“…a genuinely creative accomplishment is almost never the result of a sudden insight, a lightbulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work.”
I’ve never liked the advice ‘think outside the box’. It seems to violate so many cultural, scientific and artistic norms.
The saying is so often equated with new age, hokey, half-truth science. Feel good religion. ‘Your path to enlightenment is to remove yourself from the world.’ But I’m in the world no matter how much I try not to be.
It puts so much pressure on me to be different. To come up with the next big thing. To spontaneously combust a brand new idea. What if I don’t like being that different?
You’re supposed to follow your own path, which I guess means building your own road. Plough your own field. Build your own castle. But I don’t know how to build all these things from scratch, and I don’t want to leave my friends and family behind.
Why study history, learn manners and language, social decency and behavior? If we’re supposed to think outside of one box, one area of our lives, why not all others? How do I know when difference becomes a virtue and same becomes a burden?
‘Think outside the box’ is lazy advice and false logic. It’s hard to create something meaningful without having some preexisting knowledge on which your meaningful creation is based. People crave context, as well as innovation and these two things need not be mutually exclusive.
Thinking outside the box values an unknown other just because it’s on the outside, without acknowledging the value of the box itself. After all, if you were in the box, and able to create something outside of it, doesn’t the box have something left to offer? Should we just throw away the box completely?
I’ve never been comfortable with throwing out all the rules. I’ve never been comfortable with disregarding history, objective study and demonstrable knowledge. There’s a reason we study the music of the classical canon; not because that’s where we need to focus on all our time, but because the levers of history, as prejudiced and exclusionary as they have been, have deemed some repertoire vitally important. In order to look at what’s been excluded, or what’s possible in the future, we need to know what general consensus call important now, and by what criteria we measure that by.
All musicians want to be creative, but only the most nihilistic art can be created outside the box, and even then, there’s no guarantee that your audience will understand your performance outside of the box themselves. So where does creativity come from?
Social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has answers. Known for his concept of ‘flow’ in expertise (I highly advise studying his book on that subject as well), he also pursued an in-depth study on the state of creativity. How to experts who truly create something new discover and invent new ideas in their domain? Do they truly work outside the box, or in it?
To study this, Csikszentmihalyi and his team performed an elaborate long-term study of individuals at the top of their domain, be it the arts, government, business or science. These individuals have been in their field for decades and are intimately and actively engaged in it. After selection, these individuals were interviewed and their body of work analyzed to cull hints at the source of their creativity. In doing so, he created rules and relationships which point towards the source of innovation, not just for the most genius in the world, but all artistic practitioners.
“…creativity results from the interaction of a system composed of three elements: a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation.” (page 6)
Lesson 2 is that after demonstrating this knowledge, one can add something to the existing knowledge that is new, original and genuine. Creativity is always tied to what came before, an outgrowth (think of creativity like a giant scrabble game!).
Lesson 3 is that your creative creation must be recognizable to others in the field. Scientific study is predicated on, among other things, replicable tests. If your method of testing cannot be repeated and the same results attained, you cannot say your conclusion is truth. Replication in any field is necessary so that your creation can be useful to others.
Lesson 3, then, circles back to lesson 1. Someone else might take over the body of work in your field, including your creation, and add more. In my doctoral studies, I finally realized that the more you learn, the more you know what’s left to know. Being an expert isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about knowing how to ask the right questions that expands creativity, then, knowing how to pursue answers to those questions.
I once heard the tubist and podcaster Andrew Hitz amend the ‘think outside the box’ statement to something closer to ‘expand the box instead’. Csikszentmihalyi would agree.
As musicians, this has any number of applications. For Hitz, his focus on entrepreneurial ventures for musicians means that we don’t have to create brand new avenues for our music to be heard, but we should try to find better utilize the avenues that already exist. We don’t have to create new audiences out of thin air, but we should be focused on bettering the experience of those who already listen to us.
My focus with this blog is to study what makes great, individual piano performances. But an intentional pianist isn’t ignorant of performers who came before, and doesn’t play interpretations that can’t be defended with intellectual honesty. My goal isn’t to be different then everybody else. Become an expert and know the expectations with a piece you’re learning. Then you can be creative.
Think for yourself. If you come up with a way of playing a piece that you absolutely believe in, do it your way. If you trust your musical instincts are based on listening, reading, and years of playing with the correction of creative masters, then you can rest assured that the way you want to play is justified. You can know that you’re being a true creative pianist, expanding the knowledge and creativity that came before.
Next week, Influential Books hearkens back to my Extraordinary Recordings series, by studying The Great Pianists.
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