Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Artist’s Battle Within

Artistry and expertise are domain specific. This means that someone who’s particularly creative as a musician will not necessarily be creative as a writer or a painter or a chef. But there are major commonalities in the creative process across all disciplines. I’ve noticed that music composers and creative writers sound very similar when they talk of the challenges faced and the rewards gained in their endeavors. There may be a kind of creative mindset that is needed to be successful, regardless of whether your medium is music, words, paint, or food.

Tom WaitsMuch music making around us is reproductive, rather than creative. Formal groups from professional orchestras to school choirs perform the published works of composers. Aspiring rock bands play “cover” versions of others’ songs, and even the most popular artists can feel obligated to offer in live performances exact replicas of what they recorded in the studio. As much as audiences enjoy hearing the familiar, there are some insights into music that can only be gained by creating original material for oneself. Unfortunately, immersion into reproductive music performance can make composing or improvising new music a scary prospect. But a disinclination to creativity is not natural. On the contrary, young children are natural creators, be it through singing spontaneous songs, drawing personally expressive pictures, or thinking up imaginative stories. To paraphrase Picasso, the problem is remaining creative when we’re grown up.

The parallels between creative writing and creative music making are striking to me. I’ve tried to do both, and my struggles have led me to take a real interest in the similar processes involved. I’m not the only one. I recently came across a podcast by WNYC’s Radiolab called “Help!” This episode–subtitled “What do you do when your own worst enemy is…you”–includes a stimulating discussion of the artist’s struggle to be creative. We’ve all been there. We stare at the blank page (whether literally or figuratively) and there are no ideas flowing. Instead of tapping into deep emotions to drive our creative expression, we experience feelings of self-doubt, disinterest, or just desire to do email/Twitter/Facebook!

It seems that many artists successfully overcome these writer’s block experiences by separating from themselves. Some have conceived of it as being visited by a muse. Or receiving inspiration from a source outside of themselves. Or simply accepting the ideas that are “out there” and looking for an artist-portal through which they can enter reality. In the “Help!” podcast, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert tells of an interview she did with singer-songwriter Tom Waits when she was a writer for GQ magazine. Here’s a clip in which she recounts Waits’ philosophy that each song is its own entity and must be dealt with as such:

Unlike Waits and Gilbert, other creative artists look inward. They believe the ideas come from within, and that their job is to allow that part of themselves to speak. In her book The Right to Write, Julia Cameron describes her solution to writer’s block as thinking of writing as taking dictation, not giving it. “Once writing becomes an act of listening instead of an act of speech, a great deal of the ego goes out of it,” she says. “We retire as the self-conscious author and become something else–the vehicle for self-expression. When we are just the vehicle…we often write very well–we certainly write more easily.” This sentiment is echoed by author Oliver Sacks, who wrote among other books the wonderful and provocative Musicophilia. At one point in the “Help!” Radiolab podcast, he describes one of those break-through moments:

Whether conceived of as coming from within or without, interfacing with that expressive source is a key to creativity. It requires us to suspend our own critical voice. In his series of Inner Game books, author Timothy Gallwey describes all performers as having both a Self 1 that’s controlling and judgmental, and a Self 2 that’s free and naturally expressive. (Gallwey’s ideas are anecdotal to be sure, but I’ve found many to line up well with what the research says about managing performance anxiety.) Sometimes that critical voice is plainly negative and floods our minds with self-doubt and defeatist thinking. Other times we more subtly sabotage ourselves with the mindset of perfectionism. We may even believe that perfectionism is an asset that ultimately ensures our work will be of the highest quality. But more frequently a perfectionist mentality prevents artists from having the freedom to be creative at all. One of my very favorite writers is Anne Lamott. In her book Bird by Bird (which I love) she offers advice to struggling authors who cannot let their thoughts flow into a first draft because they’re too concerned that the initial wording doesn’t sound like a polished final product. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” she says. She gives great encouragement toward quieting the inner critic to allow more free personal expression. She also calls perfectionism a “mean, frozen form of idealism” but says “messes are the artist’s true friend.”

The hard and messy work of creativity can be especially difficult for musicians whose training and performance activities have been dominated by the realization of other people’s music. They may need to learn a new kind of mental discipline in order to silence the self-critical voice. But even experienced composers–and writers and painters and chefs–struggle with the creative process. Many are constantly devising new strategies to disable that judgmental force within, and strengthening their resolve to battle against it (with this metaphor, I must acknowledge Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art…I’m a fan). It seems that most artists believe that creativity involves both inspiration and perspiration, though there’s less agreement about how much of each is required, and from where the inspiration comes. For her part, Elizabeth Gilbert offers: “I think the angels reward people who are at their desk at six o’clock in the morning working.”

