This week continues a three-part interview series with local creative stallion, Aleah Fitzwater. Ranging from visual arts, music, to poetry and more, Aleah is carving a unique space for herself in the wide world of artistic expression. Her website is located at https://aleahfitzwater.com where you can learn more about her specific projects, check out her music and photography portfolios, and follow along with her blog ‘Fusion!’
Based on a podcast-style interview format, Aleah and I shared a sprawling conversation, first talking about some of the software that she has been using recently in her musical process; later, Aleah shared her perspectives and insights on her approach to practice as it relates to the many artistic mediums she enjoys creating through. Finally, we chatted about what lies ahead in the future, brainstorming upcoming collaborative projects together.
Part one of this interview can be found here.
This interview is part two of a three-part series.
Pt.2: The Art of Practice
This is an extension of research I began in 2017, the last year of my undergraduate studies, and is something I still actively cultivate and pursue in my artistic process. The whole idea for the project was inspired by my direct experience with Zen Buddhism and the necessity of practice within music school. I was, and largely still am, completely fascinated with the experience of engaging with life in a direct, intentional, and ritualistic way. Back then, perhaps for the first time in my life, I found myself equipped with an awareness capable of recognizing a deep need to practice – to clearly identify the limits and edges of my ability as an artist, a musician, and as a human being in general. After this fundamental recognition, I found myself exploring intensely personal ways of working with my own barriers, both within my musical training and within my own personal life.
Then I got to wondering, how do musicians at all different stages and of all calibers approach practice? I wondered what it would be like to conduct and assemble research about artistic individuals and their practice habits, then to share the information with the larger artistic community, as well as to apply my findings to my own art-making process. I finished the project in a certain sense – I turned it in, received a grade, and graduated. But it felt incomplete in the sense that there was a very small data set; I feel like there are a lot of interesting artistic perspectives out there that I haven’t yet heard, and I would love to continue cultivating and sharing my research.
Thank you, Aleah Fitzwater for sharing your time and perspectives with me and with the wider artistic world!
Sam: So, would you mind sharing what your personal relationship to your art and music practice looks like?
Aleah: Oh gosh. I would describe my relationship to art and music as complicated. That’s the first word that comes up. The next thing that came to mind – it’s interesting that the word “complicated” shows up for me, because, so many people that I personally know have covertly bashed my art and music in some way. In working to rebuild from those hang-ups that we all develop as we stumble through the world of the arts, things can appear very much black and white. Sometimes I’m always doing art and music; other times, I’m just thinking about it but not acting on the impulse. I’m always thinking about it though.
My relationship with the arts has definitely changed since I’ve graduated. All that being said, I feel more myself when I’m making music. This sounds cliche but, it’s part of who I am. So, whether I’m pouring resin, writing, or playing music, it’s always has that same feeling. And the impulse to create is always present.
S: So your relationship to art is complicated and evolving? And maybe omnipresent and pervading throughout your life?
A: Yeah! And I’d say that a lot of the different arts give me a very similar qualitative sort of satisfaction. So like, if I’m demolding something I poured in epoxy, or if I’m playing Poulenc, it just all has this really nice, ASMR feeling.
S: Yeah! Well, there’s something really satisfying about using the contents of your life in the current moment, actively transforming reality through some medium with a creative impulse. That’s absolutely satisfying, I feel you there, haha.
Do you have any internal stances, mindsets, or feelings in regard to your art-making process?
A: It’s funny because the only strong sense I have is a stance of impermanence, or, no hard stance at all. I know that my process is going to be different every single day. When I wake up, it’s a totally different day. And I guess I always expect my process to be different, kind of like the weather.
And I’m okay with it. I mean, sometimes I do have certain habits, but, for the most part, I wake up and I don’t know if I’m going to write a poem with a bunch of half-rhymes, pour something in epoxy, or if I’m going to turn on my recording equipment. I mean, something is probably going to happen. But as far as strong permanent stances on things, not really. I’m okay with the weather pattern (laughing).
