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Creative being and the disciplined life

Imagine living our lives sans creativity.We would never vary our diets or the kinds of books we read.We would dress in similar styles every day, no variety, ever. Inevitably we would slow down our personal growth.We would minimize the "highs" in life, and reduce possibilities for personal discovery. And, we would probably practice piano by mindlessly repeating the same things over and over. 

Some individuals surround themselves with so much stimulation that finding time in the day to breathe and reflect can be difficult. These people become wired to thrive on all this information, and they are able to input a substantial amount of data from different sources: friends, travel, newspapers, television, the internet, background music, and so on. Sometimes they have a daily routine that helps them assimilate the stimuli, and sometimes they do not. 

Without creativity and variety in life, we may use the same analogies year after year, teach from the same materials over and over, stick only to our favorite pieces, and teach every student in the same way. We know that these ways work, so we continue to employ them. Ultimately, however, a lack of variety in the ways we organize our lives can be detrimental to our ability to grow, to produce our own stimuli, to effectively perform and/or teach. 

To enrich, enliven, and energize our teaching and our lives, mindfulness throughout the day is required in our choices and habits.

Set a ritual and keep it

In her book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp, a choreographer, discusses the importance of ritual.1 The daily ritual, whether it be exercise, journaling, yoga, meditation, or a combination of activities, sets a positive routine that frames the beginning of each day for the committed artist. It serves to warm up the mind, to renew the spirit, and to set the framework for development of the day's plan. It is this daily ritual that bridges the path for the person onward into the creative part of the days' future activities. Ritual could be considered by some as a sameness that promotes the lack of creativity that I referred to in the opening. Instead, Tharp suggests that we allow the ritual activity or activities, usually occurring at the beginning of the day, to set the mind free by fostering space, freedom, and reflection. 

Beethoven began each day with a ritual. He took a daily walk, during which he would scribble notes of a theme that might come to mind in his notebook. He used the walk to free his mind, and to prepare for his work that day.It is reported that Pablo Casals also maintained a ritual, which he felt was essential to his daily life. He would go to the piano and play two preludes and fugues of Bach, saying that he could not think of doing otherwise to start the day. He used this time to rediscover the musical world and enter into his musical being for creativity in his practice and other endeavors throughout the day.

Take time to be curious

The tendency to become rushed or over-extended plagues many teachers and performers. We have schedules to keep, people to help, music to practice, and many other obligations. When I am over-extended, even if things appear to get done, I feel cranky, impatient, and depleted. I often do not allow myself a routine that is crucial to my balanced being: cherished time each day to acknowledge my own curiosity and follow that spark as it creeps in at various times. For me, that one issue—being able to follow my own curiosity—spurs personal creativity. It allows "what if " moments to occur and opens the door to new ideas and discoveries that enrich me. It refreshes my teaching and practice, and it stimulates practically all aspects of my day

Reflect on surprises

If we let ourselves be surprised by occurrences or situations during the day, then we smile. Perhaps an "Aha!" moment arises. It could be a poignant realization in a lesson, ripples of water in a fountain, a bird on a limb, or a beautiful vista on a frequently traveled path that stops us for a moment and allows the experience to peak. I once heard someone say that, "Without surprise, boredom would win the Nobel Prize." 

Many creative persons take time to journal and reflect in writing daily. This space allows the perspective of surprises and other thoughts that arise in the subconscious to be examined, cared for, and ultimately expanded. Beethoven's sketchbooks were his workshop for ideas, his first step in creating a new work.

Just do it

All successful artists and teachers have points where they resist the initial stages of a project, their work, or a new habit. We are adept at finding reasons not to take something on, and yet these reasons are obstacles to the creative life. Simply going to the piano to practice (getting there) must be accomplished, and then the fun, the discovery, the growth can begin. Moving past personal resistance is a key to establishing a well-oiled routine that can subsequently allow the creative juices to flow. 

There is no substitute for hard work, and ultimately failure. Failure is an inescapable part of growing as a musician, teacher, and artist. Tharp cites a math professor at Williams College who bases ten percent of his students' grades on failure, since mathematics is about trying new ideas, all the while knowing that the majority of the student's attempts will be dead ends.3 This professor encourages students to follow innovative or even quirky ideas. Just try it and see.

Try something new, or different, again and again

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that we should attempt to surprise someone every day.4 He prods us to change our predictable selves and act, react, dress, and think in a way other than our usual custom. Taking time for the experience at hand lets us participate fully in that moment and enrich it in ways that may surprise us.

Follow the creative spark

Creative sparks emerge seemingly from nowhere, but they quickly coagulate to enrich our days, our work, our play. As the sparks arise, one realizes that this is not the time to sit and smile inwardly at the new energy, but rather the time to listen to that spark and let it lead us deeper into the moment, the practice, the lesson, the writing. This is the time to follow the spark and to get down to work.

Be kind to yourself

In the process of moving through the practice sessions, through the lessons, and through life, be kind to yourself. We have good intentions, and we care about our work and those with whom we come into contact.We do our best, and although it may not always elicit the results we strived for or provide the beauty or depth intended, we have done our best. We are human, and sometimes the positive fruition of our creative lives is delayed. Be gentle and avoid chastising your creative, well-intentioned self.

Creative, for life

Whether we face a lesson to be taught, a performance, another event, or just a regular day, we have an opportunity to create throughout life. And showing up and working hard for what we want is key. Being creative does not need magic or luck, but instead needs the setting of daily patterns; it subsequently requires the awareness of our habits, of our ruts, and of their fit into our disciplined lives. Creativity rises out of strong work habits, allowing curiosity and stimulus to flow. Ultimately, the disciplined life allows creativity to flourish. 

1 Tharp,T. (2003). The creative habit. New York: Simon and Schuster. 

2 Ibid., pp. 18-19. 

3 Ibid., p. 212. 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper.

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