Creative Practice

Creativity is a type of learning process where the teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.

Arthur Koestler

Some thinkers about creativity identify two different types: Creativity and creativity, or “Big C” and “Little c.” Some believe that “true” creativity is only that which contributes to changes in the way we think or act in significant ways. So by that definition, Einstein was Big C, Darwin was big C, Jesus was big C, as was Buddha, the Beatles, Beethoven, Archimedes, Copernicus… You get the idea. Only those who fundamentally changed our collective perspective can be considered “Big C” creative. And here’s where the controversy arises.

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Some thinkers–like they guy whose name is a real mouthful, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi–believe that these Big C people are the only ones who are truly creative. Others, including myself, believe that creativity exists on a continuum that stretches from mundane acts of everyday creativity all the way up to the world-changing type. And many believe that in practicing creativity (there’s that “p” word again), we can become better, more efficient and more capable creators. Those who contribute profound changes are merely exercising the same faculties that everyone has and the only difference is that their prodigious act of creativity is informed by a deep understanding of the discipline in which they work.

What does all this have to do with your practice? Well, because creativity is one of the hallmarks of master artists of all disciplines, and because practicing creatively exercises your own creative muscles, why would you not want to incorporate creativity into your practice? Also, being creative engages you with your material like nothing else can. Repetitively going over and over the same scale pattern on your instrument can be helpful for basic technique and digital dexterity, but to be more creative with the material gives you ownership of what you’re doing and allows you to learn things more deeply.

Let’s take the scales as an example. Often we learn a scale, then get out a book and look up an exercise our teacher recommends, and we practice it through all keys if we’re diligent, often looking at the music while doing it. There is a place for this initially perhaps, because you do have to learn the scale, but then take control of the material by inventing your own patterns and your own ways of going through the notes. You’ll probably invent many of the same exercises that already exist, but so what? Some experts might say that since they already existed, you’re not being “truly” creative, but I say that’s a bunch of hooey. If it’s new to you and you made it up, you’re exercising your creative muscles. You get ownership of the pattern because you created it. It’s more engaging, more fun, and produces better results in less time. What’s there not to like? If you do this, you’ll transform scale practice–a necessary and vast body of knowledge both intellectual and kinesthetic (mind and body)–from something many find tedious and boring into something fun and engaging.

Explore other ways to bring aspects of creativity into your practice routine and you’ll find yourself enjoying the practice time and being more truly connected to it than before. Own your practice!

Here are a few of the things I vary and toy with when I’m trying to be creative with my scale practice:

    • create patterns (3rds, 4ths, rolling patterns, arpeggio patterns, etc.)
    • create rhythms other than steady rhythms (swing, dotted 8th sixteenth, random)
    • alter keys (you should learn all 12 anyway, but alter the order in which you play them: move through the circle of 5ths, 4ths, by 1/2 step, whole step, M3, m3, etc.
    • use alternate fingerings for familiar patterns
    • change dynamics over the course of the scaleFree-form improvisation within the scale (especially useful when doing the above)
    • visualizing scenes, colors, or emotions and use the notes and dynamics and rhythm to evoke these

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