S: That’s very interesting! And it sounds like, for you, it’s very much motivated by the spirit of the moment as you move through your day. You have your environment primed for these different artistic moments to unfold… maybe piano, flute, or recording; you’ve got visual art stuff, you have all of your creative tools on hand. Whatever inspires you that day, you’re open to, willing, and at peace with being able to say “Hey I’m going to take this train to wherever it goes.” That’s cool.
A: I mean, I’ve tried it before where I would say “Okay, I’m going to practice piano every single day. And I mean, I should practice piano more than I do, let’s be honest. But, unless I feel really taken with the piano, I find that I don’t get as far. I think it’s okay to have certain time periods of hyperfocus because it ends up turning out better than if I force myself to practice. It just doesn’t have the same sparkle.
S: I think that, for me, the way that I’m wired, I always come back to this impulse to maintain a daily grind. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the best or only way to relate to practice, but it’s a feeling that I can’t seem to escape – like I need to maintain my daily practice. I think that the spontaneity and the inspiration often comes (when this ritualistic approach is functioning at its best) through the grind. The ritual creates such a concrete foundation that I get sick of it. Then it’s like, “I’m gonna do ANYTHING just as long as I don’t have to play the (same fuckin’ stupid) thing again.” As a result, I’ve got so many fragments, moments, and sketches of musical ideas that emerged through the process of formal schooling, which, in a certain way, was kind of miserable for me.
Creativity birthed out of concrete rigidity.
And so that is still a difficulty that I face: what’s the balance between spontaneity and cultivating and maintaining a healthy musical “garden?” I tend to be really bad at taking care of plants unfortunately… it’s something I-
A: I spent 4 hours today gardening, so it’s really funny for me to hear you say that. Also, I wanted to say, I think there’s a big difference in (even though we went to the same school) the different programs that we were in. It seemed like, as far as the jazz school goes, you grind and you grind, and then, on “Jazz Night” on a given Tuesday, at whatever bar is hosting the jam, after all of your grinding, THEN you are allowed to be free and do what you will and solo and whatnot. You’re not memorizing charts on Tuesday night; you’re just having fun with it. So say, I was in a flute choir, and marching band, and private lessons, orchestra, and wind ensemble all at the same time. I think the reason I am the way that I am now is because of all of these ensembles. We would grind and grind, and the end of it all, there was a concert… [that was the exact same music…the exact same way]. Not to say that that’s bad, I love Dvorak, but we never really got cut a break in the same way. [For me,] you couldn’t just go to the bar on a Tuesday night and play whatever you wanted during your solo. It’s also odd though, because, during classical lessons, my professor would so often say “Play in the dark, play with your eyes closed!” But I just [funneled] down such a straight line that I really needed to transform my relationship with the arts to something more spontaneous.
S: Yeah! More spontaneous. And it sounds like you’ve discovered something that is more flexible and that serves you and works with your life much better than “Don’t veer off the course until the concert and then we do the whole thing again.”
A: Right! So, if I play scales from Taffanel and Gaubert, I don’t then treat myself [afterwards] and then make something up. I just play Taffanel and Gaubert for 4 hours like I’m in the practice room in college again. It’s a broken method, I had to change my method.
S: Interesting, that makes sense! The next question: Does a sense of ritual inform any of your art practices? Even in your flexible approach to art making, how do you engage with it? Do you find that there is a sense of ritual inside your spontaneity?
A: I do! Especially for music. It sounds odd, but yeah, I get myself in a certain mindset. I guess the ritual [for me] is: I think about it a little bit, think about it some more, and then I decide. Once I decide, I make a cup of tea and eat a piece of chocolate, and then get started. It’s super simple.
S: Yeah! That’s beautiful. That’s exactly what I was wondering about! And so, how do you like to practice?
A: I like to practice by starting out with something I’m super comfortable with. Something I know I’m not going to mess up. So, it revs up my confidence engine. And then, after that, I choose something more difficult. This is after my sound is warmed up and clear. So, that brings me to the idea of tension, I’ve been thinking a lot about tension lately. As I practice, I gradually turn up the ‘knob of uncomfortability.’ Then, I find a limit. I go past that limit, and I think, ok, that is my limit. So then, after I know where [my limit] is, I go back and I practice really slowly. If I keep pushing the limit I get tension problems, and you can’t play fast with tension problems. After that, I start speeding it up and work on it for a while. After that, I let it go and do something else.
