On Musical Creativity

I see creativity in musical composition as an example of the human capacity for problem solving, and for inventing rich imaginative worlds. These two elements are linked: For an imaginative world to be convincing, it has to be coherent and consistent, which requires problem solving, in combining musical elements in ways which fit the individual work.
It is a cliché to say that children are born creative, and that creativity usually decreases with age as people become more set in their ways. Perhaps a better way to describe the child’s attitude is as one of fascination with the world, and as a constant and active  attempt to make sense of it. Since the adult world is also rife with discouragement and distraction,  it is often hard to enter a state of mind where creativity will flourish. But the task is important, if we are to encourage what is best in human nature, and undoubtedly we can learn from the young.
Two fascinating books, whose authors were artists themselves, explore the nature of creativity in complementary ways. Adele Wiseman’s Old Woman at Play takes a deep and uplifting look at creativity in an unlikely place: her mother’s activity as a doll-maker. Tillie Olsen’s Silences, more somber in tone, looks at examples of artists, many of them very well known, who stopped creating due to discouragement, lack of understanding, or material privation. In an earlier generation, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own also addressed some key questions about how creativity is stamped out.
Having taught musical composition myself for years, I have seen young talents wasted or diminished by discouragement and poor guidance. While it is easy to say that the stronger talents will always survive, this is impossible to prove, and in any case leaves unanswered a critical point: All creativity deserves to be developed and encouraged. While not everyone is a Bach or a Mozart, that does not mean that they have nothing to contribute. And indeed we will never know if humanity has in fact lost another Bach or Mozart because they were born the wrong sex, in the wrong time, or the wrong place, or simply lacked the conditions for full development.
I will discuss encouraging musical creativity here from three points of view: that of the outsider (i.e. the listener, friend, colleague, etc.); that of the teacher; and finally, that of the artist himself.
Artistic creativity is  not sufficiently valued in society. Apart from a very lucky few, most artists encounter obstacles to the acceptance of their work. Especially at the beginning of a career, acceptance is slow, and discouragement and indifference are the norm. Ideally, the interested non-composer should be open and encouraging.
However, even in the absence of any positive contribution, at the least, the outsider should attempt to do no harm.
This seems obvious, but various subtly destructive attitudes abound. Here are a few examples:

  • Minimizing the value and importance of art: The talented young person needs a minimum of support about the value of his ambitions. While it is true that making a living as an artist is difficult, the decision to pursue an artistic career should be respected. It seems to me better to look back on one’s life and say “I tried my best to do what I wanted”, than “I wish I had tried”.
  • The private club mentality: One of the most common obstacles for fledgling composers is the idea that “real” composers make up a sort of exclusive club, whose admission is determined by a small elite. This elite is not an organized group (indeed, opinions can vary greatly over the details of who qualifies) but the focus remains exclusion (confirming, by implication, the impeccable judgement and taste of the arbiters). Typical of this attitude are phrases like, “The only real composer here is [x]”, “[y] is just an arranger”. People with this attitude publish articles and brochures listing “the ten main composers in [z]”. Apart from the fact that history repeatedly shows that such judgements are almost always wrong, the attitude is fundamentally ungenerous and closed.
  • Artificial limits: Another very common exclusionary tactic is, implicitly or explicitly, setting up artificial criteria like age, race, or sex, or style as bases for judgement. The last point is worth elaborating. Style is the expression of an individual personality, not of some fashionable trend. In a serious artist it will emerge naturally over time. It cannot meaningfully be chosen intellectually.
  • The fetish of “modernity”: History shows that several major composers were considered very conservative in their own times (Bach, Brahms). With hindsight it is clear that such judgements are superficial, and that modernity in itself is no guarantee of value: What is new today is not new tomorrow. If all a work of art has to offer is novelty, why listen to it again after the first hearing?
  • Confusing ambition with arrogance: Any creative artist must have a certain amount of confidence in his own work just to be able to produce it. (This kind of honest ambition to make something beautiful and significant has nothing to do with ego driven plans to conquer the artistic world: The two may co-exist but are not the same.) When outsiders mock serious creative ambition or do not take it seriously, they in effect try to undermine its legitimacy and by extension, make the artist incapable of work. There is an important distinction between respect for modest but genuine accomplishment, and proclaiming the composer in question a major figure. Even the former can be very important to a developing artist, whereas the unwillingness to accord such respect has the effect of discouraging artists at their most vulnerable stage of development, and also of making it harder to attain to higher accomplishment. Conversely, declaring a new and untried artist a “genius” encouraged arrogance and can stunt development.
  • Lack of respect for craftsmanship: Composition is first a matter of craftsmanship – refined use of the materials – and only subsequently enters the domain of art: Judging artistic worth in the absence of craft is simply too unreliable. When craft is not respected, art becomes whatever the critic arbitrarily defines it to be. This also has the effect of discouraging real, hard won accomplishment.
  • Over-intellectualizing: Creative processes involve the whole person, not just, or even primarily, the intellect. Over-insistence on pigeon-holing, and the attempt to explain everything analytically, is especially dangerous for a young artist, who may not be entirely in touch with his own sources of inspiration. “Before that which we do not understand, it is best to remain silent”.

