Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Creativity- the universal gift.

Photo by Carol Lynn Fraser B Ed, Edmonton, Alberta

“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” John Cleese

In a recent talk on creativity, John Cleese,  of Monty Python fame, took a look at research into the process of creativity done by Donald MacKinnon at Berkeley in the 70s, and delivered some striking points. In examining studies of creative people, he discovered that “the most creative had simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood, a way of operating, which allowed their natural creativity to function…: An ability to play.”  In this paradigm, despite what we often are led to believe, people are not either creative or not creative, but simply more or less able to move into a creative mode.

So what is a creative mode? Cleese differentiated between what he called ‘open’ and ‘closed’ modes.  In the open mode, we are playful, childlike, curious. In the closed mode, we are singlemindedly focused on implementing.  Seen this way, neither way is good or bad, and they’re both useful ways of operating. We’ve all probably come across people who are in the open mode so much of the time that they never get anything done, although they’re great fun to be around. We’ve also definitely come across people who prefer the closed mode and do not identify as creative.

What Cleese suggested is that we learn to alternate between these two modes of operating– giving ourselves the opportunity to be creative, and then moving into a more focused way of operating to fulfill those ideas and bring them to completion.

He had specific recommendations on how to move effectively into the ‘open’ mode. Creativity works best when it is sealed off from our everyday lives, both in terms of space and of time. Space means giving ourselves a place where we can go and not be disturbed.  In terms of time, he suggested limiting it to 90 minutes maximum.  He also discussed another aspect of time–being willing to take time with a creative problem. The research showed that the most creative people always played with the problem longer before they tried to resolve it, because they were prepared to  tolerate that slight discomfort and anxiety that we all experience when we haven’t solved the problem.  Discomfort can  drive some people to make a premature decision. Wanting to look decisive and confident can strangle creativity at birth. He suggested giving oneself the maximum pondering time until it’s actually time to make the decision.

He did however talk about another kind of confidence–the openness to the possibility that anything may happen; the willingness to risk saying things that are silly (and we all know he’s a master at that)!

The final quality is humor–humor gets us into open mode quicker than anything else. And Cleese stressed that being around other people whom you like and trust, and being willing to give and take positive contributions and make crazy connections, are real bonuses.

How can we make the best use of this research, as teachers and as creative beings?  For me it begins with some questions. During a lesson how often am I in ‘open’ mode with my students, and how often in ‘closed’ mode?  When am I helping them to implement, and when am I playing and having fun? How can I most effectively move between those two modes?  One example would be to analyze a passage of 7th and 9th chords in Debussy’s First Arabesque with a piano student, and then to  encourage the student to create a chord sequence of their own.

How can I encourage my students to move between those two modes in their own practice time?  How can I teach them to tolerate the discomfort of the “not knowing” place that is such a powerful well of creativity?

What comes to me is that the most powerful thing I can do is to model the two modes.  And that means practicing them for myself. How can I make my own practice more creative? How can I make my own creative time more productive? Am I giving myself the time and space I need to move into’ open’ mode?  How about right now?

What I loved most about John Cleese’s talk were the light bulb jokes.  Let me explain. In between the nuggets of meaningful research, delivered with great seriousness, Cleese told light bulb jokes- a demonstration, I eventually realized, of alternating between open and closed modes on the spot. So in honor of this great creative master, I will end with a short selection of light bulb jokes.

Q:How many musicians does it take to change a light bulb?

A:Five. One to change the light bulb, and four to stand around and say, “Man, if I’d had his studio time, I could have done that.”

Q:How many clarinetists does it take to change a light bulb?

A:Only one, but he’ll go through a whole box of bulbs before he finds just the right one.

Q:How many sopranos does it take to change a light bulb?

A:Three. One to climb up the ladder, one to kick the ladder out from under her, and a third to say, “I knew that was too high for you, dear.”

That’s all, folks!

Do you identify as having ‘open’ and ‘closed’ modes? How do you move between them? Have you used them during your teaching, and if so, how? I’d love to know.

About the Author

Valerie Kampmeier
Valerie Kampmeier, M.A., brings decades of performance experience as a successful classical pianist in Europe to her piano teaching and her life coaching practice for musicians. She also writes about living a creative life on her blog.
A gifted p... [Read more]


  1. Nicole

    Fascinating article!

  2. Tabatha

    Dear Valerie, I just read your post on injured musicians, but I couldn’t leave a comment there (perhaps because it was from 2011). My high school daughter was planning on majoring in horn performance in college, but she suffered an overuse injury brought on by an event planned by music educators. It’s been over a year and it’s not all better. Acupuncture helps. It’s been a heart-breaking, expensive injury. Thank you for trying to help other musicians.

  3. Leila Viss

    The terms open and closed are helpful. Your explanation describes my creative process in many ways but also helps me realize that some people prefer the “closed mode.” Mind boggling to me, but that does explain some things…

  4. WKMT

    Thank you for the article. To learn more about music, check here

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