Carving Out Creative Time for Yourself

Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed Jan 11, 2024

Learn more: inspiration

A close shot of a man in a buttoned up office shirt holding a pen in one hand and a paint brush in the other and both, including his hands, are covered in messy multi-colored paint

The last 8th grade student walked out of my choir classroom and I eagerly watched with anticipation as my classroom door began to slowly swing shut. Clack. The lock engaged and silence quickly and finally, filled the room. I took a deep breath as my ears adjusted to the lack of aural stimuli.

Lunchtime was a sacred time for me—it meant a theoretical 30 full minutes of uninterrupted alone time, where I could revel in a break from my beloved students. While I could use this time to eat my disappointing, room-temperature roast beef sandwich, I was filled with an inexplicable tensity that I needed to get out. My eyes rested on the upright piano in the center of the room. I instantly knew that that was my solution.

Sitting down on the slightly unstable piano bench, I didn’t particularly have a plan for what I was going to play—I just knew that I needed to play, and sing, something. So I began with one of my favorites, Fix You by Coldplay. After I finished Coldplay, I moved on to a few other pop hits before I began to just play around with improvisation and creating melodies and harmonies, some of which were relatively decent.

In the blink of an eye, my sacred 30 minutes were up, and I realized I had a line of students outside my door, one of whom had their face pressed fully against the window in the doorway, their cheeks leaving a distinguishable outline on the glass. And while a few minutes prior, I might have felt an extra amount of stress seeing the steadily increasing line of students to get in, I noticed that this time my stress was notably minimal. I wasn’t just accepting of the fact that my next class was about to start; this time, I was ready. Taking another deep breath, I put a smile on my face, and opened the door wide.

Being a choir director is not a stressless job. We have so many plates to keep spinning and so many people to whom we are responsible. There is a constant need to fulfill everyone’s needs and put out every fire that we become aware of.

However, this typically means that our own desires and creative needs are put on the backburner, which can be not only detrimental to ourselves, but also limiting to the ensembles we serve. While, admittedly, I still struggle with carving out creative time for myself consistently, I’ve adapted a series of considerations that help me add some creativity into my daily, or weekly, personal regime. I share them in the hopes that they can help you as they help me.

1. Create something just for you.

Perhaps the most important consideration to take into account is how often you are creating something that is entirely just for you. This means fighting the urge to create something to share on social media, or to give to your family or friends—including your pets. When was the last time you created something that was personal that you kept for you? Chances are, there’s been too great of a time gap between the last time you created something truly private and now.

Consider challenging yourself to create something for your eyes only. This could be a series of poems squirreled away, or a private painting for your bedroom, maybe even a song that you’ve composed that remains in your music library. Whatever the medium you select, by approaching your creation with the idea that it is personal, not public, you can unchain yourself from worrying about other people’s thoughts or criticisms.


A close shot of a person's messy, clay-covered hands molding a curved vase as it spins on a pottery wheel

2. Try to be okay with imperfection.

As artists, it is inexorably challenging to create something and not want it to be “perfect.” Recently, some friends pushed me out of my comfort zone to a pottery studio, where you chose a pre-made figurine and painted it. The studio would then fire the object in the kiln and “finish” it off to be collected a few days later. As somebody who has historically had a hate-hate relationship with arts and crafts, I chose a deep bowl (something I was missing from my dining set), and probably complained a bit too much during the creative process.

In my eyes, the bowl was never going to match the perfectly painted version of it I had created in my head, and I was sure it would turn out horribly. A few days later, I picked up our groups’ figurines, and my bowl turned out much better than I had anticipated.

Over time, I grew to appreciate my bowl not just for its functionality, but because its imperfections gave it character. Its imperfections made it mine, and there was inherent value in that. As you work on your own creations, try to not let perceived imperfections ruin your holistic enjoyment of your work.

3. Sing in the shower, car, or other private spaces.

One of my best friends, Kat, and I have known each other since we were in middle school. By sheer fate, we found ourselves in the same cohort during our Summer Masters of Music Education program at UNT. Though COVID impacted our 3rd, final summer, the first two years involved daily 45 minute commutes up to campus for classes.

