Monthly Archives: July 2011

Creative Artists: A Different Breed or a Different Creed?

Many people are fascinated by artists, musicians, writers, and inventors, whose lives are occupied by creativity. The general public is content to enjoy the creative output of others as consumers and audience members, without attempting to be creative themselves. They may look at artists and innovators with admiration, and wonder “How do they think this stuff up?”

Perhaps because of this outside-looking-in effect, many have concluded that creative individuals are fundamentally different than everyone else. That is, they have a different makeup. They’ve been endowed with an uncommon gift, or their brains are wired in a special way. Creative artists are a different breed.

There is, however, and alternative explanation. Creative individuals may be unique primarily in their values, goals, and approach to life. Their brains may indeed be different, but perhaps they’ve become that way. Creative people may develop differently as a result of going through their lives with different motivations, and from understanding their experiences with a different perspective.

The endgame: Expertise or exploration?

One of the hallmarks of creativity can be seen in artists’ broadest motivations. After becoming involved in a certain field—say, music, painting, or poetry—some people proceed with the goal of being the best they can be, to be a highly skilled musician, painter or poet. But others approach their activities a bit differently. Their orientation is not toward becoming an expert in their chosen field. They are motivated to more fully explore it or even challenge it.

Many young people fall in love with music and want to become career musicians. Someone like this may envision the kind of musician he or she wants to be, try to learn the requisite skills, and seek opportunities that lead to that destination goal. In contrast, someone traditionally considered “creative” may travel on a different, more exploratory path. They gain musical expertise, but do so as they pursue the larger goals of realizing original ideas and experimenting with new ways of doing music.

Psychologist Howard Gardner has considered the minds of artists and great thinkers for decades. Much of his work has involved in-depth study of the lives of extraordinary people like Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and Albert Einstein. He has cited Mozart and Beethoven as an example of an expert and a creative individual, respectively:

Mozart is the master. Mozart, in my view, wrote the most beautiful music ever. But Mozart was not somebody who was trying to create a new domain. He was not interested in creating new genres. He wrote in the genres of his time, and just did it so beautifully that he forced, in a sense, his successors to become Beethoven, to be Romantics, to overthrow classical music, because nobody could do it as well as Mozart.

Regardless of whether you accept his appraisal of these great composers, his quote describes the difference between a domain acceptor and a domain challenger. Obviously both kinds of artists are important. Perhaps, as Gardner suggests, they even depend on each other.

Failure: To be avoided or to be exploited?

A more specific component of the creative mindset has to do with beliefs about failure. Nobody enjoys failing at something that they care about, or even use to define their identity. But creative people may take a bigger-picture perspective. Not being able to do something (i.e., failure) is a kind of prerequisite to learning and improvement. Creative artists accept failure as merely part of the process, when others may see it as a reason to quit.

In a previous post, “Improvisation: Addition by Subtraction,” I considered how suspending self-consciousness is key in creative thought and performance. “Self-consciousness” can be a misleading term. Often our inner critic simply voices our fears about what other people might say. So self-consciousness can really reflect concern about other’s opinions. Could it be that creative artists just have less regard for the criticisms of others? Here’s what I suspect: They’re not less sensitive (to criticism) than most people, but proportional to their preoccupation with their art, they are less influenced by criticism.

To creative artists, the praise of critics and applause of audiences are not the primary means of defining success. Feedback from others is a source of information, or an opportunity to better understand how their work affects people. A poorly-received performance or product—a “flop,” a “bust,” or even an “epic fail”—is embraced as a lesson learned. In this way, they may ultimately come to define failure differently than others do. They’re not primarily worried about failing to impress an audience. Rather, failure equals not being fully engaged in your art. The amazing cellist Yo-Yo Ma once described a moment of revelation he had:

While sitting there at the concert, playing all the notes correctly, I started to wonder, “Why am I here? I’m doing everything as planned. So what’s at stake? Nothing. Not only is the audience bored but I myself am bored.” Perfection is not very communicative. However, when you subordinate your technique to the musical message you get really involved. Then you can take risks. It doesn’t matter if you fail.

Of course, it’s easy for Yo-Yo Ma to say this…as he’s actually playing all the notes correctly! But I think it applies to us non-virtuosi as well.

People we admire: Role models or inspirators?

As you can tell by the title of this post, I tend to put less stock in the “nature” explanation of creativity and more in the “nurture.” I believe that everyone has the capacity to be highly creative. With the right opportunities and experiences, I think virtually anyone can develop the mindset of a creative artist.

I acknowledge, however, that this doesn’t happen with many people in our society. Even among talented musicians and artists, many do not adopt a creative mindset. I’ve started wondering if a potential hindrance is the use of role models. By definition, a role model is someone who’s an example to be emulated. While imitation is a natural and effective way to learn many skills, primarily aspiring to “be like” or “as good as” an admired artist may not be conducive to the creative spirit. The desire to be “good enough” or “make it” as an artist could override a creative drive to advance your understanding and fully engage in your art.

It may be more constructive for young people to look to admired artists for inspiration…inspiration to develop their own creativity. In fact, like Howard Gardner did in considering the lives of great minds, I think we can all learn from creative artists’ creed, the set of values that guide their activities. There’s inspiration to be had whether we aspire to innovate the field in which we work, or more simply wish to better express ourselves through our art.


