Piano, Plants and Me – Part Two


It’s been three-quarters of a year since my first article for Slowist about my ‘Waratah and Others’ plants themed piano and photography project. It has been an interesting nine months in many ways. I’ve made intermittent progress with the project, interspersed with various challenges, both personal and structural. Like most things in life, it hasn’t gone exactly to plan, but there have been silver linings, personal discoveries, and interesting side-tracks along the way. 

After writing my first article about this project in June 2021, I felt excited and optimistic about the project and got stuck into researching and planning the photography, as well as practising the piano. I made a table of the plants I needed to photograph which included information about distribution, seasonality and appearance of the plants, and comments and ideas about where and when I might photograph them. Much hinged on the idea of a trip to Sydney in early spring.

Unfortunately, this was not to be, due to the Delta-variant Covid-19 wave that caused lockdowns and border closures from July through to nearly Christmas.

I managed to complete one of the plants on my list during that winter – Burrawang (Macrozamia communis). I was fortunate to find it growing at a garden that was within my 5 km travel limit, and since it is a cycad and does not flower in the traditional sense, I was able to take a variety of interesting photos of it, even in the middle of winter. I practised and recorded the piece in August.

From this point on, I had difficulty maintaining momentum with the project due to a variety of factors – frustration with being unable to travel to photograph the plants, anxiety about the evolving Covid situation, and my long-time unhappy friend: a paralysing perfectionism and fear of failure.

As I write today, I have so far recorded 558 piano pieces (5 of them as part of the Waratah and Others project)

Despite all this, I did manage to continue the broader piano project – I uploaded regular recordings to social media, including one for every single day of lockdown (and Melbourne has the dubious honour of being the most locked-down city in the world!). As I write today, I have so far recorded 558 piano pieces (5 of them as part of the Waratah and Others project).

As spring 2021 progressed, and I spent more and more time obsessively consuming news about the pandemic, I began to have panic attacks. I have experienced anxiety on and off all my life, but this was something altogether new – I just couldn’t believe the intensity of the attacks, and several times went to hospital emergency, convinced there must be something physically wrong with me.

These attacks increased in frequency and duration, and I became so terrified of having more of them that I pretty much ceased to function, although I was still sometimes able to play the piano!

After much discussion of the options, we decided that I needed an elective admission to a psychiatric hospital. I spent 3 weeks in hospital in October and November, trying medication and meditation.

There was even a piano in the ward, which I played every day. Since discharge, I have been spending a day every week at the hospital in a meditation and art therapy program, which has helped enormously with managing my anxiety and panic attacks. 

This episode, although extremely distressing, has turned out to be a huge turning point for me and led to some major self-discoveries. After a few months of conversations and assessments, my psychiatrist has diagnosed me with autism and ADHD.

This explains so much for me, and helps me to make sense of so many of my experiences.

I have been learning more and more about these neurodivergences, and have found a wonderful like-minded community. 

One example of a related self-discovery that I have been able to reframe is my difficulties with motivation and perfectionism.

My ADHD makes it difficult for me to organise my time and initiate tasks. I have a slew of memories from my childhood and beyond of tasks that were forgotten, rushed at the last minute, completed late or left unfinished, leading to criticism from others, and even more harshly from myself.

I was always told as a child that I was intelligent, but I just needed to work harder. All these experiences have resulted in an internalised belief that I must be lazy, incompetent or defective in some way; and an intense fear of further failure that often results in paralysis, or opting out of challenges.

This is how I had begun to feel about the Waratah and Others project – because it excited me so much and seemed like the perfect project for me, I felt enormous pressure to succeed.

Understanding all this doesn’t make it just go away, but the combination of ADHD medication, therapy, and big helpings of self compassion are gradually chipping away at the problem and I am making progress.

Back to the story – by Christmas 2021, state borders had reopened and I had recovered enough to visit my parents in Sydney. I spent many hours delving through the bush near their property in Mount Wilson (in the Blue Mountains), and also near Sydney Harbour. I managed to photograph several plants that may be ones on my list, though I still need confirmation of my identifications from an expert. In January and February 2022 I recorded two more movements (Wombat Berry and Waratah).

More recently, I have been sidetracked from the project by yet another side project. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, since the beginning of March I have been recording only piano pieces by Ukrainian composers.

I’m not sure how long I’ll do this, but there is a lot of wonderful Ukrainian music to be found, and the war unfortunately looks like it may last some time yet. 

While I’m doing this, I’m trying to find a way to engage with the Waratah and Others project that doesn’t trigger my anxiety.

I’m working on not equating my self worth with my productivity, and allowing myself to spend ‘unproductive’ time hyperfocusing on things that please my autistic brain, such as drawing colourful doodles, wandering the streets photographing numbers and other odds and ends that attract me, and minutely weeding the garden.

Louisa Doodle

This process means that progress on the project will be slow, but at the moment my mental health is my priority.

And hopefully this project can be a test case for figuring out a new way to approach challenging tasks that I want to do, but that cause me anxiety.

Strangely enough, I seem to keep coming back around to the value of slowness.

Louisa Billeter Musician

Louisa Billeter

Louisa grew up in Sydney and now lives in Melbourne. She currently works a little as a classical singer, both solo and in small choirs, with a particular interest in contemporary choral and chamber music. The rest of her time is devoted to parenting a delightful small child, playing the piano, and photography – particularly of Australian native plants. She volunteers as President of the Friends of Karwarra Australian Native Botanic Garden in the Dandenongs.

Louisa always assumed that she would end up a doctor like her parents, but had this niggling feeling that what really made her happy was music, art and nature… but “that’s just not practical!” She completed a BSc (Hons – Microbiology) and half of a postgraduate medical degree before finally having the courage to drop out and pursue her (less practical) dreams. Later completing a Graduate Diploma of Music, Louisa also studied photography at TAFE. She still struggles with a fear that she hasn’t achieved a ‘proper career’ by the standards that she assimilated growing up, and her pursuits have been interrupted by periods of depression and self-doubt.

Louisa has found botanical photography to be a wonderful way to slow down, and spends many hours (when she can) photographing with an antique manual lens as a form of meditation. She also enjoys cooking, and growing herbs and veggies. She lives with husband Karl, daughter Tabitha, and cat (Silly) Lilly Pilly.

Instagram: @louisabilleter
Facebook: @louisa.billeter
Flickr: louisa_catlover