“The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort toward wholeness.”
– Madeleine L’Engle
“I’m not creative.”
Sound familiar? As a music therapist, one of the things I do is help people of all abilities work through a creative process. Sometimes the greatest challenge is convincing people that creativity is an attribute they indeed possess, and cultivation of this attribute is their guide toward a greater wholeness.
When most of us think of creativity, we tend to think of the virtuoso channeling some kind of otherworldly inspiration. We think of the solitary artist, possessed by a moment of inspired genius, tortured by his art. We think of an elite class of people working on some kind of rarefied plane. We may not think of ourselves, in our ordinary lives, doing our ordinary activities.
But why should that be? Are creative people really a separate class, or is creativity a skill that can be learned? Awhile back I heard a radio interview with David Usher – a person who knows a thing or two about creativity. As a musician he is the frontman for the band Moist, and as a business-technology executive he runs the company Cloudid Creativity Labs. Creativity, he says, is not the possession of a certain class of people but a capacity we are all endowed with and can learn to develop. Usher wants us to turn our gaze from the tortured artist toward the moments of creative potential in everything that we do. The same process involved in creating a masterpiece is the one that can help us navigate the challenges of our everyday lives be it at work, home, or in our relationships. So what is that process? How do we recognize and develop our personal creativity?
In his book Let the Elephants Run, Usher writes that one of the first steps in cultivating creativity is “opening up”. We all settle into patterns and routines that give our lives structure and make our work possible. This is a good thing. However patterns can entrench us over time in a “closed” state of being where we do not see what is outside our narrow perspectives. We do things the way we always have done them—in part because we have found a rhythm, and because our work is comfortable and efficient in that groove. In contrast, when we are in an “open”, we step outside our routines and attempt to see the world from a different perspective. We take ourselves off autopilot. We start paying attention. We try new things. We open our eyes and ears, hearts and minds to new experiences.
Easier said than done, you say! Where do we find the time? Usher writes that instead of waiting for inspiration to strike or for the planets to align, we make ‘opening up’ a discipline. Though it may seem inefficient at first, we prioritize creativity. We devote precious time and resources to disrupting our routines. Paradoxically, we make breaking out of our patterns part of our pattern. The moment of inspiration may come, but usually only after a lot of hard work and many failed attempts. To put it another way: We invest in creativity.
Another thing we can do—and this may be the hardest—is to encourage unexpected outcomes. Embracing unpredictability is at the very heart of the creative process. No one begins a painting, song, or poem knowing exactly what the finished product will look like. Writers report being surprised by the choices and actions of the characters they create. Sculptors feel for how the clay pushes back before it’s clear what form will emerge. Musicians sit down to write a ballad and by bar 32 realize they’ve got a dance hit (Did you know Michael Jackson’s Thriller started out as a love song? Or that the creative process behind Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride was purely spontaneous?). The creative process is unpredictable; it cannot yield a predetermined outcome. The process reveals the product.
At root, music therapy is an adventure in the creative process. Each week, a child I work with comes into the music therapy room full of energy, ideas, and music. But she is also entrenched in her patterns—her way of “being-in-the-world”—which is, at times, limiting. We sit down to play together with our own ideas about what should unfold in the next 45 minutes, but the music has its way of taking us down an unexpected path. There are bumps in that path—twists, turns, and dead ends as we try to listen to each other and create something together. Each of these moments, be they harmonic or dissonant, is an exercise in being open to the presence of something new, both musically and relationally.
As each moment with this child is an exercise in openness, so too is each moment an exercise in listening, problem-solving, flexibility, perseverance, and courage. Pretty weighty stuff for a 7-year-old! Yet these moments cannot be fully fleshed out in advance. They are possible only because this child and her family have invested in the creative process: they have made music a priority. Not because outcomes are guaranteed, but because they are partly undefined. This is the creative process, and this is what makes it possible for this child to experience an expanded sense of herself and of the world.
Is the creative process for creating masterpieces? Sometimes. But it is also for all of us. When we make room in our lives for this process, it reveals to us what wholeness looks like, even when we were looking somewhere else.
Erinn Epp, M.A., MT-BC
Erinn Epp completed her bachelor’s degree in music therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario) and her master’s of arts degree in music therapy at New York University. A music therapist for more than ten years, Erinn also completed the certification training at the Nordoff – Robbins Center at NYU, and is a registered MusicTogether® teacher. She has worked with people of varying clinical needs, including trauma, parent-infant attachment, developmental disabilities, and dementia. She has presented her work at national and international conferences and taught at the undergraduate level. Erinn’s professional and research interests include improvisational models of music therapy, musicological theories of musical expression, and community music therapy.