Thursday, 27 March 2014

Create a window for inspiration

"You can cultivate inspiration by creating a window for it. I tell my students to practice being inspired in various ways. For example, to look out the window as a composer. To look out the window as a painter. To look out the window as a writer, a novelist, and ask 'What are the things that you notice from these various perspectives?'. They’re states of mind. If you look out the window as a novelist, you might think of stories about people on the street. If you look out the window as a poet, you might try to capture a particular moment. As a composer it might be the rhythm or the patterns that inspire you. I do that exercise myself."

Bruce Adolphe - Composer
(from "The Muse that Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process" by Ann McCutchan)

Whilst reading Ann McCutchan's  book (referred to above), I was struck by the simplicity and power of Bruce Adolphe's 'looking out the window' exercise.

We all get into the habit of looking out at life from the same angle each day: our experiences, education, preoccupations and passions (and other such attributes) focusing our attention upon those things we believe are significant and important. After a while we do not even think to question or test our view of the world; our response to what we see becomes automatic, almost subconscious.

Most of the time this suits us well. It helps us deal with the routine of our day-to-day lives and make quick, common-sense assumptions and judgements that keep us safe, keep us in work, and keep us sane!

However, if we need to be creative our habitual view of things, our preferred window on the world, can cause us problems. It can restrict our view of what is happening in front of us. It can bring the shutters down, limiting the angles from which we can view things and blanking out new areas of interest upon which we could focus.

Using Bruce Adolphe's 'looking out the window' exercise can help us develop a more flexible, multi-angled and multi-focused view of the world. It can provide a cord with which we can pull the shutters from our thinking.

Get into the habit of creating a window for inspiration by, quite literally, looking out your home or office window from someone else's perspective. Use the perspectives mentioned above or choose others: your customers, your boss, a young unemployed person, a retired person, a homeless person, an environmentalist, a gardener, a cyclist, a pedestrian, a blogger, anyone you can think of, anyone who can help.

Pull the cord; raise the shutters and begin to notice what you begin to notice. How do the new things you see change your view? How could they help you? How could they help you do things differently?

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Make time for playtime!

For many composers improvising at the piano provides the spark that ignites their creativity.

Firstly, they will improvise to identify promising ideas.

Next, and this is important, they will continue to improvise. They will play with the ideas in various ways: placing and replacing them, linking them, combining them, separating them, stretching them, shortening them, augmenting them, decorating them, speeding them up, slowing them down, enriching them and stripping them. 

They will subject their ideas to all sorts of weird, wonderful and exciting treatments. They will enjoy this process; they will do it for some considerable time.

Then, once they have exhausted all the possibilities they can think of (and probably themselves), they will, quite possibly after a short break (or in some cases even after a nap), begin to compose.

They will turn from the piano toward the manuscript (or computer screen) and begin the structured, logical, iterative process of selecting and refining the ideas and approaches they are going to use, and then writing them down for others to play.

The above process provides an important lesson for any of us involved in creative problem solving: it emphasises the importance of 'playtime'.

Many brainstorming sessions are very effective at generating a great many ideas; with a little thought and care, this is not difficult to achieve. Quite commonly, however, they fail to acknowledge the importance of playing with ideas before evaluating, selecting and implementing them. Perhaps this is because the concepts of play and work do not sit easily together within the 'time is money' cultures of many organisations and businesses.

But playing with ideas, piling them together, chopping and changing them and throwing them into different contexts, just for the hell of it and to see what happens, is not just about wasting time and having a bit of fun.

Making time for playtime adds great value to the creative problem solving process by enriching the quality of ideas and providing additional options for how they can be used and presented. In fact, encouraging playtime with ideas can make the difference between effective and ineffective creative problem solving.

So, the next time you are creative problem solving make time for playtime. Once you have generated your ideas play with them for a while: combine them in different and unexpected ways; add new facets to them; take things away from them; make different assumptions about them; use them for different things; put them into different situations; even place them within unbelievable, fantastic scenarios (or even boring ones); and see what develops.

Above all have fun with your ideas; try things out for the hell of it, just to see what happens. It may prove much more useful than you expect.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Keep yourself open for business

The composer Bright Sheng uses the analogy of being an antique shop owner to describe the process of composition and becoming inspired:

"I often think writing music is like having, for example, an antique shop. You have to keep the shop open every day. Some days nobody comes, but you still have to be there. Once in a while somebody comes in and purchases a precious object for a large amount of money. If you are not there that day, you will not make the sale. It's very important to be mentally ready to receive when the inspiration comes."

Bright Sheng is emphasising the importance of developing regular habits that will help you keep your mind open to the possibility of inspiration. 

