Igor Stravinsky on creativity and freedom


The Russian composer Igor Stravinsky once said something about creativity that can help us all. Here’s what he wrote in his Poetics of Music:

“My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

Take a moment and read that again. Let it sink in.

Have you ever sat down at the piano to improvise or compose and felt like you didn’t know where to start? We’ve all probably felt that at times, and this is where Stravinsky can help us. To understand what he’s telling us, let’s step away from the piano for a minute and pretend we’re about to make a drawing on a piece of paper.

OK. So you have a blank sheet of paper and a whole box of crayons. Go! Is it easy to start drawing? Maybe, but maybe not. We often can’t even decide on what to draw. The possibilities are so endless that we constantly tell ourselves “No, that’s not a good idea,” or “Maybe I should use blue instead.”

But what if I asked you to draw a house using only the brown and green crayons?

Wow! You’ll immediately begin picturing the house in your mind’s eye and thinking about what to draw first. Square or rectangle? Brown walls with green shutters? What if I make the walls light brown and press down harder with the crayon to make the chimney darker and more colorful?

This is what Stravinsky was talking about.

By limiting our “field of action” at the beginning, it actually frees our creative selves and gives us many more choices, not less.

This is an important point.

At first it seems as if we’re limiting ourselves by narrowing our choices, but the truth is that we didn’t have as many choices as we might have thought. Sure, we could draw whatever we wanted to, but the reality was that we kept questioning where to start and didn’t come up with many ideas. But as soon as our creative freedom seemed to diminish, it actually became bigger. We got many more ideas as to what to draw and how to go about it!

This happened to me recently in a very unexpected way.

It will soon be the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States, and a relative of mine is hosting the dinner at her home. She usually asks everyone to bring part of the meal and while I enjoy cooking, I often have a difficult time decided what to prepare. I usually can’t decide whether to make something traditional or new, or whether it should be something that everyone enjoys or a dish that I’m particularly interested in trying for the first time.

But this year, my relative decided to do something a little different. She is planning a “Disney-themed” Thanksgiving dinner and has asked that everyone bring a dish that is inspired by a Disney movie or character. (Like “Pinocchio-nose carrots” and things like that.)

This is the Stravinskian limitation.

So I was thinking about what to bring, and one idea was to construct an ice cream dessert shaped like the snowman in the movie Frozen. Three scoops of vanilla ice cream stacked upon one another with M&Ms as eyes, buttons, etc. This was a good idea but then I found out that a few people are already bringing desserts.

At this point I started to get frustrated about thinking of another Disney-inspired dessert. After all, how many Disney foods are there??? But then someone suggested “Rabbit’s garden from Winnie The Pooh.” A great idea, and it could be as simple as a tossed salad.

Then the magical moment happened.

I was driving in my car about 3-4 hours after we decided on making salad, and an idea suddenly popped into my mind: I can make each person’s salad plate look like a real garden! I did a little mental problem-solving and came up with a plan:

Each guest will have a small plate of salad. On that plate, I’ll put a slice of mozzarella cheese covering the bottom. I’ll cut up pieces of scallion and broccoli and press them into the cheese so that they stand up in rows. Then I’ll lay down some small pieces of carrot. The remaining visible spots of cheese will be covered with torn lettuce so the plate now looks like a real garden!

Amazing, right?

Well, the really amazing part is that I never would have thought of this if my relative hadn’t imposed the restriction that all the food had to be Disney-inspired. I’ve been cooking for years and have even hosted Thanksgiving at my home on numerous occasions. But I’ve never come up with an idea like this before. Rabbit’s Garden! (I’m looking forward to seeing how they’ll prepare the turkey!)

But you get the idea, right? As Igor Stravinsky said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

Think of ways that you can relate this to your piano playing. Who knows, your playing may never be the same again!

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