One of the benefits of working at a university is access to the library. For me, most of that benefit has been spent getting caught up on the excellent graphic novels such as V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Sandman, and the complete Gilbert Hernandez Love and Rockets universe. I do occasionally read “real books” too (and yes, that’s in quotation marks for a reason). About a year ago, I began a search for books on creativity and practicing so I could see what other people had to say about a part of my life that was often a struggle. I found one book that discussed practice called Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, which was quite interesting. However, the one I remember most was titled Creators on Creating: Awakening and Cultivating the Imaginative Mind.
The book is made up of a collection of essays written by some of the most prolific and significant creators in a wide variety of disciplines. The contributors include Henry Miller, Frank Zappa, Federico Fellini, Maya Angelou, and Richard Feynman, among others. In each essay, the writer explains his or her method of finding creativity. What I loved about the book was that it was broken down into chapters based on how the writers achieved their most creative state. For instance, there were those who were most creative and productive while focusing on their subject intently. Some found their most creative state when they distracted themselves from their work and followed seemingly insignificant tangents. Some worked best when collaborating; some needed to be alone. Some only could create when their schedule was packed to the brim. Others need open space in which to craft. Last week, I discovered to my delight that I fall into that last category, and it has changed the way I look at practice.
Last week I announced the experiments in productivity that I was conducting during my time away from my full time job. I learned a lot from the experience about the ways I can be most productive, but the most exciting and surprising revelation was how much I enjoyed playing and practicing the tuba. It shouldn’t be a surprise that once I began to enjoy the process of practicing, I began to accomplish more while I was doing it. Not no longer became a chore, but an opportunity to explore and develop.
I approached practice by breaking it down into small components. The first practice of the day was early, and it served to warm up and exercise my muscles. This was the most routine of the sessions, and it covered the major areas I needed to maintain: things like tone production, flexibility, and access to all registers. After that I would take a break and find time later in the day to return to the instrument. Once I got back, I would take stock of where I was and what I was wanting. Some days, I’d open up a book of etudes and try to play through them. Others, I would improvise on scales and patterns. One night I started improvising on the Goldberg Variations and tried to play along with a recording (Gould 1981, of course). And it happened that on a few days, I would play for about 5 minutes, realize I was not focused enough to accomplish anything, and come back to it later after I redirected my energy to other projects.
As I said above, the most important thing I found was that I needed an open space of time to practice. When I’m under a deadline for material or skills I have to learn, I tend to focus on how much I’m not accomplishing and I let the remaining time tick down as I’m paralyzed by the amount I need to do. When I gave myself an open period to play (which I mean in many senses of the word), I was able to find the things of value for me and work accordingly. I’ll be honest, some of those Goldberg Variations are much too hard to read on the wrong clef and at breakneck piano speeds. I don’t know how much I really got from it, but it was fun to try, and it could have opened up some new ideas for material I want to learn.
What about the times in which I do have a deadline and have a very specific task to accomplish? How will my crazy hippie practice techniques handle moments where decisive action are required? I think that in the long run, keeping my mind actively engaged will get me more of the innovative and interesting kinds of gigs I want. It’s that musician’s dilemma: I’m scared to turn down crappy gigs, because then I won’t get asked to play any crappy gigs any more. I also believe that by approaching practice as flexibly as possible, I’ll be better poised to learn what I need to when I need to learn it, and be able to pick it up quicker. I also have a whole host of tuba skills to fall back on while I’m continuing to develop myself.
The challenge now is finding how I can make this happen in the context of my full time job. After all, having the luxury of a flexible schedule is just that: a luxury. One option is to find the time at work to play; maybe at least get that first practice session out of the way so that when I get home I can work in the creative realm rather than the routine. Recently, I have stashed a secret tuba at my workplace, so that over lunch breaks I can get a little playing in. That should help for now, and I’ll continue to explore and experiment with the momentum I have to practice in my life. Also, I’m excited (and once again surprised) that I actually have the desire to make practicing a priority in my life.
I reiterate the statement I made last week about experimentation. This type of discovery would have been much more difficult if I had locked myself into a specific routine. I may have had some breakthroughs in the context of that routine, but I’m much more of a fan of the process of evaluation, experimentation, and reevaluation. The year is young! Make some time this year to explore what makes you most productive and make it happen.