Sunday, January 26, 2014

Five Minutes

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and go to work. 
~Stephen King

The biggest roadblock to creativity is not lack of talent, vision, or ideas. What keeps many from creating is simply getting started. While most want to create art, we often aren't motivated to begin the work. We keep pushing it off like it is a dreaded chore, like cleaning out the garage. Sure it would be great once the garage is clean. And it might be fun to finally start going through all that junk. But that initial push required to get started can make this a formidable task.

The solution to cleaning the garage? Five minutes. Tell yourself that you are going to start the task but only work for five minutes. Everyone can spare and tolerate five minutes, right? Even if it is something as uninspiring as cleaning the garage.

What happens? You will start cleaning during the five minutes. And that may be all you want to do. But more often that five minutes will quickly overflow into ten. Then you may find yourself entering the "zone" or a state of "flow". Even something as mundane as organizing a garage will become interesting. The inertia of starting a project might even sustain you until the whole room is organized. It is hard to stop a moving train.

Can we apply this example to our musical creative process? Absolutely. Let's do it.

Right now think of that one project that you have in your head. Maybe it is a composition, an arrangement, a tune in your head, and harmonic/rhythmic concept, or a piece to add to your repertoire. Pick something that you would like to explore and eventually master. This could be a small or large task. It doesn't matter.

You want to get going on it, but just haven't started it yet. There are probably lots of legitimate excuses for why you haven't started it, but forget about them for now. Right now, I want you to give yourself five minutes. Go! Work on that project for five minutes. Just get started.

What can you get done in that little amount of time? Probably not much, but don't worry. Just do it. We all have 5 minutes sometime in our day.

Go! (Seriously, I'll wait. I'll be here when you finish).

All right. Take a look at the clock. So what happened? Like our garage example the five minutes probably expanded into ten, fifteen or more minutes. Great! If it didn't, that's fine too. You put in five minutes of focused, quality, creative work. Congrats!

You may think, "How will I ever meet my goals with just five minutes?" Well, what if you did this exercise throughout the day. Pretty soon you will be clocking in some serious creative time. Particular, if one of your "five minute" sessions locks you in the zone and gets you focused for an hour or more.

As Mr. King puts it..."get up and go to work"!

Speaking of which, I need to go clean out the garage...

Monday, January 20, 2014

Limitation Exercise: Shattering Conventions

The limitation exercise for this post is great to pull out when you are in a rut. It is a lot of fun and a little silly. Depending on who you are you will either love it or hate it.

Take your main instrument. Play a scale, passage or etude with proper technique and solid tone. Spend a minute or two getting warmed up to the way you were taught that that instrument should sound and be played.

Now stop. For the next ten minutes I want you to figure out at least 50 different interesting sounds you can coax from your instrument that are NOT the conventional way of playing. That's right. Look at your instrument like you have never seen it before. Perhaps you can think of yourself as a native of a culture that has never seen your instrument but was told that it makes music. How would they explore it in those first 10 minutes to create interesting sounds.

I don't want to give you too many ideas. (OK a few seeds I can plant. If you play a wind instrument think percussion. If you play percussion think strings. If you play strings, think vocal technique. If you sing, think all of the above! Also, you may feel free to use other non-musical objects with your instrument. But don't limit it to just these ideas either. Explore!)  

My advice: don't be afraid to be silly and take some risks. No one is watching!

Go! 10 minutes!

OK. Pick 10-15 of the sounds you found the most interesting. Practice them and make sure you have the technique to produce them with ease.

Now get out a piece of paper. Develop a notation system for your new found sounds. You can use a staff or variation of one. You can use notes, but don't limit it to that. Consider graphical notation, pictures, glyphs, words or colors. The notation system should reflect the sounds but also be easy to decipher.

Now compose. Take those 10-15 sounds and write a piece. But don't write it out first. Go ahead and play with those sounds. When you create a brief section that you find interesting figure out how to notate it. Write it out and then play it while reading it. Repeat for the next sections.

