Sparking creative inspiration

April 16, 2015

It’s tempting sometimes to see my students as either left-brained or right-brained players—either the precise, technically-oriented type or the creative, intuitive type. The reality, of course, is that they are all some of each, but may have greater strengths in one area or the other. And good musicians need both.

Trying to get the more technically-inclined to play with imagination and spontaneity can be frustrating for student and teacher alike. And the more intuitive types sometimes need a little organization to make sure their creativity is focused into a cohesive musical statement. Here is a very simple technique that I use with “both” kinds of students to encourage creative exploration without wandering too far afield.

photo, Bernat Casero
photo, Bernat Casero

First I select a brief passage and ask the student to imagine that it is part of the soundtrack to a movie, and start feeding them genres to try out: Can you play it like it’s part of a swashbuckling action-adventure movie? a slapstick comedy? a steamy love story? a tense courtroom drama? For the student who is tentative about playing imaginatively, this is a fairly simple, non-threatening way to experiment with some intuitive musical decisions. For a student whose flights of fancy need a little direction, this technique provides just enough discipline without suppressing creativity.

The next step is to ask the student to pick a few favorite genres on their own, or even specific movies, and let them explore the passage within those frameworks. Some students, the more technically-inclined in particular, seem a little embarrassed about sharing even that much of their creative process aloud, so I don’t push them to do so as long as they can use it to create a few interpretations that are convincingly distinct. The important thing is that they are discovering the ability to generate ideas and apply them to the music.

An additional step is to move beyond movie genres to something a little more esoteric. I have had success with having students play different colors (purple? yellow? black? fuchsia?), different moods or emotions (love? hate? joy? paranoia?), or different “instruments” (can you sound like a trumpet? a cello? an operatic soprano? a snare drum?). Sometimes I use this approach myself to tackle particularly tricky interpretive questions, like how to handle repeated sections that I want to sound just different enough on the second time through: maybe the first time royal blue, and the second time more of a navy blue.

Advanced musical interpretation can be much richer and more complex, but starting out with this technique seems to help many of my students get started, by opening up an intuitive path for some students and providing some useful creative boundaries for others.