The teacher’s role in developing creative talent lies, first, in recognizing it, and second in knowing how to stimulate and encourage it. Predicting how far talent can go from the early stages is usually unreliable. In general it is better to err on the side of moderate optimism. Only two things are critical: a strong enthusiasm for music, and a great willingness to work hard. Fortunately, these two requirements are easy to verify. Given these qualities, it is better not to predict limits on what can be achieved. If the student is well taught and has a professional attitude, the results are often surprising. If the student does not become a composer, he will in any case be better equipped for a musical career.
Good teaching requires three things:

  • detailed knowledge of the subject,
  • pleasure in sharing it (generosity), and,
  • sufficient organization to help the student graduate his efforts, so as to balance challenges and encouragement.

It is worth saying a word about the challenges: Good teaching sometimes requires making the student uncomfortable. Exploring new terrain is always a test of one’s self confidence, and for the inexperienced young person this test can be very stressful. On the other hand, the teacher who does not push the student to surpass himself does not do justice to real talent. Likewise the teacher who does not emphasize the best possible craftsmanship handicaps the young artist. Moreover, it is essential to understand craft not mainly as a matter of intellectual analysis, but rather of pointing out what is wrong in a constructive way, i.e. as specifically as possible. Suggestions should be formulated positively wherever possible; more than one suggested solution is also useful to show the student a range of possibilities.
It is also valuable for the teacher to have clear, explicit criteria for good work. Not only does this help the student know what to aim for, but also when he goes his own way eventually, it is easier to define where he wishes to part ways with the teacher.
Finally, the teacher can and should cultivate certain attitudes in the student: ambition without pretension, respect for craft, and regular, constructive self-criticism.
On reaching artistic maturity, the composer should have acquired a good knowledge of the repertoire, and of his craft. He also needs knowledge of himself, not just in the obvious stylistic sense (a composer’s style is essentially made of his preferences), but also in the sense of dealing with his own psychology: especially, how to find creative stimulation, how to grow as an artist, and how to overcome blocks.
Most artists find a blank page their worst enemy. Faced with nothingness, and it’s attendant fear of creative emptiness, it is important to have a few ways of getting started. A few suggestions:

  • Keep a sketchbook. Whenever an idea strikes, note it down. Sketches can be very short or else longer, including just main lines.
  • Develop ways of working in small dimensions; writing a one page sketch is much less intimidating than attacking a three hour opera as a whole.
  • Extra-musical stimulation may be useful for some composers. This usually takes the form of some sort of narrative behind the music. Interestingly, it is not always made explicit to the listener.
  • Experiment, and take risks. This does not mean that the finished work should be just an experiment, but that during the composition, it can be useful to deliberately try new procedures, even if one ultimately rejects most of the results in the final piece.
  • Imitate others, but in a distorted way. Obviously direct imitation creates epigones, but, sufficiently distorted, useful ideas may result.
  • Develop a rhythm of work: ideally one should produce something every day. It need not be large or profound, but it seems to be psychologically useful to feel that one has accomplished something daily. Likewise, try to finish the day’s work with something positive, no matter how small.
  • It is impossible to be objective about one’s work while writing it. Take the time to put aside work and come back to it in the cold light of another day.

Finally, creativity requires a certain tolerance for frustration. Every creator, no matter how humble, knows the feeling when “inspiration” strikes: the work seems to flow on its own, problems seem to solve themselves, and new directions emerge as though they were gifts from heaven. Unfortunately this happy state of mind does not always present itself easily on demand; it cannot be consciously commanded. What can the creator do in those moments when the blank page stares gloomily back, when problems become obsessions, and when every path seems stale?
The time tested response to this question is that, while shy, inspiration  prefers to show itself to those who work hard. As long as the composer manages to keep up some sort of musical routine, whether it be the orchestration of already written music, or even, as Brahms is reputed to have done, doing counterpoint exercises, usually the mind eventually returns to the appropriate state for more stimulating work.
Artistic creativity is a valuable human activity. It involves problem solving, expression, and generosity. It is also a force against evil: the artist aims to enlarge, not to belittle, to create, instead of destroy.
Many thanks to my friend Charles Lafleur, for his stimulating comments.