All musical elements should be in play here: form, timbre, melody, rhythm and harmony. It is just the convention of the instrument that has been destroyed.

Create a 2-3 minute piece and score. Practice it until you can solidly perform it. This would be fun to do with some friends or colleagues as well. Have them do the same challenge and then share your works.

What's the point? Isn't your practice time more valuable then this? Maybe. Just try it and make observations about the process. I think you will find this exercise to be revelatory.

I will post my results in a few weeks as well as those of any of the reader(s) of my blog who are willing to share their experiment. E-mail the score and an audio or video file to

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Listening, Part 1

I think listening is such an important component of the musical creative process that I can see exploring this again in the future. Thus, part one.

First a question:

  • When was the last time you intentionally listened to recorded music?
Think about it. When was it? What was the music? Where were you?

All right. Now the next question:
  • What were you doing while you listened to that recorded music? 
Think. Identify everything you did while you listened to that music. Were you driving? Eating?Cleaning the house? Sitting and letting your mind wander? Reading a magazine? Sporadically checking texts and social networking sites? Talking to someone? Thinking about the lyrics? Or were you just sitting there, actively engaged in listening to the music.

Last question:
  • Not with just this chosen piece, but in general, calculate an approximate percentage of your music listening time in the past month in which you are actively engaged in the listening process? What percent were you passively listening to the music while engaged in a different activity?
By "active" listening, I mean you are really focused and paying attention to the music and just the music. It doesn't mean that you need to be involved in a deep harmonic analysis while you listen. But it does mean that non-musical elements (distractions, mind wandering, other activities) aren't present. Active listening can be thought of as sitting down with the intention of listening to a recorded piece of music with the attention you would offer a live performance.

"Passive" listening would be any listening that is not completely focused on the music. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad way of listening to music. Music often serves a function that is non-musical. Using music to create a particular mood has been in common use since the earliest rhythms were played. Music can be used to enhance religious ceremonies, to motivate exercise, to dance, and even to just accompany you during a long drive.

Now there are degrees in between active and passive. Listening to music alone in a car allows for more attention to the music than say talking with a friend. Nonetheless, the more you can focus your entire attention on the activity of listening, the more you will get out of the music.

What does listening have to do with creativity? Nearly everything. People can be creative only if they have the proper tools. One of the primary tools is a knowledge of how others approach the art form. Artists need to absorb the style and form of the past masters. This knowledge will inform them as they create. For musicians, this is done by listening.

Each new technological advancement has changed the way we listen to music. From wax cylinder to vinyl, 8-track to cassette, CD to MP3, each step has seemed to give consumers more access to quality recordings. However, this last step to the Internet domain has changed how we consume music most of all. In the past your access to music may have been limited by your CD budget. With services like Spotify, we have a massive collection of music at our fingertips. Once, seeing performers play on stage was only possible with a ticket. With Youtube, you can easily watch performances of the greats, both past and present.

This overwhelming access to music can paralyze me with options. In the past, I would explore every nook and cranny of the limited collection of albums I happened to own. Because of this, there are albums I have thoroughly internalized from the pre-Internet era. Albums like Bill Evans' "Portrait in Jazz", Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks", John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and the Beatles' "Revolver" are now in my musical DNA. Why? Because they were some of the few albums I had access to growing up. I have internalized the melodies, lyrics, and form on a deep level. As a result there is an emotional connection to these works. Listening to them now is as comforting as a warm blanket.

In the mid-2000s, music was beginning to make itself available online and I was amazed (and overwhelmed) at the options. At first, I was the "kid in the candy shop" with paid subscription services like Rhapsody and the now-legal Napster. I explored the online collection with zeal, hopping from one artist to another without really devoting time to their work. While this was fun for a bit, in the end I felt I was missing the deep experience I had when I focused on one work.

In 2005, I decided to perform an experiment. Longing for the old days of getting deep into just one album, I bought a cassette for 99 cents from a record store that was going out of business. It was "Solar" (1983) by guitarists John Abercrombie and John Scofield. My Saturn had a cassette deck (not a CD player or MP3 hookup) and I was looking for music to play for the drive. For some inexplicable reason, I told myself this would be the ONLY album I would listen to for a year in my car. I never heard it before, I only knew the artists were respected players. And it only cost 99 cents.

