Spring is on the horizon, and I’m feeling the best kind of restless. Now that I’ve finished building my online songwriting class (launch date April 1!), I’m able to dig in to the new record with full focus…and gosh, I am feeling good about it.

I’m turning 33 this year, and depending on how old YOU are, you may have different feelings about that number…but I feel very much that I am only a partially-formed human. Though, every year, I do feel a little better at being myself. And so far, this year feels extra promising on that front, with this new record on the horizon.

So, I don’t know if it’s projection or collective consciousness, but the clear theme of this month’s deep dive feels fortuitous…

All of my guests talked about the line between institutional excellence, and individual artistic integrity. And I’d love to point out that, for maybe the first time ever, ALL of my guests for this month have doctoral degrees. So, I’m especially thrilled to see these three (institutionally-approved) artists speaking on the value of preserving individuality.

Jennifer (fun anecdote: she was my high school voice teacher!) talked about how “talent” comes in such varied packages. As an obvious example, she and I are both professional vocalists, but our skill sets are vastly different. We’ve followed our passions and curiosities, our strengths and weaknesses, to beautifully different ends.

And then, even if we’re looking at two opera singers, or two singer-songwriters…there are so many possible paths to follow. Jennifer shared several stories about her own path, her own choices—the places where her choices didn’t match many of her colleagues’, or where her choices broke from the path most frequently paved by world class opera singers (a group to which Jennifer undoubtedly belongs).

But of course, there’s an inherent push and pull, as “excellence” isn’t entirely subjective. All of our shiny individualism and integrity is bound to meet up with idealism, eventually. And Jennifer, like all of my guests this month, left us with a bit of wisdom here…

She emphasized the importance of letting young artists explore—practice needn’t be too prescriptive, medium mustn’t be too managed, and adults/mentors should be careful not to push too hard. But, we can still hold young artists (and ourselves) accountable. I love to think of accountability being the first “ideal” for artists to internalize (opposed to perfect technique, perfect performance, etc.).

I struggle to imagine any inherent conflict between accountability and individuality, or artistic integrity. For artists of any age, we can retain our individual preferences, interests, and personalities…and participate in broad idea of “excellence” by showing up, following through, etc. This feels so wholesome to me.

David shared his experience of feeling “visionary,” even as a small child. Meaning, from an early age, he could easily envision a completed project, a mastered skill, a future state. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how genuinely precious this sort of inclination might be for an artist. But, David also told me he didn’t care at all for technique as a child (this makes perfect sense in context, of course). I can so easily imagine a parent, teacher, or other mentor mistaking this kind of child as having no promise. When we’re too focused on a single measure of success, we can miss the exact kinds of individual sparks that are soooo incredibly valuable to creative longevity and resilience.

As an adult creative (and educator), David maintains the belief that we need careful balance between artistic integrity and institutional ideals. He talked about the constant tangle of connecting with or expressing music, with accomplishing music. This rings so true to me. And I see so many would-be-creatives halting their art entirely after striving so long to accomplish, rather than to express or connect.

But of course, and again, we don’t exist in a vacuum, and if we want to participate in a broader conversation, we have to confront some ideals. David sums up the crux of it all in a question: “Do you work for the rules, or do you make the rules work for you?”

I think we learn the rules, and we learn to trust ourselves to break them when necessary. In the end, David feels his most genuine creative moments occur when he “disregards everything he knows.” And god. It’s relatable. And somehow much easier said than done…

I think it’s safe to say that anyone who knows Michelle AT ALL, would describe her as fiercely individual (in the best way). It’s something I’ve admired since I first met her, over a decade ago now. Naturally, Michelle is a perfect person to ask about balancing selfhood with establishment in search of “mastery” (ineffable as it may be).

We talked about weighing our essential human need for belonging, validation, and acceptance with a careful “guarding” of our inherently unique selves. Michelle gladly jumped on my perennial “fluid authenticity” train, and suggested that we regularly ask ourselves “do I like the ways I’ve changed?,” as we strive to create a truly authentic ideal version of our one-of-a-kind selves. I love this idea. It’s a perfect mixture of goals, values, and gut instinct. An earnest wrestle with individuality, integrity, and ideals.

…As a side note, I’m certain that Michelle’s findings in her doctoral research on self-handicapping are tied up in this self v. structure phenomenon somehow 🧐…

Of course, I have done, and continue to do, my own share of wholehearted grappling with these ever-opposing forces. Lately, I don’t find it too tricky to achieve this balance in my actually artistry, but rather in the sharing of it. It’s difficult for me to discern the essential from the expendable as I work toward artful advertising. I’m looking for seamlessness among all aspects of my creativity, and lately, a lot of my creative effort is pouring toward that end. I’m happy to say, the path feels a little less murky all the time.

How about you? What do you do to balance individuality and artistic integrity with broadly-applauded “ideals”? As always, I’d love to hear from you! ♥

In the meantime…here’s to a swift winter’s end, and an eager spring!

Sending love,

Em