Doing one or two of the following things each day can help you achieve this:

  • Make it attractive and easy for others to approach you with their ideas and opinions. (For example, make it clear when and where you are 'open for ideas' and what the benefits of sharing them will be. Be willing to give people credit for their ideas.)  
  • Actively welcome the perspectives of others into your thinking; be open to the possibility of doing things differently. (Once you have attracted people's ideas you need to show that you truly value them. You do this by not only welcoming ideas but also showing you are responding to and acting upon them.)  
  • Build-up and create an inventory of stock, in the form of a wide range of interesting and intriguing ideas, that can be transformed into inspirational profit as and when an opportunity appears. (For example, a surprise problem may appear for which an idea from your store can provide an innovative and timely solution.)     
  • Brush the dust of time away from old items of stock (interesting and intriguing ideas you collected a while ago) to remind yourself of them and reassess their value. (Ask yourself if a change in the situation or context has made an idea more relevant and potentially useful.)
  • Be patient and remain open for 'the business of inspiration'. Give your intuition the time it needs to 'window-shop' through your mind and eventually settle upon a specific problem or topic. (Apparently irrelevant ideas can sometimes stick in the mind for no apparent reason. Rather than immediately dismissing them, allow them some time and space to develop, roam and perhaps connect with the issues and problems you need to solve.)

The above quotation is from "The Muse that Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process" by Ann McCutchan.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Set yourself a one-day challenge

The composer John Zorn described his group Naked City as 'a compositional workshop for pieces I could write in a day'.

By setting himself the constraint of writing a piece in one day, Zorn forced his creative processes down avenues he would not have explored otherwise and succeeded in creating short songs packed with immense energy and variation.

Only once (and more modestly) have I experienced a similar type of process. A friend of mine knocked on my door one Saturday morning and said, 'You know that gig this evening? We are going to arrange and rehearse a piece to play during it!'

I thought he was joking, but it soon became evident that he was not. Half an hour later I found myself in a rehearsal room transcribing my trumpet part from a recording and working with three other musicians to mesh everything together and make something playable and enjoyable for an audience to hear.

The work was intense but also fun. The challenge of the timescale and the fact that we were going to perform the piece that evening (my friend had already promised it would be on the programme) not only focused our energies but also stimulated our creativity. I found myself listening more keenly, communicating more directly and improvising more readily. We succeeded in making a quirky arrangement of a well-known jazz song (which had a bit of an Arabic twist) for the unusual combination of bassoon, trumpet, snare drum and miscellaneous percussion instruments. Basically, we used the musicians and instruments we had to hand.

We got it all together for the evening performance and it went off well. What I remember most is the immediacy and simplicity of the music, the fun we had in putting it together and performing it, and the audience's enthusiastic reaction to our playing. If we had been given longer to think about and work on things perhaps the results would not have been as good as they turned out.

When finding solutions to problems, especially those needed within a business or organisational environment, we often make the assumption that the process will take much longer than one day. Even when we seek to identify 'quick wins' we tend to think about actions we can implement in two or three weeks, or even two or three months. There is something about the world of business and work that demands we spend a long time on the identification and implementation of solutions: that insists we are seen to provide value for money through the significant investment of time.

Now, it is certainly true that, owing to their complexity, many business and organisational problems do take a long time to sort out. But is this always the case? What if we occasionally questioned this assumption? What if we were to call a 'One-Day Challenge Workshop' at which people would be encouraged to identify solutions they could implement that day?

Such a workshop would certainly generate a lot of energy and encourage people to share a wide range of ideas. Also, it would probably generate a fair number of solutions innovative for their simplicity and the immediacy of their application.

Try it; see what happens.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Be purposeful

The famous conductor Valery Gergiev was staying at a seaside resort in Israel whilst undertaking a concert tour with his orchestra. His friend had just gone scuba diving and Gergiev asked him about it. His friend explained, “You put on tanks, breathing apparatus, you go underwater.”
“And?” Gergiev asked.
This snippet of conversation is very revealing about Gergiev’s perception of and approach to life. Life needs to have a purpose: a specific and clear end result.
Not unsurprisingly, this way of thinking is central to his music making as well. The way he leads and directs his orchestra is very purposeful and his musical intentions, what he is trying to achieve whilst conducting, are very clear.
Having this clear purpose in mind helps to make his overall interpretation of a piece of music coherent and consistent. For example, if he feels that a piece of music possesses an underlying mournfulness or sadness he will bring out its dark orchestral textures and slightly accentuate or linger upon certain phrases to realise their emotional potential. Thus the audience will quickly begin to perceive Gergiev’s overall purpose and how it is informing the growth and development of the music.
When you are preparing for a task think carefully about your purpose: what it is you need to achieve. Keep your purpose in mind as you prepare for and undertake the task. Concentrate upon those aspects and details of the task that will help you achieve your purpose. This will not only enhance the clarity and direction of your thinking but also enable others to understand and appreciate your intentions.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Capture the essence

Graham Fitkin is a composer who frequently gives his works one word titles. The words he selects for his titles get straight to the heart of what the music is about. For example, three of his pieces are called ‘Sinew’, ‘Granite’ and ‘Metal’. Each word makes its own unique impression upon an audience, readying them for the music’s timbres and textures and creating an overall sense of expectation and anticipation.