In 1983, these two young lions were just beginning to burst onto the scene. Scofield just finished his gigs with Miles Davis and you can hear it in his playing. Abercrombie had that Berklee thing going with a little bit of fusion and he was also developing a voice with his compositions. These guys were just in the middle of a special time in their musical exploration.  The recording quality of the album is uneven but the playing is solid. The collective improvisation they explore have the quality of a baroque invention (with the liberties allowed by jazz harmony and rhythm). To this day, the opening choruses of counterpoint from the title track are burned into my brain.

With each listen I discovered new gems.  For example, there is one glaringly dissonant "wrong" line in "Small Wonder". Sco starts his solo by playing this really outside line that resolves in a strange way. The first dozen times I heard it, I just thought of it as Sco trying to correct a line gone awry. Now I am certain this is what John heard and intended (even if it wasn't!). And now I can think of no other way he could have started this solo (although obviously he could have played anything). It is kind of like Ray Nance's famous trumpet solo on Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train". While it was first improvised on the recording, he played it the same way each night they performed. That is what the audience expected!

Something about listening to an improvised album in this fashion is interesting. This music was created in the moment. It would never be performed again in this exact manner. The lines, rhythms and counterpoint are unique to this session. Yet, here I am, driving around in a Saturn 20+ years later repeatedly listening to something created in the moment.

The car afforded me the time to absorb this album. However, I am certain the results would be more powerful if I was on the couch with eyes closed. The more active the listening the more deep the experience.

So the challenge:

  • Choose one album, piece, or extended work. You can choose something you are already a little familiar with but not something you have thoroughly absorbed as in my experience with "Solar". You will also want to choose something with enough substance to sustain repeated listenings.
  • Find a time to listen straight through the album in one sitting. This should be as much of an "active" listening experience that you can make it.
  • Over the coming weeks, return to this work. Perhaps, you will sit with it in another active listening session. Or maybe you will play it as you travel or go for a walk. If you are short on time, choose a track or movement and just listen to that perhaps playing that section multiple times in one sitting
  • You may just wish to absorb this music with no further action. Most likely, you will begin to want to delve deeper into the music. In that case, consider:

    • following along with a score
    • working out elements of the piece on an instrument
    • singing key melodies unaccompanied (this often can show you how well you have internalized the music) 
    • arranging sections of the work for another group
    • transcribing key melodies
    • analyzing the harmonic structure of the work
    • seek out other performances ("covers") of the work
I'm going to do the challenge and post the results!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Creative Environment

Composer and musician: John Zorn
"I make music in my home, and I'll tell you what my home is. My home is not just an apartment. I've been living in the same place for 38 years. My home is a device — a device for enabling creativity. A device for cutting out the chaos outside that people think is reality; that's chaos. My home is a way of insulating myself and stripping that away so I can get into what reality is for me, which is creativity." - John Zorn

John Zorn is describing an important element to the creative process that is often overlooked: your environment. Where do you create? Have you made this place a location that allows for the state of "flow" or optimal creativity? Or is your environment not doing the job that Mr. Zorn describes as "cutting out the chaos outside"? Have you even thought about this?

Now this can be a very personal thing. Some visual artist's studios are meticulously organized. Some to the outsider appear to be a slovenly mess. Compare Georgia O'Keefe's pristine, focused, light-filled studio to Alexander Calder's gritty, chaotic dwelling. Each one serves the intended purpose of the artists. Those of you who are art fans may even be nodding your head and seeing a reflection of these artists output in how the organize their work environment. 

