One of the most common myths about composing—and any creative medium, to be honest—is the assumption that the creator conceives of a new work in toto before they put real or digital pen to paper and that the creative process is simply a transcription method ensuring the most accurate manifestation of that initially conceived work. Does this happen on occasion? Of course it does—I haven’t met a composer yet who hasn’t had a piece introduce itself fully formed at least once, and there are many composers who enjoy planning a piece out to the nth degree before they begin putting notes to paper. The fallacy is that this is the way it always works for everyone, and it serves to create a mystification that (sadly) separates us from the general public; that most cannot imagine how our art is created (as opposed to a film or a poem or a painting) intensifies that sense of separation which, in turn, makes it that much harder for the general listener to connect with our work.
All of this was on my mind recently during a conversation my students and I were having with Kevin Ernst, who we had invited down from Cornell for an evening of lectures and discussion. At one point the conversation veered off into the idea of allowing oneself to forget the training that can shackle us to what can or should be done and instead to tap into the sense of “play” that comes so naturally to us when we’re young and have no concept of boundaries or rules or expectations. One of the biggest challenges along these lines is that many of us don’t recognize when we’ve stopped “playing,” especially after so many years of accruing the necessary tools to perform/create at a high level. Yet there seems to be a marked difference in one’s creative output if you’re just working with your tools and not a youthful, explosive, illogical imagination.
This idea of playing with your creative “food,” so to speak, doesn’t have to happen just at the outset of the process either. During one of my interview trips to New York City, David T. Little told me about the three steps in his creative process. Basically it came down to 1) collect ideas for a piece, 2) build the “nice” version of the piece, and 3) mess it up. That third step—messing around with something you’ve just created—is just as important, if not more important, than the first two because it’s in that step that creative artists can truly instill their identity into the piece.
I’ve spoken to many classroom teachers who are interested in composing but who can’t get past the mental roadblock that is the fear of doing it “wrong.” At some point in our transition into adulthood, we all find ourselves adjusting to that fear, no matter what the context. It is only when we allow ourselves to make mistakes, to experiment—to %@#$! around, in the best comic book “grawlix” tradition—that we can tap into that creative pool from which the “good stuff” invariably comes.