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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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