Sep 062014

Here in the U.S. kids are heading back to school after summer break. I’d like to share a few books about artistic young people to go with the back-to-school theme.

Wingman by Daniel Pinkwater tells the story of a young artistic boy who embarks on imaginative and daring adventures to escape his hostile, hateful elementary school.

Dr. Bird’s Advice For Sad Poets by Evan Roskos is the story of an enxious, depressed high-school student who sseeks solace in Walt Whitman, photography, and hugging trees.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell is the story of Cath going off to college to become a fiction writer, only to find that making friends, creating, and simply surviving day after day are too much. I especially love the characters in this book. I find a tremendous amount of heart in Rowell’s novels.

If you’re not into books written for a younger audience, maybe it’s a good time to revisit a favorite from years ago. Perhaps a book, album, play, or painting comes to mind that meant a lot to you when you were young. Take a little time to go back to a fond experience to renew yourself.

Nov 082013

I like to think of creativity exercises as short-term tools. They’re not really solutions in themselves, but they can break habits, build habits, and help the heart and mind break away from malaise.

I’m talking about creativity exercises such as: think of a color, then write down ten objects that have the color. Then write a story plot using those objects. Or, take a musical phrase and play it in all twelve keys, then play it backwards in all twelve keys. Sure you could write a story or a piece of music this way, but usually the process is much more imaginative than that.

It reminds me of my religious life from many years ago. People would really get into the rules and procedures of prayer, but it seemed rare that anyone actually achieved a prayerful life. I might not have it right, and maybe folks were experiencing something far more substantial than what I saw. But it seemed to me that prayer was usually about certain physical acts, like closing eyes, bowing heads, folding hands or linking hands with others. It was about words, lots of tedious words, despite Jesus’ teaching on that subject. And Jesus also taught that praying in public places was a waste of time, yet folks seemed so into saying verbose prayers in public almost any chance they got.

Something similar goes on with musicians and writers. One of the hardest things for me when I’m teaching music lessons is to help a student simply relax and fall into playing music. There’s always lots of discussion about buying more instruements and accessories, even though the student already has too much stuff. It seems like the idea of playing music is more appealing than the actual experience of it. I think it seems like the work that goes into learning an instrument holds some kind of dread. It might go back to how nasty and boring our assignments were in school as kids. It might have to do with something similar with parents, with religious education and services, how we’re taught as kids to dread the stuff that everyone says is so important.

By the way, if you are reading this and you have taken lessons from me, please don’t think I’m describing you specifically. Almost all the music students I’ve had over the years have struggled to find happiness in making their music.

For writers, there are exercises and books about writing. There’s worry about writing. There are all kinds of classes and activities around writing, even finishing an MFA. All useful in some ways, but I think the best attitude is to see all that as short-term. Those are little tools to help get things started, but you’re not writing until you’re writing. Just write. Go ahead. If you don’t know what to write about, then wait. Take a walk. Don’t think about it, just wait. Don’t worry, you’ll get some ideas sooner or later.

I recently ran across a mention of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” cards. I heard about them many years ago, and it’s a very cool idea. You pick a card, and it points you to some new direction for your current work. Here are some examples:

  • A line has two sides.
  • Do nothing for as long as possible.
  • Question the heroic approach
  • Ask people to work against their better judgement.

(This text came from

I’ve never actually owned a set of these cards, but the idea is enough for me. Just do something different, change the monotony, or repeat the unpredictableness, or just launch out into some place. Go eat a sandwich. Go find an animal to say hello to. Think inside the box. Think outside the box. And then eat the box.

Jul 192011

In The Inner Game of Music, Barry Green has a great chapter on integrating the analytical and intuitive sides of the musician’s mind.

Some musicians play from intuition, searching for expressions of beauty, passion, shock, sadness, and joy. The intuitive performer sometimes sounds sappy, gushy, corny, or sloppy because pitch, rhythm, and consistent control are not his foremost concern.

Other musicians are analytical, focusing on playing the notes correctly according to the marks on the page. The extreme form of the analytical musician functions like a musical robot, turning out sounds mechanically while suppressing all creative, human, emotional output.

Most musical kids grow up in the analytical path. They are scolded for inventing noises and improvising on their instruments. Band practice is about playing the correct notes and watching the director. Some kids sit there hardly making a sound so they will not get yelled at.

The intuitive kids are the ones who teach themselves how to play guitar or piano because they are fans of so-and-so. Sometimes there is a pride in being sloppy and untrained. I have met musicians who brag about not being able to read music and not even knowing the names of notes.

The struggle between intuitive and analytical can lead to performance problems. For example, imagine a musician is very intuitive when practicing. She enjoys practicing, enjoys exploring the music, and feels satisfied with her progress in getting more comfortable with her material. But when a performance comes along, she suddenly feels panic. Her analytical mind starts taking over, fueled by a sudden nervous surge of on-stage excitement. “How does that piece start?” “How fast should I play that thing?” “Am I playing that high part in tune?” It’s like having a committee meeting where one important member is brought in at the last second for a vote, but that member complains, “I don’t know what we’re voting on!”

Performance problems can come up for the analytical musician as well. SShe practices precisely, plays with sharp focus, good timing, and the correct articulations. When a performance comes along, she faces her intuitive mind, aroused from its hibernation by on-stage excitement. “What are all those people in the audience going to feel?” “Am I really ready for this?” “What if I sound boring?”

When practicing, notice which area you tend to emphasize. Are there ways to balance the analytical and intuitive sides in your practice?

Think about one of the music teachers you have had. Did that teacher have an emphasis on analytical or intuitive? Or did the teacher show a balance between the two, providing both structure and spontaneity?