Have We Been Taking the Wrong Approach?

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Creative Commons License photo credit: CarbonNYC

What makes people different? What makes creative people, create differently?

When we speak of someone having a particular style, or a unique approach to what they do, what does that mean?

In the case of music or art, how can two people who work in the same medium or idiom, play the same instrument, and perhaps even have the same influences, do what they do so differently? Or if the differences are subtle, how can they change the experience for the listener or viewer so profoundly? What is that difference made of?

I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a lot lately, partly because we’ve had some substitutes playing in the band at the show I’ve been working for these past few months.

Now, we maintain a pretty high standard of musicianship – the core players are all very accomplished and versatile players, and when we ‘sub out’ we try to make sure we hire replacements of the same calibre. Luckily Berlin is well-stocked with fantastic musicians, and we’re fairly well connected with the community. So it’s not hard to bring in players that are up to the challenge.

However, it changes the music and the experience dramatically. For us, for our non-musical colleagues in the show, and for the audience, though they may be unaware of it.

I suppose through a certain lens this is all very unsurprising, but I started to ponder it a little and it began to strike me as a deeper and more subtle thing than it might seem at first glance. And, well, I’m all about exploring deep and subtle questions that might otherwise be overlooked…

hitting things with sticks

Take our drummers, for example. We’ve had 2 different subs this year, both top-notch, highly experienced and sophisticated players just like our main guy. They are playing, up to a point, from charts, and they have recordings of the core band to draw from. They’re playing the same drums, the same songs, the same beats; in some cases even the fills are scripted.

So how can they sound so completely different? How can hitting things with a stick sound completely different from person to person? I don’t mean to belittle the art and science of drumming, which I hold in high regard. But on the surface, hitting something with a stick would seem to be, pretty much, hitting it with a stick. However, the fact remains: something in the approach these players take to the kit makes the experience radically different. And that’s a wonderful thing!

In the piano world we talk a lot about touch – the subtle differences in the way we caress (or pound) the keys that determine the quality of sound we get from the instrument. But again, we’re pressing down on levers – how can it sound so completely different? I’m not even talking about what is being played, which is something else again, but just in terms of how the instrument is being played, or how the brush strokes the canvas… there is far more going on here than simply pressing harder or softer.

I guess what I’m getting at here is the physicality of creativity.

let’s get physical

It strikes me that books, blogs, essays, conversations and courses about creativity tend to focus almost entirely on the mental, cerebral side of things. Certainly this blog has had that focus, by and large. Perhaps it’s just easier to talk about, I don’t know, but the conscious, cognitive aspects of creative work tend to get a lot more play.

However, recently I’ve begun to wonder if we haven’t got it a bit backwards. Maybe it’s all a bit of a smoke-screen for the fact that we don’t really understand the physical side of creativity all that well. Or maybe we don’t have the tools to understand it.

Now obviously some fields are far more overtly physical than others; dance springs to mind. I don’t have much of a window onto that world so I can’t comment directly, but I assume that if you talked to a dancer about this stuff, or perhaps read Twyla Tharpe’s books, you might find less focus on the work of the mind and more on the work of the body (not to say, of course, that there isn’t considerable mental work involved in dance).

But I think generally we tend to overemphasize the mental work of creativity and downplay the role of the body’s equal-but-different intelligence. Playing in a show that demanded less of me technically, or at least theoretically, than I’m accustomed to – but far more on the subtle level of groove and feel – has been an interesting reminder that often most of what’s really beautiful or profound in creative work comes from that physical intelligence.

Coming in for a landing

On Final Approach - Try#2
Creative Commons License photo credit: outofsocks

In one sense, you could say that the mind’s work is conceptual (duh) but the body’s job is execution. Delivering the goods. Following through with the finesse and gesture that turns good ideas into great work.

But I think it is more than that, or at least it can be and probably should be, if we’re to produce creative work that is organic and intuitive, not ponderous and overwrought as it so easily can be if we allow our conscious minds  to take over too much of the process. Which, of course, they are often dangerously willing and eager to do.

Our unique, personal approach to our creative work has more to do, I think, with this subtle physical intelligence than with our conscious mind and its relentless stream of ideas (or, on not-so-good days, the frustrating lack of them). I have a suspicion that most of the really good stuff, the stuff we should be celebrating and focusing on, takes place below the level of consciousness.

flying blind

On occasion I have performed fully improvised piano concerts. I walk onstage with literally no idea at all what I’m going to play, sit down at the piano and look for a friendly-looking note. Several times in this context I have had the peculiar sensation of floating for a few seconds out of my body and looking down at my hands from above, with this thought arising: “that’s pretty wild, I have no idea how I’m doing that”.

But here’s the thing: my hands know. What’s happening in that moment is that I’m managing to quiet down the hyperactive conscious creative brain and let the body do its thing for a while, and just observe. It’s a nice feeling and one I wish I could summon more easily, and I believe there are ways to cultivate that. Regardless, I’m certainly happy to accept these fleeting moments when they do happen.

Because it is in those moments, I think, that I am most authentically and uniquely my own creative self. Obviously my brain is still in control of the fingers, on some level, and the years of theory and conscious practice are contributing to the choice of notes I’m playing. I wouldn’t want to eliminate those factors entirely, even if that were possible.

So I suppose this is really about keeping perspective and balance with regards what’s really important in our creative work. Great ideas are a wonderful thing, but they are not the be-all-and-end-all of creativity. They are only half the package, and in some ways the less interesting half – perhaps precisely because they are easier to talk about. Understanding our bodies’ contribution to creative work is, I think, in some ways the deeper and more rewarding challenge.

The ideas I work with are not, I think, so special. I get a good one now and again but for the most part I don’t try to fool myself into believing that they are utterly original, or that no-one else in the world could stumble on them.

But no-one else plays quite like me, for better or for worse. And I think that’s worth building on.

So how about you? How does your creative work involve the body’s subtle intelligence? If you could train someone to do exactly what you do, and give them a script for executing your ideas, do you think the results would be different? Subtly or profoundly (or both)? Comments are, as always welcome below!