5 Big Mistakes in Dealing with Performance Anxiety

1. Treating the symptoms instead of the cause

You’re about to take the stage and all you can feel is your racing heart, trembling hands, and shallow breathing. Maybe you even feel nauseous and you’re having trouble focusing your vision. How could anyone in this condition perform in a way that’s expressive…well, expressive of anything other than dread! It’s no wonder that overcoming performance anxiety is equated to eliminating these troublesome bodily sensations.

But sometimes attending only to the physiological symptoms of anxiety is like putting a Band-Aid on a more serious injury. These symptoms are a natural part of the body’s “fight or flight” response, which kicks in when a person perceives a threat. In the case of a real threat—say, coming across a wild animal trying to hurt you—these physiological responses are good. They help you to more effectively fight or take flight. So if your symptoms are not debilitating and you merely seek to ease them, then you may benefit from pre-performance exercises like deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

It’s often more important to identify why performing is viewed as a threat, or what aspects of it are most threatening. Identifying the source of anxiety may be the key to performance becoming an activity in which you can be your musical best.

2. Viewing practice as the cure-all

Sometimes the task itself—playing or singing music—is in fact the source of anxiety. Additional practice is the solution if you find yourself taking the stage thinking, “I just don’t know if I can physically perform this music. I’ve hardly ever done it before.” For many performers, though, this is not the problem. They know that they can play or singing the music well, but they worry that they won’t be able to once on stage. In cases like this, simply preparing and over-preparing your music will not likely help. It may even signal a resignation to anxiety, almost like saying, “If I’m over-prepared, then when anxiety inevitably hits, the drop-off in my focus and control will still yield a decent performance.” If playing/singing is not the problem, but doing so for an audience is, then more time in the practice room is not the answer.

3. Overdosing on positive thinking

The term catastrophizing describes when a musician entertains fears of a horrible performance outcome. Catastrophizing is like a dark, agitating, ominous cloud out on the horizon. These negative thoughts are usually vague and exaggerated. Instead of realistically considering “what’s the worst that could happen?” the catastrophizing performer fixates on some nebulous feeling of disaster.

The main problem, however, is not that the thoughts are negative, but that they’re irrational. So replacing absurdly negative thoughts with overly positive ones will not likely do the trick. Let’s say a musician who struggles with catastrophizing is able to convince herself “No, I’m not a terrible musician doomed to fail. I’m an amazing performer, and I will give the best recital ever!” At the first sign of performance trouble, however, she may find her inflated hopes dashed and quickly plummet to new depths of negativity.

Rather than thinking in terms of negative and positive, seek to replace irrational thoughts with realistic ones. Also, shift the focus from what the audience may think about a bad performance, to what you (the performer) need to do to carry out the music making successfully. Positive thinking can help, but only to the extent that it’s rooted in reality. For a great example of how realistic thinking was the key for a musician overcoming performance anxiety, check out Kurt Knecht’s blog post, which he graciously offered in response to my tweeted request for stage fright stories.

4. Letting others determine your performance elements

As musicians we may have some firm ideas of what performance should be like, related to selecting repertoire, the musicians’ attire, the setup of the performance venue, and onstage etiquette. But the common practices for these things are not written in stone anywhere, they’re conventions. Research suggests that certain situational factors tend to elicit greater anxiety in performers. I’m of the opinion that such conventions of performance are negotiable, especially if it means performers enjoying the experience more.

I appeal to music teachers to not mandate the performance elements for their students. Rather give them as much choice as possible. A sense of freedom and autonomy is a huge contributor to intrinsic motivation, which is essentially the opposite of anxiety (it’s also an important facilitator of learning). Also this type of decision-making may go a long way toward students becoming independent musicians. If they’ve always had others overseeing their performances—requiring it of them, dictating the conditions to them, making all the decisions for them—it’s unlikely that performance will ever become something of their own after their years of training.

So, teachers, give your students more decision-making power. It will only make them better performers and faster learners. And musicians, take ownership of more aspects of your performing. As much as you can, let the performance setting be a reflection of you.

5. Avoiding performance (or performing infrequently)

It’s almost cruelly ironic that musicians who suffer from performance anxiety will naturally want to perform less, but their path to overcoming it ultimately involves performing more. So perhaps the worst mistake is to avoid performance. However, this doesn’t mean that an anxiety sufferers should just force themselves to give high-pressure recitals in order to overcome it, taking the attitude of “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

A better approach may be gradually overcome anxiety. To do so in a systematic way, make a list of as many kinds of performance scenarios as you can think of. Then rank order them from least anxiety-inducing to most anxiety-inducing. Below are some sample variables that play into a performance. For example, drawing from this list, you might decide that a low anxiety-inducing performance setting would be to perform: with a friend for your family, in your home, a well-known piece of popular music, from notation you’ve practiced before. After you’ve been able to successfully manage anxiety with that type of setting, you might change one variable to make it slightly more challenging. You’ll gradually work your way down your list until you can manage anxiety while doing what was originally a high anxiety-inducing scenario, such as performing: by yourself for an audience of musicians, in a performance hall, an assigned piece of classical music, from memory.

Performance should not just be something you strive to endure. Ideally it is something you enjoy. If you don’t, perhaps you’re performing the wrong kind of music for you. Or perhaps you’re performing in the wrong settings. Or perhaps you need to change the way you think about performance. Changing deep-seated conceptions is no easy task, but I think it can be quite helpful to view performance at its most human level—as the sharing of music with people who want to hear it.