Creative Mastery

Padmasambhava Statue, Nepal
Creative Commons License photo credit: Wonderlane

Today we’re going to talk about mastery. Thats right, you heard me. Mastery. Not ‘being pretty good at something’ or ‘knowing more or less what you’re doing’ or even ‘being in the zone’ or ‘feeling the flow’. Mastery. Being a master of whatever it is that you do. You in? Good. Buckle up…

So. I have a few piano students these days, and while the lessons are largely focused on practical pianistic things, I try to teach from the same kind of holistic perspective and approach that informs my composition and performance work – and of course, this blog. So from time to time some of the more abstract and philosophical stuff does find its way into the lessons.

Recently I found myself trying to convey something which has become very central to my whole thinking about music and piano-playing, in a kind of subconscious way, and I think it applies to creative work more broadly. It concerns, as you may have guessed already, the concept of mastery.

I suspect that many creative people tend to have a vague idea of mastery as something unattainable, or at least attainable only by an elite and supremely gifted few. Something for the rest of us to strive towards, perhaps, but never attain. And what would it feel like to attain it, anyway, since we never really sit down and define exactly what it means? How would we know that we’ve arrived?

Some of us are even uncomfortable with the whole idea, mistrusting perhaps the elitist overtones… And yet there are masters, undeniably – those whose abilities seem to transcend normal limitations, whose confidence and poise match their technical command, who make it seem easy.

I believe that coming to terms with this word, and what it means to us, can have a profound impact on our approach to creative work. So I’m going to try to get very specific about what it means to me (and as always, you’re heartily invited to join me with your comments at the end!)…


On Commitment, part 4: Why aren’t you out mowing the lawn?

Backyard Hair Cut

Creative Commons License photo credit: seantoyer

In the last post here, I mentioned an interview by a producer/engineer named Scott Solter, and while I was looking it over again, checking it to make sure I had the ideas right, something else caught my eye and subsequently became lodged in my mind. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, probably because it relates directly to both the creative project I’m immersed in right now, and also to a theme I’ve touched on in these pages before: namely, the idea of commitment.

It turns out that this notion is also rather important for Mr. Solter, and in the interview (it’s really more of an introduction to his work and the ideas that inform it, in sixteen short and somewhat oblique chapters) he describes what it means for him. I no longer have the article at hand, being on the road just now – I’m writing this on a train from Berlin to Amsterdam – but here’s what I can recall, and a few things it’s led me to think about…

The interviewer is inquiring about his (Scott’s) recording methodology, on a practical level, whether he prefers to use tape or computers, that sort of thing. With most people working in the audio field, that kind of question will usually lead to discussions of the merits of analog frequency response versus those of rapid, non-linear editing, or the positive effects of tube or tape saturation versus the amazing creative potential of digital signal processing, or the warmth and dimension of analog summing versus the flexibility and accuracy of mixing in-the-box.

If you choose not to decide…

Not so with Mr. Solter (although I imagine he has opinions on all the above, or at least is not unfamiliar with the arguments). For him, the central issue is one of commitment. The problem with working in the all-digital, non-destructive, we-can-always-change-this-plugin-later mode so common in audio production at this point (hint: it’s very much the mode I tend to work in) is that it’s all too easy to defer decisions, to end up not making real creative choices in the moment when we’re creating, which is probably when we should be making them.

To put this in more concrete terms, he illustrates the point with the example of recording a bass part for a track: “If you don’t know what the bass is supposed to sound like, why are you tracking the bass right now? Why aren’t you outside mowing the lawn?”

Being in an audio-industry magazine, the interview was intended for an audience that is more familiar with the technical background, so I’ll embellish a little with my own interpretation and response to this simple but, to me, deceptively powerful idea… More

Born Every Minute – Creativity at the Circus

Big Apple Circus - Lift

Creative Commons License photo credit: Bob Jagendorf

Once upon a time, I ran away to join the circus. Not a big-top-style circus with elephants and lion-tamers, but a circus nonetheless. And no, I’m not speaking figuratively. About 11 years ago, when we still lived in Canada, I got a call from an old friend who asked me if I would be interested in moving to Europe and playing piano in a show that he had been working in for a while, for pretty good money. The catch was that I had to be there the following week.