S: That inspires me. When you find these barriers, do you have a way of working with the thresholds and ceilings of your ability? Do you have a way that you like to organize and clarify what you need to work on?
It might be interesting, from a processing perspective, to compile a notebook of ‘Barriers Difficulties” that one encounters in practice. It seems like, for me, it could be extremely motivating to have a clear map of the things I need to work on, the things I can’t do.
I know that sometimes I get stuck in what’s comfortable and familiar, and so I’m always looking for new ways to challenge myself to grow and integrate. In the past, I know that sometimes I have fudged my way through barriers, passages, moments that give me trouble, and changes I don’t know how to address…
If I wasn’t careful, this notebook could turn into a masochistic party…
A:(Laughing) I was going to say, it seems like this could be a very sad book!
S: But, in a way, I feel like it could be really empowering to recognize, “There’s this thing I can’t do, and now, I want to work with it.” Then it’s a process of engaging, maybe failing, trying again, and hopefully crossing it off the list and knocking it out of the park.
A: Well, this is what I do. I have the piece, Carmen Fantasie. It’s beautiful. It takes a bunch of different themes from Bizet’s opera and turns it into a flute concert/theme and variations. And it’s very technically difficult. What I like to do with that is, I allow myself to play through the pretty parts that I know; because, if [I] just work on the 32nd notes, I find myself getting really bummed out. If you’re bummed out with the fast notes, you’re not going to want to make music.
S: That’s true!
A: So, I play through the beginning, because the beginning makes me happy. Then I delve into a bunch of difficult things. But when I find myself losing even an ounce of patience, I go back and I play something pretty. And then I think “I’ve almost learned this piece, if I finish polishing up these 4 bars, then this page will be done” So I allow myself to toggle back and forth.
S: That seems really healthy. I know for a fact that I have a tendency to grab onto things and to sometimes practice in a way that goes past the point of necessity.
A: Yeah, that’s a recipe for tension. I made that recipe a lot. I still make it.
S: I understand.
But that’s really interesting; it’s kind of a mix of “Here’s this thing I can’t do,” awareness and the intention to work at the edge of your ability, and also, a recognition and reminder that “This music is beautiful and I love to play this piece.”
I dig that.
Do you have any ways that you use to keep yourself engaged in growth in these different artistic fields?
A: Like I said, I’m always thinking about doing art, but a lot of the time just I think of it and I don’t act. When that happens, I go and print off something I really want to play. For example, I really want to learn Paganini’s Caprice 24. Which I do. And I haven’t yet. I put just this one thing out on my stand. And then I let it sit there.
And I let it sit there, and it bothers me.
S: It’s like a teabag! It’s steeping!
A: Eventually, I walk up to the stand and I just do it. It’s kind of like when I go Hobby Lobby and I buy a bunch of things at the craft store that I don’t know what I’m going to do with yet. I leave it in a bag on the kitchen table. I’m a very organized person, so the fact that something is out and kind of messy really draws my attention. I don’t know if it’s the best method… I kind of feel like I’m tricking myself into doing it but…
S: I think that that’s brilliant! That’s a really good idea. It reminds me of seeds in the soil, or the tea bag steeping…
I have so many piles of music around here…
A: But the piles are intimidating, they make me freeze up and get anxious!
S: I know, and I lose track of things. I’ve got these lyrics I’ve written, tunes I’m working on, all these books for lessons…. some business junk that’s partially done.
A: Right! So I find that stack, I clean it off my stand, and I clean my stand. That’s my ritual too. And I put the most important thing I need or want to do on there.
S: I might have to use that in my own process…
Do you find that your insights into your art-making process inform other aspects of your life? If so, how?
A: Well, I’m not sure that I could say how the arts inform other aspects of my life, but I can say that my different art practices definitely inform each other. I find that my music informs my photography and digital art, especially because music makes me think of textures. When I play a lot of music I think: Textures. Maybe aurally, but you know! Then I pick up my camera and I find myself taking pictures of things with texture. (Laughing) Once I even took a self-portrait with my hair, and I was like “Wow, what an interesting texture!” And later in Photoshop I made a kaleidoscope of it; I did a bunch of wacky things with the dropper tool and colors. And usually, it all turns out! Music causes me to want work more with textures, but visually!