Capturing the essence of what an issue or problem is about is central to solving it. The next time you have a complex problem to solve start by challenging yourself to think about it simply. Ask yourself the following question:

‘What is the one word, phrase, analogy or metaphor that best describes the essence of the problem?’

Find the essential heart of your problem and your mind will become primed, ready and even eager to solve it.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Access all areas

When Beethoven composed his Septet in E flat major it quickly became very popular with amateur musicians across Europe.

Given that the piece needed quite large forces and called for instruments not easily to hand, Beethoven decided to create some arrangements for fewer instruments. He wrote one arrangement for clarinet, piano and cello and another for violin, piano and cello. Doing this not only increased the number of people who could enjoy his music but also helped Beethoven enhance his profile and increase his income.

How could you enhance the accessibility of your ideas and raise your profile? How could you make it easier for people to directly access and experience your ideas? What types of media are most convenient and economic for people to access and how could your ideas be adapted to them effectively? Can you tailor your ideas to the differing needs and resources of the various people who are interested in or affected by them? How can you make your ideas less expensive to implement whilst at the same time maintaining and perhaps even enhancing their quality?

Monday, 3 March 2014

7 principles of engagement and creative collaboration

Here is a great example, from Annemarie Borg and the Antara Project, of how software can help you engage and connect with people:

There a six key principles at work here:

  1. It is easy for people to make comments (they can do so as they listen).
  2. People can post comments individually and without interruption.
  3. All comments, however brief, are acknowledged and visible.
  4. The maker of the content is open to and welcoming of all comments.
  5. It is easy to share the content and the comments.
  6. The content (in this case the music) has an overall vision or message that is appealing to listeners and which encourages them to make comments.    

Making participation easy, providing individual space for people to consider and make their contributions, being transparent, welcoming all comments, making it easy to spread the message and providing an inspiring vision are all essential for effectively engaging with people and encouraging them to participate. This is true for not only software but also face-to-face and other means of interaction.

To progress from engagement to creative collaboration it would be conceivable to add a 7th key principle: that of widened ownership. Visitors to the above website could be invited to 'play'  with the music, to rearrange and remix it in all manner of creative and surprising ways. People could then make comments on these new versions in the same way as for the original. 

This process would get complicated, with many 'owners' of many versions (true collaboration is always complicated in one way or another), but it would also lead to the generation of a great many rich and diverse ideas, none of which would be lost and all of which could be learnt from and built upon.

As with the first six principles, widened ownership can be applied through not only software but also face-to-face and other means of interaction (e.g., by inviting people to play with and modify our ideas during a workshop or strategy meeting). It is, however, the most challenging principle to apply; it is counter to the prevailing human culture of ownership and our deeply ingrained, almost instinctive need to possess things.

But if we can be patient, dampen down our egos and recognise that anything we create has a life of its own (a life that others will seek to share and influence), we will likely be delighted by the rich diversity of ideas that emerge, ideas from which the many rather than the few will profit.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Introduce freshness

There is a very simple musical form called ‘ Rondo Form’ which captures the essence of this principle. In France during the Baroque period (1600 --1750) a type of harpsichord music evolved that used a simple chain-like structure. The music would start with an opening theme. Then another theme would be played after it, and then the original theme would be played again. This was followed by yet another new theme. Then the original theme would be played again, to be followed by the second theme heard. The piece would then finish with a final restatement of the opening theme. Sometimes the order would be slightly different to this, with the theme played once occurring nearer to the end, but in essence there was always one idea that was introduced in the middle, or sometimes towards the end, that was new and added freshness and interest to the musical form.

This simple, effective form was a favourite not only of Baroque composers but also of the Classical period composers who followed them. If you listen to symphonies by Mozart and Haydn you will often hear a lively, bright and fresh last movement that adds a new musical idea, or a new reworking of a previously heard one, somewhere between its middle and end.

This musical devise was very useful to classical composers, as it enabled them to keep a trick or two up their sleeves for later in their works, keeping their audiences (who were very knowledgeable and aware of the nuances of musical form) interested and attentive. Haydn was especially well-known for the musical jokes and surprises he would include in his symphonies, especially during their last movements.

The principle at work here is one of introducing new ideas into a pre-existing structure, and it is easily applicable to non-musical situations and problems.

Useful questions to ask when applying this principle are:
  • What new, apparently unrelated ideas have we not considered so far when thinking about the issue or problem?
  • What are we not seeing, appreciating or using and how can we start doing so?
  • When was the last time we considered something new? (If it was some time ago do we need an injection of freshness? Do we need to bring in someone new or create some new roles and responsibilities, etc.?)
  • Can we look at old ideas in new ways? Can we develop them in innovative ways?

Lastly, the Rondo Form gives us guidance about when new ideas are most likely to be needed and appreciated. This is somewhere between the middle and end of a task or project (or if a long project somewhere between the middle and end of its significant stages).