“Ideas lie everywhere like apples fallen and melting in the grass for lack of wayfaring strangers with an eye and a tongue for beauty, whether absurd, horrific, or genteel.”

– Ray Bradbury, writer

A very good friend of mine is a writer, and our conversations often touch on the subject of creativity and the notion of “feeding the muse” – how we stoke up reserves of inspiration when these become depleted through our creative work.

Inspiration itself is hard won. It does not come from nowhere. “Light-bulb moments” are rare and most creative people – musicians, writers, artists – will agree that the best way to foster creativity is through a consistent daily routine. But when that creativity fades, “what comes out must be put back”, as my writer friend would say.

In his collection of essays entitled Zen in the Art of Writing, the writer Ray Bradbury set out his techniques for cultivating inspiration. Although primarily aimed at writers, these techniques are equally applicable to musicians, and I have highlighted a number of them below, using Bradbury’s original suggestion as a basis to guide the musician seeking inspiration.

“Collect Experiences Instead of Things”

Experiences are the staple diet of the Muse, and the richer our experience, the better fed and healthy the Muse will be. For the musician, experiences are not only musical ones (listening to music, going to concerts, collaborating with other musicians), but life experiences in general – relationships, travel, sights and smells, interactions with others, events large and small. All feed the creative Muse and have a bearing on our personal music making.

“Read Both Trash and Treasure”

For “read” substitute “listen”, and value every listening experience – the good, the bad and even the ugly! Listening is a fantastic source of inspiration for the musician (something which I feel some younger musicians and students in particular do not engage with enough). Listen to great artists and recordings, and the “pulp fiction” of recordings too. When working on a specific piece of music, listening to a selection of recordings of the same work can offer remarkable insights and enable one to create a personal vision for the music. If one remains open-minded, there is always something to be learnt from a recording or performance one dislikes, or a piece of music one regards as “bad”. 

“Write [Play] With Zest”

Our passion, love and excitement for what we do drives us and feeds the Muse. We should approach each practice session with excitement, asking ourselves “what can I do today that is different, or new?”

“Make Lists”

Make notes of experiences which fuel the Muse and reflect on how those experiences have influenced your music making. Lists enable us to organise our thoughts more coherently and provide focus when it comes to practising and reflecting on our music.

“Run Fast, Stand Still”

Bradbury urges writers to “strike while the iron is hot!” to get ideas down quickly

The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are”

This is tricky for musicians, for whom slow, considered practising is essential to learn music deeply and retain it. But I agree with his statement that “in delay comes the effort for a style”. In order to create a personal musical identity, vision and sound, we should strive to be spontaneous, driven by our musical instincts rather than the desire to imitate or aspire to be someone we are not.

“Choose Your Friends Well”

Musicians, like writers and artists, seek affirmation and endorsement from those around them. The best critique often comes from those who best understand the exigencies of the profession – i.e. fellow musicians. Seek feedback and critique from trusted friends, colleagues, teachers and mentors whom you know will support and encourage you.

As Bradbury says, “Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven’t friends. Go find some.”

“Train Your Muse”

Just as we practice regularly and intelligently, as an athlete trains, so the Muse must also be trained. A well-trained, well-fed Muse allows us to say what we want in our music without feeling restrained and to be spontaneous, making music “in the moment” which brings vibrancy, excitement and genuine expression to our performances.

 

6338027_84787dca81_bInspiration 

I’d love to say I was one of those people who could sit down and practise for hours on end. Sometimes simply getting behind the piano can seem like a lot of effort. Life has an amazing way of getting in the way!

So how do you keep inspired to keep practising and keep your bum on the piano stool? Here are a few tips to help you keep the music flowing.

  1. Go live! Nothing beats live music to give you the drive to practise more. A good performance is electrifying. You don’t have to spend a fortune travelling to the large concert halls all the time – why not check out what’s happening in your local area? Remember that a perfect performance is very rare, but it’s the essence of joy that you get from a live performance that you want to recreate when you play.
  2. Listen. If you’re working on the same piece for a long time (perhaps for an exam) try to find different recordings of it and see if you can spot the difference between performances. Altering the tempo, phrasing or interpretation by the smallest amount can turn a piece from a trudge into a joy.
  3. Try something new. I do have a slight music buying problem, but when I’m lacking the drive to focus on one piece I can guarantee a look through a new book will keep me glued to the piano.  Again, it doesn’t need to cost the earth, why not check your local charity shops? This is also a great sight-reading exercise that doesn’t feel like work.
  4. Play what you love. There’s no point tearing your hair out with pieces that you absolutely hate. I do give students pieces that I would describe as being ‘good for them’, and it is always great to challenge yourself, but if you can’t find something interesting or rewarding about the piece, or if you find you’re avoiding the piano completely because you hate it, then stop.
  5. Get a great teacher. No matter what level of playing you’re at, we could all do with a guiding hand from time to time. A good teacher is worth their weight in gold and a great teacher can make the world of difference. Tutors get you thinking about pieces in a different way and often offer suggestions for difficult pieces that you might not have thought about.
  6. Turn off your phone. Will something interesting happen in the next 30 minutes? Probably not. Will someone post a picture of their lunch? Probably.
  7. Go outside. A breath of fresh air is perfect for refreshing the mind and a change of scenery can be great to let your thoughts flow around any difficult music problems
  8. Put the music away. For me, inspiration to play often comes through noodling and trying out new things on the piano. Let your hands go for it and see what happens.

Rachael Forsyth

Born and raised in York, Rachael now works as a full time composer, music teacher and performer based in Hertford. Over the years she has written a broad range of pieces in a broad range of styles for ensembles of all shapes and sizes. As a tutor she loves to write works that are educational and challenging yet build up on the foundations of musical knowledge that most possess. Her works always encapsulate emotive figures and many piece contain visual elements during the performance as well.

The highlight of her career so far has been premièring a new work for solo saxophone on a tour around Italy and discussing her work as a female composer. Rachael’s style could be described as a fusion of musical genres. She brings together her musical passions for classical, jazz, ska and folk to create new music that is widely accessible as well as hauntingly beautiful.

Website: www.rachaelforsyth.co.uk

Twitter: @rachaelcomposes