Since music is so ingrained in my brain, it is always informing my life – I can hear a lawnmower right now, and I can’t help but wonder, “What is the pitch it is sounding at?” And I can I see it as the bass of the current orchestra of life that is playing in this moment.
Oh! And when I meet new people, I think “How would I write them in a book?” and I internally write a poem about them. Sometimes I see people as walking poems…
S: Whoa, that is beautiful! I like that very much! I didn’t realize that…
That made me think of a few things: I find a similar crossover between music and art in my own process as well. A long time ago I wrote this odd-time, wacky looping guitar riff. I loved it and played it over and over again. The more that I played it, the more that I realized that it had this visual element about it. I was studying how the melody moved across the neck and one night, I just decided to actually sit down and draw out the abstract motion on the page using the flow of the sound along the fretboard as a guide.
And going back to that idea you mentioned – when you first meet a new being, you think to yourself “Who is this person as a poem?” I’m going to have to sit with that one, that’s so cool!
S: I’m curious about the impulses that drive you towards creativity. Can you share some of these experiences?
A: I have a hard time with this one, because I can’t think of any hallmark experiences that made me say “Ok! I’m going to be an artist,” or “I’m a musician now!”
There was one time where I wrote my first set of lyrics when I was 5, and I really surprised everybody around me – but I don’t think that I felt very surprised myself. I’m not sure if I decided so long ago that I can’t remember, or that it’s something that always was, but it something that kind of just is. I have found that when I have tried to make decisions that lead me away from the artist’s path, I am often met with a lot of resistance.
I’ve been told I CAN be a very logical or mathematical person, so I thought I’d try and take a “safe” route after high school and go into accounting – there are always accounting jobs. I tried to sit through the introductory workshop, but I had been thinking “visual art, music education, creative writing!” I had written these things down dozens of times as degree path ideas.
S: The holy trinity!
A: Maybe even a side of horticulture and photography. I thought I’d try accounting for a year. Well, I actually tried accounting for 10 minutes in one little lecture hall for an introduction as a freshman.
And I couldn’t take it.
Everybody already knew how to read graphs, and they LOVED graphs. And I was like, “How can somebody love graphs?”
I was thinking, “I love music and poetry like you love graphs.” Their arms were up in the air and they were cheering and waving…for graphs. And I just felt this sinking feeling, and I actually left. I walked out of my own college initiation… I left after lunch.
I just knew. I looked around and thought, “This is not my place. And these are not my people.” No offense mathematicians. Any other path just didn’t quite jive.
[After the strange graph party,] I walked myself straight into the music department instead.
S: I’d love to hear about any crossover experiences, inspirations, or insights you’ve had in your practice of art through multiple mediums. We did mention this a bit before, but I’d love to hear about any specific experiences you’d like to share.
A: I’ve been doing so much gardening today – it’s really been on my mind. I think gardening is an art I’ve taken up too; and today I thought of an allegory that relates to this question. I always want to garden like I always want to grow my hobbies and my art. I recognize through gardening, that the plant can always get taller; and though it might not always be time for it to bloom, you still get a positive result if you put the effort into nurturing the plants.
This recognition of the benefits of caretaking informs the way that I relate to my different art practices: photography, visual art, poetry, music… There’s always a positive result if you put the effort into cultivating your arts – the idea of consistently adding fertilizer to these things. You’re eventually going to get a good result.
Also in regards to this idea of crossover effects, I think for me, poetry crosses over with my music a lot. The lines between poems and lyrics get blurred a lot; I think that the musicality of rhymes and syllables makes me wonder, “Is this a poem, are these lyrics, what do I have here?”
I’ve always thought of doing poetry book with my photography and matching it together. I have A LOT of raw materials to sort through; I just haven’t done it yet, but the idea of it is there.
S: I think that allegory of gardening is interesting, I relate to that metaphor in my own practice –
A: (laughing) Have you LOOKED at your windowsil basil?!