Blurring the Lines

I consider myself to be a real appreciator of clarity. Among my big messages to musicians, I emphasize how important it is to clearly define goals and strategies to attain them. For many of us, it’s almost second nature to break down tasks into smaller pieces, stages, and responsibilities. This is common in the formal approach to teaching and learning, including in music education. We often think of a future performance as a goal, and then outline what needs to happen for that performance to be a success. The teacher will provide instruction on how to perform effectively. Each musician will practice individually. If it’s a group venture, then the ensemble will rehearse behind closed doors in order to coordinate their music making. All this leads up to the performance…when the results of our efforts and improved musicianship are presented to an audience.

Pat MethenyThis approach works. A coming public performance is an effective motivator to many musicians–in some cases, the only thing that’ll get them to practice! And obviously for any large-scale production, advanced planning, organization, and division of labor is a must. But is it possible that other musical benefits may come with less clarity in some ways? I propose that there can be some real advantages to blurring the lines between practicing, teaching, and performing.

What might this blurring looking like? Let’s first consider what defines practice (and I’m including in this group practice, a.k.a. rehearsal). Practice is when musicians are in learning mode. They feel a freedom to work on skills they want to improve. They receive instruction from teachers and interact with other musicians. They’re focused on music making, and why it’s important to them. In contrast, performance can be seen as a finished product, and one that is presented for the evaluation of an audience. The spirit of growth and exploration can be suspended. Sometimes the specialness of performance comes with a certain pressure–at best a “one shining moment” experience, but at worst a “do or die” mentality.

I’m convinced that performance can remain a meaningful and culminating experience for young musicians without losing the learning orientation associated with practice. I recently came across an interview with guitarist Pat Metheny, in which he recounts growing up in then-rural Lee’s Summit, Missouri. His music learning really took off when he started playing gigs in the Kansas City area. “That changed my life and gave me an incredible head start,” he says, describing how he learned so much while performing, especially by observing a particular piano player he gigged with often. “Watching him play was probably the best instruction I could get.” Metheny goes on to share how these early performances were key in his development. They were a virtual testing ground for the musicianship that later made him great.

When I read Metheny’s description of these gigs, it struck me: they sound like practice, teaching, and performance…all rolled into one! I wonder what’s really in play here. What allowed these experiences to be so multi-functional for him? And most importantly, how can we apply these things to traditional music teaching to reap the benefits? Here are some considerations that I think are important:

  1. Performance as presentation vs. sharing – A presentational performance style is defined by a considerable psychological separation between musicians and audience members. Music students may benefit from a more relaxed setting, or even a participatory style with greater interaction between performers and audience. Many music teachers have had great success using “informances,” in which they and their students explain the processes behind their music as they share it. They can even involve the audience members in making music along with them (blurring the line between performer and audience).
  2. The occasion as special vs. customary – Having been a part of some great concerts and musical productions, I’ve felt the buzz of a big performance. But it may not be ideal if the specialness mainly comes from performance being rare and “fancy” (i.e., so different from practice). When young people see performance as a frequent and regular part of being musicians, then they may be able to get more out of the experiences. They may then have the necessary mental wherewithal during performance to observe and learn from co-performers, and to push their own skill development.
  3. The goal as being error-free vs. expressive – This can be tricky, especially when the performance is of composed music learned from notation. The development of technique is critical, since a certain facility on a musical instrument is required in order to be expressive on it. But too often, young musicians come to believe that the main goal of performance is simply to “not mess up.” To convince our students otherwise, we must first believe it ourselves! Perhaps there’s an alternative to the common approach of waiting until all pitches and rhythms are learned before adding in expressive elements. Can these things be addressed concurrently while working on a piece? Is it even possible to give expressive aspects higher priority than technical ones?

Above I’ve mainly addressed blurring the line between practice and performance. I’m sure there are other lines that could be blurred as well, to the additional benefit of developing musicians. What about the line between practice and teaching? There are music cultures in the world–Balinese gamelan, for one–in which individual practice is unheard of (instead, music learners develop exclusively in group settings under the supervision of experienced musicians). What about challenging specialized roles of musicians, and encouraging students to simultaneously develop as performers and composers? And what about delineations between styles of music, like classical, jazz, and popular music? I welcome your comments below, perhaps to share ways that you blur the lines in your performing and teaching.