It was during these commutes that we formed our secret carpool singing duo (that’s not so secret now, sorry Kat) called the “Wasty Chicks”—“wasty” rhyming with “nasty.” Both of us had been “choir kids” growing up, ultimately becoming choir directors ourselves, so we were discontent to simply sing the melody. Our car rides became times for harmonic experimentation, with many unique harmonic additions that Schoenberg would have been proud of. The car was a mostly judgment-free zone. If there were particularly dissonant harmonies, we still shot some knowing side-eye at one another or complimented the other’s “creativity.”

These truly creative moments allowed me to engage with musical expression without fear of rebuke or an ascription of negativity. I encourage you to find your own private, musical space where you can sing and create with abandon, or without worry that somebody else will call you “bad.” It is truly freeing.

4. Attend choir concerts where you are not the director.

I firmly believe that we get better as directors when we see and hear other ensembles’ performances. Try to find time to either sit in the audience at a choir concert, where you can simply sit back and listen, or find an ensemble where you can participate as a singer. Being on the other side of the podium allows you to focus on the music instead of all the other plates that are spinning for the director. It can help remind you why you entered into the choral directing profession and serve as its own inspiration for choral creativity.

A neatly stacked pile of colored pencils of varying colors laying, colored tips sharpened, on a black and white page of a coloring book.

5. Explore creative artistic mediums outside of choir or your specialty.

Much like my aforementioned pottery story, I struggle with exploring artistic realms where I am predisposed to find my work unsatisfactory at best. While many teachers were thrilled for a required team-building orientation session at a painting class, I remember balking at the venture, because I knew with certainty that I wouldn’t be “good” at it. Heck, I can even find myself in decision paralysis with adult coloring books because I want everything to look perfectly aesthetic and pretty.

But as I’ve pushed myself, or more likely been pushed, into exploring these differing mediums, I’ve found I can enjoy portions of the creative process. And while I may not necessarily enjoy the work I’ve created at the end of the day, I usually find that I’ve gained something from creating in an unfamiliar setting. Try to give yourself opportunities to create and explore in new mediums—even if it causes discomfort.

6. Use creativity to gain peace in the middle of your day.

There were many times in my teaching career where the piano helped calm me down or ground me when I felt dysregulated or internally chaotic. Being creative doesn’t have to be a multi-hour process with a lot of set-up or materials. Take 10 or 15 minutes and noodle on the piano, or write a haiku or short story. Create a new verse or harmony for one of your favorite songs. Even allowing yourself a few minutes of personal creativity can be incredibly therapeutic or relaxing.

7. Try to have fun with it!

I will be the first to admit that being creative can be daunting, particularly when it’s something I know that I’m not phenomenal at. Try to approach whatever you are doing with an air of fun or at the very least neutrality. If you can inject positivity or playfulness into the process, it can only make the experience better or more enjoyable. It’s okay if you’re uncomfortable, anxious, or even scared. Do it anyway.

We work in an artistically demanding profession, there is always more to do, always more concerts to plan or scores to study. If you don’t give yourself some time to be creative for creativity’s sake, then ultimately your own artistic spirit can be diminished. I hope that these suggestions help you cherish your personal creative soul and reignite your passion for creation. Have any ideas or suggestions that have helped you be creative? Please drop them in the comments below!


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Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed

Melanie Stapleton (she/her) is a music educator, researcher, author, and choral director located in Chicago. She is currently a PhD student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, pursuing a PhD in Music Studies with a specialization in Music Education and an interdisciplinary certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the founder of Blurring the Binary, and holds a Masters of Music Education from the University of North Texas as well as a Bachelors of Music Education from Louisiana State University. She is a strong believer that the choral ensemble should be a musical family and a safe place offering unconditional love for all. When not teaching, she can be found hanging with her Golden Retriever, Queso, playing video games, or jamming to the latest choral hits.

Melanie Stapleton, M.M.Ed