In Praise of Beginners (part 1)

Creative Commons License photo credit: jakeandlindsay

I have never regretted choosing music as my main creative idiom. There are so many reasons I think it’s the best thing I could have chosen to dedicate my creative life to. I’m not saying it’s ‘better’ than any other art form, but for me personally, I figure it has just about everything.

Music is infinitely deep and vast. It’s always going to be ‘bigger than me’ by orders of magnitude and I will never run out of amazing things to learn and discover about it. It’s the perfect marriage of mathematics and emotion. It combines the joys of physical technique and mastery of tools with those of storytelling, of spinning a narrative in an eloquent non-verbal (and verbal, if you lean that way) language.

Music moves people. I know of no other art form that can get so deep under peoples’ skin and cause them to tap their toes, bob their heads, clap or drum along, play air guitar or dance around the room. We don’t put it in museums and go to look at it while talking in whispers. Even dance, as an art form, does not often make other people want to dance; we tend to sit still and watch other people do it. Music makes us move.

Music is highly portable. You can play or practise all alone, for no-one but yourself, and get endless pleasure from it – or you can use it as a medium for profound connection and/or collaboration. Music connects people like little else. People define their whole identities around music that speaks to them or for them in a powerful way.

Music can express absolutely anything. It can be beautiful, light, airy, dark, angry, sensitive, aggressive, contemplative, meditative, virtuosic, stunningly complex or sublimely simple. And because it can be very simple, it can be made by nearly anyone. It’s this last point that I want to talk about today.

throw away the manual

Here’s the thing: some of the most amazing, powerful, brilliant music in history, and many pieces or albums that have touched me deeply and influenced my life and my own creative work, have been made by relative beginners. Not all, of course; much great music is still made by people who have spent many years developing sophisticated technique and a nuanced command of music theory, and there’s much to be said for those things.

But it happens again and again: people take the simplest tools – 3 or 4 chords and a guitar or two, a drum loop, a synth preset, two turntables and a microphone, an iPhone app… and make magic. Not just a cool song or dance track, but innovative, lasting, transcendent beauty.

You don’t have to study for 20 years before you can possibly have anything really important to say in music. There are countless examples of young, raw or uneducated musicians writing songs that are simply so overwhemingly good that you can’t get them out of your head, you sing them to yourself in the shower, and you remember them for years or maybe even for the rest of your life.

I don’t know if that’s true of any other art form. Maybe it is, maybe not, but I know it’s true in music. And not surprisingly, a lot of people who have dedicated a considerable part of their lives to building and nurturing the deep skillset of a professional musician find this threatening. I know this because I am such a person, and I have felt that way in the past.

But I’ve changed my mind about it. Now I think it’s fantastic. I’m thrilled, for example, that music software has become so easy to use that people can start producing tracks right away. Because that means that someone who might never have been able to do so before, can now make the next out-of-left-field bit of unexpected genius. And I can’t wait to hear it.

start from scratch

This notion has been percolating around in my head for a while now, as I’ve been too busy performing to do much in the way of writing here, and it struck me that there’s more to this story than just the fact that inexperienced people can often produce remarkably powerful music. I think there’s something very important about being at the beginning of something.

Discovering things for the first time in the course of creative work seems to bring an energy and intensity that is hard to replicate through formula. Indeed, when artists or musicians become to stuck in a pattern that has worked for them in the past, we tend to talk disparagingly of their work having become ‘formulaic’. They know exactly where they’re going and therefore there’s no sense of adventure, no risk, no fun. They’re going through the motions.  They don’t have the spark anymore.

So what’s the spark? The spark is being a beginner at something – not necessarily something completely new but some new unexplored aspect of your work, a new style, a new tool or technique. It’s the thrill of discovery. I have come to realize in my own work that I’m happiest, most engaged and yes, most creative when I’m playing with a new toy, in one sense or another.

And I believe it’s perfectly possible to keep doing this for your whole creative life, while continuing to learn and evolve and acquire more sophisticated knowledge and technique. We just have to keep looking for new things to be a beginner at.

keep looking…

Like I said at the start, I’ve always felt lucky that I chose music (or that it chose me!) because I am pretty sure I’ll never run out of things to learn and discover. The more I learn, the more I understand how much there is to know. Every door I open for the first time leads to another maze of passages to explore, with countless more waiting behind it. Far from getting harder to keep ‘being a beginner’, it gets easier – because the thing I’m exploring just keeps getting bigger, exponentially, every time I look at it.

I have no doubt that other art forms or creative idioms have just as much ‘room’ to grow and learn and keep discovering new things to ‘be a beginner’ at for a whole lifetime, as music does. We just have to stay curious about what’s behind that door, or under that rock, or behind that curtain. We have to be open enough to spot the new challenge and courageous enough to move towards it, to find out where it leads, what it might teach us or what hidden gem it might conceal.

I’ve written about this obliquely a few times before, in posts on Fearless Problem-solving and Lego Spaceships – the importance of having the wrong tools for the job. It’s also, I guess, at the heart of my theory of Creating like a Toddler – when everything is new, you have no choice but to be a beginner!

But the more I think about it, the more I think this is really the key to sustaining the passion and fascination required to do really creative work over the long haul: we have to find ways to keep jumping off of new cliffs (on which, more soon!).

At the very core of learning, growing, developing, evolving as creators – and certainly at the heart of Fearless Creativity – is this wonderful little irony: to do it right, we need to figure out how to always be a beginner.

Can you begin something new today?