I’ve noticed that our usual way of thinking about great musicians is often linear. We think that we can do “this,” they can do “that,” and the road from “this” to “that” is quantitative. In other words, our logic says, "If I learn more of what I’m currently learning, and do it better, I’ll get to where my idols are.”
This is certainly the way music is taught in schools. And in one respect there’s nothing wrong with this since yes, we all need to learn the basics and slowly add new techniques and harmonic complexity.
But there IS something different about many of the great artists. Many of them see the world differently. They’re acutely aware of the limitations of linear thinking and know what they need to do in order to do their best work.
Case in point: John Lennon.
I once read an interview with Lennon when he spoke about turning on the BBC news radio program before he sat down at the piano to compose. (Despite the fact that he wrote “A Day In The Life” while reading a newspaper, his reason for listening to the news on the radio isn’t what you might think.)
As he described it, he knew his mind would listen to the radio. And by occupying his mind with the news, he was freeing up his creativity to come up with great music and lyrics, without interference from the way he usually thought. What’s most interesting to me is how he wasn’t trying to “direct” his creative mind, but rather stay out of its way. This is a BIG difference.
Try it for yourself at the piano. Just turn on a news station and let your fingers improvise on the keys. You can do free improv, play tunes, or whatever. Don’t force anything. After a while, you’ll probably find that the music starts to flow out without judgment or self-criticism. You’re listening to both the news on the radio and to what your fingers are playing. Try it; you may be surprised at the music you hear.
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