Until her boyfriend pointed it out a few years ago, composer Julia Adolphe didn’t realize that she had no hobbies.
That didn’t come up in a first-date, small-talk context, Adolphe explained in a phone interview from her Nashville home, where she lives with that boyfriend (now fiancé), a singer-songwriter. “Seeing that I had a lot of anxiety and stress on a daily basis, [we were] trying to brainstorm different outlets,” she said. “A lot of people use hobbies to unwind, and he was like ‘Jules, you don’t have any!’”
Adolphe — whose piece “Makeshift Castle” is being performed this weekend by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, its co-commissioner — was initially taken aback. But as she recently put it, having little time for hobbies is “very common” among classical musicians, especially in the conservatory environment where she and many of her peers were educated. “Our whole lives are wrapped up in practicing and trying to perfect our craft and further our career,” said Adolphe. “We’re taught that basically if you’re not practicing, you’re slacking off, or if you’re not writing, someone else is, and they’re getting ahead of you.”
After that conversation, and especially when the pandemic shut down performances and delayed her deadlines, Adolphe allowed herself to embrace pastimes that stood apart from her composing work: cooking, reading for pleasure, playing video games, and making collage art.
In July 2020, she started a video series on her YouTube channel, which was previously only home to a handful of clips of her music. “LooseLeaf NoteBook” began with bite-size videos about mental health, self-care, and creativity during the ongoing crisis, and evolved into a platform for long, candid discussions on those subjects with numerous personalities from all over the classical music world.
Several weeks after her first video, Adolphe went public with her own personal struggle, revealing that she had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at the age of 19 after panic attacks sent her to the hospital. “I carried a lot of shame, and I didn’t want people to know, because I thought people wouldn’t trust me or they would think I was unreliable, or whatever it is we tell ourselves,” she said of the period after her diagnosis. “And also, I was afraid that treatment would hurt my creative process, because I really . . . believed that suffering was a sort of prerequisite.”
As a result of her experience, she feels it is especially important to question and push back against the myth of the tortured artist. “I learned that the healthier I am, the more creative I become, and the more able I am to access a wider spectrum of who I am as a person,” she said.
In one episode of “LooseLeaf NoteBook” that she posted several months ago, Adolphe talked about writer’s block with the Grammy-winning composer Andrew Norman, who was one of her teachers at the USC Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles.
“I think that I immediately shoot things down or reject ideas, because I have this mechanism inside me that says they’re not good enough,” said Norman in a phone interview. “And this thing [I’m working on] has to be a masterpiece, the best thing I’ve ever written or that I could possibly write, so no idea . . . is ever good enough. And that makes it, in every way, unattainable!”
The BSO and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra commissioned “Makeshift Castle” from Adolphe before the pandemic, but her approach to the creative process has noticeably evolved in that time. “Writing for the Boston Symphony, it’s a prestigious orchestra and you want that piece to be perfect . . . and then what does that even mean?” she said. Now, she tries to see every piece she writes as a stepping stone toward whatever comes next instead of focusing on perfection. “Makeshift Castle” premiered at Tanglewood on July 29, but she’s made several revisions since then, she said.
When Norman spoke with Adolphe, he had been struggling to work on a violin concerto that he said has been “something of a white whale” for several years. Brainstorming with her by no means solved all his problems, but it was “enormously helpful,” he said. “Even just being able to articulate things about my creative life to another composer who’s experienced similar troubles and anxieties was enormously cathartic.”
At some point, Norman said, he internalized the idea that successful composers either didn’t encounter mental health problems or didn’t talk about them in public. “Occasionally we talked about creative struggles, but there was no effort to tie the particular struggles of the creative artist to broader mental health issues,” he said. “So I think what Julia and a few other composers like her have done is really brave and extraordinary — to say, ‘No, we need to be having these conversations, and it’s OK to talk about them in public.’”
Now, when Norman speaks about his creative work, he can’t totally divorce it from the subject of mental health. “You can’t talk about one without the other,” he said.
Adolphe sees the classical music industry at large as making “baby steps” toward a better understanding of the connection between mental health and creativity. “It’s tricky, because our conservatories and institutions are functioning on outdated models,” she said. “It’s hard to talk about radical change when you’re also just trying to make sure your company is surviving.”
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1
Tickets $20 and up