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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Friday, November 19, 2010

On Walking and Creativity

Sketches of Beethoven strolling in
the streets of Vienna
In her book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp describes the roll of walks in Beethoven's creative process: "Although he was not physically fit, Beethoven would start each day with the same ritual: a morning walk during which he would scribble into a pocket sketchbook the first rough notes of whatever musical idea inevitably entered his head."

Recently I've discovered walking myself. I mean, I've always walked, but usually only when it was completely unavoidable. Now I'm walking to stimulate my creativity. When I'm stuck for an idea, I'll grab my coat, a pen, and a large notepad, and go for a walk - so far I have always returned with the a few sheets covered in scribbled ideas. Recently I've been composing longer, through-composed works, so composing has become a bit more about planning and conceptualizing, which is work I can do without necessarily having an instrument nearby. However, I think walking could help with any creative endeavor. Rather than sitting in my room for hours while the walls slowly close in on me, walking helps change the scenery and stimulate my mind. Going for walks has come to seem so crucial to my creative process that the fear that I'll accidentally chop my fingers off and be unable to play bass has almost been supplanted by a new fear that I'll somehow destroy my legs and be unable to walk.

As proof of the effectiveness of walks in stimulating creativity, the following is a list in high praise of the virtues of walks, all gleamed from notes jotted down whilst meandering around myneighborhood on foot.

  • Walking reduces the pressure to come up with an idea right away - if you don't have an idea, just enjoy the walk! In fact, even if I didn't come up with a single idea, I think I would be much less upset than if I accomplished the same while sitting in front of a computer. At least while walking I gain fresh air, exercise, enjoyment, and knowledge of my neighbourhood.
  • By the same token, walking encourages one to think critically about the ideas you come up with, and to come up with multiple ideas. I have felt like I had come up with a good enough idea during a walk, only to come up with an even better idea while returning home. Often the first ideas we come up with are not the most creative; it is with the second, tenth, or fiftieth idea that we really begin to explore possibilities. When you're sitting in front of your computer or manuscript paper, there can be a strong temptation to charge ahead with the first idea you come up with.
  • Walking gets the heart and lungs working, which stimulates the flow of oxygen to the brain. I'm starting to feel it is very important to get the body moving if one wants to get ideas flowing.
  • Walking helps me to be present, which I think is vital to creativity. In order to walk safely, I have to take notice of my surroundings and what is happening in present moment. Often in my room I can become burdened with worries and anxieties. Walking is soothing.
  • While walking, you can get inspiration from the things you encounter. Messiaen transcribed bird calls, and Beethoven apparently once took inspiration for a melody from the sound of a stream. Here in Toronto the setting is a bit more urban, but there are still plenty of interesting things.
  • In a way, a walk is itself a metaphor for the creative process - each step is a creative decision, which then leads to the next descision, and so on, until you've created a walk. I already mentioned this quote in a comment on my previous post on composer's block: "improvisation is the courage to put one note in front of the other". When I'm walking, I try to make my walk a creative act - I walk different directions each time, and I try to make adventurous decisions - walking down alleys or down any paths that might look inviting.
In conclusion: huzzah for walks!

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

On Consistency, Winning Races, Zen, and Seinfeld Calendars

It's a cliche for teachers to emphasize it to their students: practice a bit every day. Fifteen minutes a day is better than two hours once a week. Slow and steady wins the race.  Consistency. 

Despite this, it wasn't until I started keeping track of and analyzing my own practice habits that this idea really hit home for me.  Of course I had already fully accepted the idea that if I wanted to get better, I'd have to spend lots of time practising.  (Perhaps you've heard of the 10 000 hour rule?) In order to motivate myself to practice more, I started keeping a spreadsheet of how many minutes I practiced each day.  This was a useful exercise, both motivationally, and in helping me understand my own habits.  The most glaring thing was that if I completely missed a day, it was very likely that this would start a streak - I would miss several days, in one case an entire month!  If you add to that the advantage of allowing your mind to absorb information gradually over several days, rather than in one intense session, it became obvious that focusing on practising at least little bit everyday was the best use of my energy.  Consistency was the key to increasing both my total practice time and effectiveness.

Soon afterwards, I became a cliche myself and started emphasizing consistent practice with my own students.  My new strategy for getting them to practice was to ask them to just take their instrument out of its case and play one note, everyday. If they wanted to do more, they were welcome to, but that was all that was required. I hoped that if I could instill in them this simple habit, they would begin to actually practice on their own.  I even went so far as to read a passage from "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", one of my favourite books, to one thirteen-year-old student:
If you lose the spirit of repetition it will become quite difficult, but it is not difficult if you are full of strength and vitality.
Several months later, I heard about  what has come to be called the "Seinfeld Calendar".  According to legend, the key to Seinfeld's success is that he has a giant wall calendar, and if he spends some time working on material, he marks an X on that day with a big red marker.  The idea is to get a chain going, and then "Don't break the chain."

I was smitten.  I enthusiastically set up not one, but four "Seinfeld calendars" - for practising bass, for composing, for exercising, and for meditating.  There are even more things I would love to have calendars for - practicing guitar, ear training, listening to music with full attention, promotion, reading a novel, etc.  However, I rightly guessed that just these four things would already be a lot for me.

My Seinfeld Calendars worked smashingly; for about two months I hardly missed a day on any of the four things.  Composing was a tricky one - it was hard to be creative when I felt I wasn't in the mood.  But I still found it encouraging, because at least I was dealing with "Oh my God, why can't I write anything?" rather than "Oh my God, I haven't even sat down to compose in weeks!"  I feel that with thoughtful, consistent effort, I'm working through the issues that come up; without my calendars, I might not even be getting to the issues. I set the bar pretty low - if I did even a little bit, I got my X. Eventually I decided to make the system more complicated - a black X if I did even a little bit, a blue X if I did a certain amount - for example, 45 minutes of practising or 20 minutes of meditation.  And a unicorn sticker if I got blue X's in all four things.  I was very into getting my X's.

Then one day, trouble came to my productivity paradise.  I was feeling very stressed - despite working hard everyday, it seemed my to-do list had been growing all week.  I was up late trying to get my "X" for composing, and not getting anywhere.  Finally I decided to give myself a break.  Forget about the "X" for a day.  I immediately felt so much better that I knew it was the right decision.  I took the next day off too.

I felt better, but unfortunately it also meant the start of a streak of not composing/exercising/ practising/meditating! And I chose those things because doing them keeps my life working the way I want it to work.  So, now I've realized the pros (increased productivity) and the cons (increaseed pressure) of the whole Seinfeld Calendar thing, and I've made an informed decision to get back on it. I'm loving it all over again. Also, in writing this blog entry, I've realized how self-obsessed the whole thing is. What a journey. I need to get out more.  Maybe I should make a calendar for that too?

P.S. If you want to try a Seinfeld Calendar of your own, but are low on wall space, this guy made a PDF that fits a whole year on one 8.5x11 sheet.

P.P.S. What is your trick for being productive? Would you give the Seinfeld Calendar a try? Leave a comment!

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