O'Keefe's studio
Calder's studio
Calder: Picassomio
O'Keefe: White Trumpet Flower

So let's talk about the environment in which we create music. In the world of performance, clearly that environment is the stage, bandstand, arena, or recording studio. Music in this case is meant to be performed for others and the environment supports that and can even shape it. David Byrne in his excellent book "How Music Works" spends his early chapters supporting the theory that the venue is the primary catalyst for determining style. He demonstrates that venues as diverse as the cathedrals in the Renaissance, parlors in the Enlightenment, stadium arenas in the 1970s and dives like CBGBs in the punk scene actually have much more to do with the development of style than we often think.

However, I would like to explore the creative musician's studio. This would be the spot where the craft is honed. This is not a place where the music is being performed as art for an audience. It is where the musicians and composers develop their craft. It is where they practice, write, improvise, create, listen and think about music. And for most of us, it is in our home.

Now just like O'Keefe and Calder, each one of us will have a unique way of constructing this environment based on our style and personal aesthetic. However, there are some universal things we should consider when creating a space conducive to creative work.

  • Find an aesthetically pleasing spot relatively isolated from the rest of your home. It may not be possible to have a room dedicated just to your music creation. However, you want to find some area that will be devoted to this task. It could be a section of an existing space where you will be able to work with minimal distraction. It should also be aesthetically pleasing. Yes, it may be easiest to throw all of your gear in a cold unfinished basement to get out of the way of the other members of your household. However, staring at insulation in the beams and efflorescence on the concrete walls may keep you from connecting to your muse. Spruce up your location with what makes you comfortable.

  • Outfit your space with tools to create. Just as a visual artist has every type of brush, paint, chisel, paper on hand, you should take inventory of the musical tools you have available. When you are inspired, you don't want to have to be searching for one of these items. It may depend on your creative intentions but some basic tools could be:
    • your main instrument
    • a piano or keyboard
    • stereo system with inputs for all sources (CD, MP3 player, vinyl, etc.)
    • staff paper and notebook paper 
    • electronic tuner
    • pencils
    • a comfortable chair if you play seated, extra seating for guests
    • music stands
    • recording equipment or software
    • percussion equipment
    • a metronome or drum machine
    • a whiteboard (for notes, goals, concepts, composition ideas)
    • a bulletin board to post long term goals, activities, ideas

  • Use technology when appropriate but be careful. Many of the above items are now available on your phone, Ipod, tablet or computer. We live in an amazing time. On my Ipod I have recording software, drumloops, playalong tools, looping tools, "slow downer" software, metronomes, and electronic tuners. All of these tools can increase productivity, but like anything tech-related they can work against you. For one thing they are fun to play with but unless they are helping you with your creative goals, they are just toys. It can also distract you by encouraging you to check e-mail or social networking sites during your sessions. Work with these great tools but make sure you are in charge. It is worth remembering that Stravinsky, Charlie Parker and John Lennon were quite creative without these devices (although they did use the technology available to them!)

  • When you are working in this space, let everyone know that you should not be disturbed. If you have a family who is in the habit of needing you at a moment's notice you have a couple options. 
    • Use this space when everyone is asleep (early morning/late at night).
    • Use it when they are away.
    • Have a way of letting your family know you will be working and should not be disturbed. Since our most productive work happens with the first half hour, these sessions need not be long. But they should be undisturbed.

  • Have a secondary place in the main area of your home for when the muse strikes. Keep some musical tools accessible in your main living area. This may be a piano, second instrument, staff papers, recording device. Sometimes 5 minutes is all you need to make some creative progress. And if you have to go to your "designated" creative spot to use these 5 minutes, you may lose to urge to work. 

  • The most important creative environment is actually in your mind! Yes the external environment is important, but creativity happens in your head first. Which means you should practice your work with music everywhere not just in this studio. In line at the post office? Work on harmonizing a melody in your head. Sitting in traffic? Pick a tune and visualize the sheet music and changes. At the grocery check out? Practice polyrhythms using konokol. Waiting at the doctor's office? Transcribe the chord progression and melody to that REO Speedwagon song that is playing in the waiting room. Keep your brain actively thinking and involved with music and you will boost your creativity.

Melodic Contour Exercise

An effective and quite creative method for composing/improvising strong melodies would be to connect it with the visual artist's techniq...