we first got married, every time I played, he'd compliment me on it. "sounds good, honey!" and "what was that tune". I had to explain to him that living with a musician means pretending you don't hear anything until the musician comes in and specifically says "hey, listen to this" At this point the musician has to realize that the roommate will not be impressed, because they have in fact heard it 50 times already, but there's a huge benefit to having the roommate pretend they can't hear anything. So we sorted that out, but not soon enough, and I was already established as way more self-conscious playing with my husband around than I had been with past roommates.

So now, like I said, a specific thing that I need to do/practice, I can get through, but I really don't feel any creative or experimental urges. Except the longer I slog through uninspired playing, the more I can start to get into it and actually not feel like I have an audience. So my suggestion would be to come up with a 10-minute warm-up routine that you do every time, followed by some amount of practicing things you already do, followed by some amount of attempting the creativity you want to be able to sustain, and maybe you'll slowly increases that over months from 1 minute of awkward noodling around, to an actual creative session.
posted by aimedwander at 8:05 AM on April 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

Having a weekly gig where I sing in front of people (I'm a square dance caller) made it a lot easier to sing at home when my wife is around. For me, getting over the embarrassment was part of becoming really comfortable with doing it in front of an audience.
posted by straw at 8:24 AM on April 20, 2018

I don't know if this will help, but I wanted to offer my perspective as someone who hears a lot of people practicing. I conduct a junior high concert band of almost-beginners, I conduct and adult concert band (huge range of playing experience), I practiced in practice rooms next to other people in music school, and my husband plays music.

I like hearing people practicing. I don't usually pay attention to what they're doing, although sometimes I notice liking something I hear. But it's pretty easy to block out the random strange noises that everyone makes when they're learning things (or creating things), and, as an outsider, they're not particularly interesting. I mostly just experience a sensation of "someone is making music near me! yay!"

Of course, your husband is a different person than me. But I suspect he feels a similar combination of "this is pleasant" and "I am not paying attention to these sounds". Unless he's a jerk, he's not judging you negatively. And perhaps with aimedwander's advice, you can slowly get used to pretending he's not around?
posted by MangoNews at 8:38 AM on April 20, 2018

Is there any way to make your current space more soundproof or even to soundproof a large closet* or something? Then maybe instead of feeling like you have to ask your husband to leave whenever you feel a song coming on, you can retreat into your sound booth and ask if he wouldn't mind throwing on some noise-cancelling headphones for a little while for added privacy. Might be a happy medium?

*I understand if no on the "large closet" thing--I am no stranger to a closet-less house.
posted by helloimjennsco at 8:44 AM on April 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I can't accomplish anything creative with people around me. I tried living in complete solitude for a while and that was my greatest output period ever but it was ridiculously isolating.
posted by Young Kullervo at 9:25 AM on April 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh man, I totally feel you here. I'm a reasonably serious amateur singer and I *hate* practicing when others are around, even my husband. We have a kind of long apartment, so if I'm practicing in the bedroom he can't really hear me if he's in the front of the apartment in the living room. For that reason, I ask him to stay in the front, preferably with the TV on, while I'm practicing. I really don't know if the TV blocks out the noise while I'm singing, but the important part is that I feel as though it does, and thus, I feel less inhibited. A white noise machine also works for the same purpose.

I also do actually ask him to please leave for periods of time while I practice. He's fine with it and we've been doing it that way for years, so I'm not sure I agree with you that asking your husband to leave wouldn't be sustainable, especially since he's offered to do that for you and, I assume, is fine with it. (I sometimes will hand my husband $20 bucks to see a movie I don't care to see, which sweetens the deal a bit.)

And I know you said you'd rather not, but I find it really is worth it from time to time to rent a studio for an hour and practice there instead. The studios where I live have deals where you can get them for half price if you book on the same day, so I like to do that.
posted by holborne at 9:32 AM on April 20, 2018

I don't think it's unsustainable. I only play when my wife isn't home. This is more often than you might think; it's just not for long periods of time. Think of all the times your spouse runs to the grocery, or is a half hour late coming home from work, or is just hanging out with friends. If you need to practice lengthy pieces on a deadline, it might not work, but for just jamming, it scratches my itch.

For vocals, this is kind of the best time ever. You can record and loop instrumental tracks, then play them in your car to practice singing over. Nobody's gonna hear you when you're on the freeway. You can do your trial and error stuff that way so that when you actually do get to play and sing at the same time, you don't waste time working out kinks.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:47 AM on April 20, 2018

In the same boat. My partner is very encouraging of music time, but has a difficulty trying not to engage me while I'm focusing. She means no harm but I want to crawl into a hole because I need intense privacy to get into my creative noise-making/writing zone.

The single best thing which has worked for me has been clearly communicating *in advance* what times will be designated for uninterrupted time. Sometimes it's still not enough privacy though, especially when I fall into a productive period. Then I pull out these:

1) Playing through the computer and singing into a mic, listening through headphones, low light. It feels very private, in the sense you forget someone else is nearby. And easy to record ideas as well.

2) Renting access to a friend's office after work hours. I get a key and go in at night. Awesome once I got past the spooky factor. She gets $20 every time I do it, awesome for her and cheap for me. I can't afford/don't need a full-on rehearsal facility. Sometimes I do a similar thing by pet-sitting for neighbors.

3) Taking PTO from the day job for a couple days straight of writing focus. A working staycation. Even better if you can do it while your partner is our of town.

4) Related to #3: we take turns and plan a weekend away for each other every couple months--it's become a sweet tradition and also encourages solo creative time.

(Edited to add: I understand your issue is not that you're being interrupted, but it feels the same as an interruption to me when I know there's someone eight feet away...)
posted by quarterframer at 9:59 AM on April 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Wow, yeah this is me also. It's a bit of a drag but I've accepted that it's my process.
In fact, it's sort of informed the feel of the music in many cases: particularly after we first had kids and the only time I had for music was 2am when everyone was asleep and I had to be all close-mic'd whispery, singing in the basement.
Everyone's grown-up now but I still hate singing out loud when anyone's home.

Are you okay with playing the music part when your husband is around? Is it just the singing you don't like him overhearing? In my case, I'm fine with recording the backing guitars, drums, etc with other people around, it's just the singing I won't do. So if I'm recording a song, I'll get the backing tracks done with maybe a quiet, whispery guide vox and then I'll know that I have 2 hours on Thursday or whatever when no one's home and I can belt out a few vocal takes. (And even with that 2 hours I will inevitably have to edit out a "FUCK!" from a track because the dog walked across the floor above my head or the furnace turned on or one of the kids walks in the front door because "early dismissal!")

I think there's no "right way" of creating music, and like cortex said, you shouldn't beat yourself up for not being instantly in musical genius mode when you have the house to yourself, because then it becomes "ugh I have to make music now" which isn't fun at all. Nor should you feel bad about wanting to be alone to make music if that's who you are. It's awesome that your husband is cool with giving you some space when you need it, you should totally take advantage of that. My wife does that for me, also.
It's a tough one, for sure. Good luck!
posted by chococat at 8:30 AM on April 21, 2018

My wife graciously puts on headphones and watches a show when I need to write/record while she's at home.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:18 AM on April 22, 2018

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