On icebergs and creativity

Musicians will be familiar with this image of an iceberg. The tip, the visible part, represents our public persona and the music we perform and share with others, while the mass which is hidden below the surface of the water represents the many hours of practise, study and preparation which enable us to perform. Anyone who believes that music flows effortlessly from the musician’s body or who thinks it is “easy” should consider this illustration below and its metaphor.

But what if we allowed others a glimpse into our practise rooms, to watch us practising, working, refining and finessing our music, to sit in on rehearsals with colleagues, and to observe the long and detailed process that goes into making a concert which may only last for 90 minutes?

In a college of art and design in the US, students are being encouraged to do just that – to offer up their work-in-progress, their rough drafts and preliminary designs, even their mistakes, for scrutiny by others in a new exhibition called ‘Permission to Fail’. We are used in exhibitions, books and concerts to seeing and hearing the finished article and I think this often makes viewers and listeners rather complacent, or even ignorant, about the long and involved creative processes which go into producing a work of art or preparing a piece of music for performance. It is all the working out, the sketching, redrawing, practising and pondering which enables us to unleash our creativity, and by learning from our mistakes and our “workings out”, we reach a finished product wrought from a special mixture of curiosity, exploration, trial and error, hard graft, and imagination.

Music practise is usually undertaken alone and in private, except when colleagues come together to rehearse ahead of a concert. Do we really want others to see us sweating over a knotty section, swearing at that passage which always trips us up, hear 50 repetitions of the same section, practising to make the music permanent and perfect? There is however a great curiosity about how musicians, and other creative people, work: I find this often manifests itself in (sometimes daft) questions about “finding the time” and much exclaiming about the amount of time one spends doing it. Then there is the ongoing “not a proper job” aspect of being a musician (or writer or artist) whereby because one loves what one is doing it can’t possibly be serious or commercial, and that practising, or drafting a synopsis or sketching out a painting, is somehow self-indulgent and without value. The pianist Valentina Lisitsa filmed her practise sessions and it was the huge popularity of these video clips that enabled her to relaunch her career. In a way, these films proved that she was a fallible human being, and offered a glimpse into her world as a working musician, which made it more comprehensible to those outside the profession.

Many art exhibitions these days will include the artist’s ephemera, including notebooks, sketchbooks and scrapbooks. Of course for most artists, these books were private, not for public consumption and were the artist’s way of recording ideas to be worked up later in the studio: they were never intended to be shown to the public, yet they offer fascinating insights into the working practices, processes and mindset of a creative person. They also reinforce the fact that creativity is not just about the finished product, it is also about the journey to get there. I think it’s important that we as practitioners of a creative activity appreciate the the joys and frustrations, the mistakes and the eureka moments which we must go through, and to regard all of these as important staging points on the journey. The “10,000 hours rule” has largely been debunked, with an emphasis now placed more firmly on quality rather than quantity of practise. That said, one does need to put in the hours and practising should be habitual, concentrated and thoughtful.

I’ve never regarded my practising as some mystic art, to be kept secret and hidden. I’d much rather people better understand the process involved in learning and finessing music instead of saying daft things to me like “it’s amazing how it just comes out of your fingers” and “How do you do it?”. This is why I share my practise habits with my students, so that they understand that while we might undertake the practising alone, we are in fact engaged in a shared activity – creating music.

Further reading:

How Creativity is Helped by Failure

Accountability in Practice – article by pianist and teacher Graham Fitch


  1. This is very interesting, Frances. The sad thing about this comparison between performance of classical music and exposure of contemporary art process is that the trend by commercial and consequently public art galleries to exhibit diagrams, drawings say by Steven Cripps, Tracy Emin or Sarah Lucas on the back of an envelope, is driven by capital, by an increasing avid and exploitative art market, where the value of every written gesture and toe print of an artist like Peter Doig or Chris Ofili whose large canvases trade for millions. The problem is that the works may only be viewed got on average half a minute by gallery goers and aficionados and will then be relegated to the safe vault where no-one can enjoy them, only the super rich international financiers. And in the present art market there is the political kick back and resistance of the rough edge, the accident, performance art like WOB at the Londom Contemporary Music Festival at P3 Ambika, art that defies purchase, Richard Wilson best known for his oil slick at Saatchi and Anne Bean test the limits of music performance, sculpture, kinetics, pyrotechnics and visual arts. Yet they’re currently flogging artists. Banksy’s and Basquiat’s and unknown prospectives’ graffiti peeled off the walls of underpasses with techniques used for lifting layers of Renaissance al frescos by Pisanello and Piero and the rest from remote chapels with attendant wonderful acoustics to show in the tourist clatter and chatter and glare and din of the reflective white cube. I’m not sure about public watching any artist or musician in what is a solitary pursuit requiring peace and concentration. ah!

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