When did you last sit down at your instrument and improvise a piece of music? I find it a great way to boost my creative energy. Were you even encouraged to do that as a student? I know I wasn’t. My job, growing up, was to play my scales, pieces, studies, and sight-reading with impeccable fidelity to the required text and technique, and then to close the piano lid when it was time for dinner. Anything else was considered ‘playing around’, and was strongly discouraged.
These days, fortunately, children who learn instruments generally feel a lot freer to play and to improvise at their instrument, and we can learn a lot from them. What do they do when they sit at the piano? Experiment with sounds and colors? Enjoy the feeling of flapping their hands up and down on the notes? Stick to the extreme ends of the keyboard?
As a piano teacher, I often begin by improvising around a simple chord sequence, and inviting the student to create a melody. If they’re shy, I set a tempo and suggest they play only whole notes to start with. When they begin to become more confident, I move to half notes and then quarter notes, before encouraging them to start to create a more inventive rhythm. What works particularly well is to play in F sharp major and let the student know that playing just on the black notes will work fine.
My students and I have also taken turns creating an impression (just a few bars) based on an animal, either together (“Do you think the high or low notes could work best for a mouse? How does it sound? How does it move?”), or separately, where we take turns to guess what animal the other person is imitating. This can work from the very first lesson.
Since I started using improvisation with my students, I’ve noticed that I feel much freer about improvising for my own pleasure, and, in fact, have created some pieces I’m proud of. Then, when I return to learning standard repertoire, I often begin to experience it differently, seeing it more from the composer’s viewpoint.
There are plenty of ways to stimulate creative energy away from one’s instrument too. I’m lucky enough to live in a beautiful small town in California surrounded by mountains and hiking trails. One of the most fruitful ways to regain perspective and refresh myself is to hike, or to just find a beautiful spot to sit and be in nature, and fill up my bucket with beauty. Taking time to be quiet, and maybe to meditate, also replenishes my energy.
Obviously, going to concerts can be inspiring—how about giving yourself a shake-up and going to hear a genre you wouldn’t normally try, like bluegrass if you’re a classical player, or contemporary music if you’re a baroque specialist?
Other art forms can also motivate one to look at art anew— from art exhibitions, to ceramic workshops, to theatrical productions and movies.
Just for fun, I’m also including some movies that have provoked and enthused me as an artist, both in terms of content and style:
- Man on Wire—incredible documentary about Philippe Petit, genius of the high-wire.
- 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould
- Jan Svankmajer’s “Alice”- the oddest version of the classic story I’ve ever seen.
- Wings of Desire- a poem in sound and images
- The Lives of Others- the importance of freedom in art under a repressive regime
- Sketches of Frank Gehry
- Cirque du Soleil (any of them)
- Top Hat (Fred Astaire)
- Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man
- The Story of the Weeping Camel
- Dead Poets’ Society
- Spirited Away
What do you do to boost your creative energy? I welcome your comments.