How Music Can Rekindle Your Creative Sense of Wonder

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

I spent an entire weekend in Miami among thousands of people who claimed to be music lovers.

And they behaved in many ways like music lovers – gathering with excitement, talking about the artists, getting dressed up to go to the concerts, etc.

Over dinner, I overheard some talk about the concerts.

“Dude, those fireworks were awesome!”

“You gotta follow that band now, they crushed it last night.”

“There must’ve been a couple of thousand people that showed up.”

I think of myself as a music lover.  But there is an enormous difference between them and me.

If I shut the sound off in my head, what I see are crowds of people eagerly chasing something that will dazzle them, wow them and take them to a heightened sensory experience of life.  Something that is anchored by 3 days of solid music, but to my eye, is designed to stimulate the senses, and does not engage them beyond encouraging stadium sized frenzied crowd responses.

Is that music, really?

While I do share their love for music, I am drawn to another kind of experience.

I pulled out a playlist I have been working on to hear the music that never fails to open up a world of wonder for me.

After many years of not listening to classical music, I discovered recordings and photos of Vladimir Ashkenazy, a Russian pianist my piano teacher adored.  In my memory, he was one of a group of older pianists, always pictured in a grand concert hall by an elegant grand piano.  And always playing Chopin.

Something in one of his photos fascinated me.  He was not by a piano, he was simply looking up at something and smiling, as if he was about to laugh.

It was his eyes.  I wondered what he was seeing.  And what he was hearing.

I found a few Youtube videos of him talking about music, about Rachmaninoff and the mysterious Russian soul of his music, about Western music, what great music gives us, and finally, his recording of a Chopin Ballade I have been tinkering with on and off since I was in music school..

What I heard brought tears to my eyes.  It changed my world.  Again.

What moved me?

He delivered on his promise.  To bring out the highest expression of what it means to be human through music created by great composers.

He understood his purpose.  He could play a piece by Chopin, Beethoven, or Rachmaninoff a hundred times, and there will always be something he will find that he could express in a new and different way.  Something he insisted on doing with a freshness in his approach each time to share with people.

He knew who was listening.  

“For some people, it means nothing.  You try to bring something to them and they say, ‘Oh, that’s very nice, but I like this one, I like that one, I like some popular piece, this or that…’ ” he said, “Nothing happens.  So it is not everybody that would and will respond.

But those who do, will never regret it.

Those who begin to understand how much it offers you from a person whose height of our existence – of knowledge of our existence – was so high, so important, those people, say from Bach to Shostakovitch, they gave us so much of the understanding of what we are, what we are for, what is it in us, what we are trying to do with our existence.

People become musicians or go to lots of concerts, become music lovers, because it gives so much to our lives.”

What brought tears to my eyes?

I also found myself feeling a sense of despair.  Of wondering if I was doing what I was destined to do with as much clarity and success as he did.  Of sensing regret for making decisions that led me away from what my purpose is.  Of doubting myself.

But here’s what changed my world.

Vladimir Ashkenazy spoke very simply about music and the beauty in his life.  He practices the piano every day.  He is married for a long time to his wife, also a pianist, with whom he has a wonderful family.

“My wife is Icelandic.  We’ve been married 55 years by now. Not bad, 55. Good number.”

And his eyes are always open to discover new depths, new expressions of the fullest human experience with all of its emotions in the music he loves to share with people who are listening.  Even if it is one person, what a wonderful gift that is.

That person, in this moment, is me.

And rather than be despondent about what I think I should be, could be, would be doing if only……. I am grateful for this beautiful music illuminating the beauty that is in my life, my daily art practice, my family and sharing my rediscovered creative curiosity as a gift every day.  Like Ashkenazy and all creative people, my work is to share that experience of wonder with someone else.

This is my purpose and it is for you, who are listening with an open heart.

Here’s the Chopin Ballade, No. 1 Op. 23 from my playlist. Close your eyes and let it light up your soul.

Share it with someone you love.



Use What You Got & Make Something Amazing

pencil instagram (1)Inspiration is a funny thing.

It knows no boundaries.  No obstacles, hindrances, limitations or hurdles.

You can see the thing you want to create in your mind and now you are on fire to make it happen.

When this happens to me, some little demon parked on my shoulder starts snickering.

“You know you can’t do anything until you have the right equipment.  A new camera, some software, probably a new lightbox and oh, your drawing software is really lame.  Get the latest thing out there or you’re going to look like a total amateur.”

Slowly, I can feel my self confidence sink and my anxiety levels soar.  Instead of planting myself at my desk to work, I spend all my time angsting over my stuff.  I postpone actually creating something and end up surfing the Internet for tools and equipment that I need to have before I do anything.

Days will go by.  Packages will be delivered.  Manuals pile up on my desk for me to go through.  I spend hours trying to master my tools and inevitably tumble down the rabbit hole of endless applications and uses of these tools.  I become a master of doing really cool things that I might end up using in my project.

And speaking of my project, it has now become a little less clear.  I have to try and figure out how to use all my cool tools to create what I originally envisioned.

The Tyranny of Shiny Tools

This is a terrible dictatorship.

It happens when we let our self confidence in our creativity succumb to the shiny promise of tools.  People who sell these tools prey upon this.  They position themselves as purveyors of things that will help you create something but in actuality, they distract you from your goal by dazzling you with bells and whistles that really have less to do with what you want, and everything to do with what they want.

What You Really Need First

No matter what you dreaming of doing, there is only one thing you need in the beginning.

You need momentum.

Maybe you have trouble starting, maybe you have started but find it difficult to keep going.

Momentum is the great wave that will propel you through the good and the tough times.

If there was nothing around for miles except a stubby #2 Ticonderoga Dixon pencil and a legal pad, could you write your story?  Jack Kerouac did it.  And he was in a car.

If you were in that car and a melody popped into your head, do you think you could hum it into your phone?

If you stumbled across a bunch of wires, bits of wood and metal, could you put that all together into a sculpture?  Like Alexander Calder?

Just start with what you have.

Get what you need when the need presents itself.  You will be wiser and more knowing about the exact tool you want when you are actively making something.

Take back the power to create from the Merchants of Stuff.  People are moved by the creative spirit behind a work of art, not the medium.  Sometimes you get even more points for making something in spite of your limitations.

I’m an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it. – John Lennon

I have a box in my room that I put things that I have accumulated over the years to help me write and illustrate my work.  If more than 6 months go by and I haven’t used something, it goes into another box that eventually gets donated to Materials for the Arts or a school art program.  My daily wrestle with that pesky little demon usually results in me defaulting to something I already have, usually old school and understandable.

And that works for me.  All I truly need is my self confidence.  And a pencil sharpener.