Friday, 3 January 2020

Help create passports to creativity

During a lunch with the violinist Samuel Dushkin, the composer Igor Stravinsky wrote some musical notes on a napkin. These notes formed the following vertical stack (or chord) of notes:

Stravinsky passed the napkin to Samuel and asked him if the chord was playable on the violin.

Given the awkward look of the chord and the significant space between its notes, Samuel immediately said that the chord was unplayable; he thought it would, quite literally, be too much of a stretch.

On returning home, however, Samuel tried playing the chord on his violin. To his surprise, he found that the chord was quite easy to play.

He immediately telephoned Stravinsky to tell him the good news. Stravinsky was pleased; he said the chord would be "the passport" to the concerto he was going to write for Dushkin.

Stravinsky was not a violinist and had, until finding the above passport to compositional success, been reluctant to write a concerto for the instrument. He had assumed that his lack of familiarity with the violin would hamper his efforts and cause him to create a mediocre concerto.

However, as his fellow composer Paul Hindemith had suggested, Stravinsky's unfamiliarity with the violin proved to be an advantage, enabling him to write for the violin in fresh and surprising ways: ways that expert violinists may have dismissed as unplayable or "unviolinistic".

The chord that had at first seemed unplayable to a virtuoso violinist became the symbolic and generative core of Stravinsky's innovative and engaging violin concerto. Each of the concerto's movements, and some of the sections within the movements, start with the chord.  

The chord became the creative gateway through which Stravinsky was able to access and explore, what was for him, a new and exciting musical landscape.

The above example offers us two important lessons about creative problem solving. Firstly, being unfamiliar with a discipline, issue or problem can be an advantage: it can lead to a person exploring things in new ways and discovering new approaches and solutions. Secondly, being familiar with a discipline, issue or problem can (at least initially) be a disadvantage: it can stop a person exploring things in new ways and discovering new approaches and solutions.

Stravinsky, despite his initial misgiving about writing for the violin, heeded the advice of Paul Hindemith and transformed the apparent disadvantage of unfamiliarity into a creative strength. Samuel Dushkin tested his familiarity based initial assumptions and discovered they were wrong (and in the process he gained a masterpiece for the violin).

Perceive unfamiliarity as a potential advantage and encourage others to do likewise; test your familiarity based assumptions: help create passports to creativity.

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