Musical creativity isn’t a “yes or no” thing. It isn’t a “have it or don’t have it” kind of skill. It’s more of a “use it or lose it” proposition.
This isn’t a scientific argument. It’s based solely on my observations and experience. But let’s consider this scientifically…
Science would urge us to apply the scientific method: to experiment, analyze the results and make conclusions based on the evidence. That empirical evidence, though, belies what I have found experientially to be true: that all of us who are attracted enough by music to choose to study it are gifted with musical creativity.
I don’t mean that we all are gifted in the same fashion or that we are enabled to use these gifts to the same extent. But I have never come across a student who had no desire or ability to be musically creative.
Our regular practice habits are not designed to promote or develop creativity, however. In our practice we analyze our mistakes and chalk up our results based on numbers of technical flaws rather like judges in competitions do. This factual way of looking at our practice gives us an easy way to evaluate our progress, our success in practice or performance.
But for many students it can take the fun out of making music. When we judge our work by these sorts of negative numbers, we run the risk of permanently stifling our musicality and our natural creativity.
To get a different perspective, one that fosters our musical feeling and sustains our engagement, we can employ a variety of practice techniques. First on my list of techniques to develop musical creativity are ones that develop a spirit of experimentation.
Practice Outside the Box
If our usual practice habit is to make everything correct – to follow the instructions on the page of music – then practicing outside the box is the reverse. Why not devote a few minutes each day to discovering what you can do differently from what is written?
Try altering the dynamics or tempo or the mood of a piece. Play that fast Allegro movement as a slow funeral march, or that heavy, majestic piece as a lighthearted bit of fluff. The general idea is to see how far you can get from the original – same notes, totally different piece.
What can you gain from this? This exercise stretches and strengthens your expressive tools; it opens your mind to new possibilities as you explore the connections between musical ideas and the tools you have to communicate them. It’s also great for developing your technical facility and security with any piece.
Model Your Playing
Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also a simple method for sharpening your listening and analytical skills.
Find several recordings of a piece you know well. Listen carefully to the recordings with an ear for distinguishing characteristics that separate one performer’s interpretation from another’s. You’re not listening for errors or mistakes, just for differences that reflect a performer’s personal rendition and feeling for the piece.
Then attempt to play those differences yourself, to use them as templates to help you experiment with various ways to play the piece or even just a single passage of it.
I don’t mean practicing with a buddy. I suggest that you find two pieces that you can relate in one way but that are nearly opposite in another way. Then play those two pieces, or perhaps just sections of each piece, in alternation, keeping in mind the similarities and differences.
For example, you could choose two pieces that have the same title or musical form but are written by two composers from different centuries: a Gavotte by J. S. Bach and a Gavotte by Bernard Andrès, for example.
Or two contrasting settings of the same folk tune, one that is spare and delicate and another with full chords and rich sonorities.
Or two similar pieces of different difficulty level, such as “Moonlight” and “Clair de Lune.”
This creativity exercise helps you observe some of the foundational musical elements that we often overlook when we practice, like texture, musical form and style.
After a little bit of experimentation like this, you will begin listening, reading and playing music with new awareness. And you will begin to unleash the creative musical soul you’ve been hiding!