Creativity is a muscle

I’m at it again.  Last year I rode 200 miles on a bike for cancer research and treatment, and while I’m not doing the two-day (200 mile) event this year, I’m riding 100 miles.  The event is amazing; check out the fundraiser (“The Prouty”) here:

As a result, I am training again.  Last year I focused mainly on weights on weekdays and bike rides on weekends, but I’m looking to cross-train more this year, so that my knees don’t feel like they’re going to split open at the end of training days.

The more and more I train, the more I realize that exercising one’s physical body is just like exercising one’s creativity.  I can’t say this enough on this blog: creativity is a muscle, a skill, something that can be taught, a science, and this exercising of your creativity is what turns your work into art.

Creativity is a muscle

When I talk with people about my music for the first time (even if I already know them in other ways), I often hear from them “you have such creativity”, “you have a gift”, and “you have talent”.  I’m honestly not sure what I “have”, but I know I “had” the following things:

  1. A small amount of base skill
  2. An insane love for music
  3. An addiction to the blood, sweat, and tears of learning music
  4. A family who was able to provide for (a very, very fortunate) me
  5. A cadre of great teachers
  6. A very supportive community

But, wait–didn’t my creativity sprout from me like a seed that was watered with tears of unicorns, and didn’t it grow into a sequin-covered sequoia overnight??

Of course, no.  Unicorn tears are really expensive.  And sequoias don’t come with sequins, just sprinkles.

But, seriously

Is there a ton of privilege in that list?  Yes.  A ton.  Is there a lot of effort and education in that list?  Yes (that is essentially the rest of the list).  (And, can this be achieved with less privilege?  Yes–and it’s harder.)  But, is there a boatload of innate talent in there?  Not really.

When I entered The Hartt School as an undergrad, I quickly realized that I had been surviving on “talent” – in essence the little bits of learning I had scrapped together and used my brain to create the semblance of having my act together.  I had very little hard work in there compared to my colleagues.  And I had a lot of catching up to do.

  • I had fewer skills
  • I had less knowledge
  • I had fewer experiences composing and performing
  • I could not articulate myself in musical discussion
  • I was far less creative

The last part, being less creative, is the part that really sticks in this article: my music was boring, stifled, trite, derivative, formulaic, and uninformed.  And, frankly, that is how a lot of us enter music school.

But, with enough training, just as I had become somewhat creative in my studies prior to music school, I became much more creative in music school.

A fairy didn’t suddenly sprinkle talent dust over my face one night as I slept; rather, it happened over a lot of really disappointing, terribly unstable nights, rehearsals, papers, and performances.  I failed a whole lot.

I am not a great composer.  I’m not a creative genius.  I don’t deserve to be put on a pedestal.  But, I became much more creative by kicking my own ass at creativity.

So, how does one become more creative?

The key is to be constantly, actively searching for ways to be more creative.  Here are the tools that can give you the most “bang for your buck”, but oftentimes the things that require a lot of effort for little short-term gain can shape you into a unique artist (eg. finding a passion, studying with a strange mentor, or learning obscure techniques or software).

Just keep doing it.  Daily exercises in your craft, always pushing yourself, will allow you to be more creative.

Practice everything else.  Study the related disciplines and components of your craft.  For example, as a composer I invested heavily in aural skills, applied theoretical skills, keyboard familiarity, and both instrumental and vocal performance.

Study.  Get book-smart on your craft and the process of creation.  Know how it can be done, how it can be made, who made it, when it was made, what its impact was, etc.  Know theory, history, and practice on an intellectual level, as well as an artistic level.

Get weird.  Listen to new things that turn you “off” at first.  Listen to them 3 or 4 or 5 times.  Even if you still don’t like a work, acquire an understanding of it.  Then, steal something good from it.  Or, copy it verbatim and understand just how it works through the process of copying.

Perform.  Publish.  Fail.  Keep putting yourself out there in the public eye, accepting harsh criticism and praise, not buying completely into everything that is disparaged or lauded.   Perform, publish, and fail until you have grown creatively.  Then never stop.

The muscle

Creativity is a muscle, and you can exercise it.  Just like a muscle, you keep working at it, missing the mark and then making the mark after a lot more burn. In this way, you will fail more than you succeed, and that is exactly how you will become more creative.

You learn from failure best.  So fail in the practice room, the composing studio, the classroom, etc. as often as you have to.  Then, fail when it matters most.  You will grow the most from the repeated failure and subsequent finding of your way.

So, creativity is a muscle.  Never forget that.  Creativity is not a fountain; it is walking across a desert until you reach a small oasis.  This oasis is great to reach, but it will dry up; you will eventually have to move to the next one.

Rest up, journey on, keep failing, and don’t let others make you feel like your “gift” is something you already had.  It is something you went out and got.


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