If that’s not a test-your-fearlessness moment, I don’t know what is.

As it happened, my then-girlfriend (now my wife) and I had ‘put the idea out there’ not long before that we would like to do some more traveling. But not in the backpack-and-railpass kind of way – we’d done a fair bit of that already; we were interested in living and working somewhere else for a while. And here was an opportunity to do exactly that.

So we took the plunge and, although much water has flowed under many bridges since then, we are still living in Germany a decade later. And while I left that particular show 6 years ago, I find myself working for a very similar outfit again now, and it’s given me a few things to think about – yet another lens through which to look at the endless subject of creativity through… More

On Commitment, part III – Tools of the Trade

Creative Commons License photo credit: brainware3000

I bought a new keyboard recently. And I don’t mean the one I’m typing on – which could certainly use an upgrade, to be sure, but I’m referring to a much bigger one with black and white keys that makes music. It’s quite a serious one, a real professional tool with bells and whistles, not to mention buttons and knobs and flashing lights, galore. Oh, and the whole thing is fire-engine red, and made in Sweden. If you’re a serious keyboardist like I am, this is something to drool over – and in fact, I’ve been wanting one for years.

So why am I doing this now, rather than years ago? Well, for a number of reasons really, which I’d like to explore here as a kind of framework for investigating the third type of creative commitment: to the tools and techniques that take our work to another level. We have to be committed not only to the idea of creativity, but to the reality of it as well, and this often requires investment in money and time that may not return directly for years or decades to come.

Gearing up

While I am a self-confessed gear nut and can get pretty ‘into’ music technology, amongst a number of other varieties, I have been on a low-acquisition kick lately and have have been pulling away from this kind of thing for a while. This has been educational, to be sure, and liberating in a number of ways, but due to a confluence of factors – first, I landed a steady gig for next winter (not the one I auditioned for last month, but in the same vein) for which I will need a solid reliable and professional unit; and second, I found this one about to go very, very reasonably on eBay. So I jumped.

It’s not the first ‘serious’ keyboard I’ve owned, of course. I’ve been buying and selling gear on some level most of my life, and in and of itself on a purely monetary level I can confirm that it has been a disaster of an investment strategy. However, not all ROI (Return On Investment) is measurable in purely quantitative terms and if I start to think about how all this gear has affected my creative journey over the 25 or so years I’ve been pursuing music as my life’s calling, a very different picture emerges. More

On Commitment, part II: the Creative Journey

On the road
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I seem to be developing a habit of ‘reaction posts’, but I can’t help it – when I read something provocative, it tends to plant a seed that slowly grows in my mind until it is well beyond the scope of a comment. In this case, I’m responding to Jonathan Fields’ post “The Creative Addiction: Is the Muse Friend or Foe?”.

Fields post consists of a quote from writer Pearl S. Buck and a couple of discussion questions. I’ll begin my discussion with the same quote:

The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.

Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off…

They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.

Now, this is melodramatic stuff, and plays into a common stereotype of the creative person that is not, I believe, universally or necessarily true.

First of all, I take exception to the inverse implication that if I am not such a sensitive flower – if (say) I can handle a bad day or (heaven forbid!) an actual failure without wilting in a corner or crawling under a rock to lick my wounds, then I must not in fact be a ‘truly creative mind’. I beg to differ.

And then we have the issue of addiction, or at least “strange, unknown, inward urgency”, which probably amounts to the same thing. Is creativity an addiction? This is Fields’ central question, and there are some cogent replies among the comments. Personally I don’t really buy it, or at least I prefer to think about it differently…  More