Tuesday, December 30, 2014

More Creativity Questions

Vicki's comment raises new questions about creativity.

Is creativity always play? An electrical engineer told me about the regimen he'd established when he encountered a problem at work. Before he went to bed, he restated the problem, then purposefully thought no more about it until the next morning when he was shaving. Then he opened his mind to whatever thoughts arose, with the rule that he would discard no solution, no matter how crazy or unrelated it seemed to be. Being an engineer, he had established strict rules for problem-solving, but he had learned to abandon all the rules - those he'd been taught, those that had worked in the past - while he shaved.

At the time, he was working on a higher-definition camera for television. To create is to bring something new into being. So it makes sense that, at some point in the development of that camera, the rules that governed how any previous camera worked had to be changed or discarded.

It's at that moment when we abandon what we know (or have been taught) is true, that the creative breakthrough comes. And it's scary.

When I was developing my vocal method, it occurred to me one day that everything I'd been taught, everything I'd ever read about a singer's breathing had to be wrong: we don't have voluntary control of the abdominal diaphragm. I immediately panicked: Who am I to dispute accepted knowledge? I spent the following two weeks trying to disprove my new theory, before I could begin to develop the scientific basis for a different way of breathing.

I've seen that scary moment often enough in students to believe that it may be a necessary component in creativity. The day they walk into a session with "I can't," "I'll never be able to," is breakthrough day - the day that they abandon what they know or have assumed to be true and float free of their old rules.

Yes, Vicki's right that their immediate responses are hope and joy. But change is frightening. Taking that next step into freedom is a challenge.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Creativity Questions

Some chicken-or-egg questions:

Is creativity a human need? New archeological evidence -a 100,000-year-old animal-bone paintbrush, 75,000-year-old shells with drilled holes for use as beads, a 300,000-year-old flint hand ax - tells us that creativity was a part of Paleolithic life.

Does creativity satisfy an individual need? That is, art for art's sake? Or because we're essentially a curious species?

Or does creativity satisfy the need to communicate? Is communication the basic need, with every creative act or idea a tool for communication?

If we know creativity was active in the Stone Age, has it been necessary to individual survival? Or to the survival of the species? We know that humans are like birds in their inherent ability to sing. The vocal mechanisms are similar; brain activity while singing is similar. We assume, then, that humans first sang for the same "reason" as birds sing - courtship. After the recent discovery, in both Indonesia and South Africa, of pre-historic axes that are too fragile or too heavy to be utilitarian, similar assumptions have been made. Perhaps they were created to demonstrate skill to potential mates.

Whatever the answer to any of these questions, doesn't it make sense to foster creativity? To create an educational system based on creativity?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Understanding Shame

I have a student (I'll call him Hal) who often triggers an essay or blog. His lesson yesterday was no exception. Hal had completed the score for an indie film. The director, producer, et al, were more than satisfied, they were thrilled. They thought his work would raise their film to a new level.

Then he said he had a piece for chamber quartet that he thought was really, really good, and he wished he knew how to break into "the system" to get it played. But he was "an outsider," didn't have the right credentials, his music degree wasn't even in composition, etc., etc. I gave him half a dozen suggestions about where to send the piece. He repeated all the reasons why no one would pay any attention to it, and added that all those thoughts were no doubt due to his "superiority complex," because he thought his quartet was so new, so different, that it would change music in a positive way.

A perfect example of what Brene Brown talks about in one of her TED talks (, and what I've written about in Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer. Except that Brown doesn't seem to realize, at least in that lecture, that the shame affect is positive for our well-being. According to Sylvan Tomkins' affect theory, shame is an innate physiological mechanism that, when we get too excited - when our breathing and heart rates become too elevated - returns our bodies to a more normal state.

What happens when we perform  - and I consider that to be any time we expect to be judged - we get excited, anxious. In Brown's term, vulnerable. "Too" excited, and shame is triggered and, along with it, our entire humiliation biography. We know we've crossed over that line between excitement and shame when we begin to hear the negative thoughts about ourselves or our work running around in our heads.

After I told Hal that what he had just said made no sense at all (We have a long relationship, so I used stronger terms and banged my head melodramatically on the music stand.), I ran through the above explanation. He'd heard it all before in a different context, but hadn't related it to his composing.

Brown is right that "vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change." The reality, for Hal, is that his composition is not likely to change the world of music. A lot of people, string quartets included, are afraid of change. So if he takes his excitement - what he had called his "superiority complex" - down a notch, all those negative thoughts will fade away. He'll be able to market his piece in a clear-headed manner.

Listening to shame is a good idea, if we understand what shame is really telling us.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rhythm Uncaged

The Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett broadcast on PBS was vaguely irritating, but I didn't know why. Her costuming was a little odd, given the period of the music they were singing. Bennett, after all, was there in his tux, as he would have been in the old days.

I walked into another room, away from the distracting visuals, and realized my irritation came from their non-duetness. They were singing from different rhythmic bases. Bennett was feeling the rhythm in his entire body. Gaga didn't feel the rhythm lower than 4 inches in her chest. Bennett was in the groove. Gaga was making shallow footprints in the sand. As a listener, I was having to switch back and forth physically, and began to lose the beat myself.

I took a few drumming lessons a couple of decades ago, but quit because I couldn't beat the drum and count out loud at the same time, as instructed. I was okay when I was yelling "1, 2, 3, 4." Not so bad with "1 and 2 and 3 and 4." But I fell apart at "1, ugh, and, ugh, 2, ugh, and, ugh . . ." I could beat the rhythm fine if I didn't have to count what I was doing. Counting is in the head; rhythm is in the body.

When we're breathing naturally, the lungs expand downward with the incoming air, compressing the guts against the pelvic diaphragm; then the guts press back to expel the carbon dioxide. In rhythm. The fluid of the central nervous system flows all the way down the spine and then back up around the head. In rhythm.

Watch a pre-toddler listening to music. They rock on their diapered bottoms and wave their arms in perfect rhythm. They're not musical prodigies, they're just being human. Still too young to think about music, they're feeling it in entire bodies.

Rhythm isn't a skill we need to be taught; rhythm is life that too often needs to be uncaged.