On Creativity

A good friend recently linked this article to me. It’s about the creative process; I highly recommend taking a look at it, since it directly inspired this post. In case you don’t have those 5 spare minutes to read the article, here’s the gist:

“Whether you’re a writer, a sculptor, a designer, or a banjo-player, showing up, staying open-minded, asking for help, and not being obsessed with the tools at your disposal will ultimately make you a better creator.”
— Jory MacKay, “Demystifying the Muse”

I’ve been thinking a lot about those four “elements” of becoming a better creator in the context of musicianship. Whether it’s practicing, working with a chamber group, teaching/taking a lesson, or performing, the qualities MacKay lays out are essential to the musical process.

  1. Show Up

Presence, both mental and physical, is essential to creativity. The practice room exists both literally and figuratively, and being in an assigned physical space that fosters creation almost always eases access into the complementary mental space. As a pianist, I need to spend 6-7 hours at the instrument per day. That kind of professional/creative demand takes a toll, and some days I find myself in a particularly petulant mood when practice time rolls around. Whenever this happens, I simply sit down at the piano. I don’t play, I don’t even touch the keys. I just sit there for 10-15 minutes and clear my head of all the whiny noises. Having the instrument in front of me obviates the possibility of escape, and, more importantly, nudges me into a Practicing state of mind.

I actively try to cultivate this headspace in my students as well. Often, they have just gotten home from school and are simultaneously relieved that the day is over and stressed out about homework and projects. It’s impossible to create or learn when your brain is in such a tizzy. In order to facilitate access to that mental “quiet space,” I begin each lesson with a few minutes of guided deep breathing and focus exercises. This quick activity benefits both of us: it helps me get into teaching mode, and invariably my students are calmer and more productive during their lessons.

  1. Stay Open-Minded

Musicians, though they may go solo in the practice room, have to work with each other at some point. And when you’re in a chamber music setting with a bunch of professionals who have strong individual convictions about how to play a specific piece, interpretations are going to collide. It’s inevitable. Well, folks, this isn’t BK. You can’t have it your way. At least not all the time. Creative co-working requires relinquishing egos all around and introducing the possibility that someone else might have a better idea than you do. In an environment without the cumbersome burdens of individual pride and general pig-headedness, ideas can float freely and feed off of each other, eventually coalescing into a truly group-created whole that is oftentimes better than anything an individual could create.

Here’s the bottom line: we’re never going to be 100% on point 100% of the time. Sometimes I’ll have a great idea and sometimes I’ll have a crappy one. Those ideas don’t have any bearing on my value or worth as a human being. The point of group work is to add perspective and thereby create a stronger product, without putting the people around us down. The line between A Meeting of Minds and A Butting of Heads (George R.R. Martin, are you reading this? I can come up with more.) is extremely fine, the difference between them being the simple act of opening.

  1. Ask for Help

The creative process eventually hits a wall. It happens to everyone. And there’s no shame in asking for help from a friend or a peer. Even though I’ve been playing the piano for 17 years and am technically a professional, I still take lessons. Heck, I’m looking to go back to school. “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know” may be a cliche, but it cradles a profound truth: we’re all going to meet a hurdle that we can’t get over without help.

As a teacher, I am especially sensitive to this truth. Above all else, teaching is an exercise in empathy. I need to create a safe space in which my students feel comfortable asking for help, even if they don’t quite know what they need help with or how to ask for it. That’s where the active empathy comes in: I have to get into my students’ heads and understand why they can’t phrase that line quite as convincingly as they would like to, or execute that technically demanding run. It’s like flying a kite; my job is to locate that perfect updraft and keep my students soaring, tweaking the string when necessary. That way, they can explore and come into their own while also having a strong guiding hand.

  1. Don’t Obsess over the Tools at your Disposal

I need those words framed and hanging on my wall.

Pianos, though wonderful, are sadly not portable. Consequently, pianists are forever adjusting to new and quirky instruments, all at the drop of a hat. It’s absurdly easy to blame a poor performance on that sticky E-flat, and I do it all the time. It’s a terrible habit, one that I’ve been trying to break over the last few months.

No tool, no instrument is going to be perfect. Ever. As artists, we need to figure out how to communicate our ideas clearly, regardless of the quality of the medium. Even if, by some dire twist of fate, Picasso was forced to paint with tempera acrylics on a milk carton, he would still be Picasso. Though our mediums may mumble, we should still be able to speak.

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