S: It’s – it’s looking kinda sad, it’s a SAD basil plant.
A: There’s like ONE LEAF LEFT!
S: There is more than ONE leaf! There’s like… three, ehrm. I’ve had A LITTLE bit of success with gardening back in time, but that’s informed my relationship to learning too!
I’m kind of a weird cat, I, somewhat randomly, decided to teach myself how to write with my left hand because I realized I had two, so like, why not?
A: I made a similar decision too back during my senior year of high school, so I feel you there haha! It might be a musician impulse because we use both of our hands a lot.
S: Sure! For me, I always wondered what it might be like if both of my hands could write at the same caliber. What if I could write two different paragraphs at the same time? That kind of thing has always interested me.
The same allegory of “The Arts as a Garden” has shown up for me in learning how to juggle, learning how to play guitar, and cultivating new skills and practices that I had no previous experience. I realized, “Man, this is something that I need to nurture.”
Now I think I’ve had way more success in cultivating the garden of my artistic habits than I have with actual gardening (laughing).
I think it’s really interesting in that allegory – even if it’s not blooming right at this moment, taking care of, adding fertilizer, and nurturing this process will eventually and quite naturally lead to the bloom.
For you, I think it’s really interesting that you have these two, almost contrasting perspectives active in your arts practices. On one hand, you are very garden-minded, consistently taking care of and nurturing your plants and art practices; but on the other hand, you tend to take a much freer approach to your arts, cutting out the unnecessary rigidity and flowing with the ‘weather patterns’ that move you day by day.
For me, I feel like I need to stamp myself on the forehead, like “WATER THE PLANTS, FOOL!” I really want to cultivate a more regular nurturing approach to both gardening and my own art practice.
A: Well, sometimes I feel that I need a healthy dose of that too; everything isn’t always there for me either, but that’s my ideal framework. That’s what my process looks like when all the wheels are turning.
S: Lately, I’ve been reading this book, Atomic Habits, that I think you might dig. (More info at jamesclear.com) It’s been getting my gears spinning on a daily basis, I think I’ve finished it twice now (laughing), it’s really interesting. The whole premise is based on the idea of making microscopic but reliable change to your life on a regular basis can lead to HUGE results.
A: Yeah! I think that small amounts of practice, but more consistently prove more helpful than GIANT chunks and cramming.
S: For me, I have been finding myself asking the question, what do I actually need to do to keep developing? How do you address that when it shows up in your life?
A: A couple of months ago I had an online concert and I realized I need more solo repertoire. So, I allowed that to be the target of my hyperfocus. I think that allowing a period of hyperfocus is really important to me, because if I focus on too many things all at once I get anxious and overwhelmed. If I sit and think to myself, “Oh my god, I need solo flute rep, but oh my gosh my high range is unclear and my vibrato needs work, my fingers are too tense…” [it becomes unhelpful]. Allowing myself to hyperfocus on things for short periods of time allows me to get more done than if I focused on everything, 100%, all at once. That’s what works for me
S: I think I do something similar. I find that when I decide to just hang out with some practice for a chunk of time, hyperfocusing on the nuances of what I am doing, then when I let go and forget about it, and then come back later, it has changed. It seems like there is germination period where the work that I’ve done has subconsciously grown. There is something magical about intensive, focused attention, letting it go, then coming back to it.
A: That reminds me of studying! I used to make flashcards for biology; I had like, over 100 of these things. I would spend an hour studying them, then I would then go to sleep. The next day when I pick it back up, the information is just there somehow… in a different way.
S: (Laughing) I think that sleep is a really interesting part of the process of learning, but that easily could become a whole topic of discussion! Maybe we can come back to that sometime!
This concludes part 1 of of the 3 part interview with Miss Aleah Fitzwater; Thanks Aleah for taking the time to share a glimpse into your process of practice. Aleah is an advocate of ScanScore for her arranging process; we talked at length last week about the usefulness of ScanScore for arranging. For more info, check out the software here! Stay tuned next week for Part 3 of this Interview, where we will explore topics related to future collaborations!
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Love and Bows