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Improvise to be more creative

Are you often wishing you could be more creative, but can’t quite figure out where to begin?

(Note: This blog post is better enjoyed if read while playing this performance by Thelonious Monk and his band in the background.)

Many people — from entrepreneurs, developers, and even artists — have told me that they wish they found out the secret to be more creative in their endeavors. Most people understand quite well the benefits of being more creative, yet the path to get there seems to elude them.

I think the path to set loose their creative flow and get into a pattern where they can be more creative has a lot to do with one of my favorite music genres: jazz.

The two main misconceptions about jazz are that: 1) jazz musicians just “wing it” all the time, and 2) jazz musicians are only as good as the licks (i.e., repetitious patterns) they learn. The reality is that it is neither this nor that.

The formation of a jazz musician can be boiled down to a three-step process, which someone in any field can follow to be more creative.

Here are the steps:

1) Let go of preconceptions

The first thing a musician needs to do when learning how to play jazz is to empty their mind from structured patterns they may have picked up along the way. Holding too firmly to elements learned in the past can inhibit the creative mind, as it only “anchors” it on a safe — but common — spot.

In like manner, when embarking on a creative endeavor, you should put aside the notions, concepts, habits, and techniques that you have learned along the way — whether they’ve been helpful in the past or not.

The fact of the matter is that if you are to take on a challenge with a fresh new approach, the more baggage you come into it with, the more your approach will be tinted with what was already familiar to you.

Let yourself be free for a bit — even if that means opening yourself up for making mistakes — and observe the challenge with an open mind.

2) Review the rules

This is going to sound completely contrary to what I just said, but please bear with me.

Almost every creative endeavor has rules set forth by people who have preceded you, with years of experience that you cannot possibly equate in a short amount of time.

Jazz music has styles and genres that have already been established. It has scales and chord systems that are unique to jazz, and there is a whole science behind them. Jazz even has models around what works and what doesn’t work with regard to solos.

For example, it is often seen as jarring when a jazz musician begins his/her solo by just blurting out notes randomly. The “correct” way to do it is to begin the solo by laying the groundwork for a pattern (melodic or rhythmic), then repeating the pattern with a slight modification, then possibly modifying it further a third time, and only  then releasing forth a free-form stream of notes.

Even jazz musicians like Thelonius monk — despite being perceived as plunking notes at random — was a genius student of forms, chord patterns, and other rules. Once you realize this — which may take a bit of study — you will be amazed at how much restraint Monk showed.

In everything you do, it would serve you well to read up on the rules of what has worked and what simply doesn’t work.

I’m not here telling you that you need to complete a master’s degree in logo design or creative writing, or whatever it is that you want to be more creative in. With just some basic knowledge, acquired quickly by reading a book, a few articles, tutorials on YouTube, etc., you will be well ahead of people who don’t care to stop for a second and pay attention to these tried and true guidelines.

3) Now break the rules

For every Count Basie, who showed unbelievable restraint in the context of jazz, there is an Ornette Coleman, who sounds like he is just picking out notes as he goes along without any sense of structure.

But this is hardly the case.

A famous quote by master artist Pablo Picasso goes, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Once you’ve gone through step 2, learning and reviewing the guidelines around what you’re hoping to achieve, you will then be free to break the rules, take creative licenses, and flat out bust into your version of a sax solo.

The difference here is that you’d be doing it on solid ground, and not by incessantly poking in the air to see if something sticks.

I love one of the coolest lessons from Victor Wooten’s Groove Workshop (which you can see right here — warning: it has terminology from music theory) is that “You are never more than half a step away from a right note.”

What he means is that, as long as you have your sight on the outcome you wish to arrive at, and the guidelines that can take you there — which you should have crystal-clear after applying step 2 — there is nothing so unbelievably wrong you can do, that cannot be easily tweaked back to being right.

Creativity is all about taking risks… yet the risks aren’t life-threatening! Go for it, take a step forward, feel free to make mistakes if you need to. Often you’ll realize that even what you initially thought were mistakes, aren’t really so bad after all.

 

I hope these three steps can help you feel a bit unblocked so you can learn to be more creative. The band has played, the drummer just flammed… It’s time for your solo!

Have any other tips you would recommend to unlock the creative mind? Feel free to share them with others in the comments section.

 

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