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How Do You Know if You're Creative?

There’s an odd misconception among humans as to what constitutes creativity. As a musician, I have often had people say to me, enviously, “You’re so creative”, as if I possess something they don’t have, and will never have.

Playing a musical instrument isn’t necessarily about being creative. First and foremost, it’s about discipline and consistency. In fact, some of the least creative people I know have spent their entire careers as working musicians! They’re perhaps not the person you would want to hear in a solo recital, but they function well in an orchestra or choral section, where they alone can’t be heard, but are lending their “voice” to many others.

When I first started playing the violin, I loved it, but I knew to get better was going to take time and lots of it. So as a youngster who had tried and failed to excel at the piano (an instrument I didn’t particularly like), I dove into practicing playing my violin, and the results were satisfying. I became concertmaster (synonym for top dog) of my middle school orchestra in three years, a position I also held in high school, and went on to a long career in music after graduating from Indiana University (one of the most highly rated music schools in the U.S.).

None of this took an unusual amount of creativity, but it took an enormous amount of hard work, with a smidgen of talent woven in. And other musicians I know who have accomplished what I have experience the same thing: those who honor their practice time consistently, rise to the top of their profession.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. We also need to listen…a lot. Listen to other musicians, listen to your teacher, listen to recordings. Listen and absorb. Whoever has the most highly regarded recording of a concerto you’re trying to learn, listen intentionally to that twenty or thirty times. Study the score, or the written notes, so you know the architecture of the composition. Whatever piece you’re trying to memorize, listen to a recording of that piece fifty times. We need to record ourselves playing, then listen back and figure out what needs more work, what doesn’t work, where is intonation (playing the pitch correctly) faulty, etc. But again, this does not take creativity, it takes time, critical thinking and hard work.

So just because I’m in an artistic field of endeavor, doesn’t mean I’m more creative than the next person. To be creative, we actually have to come up with ideas and then try to find a way to execute the idea. Composers are creative. So are authors, artists, playwrights, architects, composers, code writers, car engineers - any area where you’re making something new from nothing - that’s creative. A farmer might think of a way to protect a crop from infestations - that’s creative.

My interpretation of a piece of music, if new and different (within reason and with respect to the composer) might be considered creative. One violinist I follow and admire puts it this way: “Every time we play, we’re telling a story.” Her performances are unusually interesting and entrancing, and I do put that down to her creativity.

I’ve also worked on the administrative side of non-profit organizations, and to me, that takes tremendous creativity. In one organization, I was responsible for marketing, so the number of people coming to the concert was a direct reflection of how creative I was with spreading the word, and getting “butts in seats”, as we say in the performance business.

My son is in a major symphony orchestra that went through a contentious lockout during Covid. Those musicians got creatively busy and raised large amounts of money through donors to keep the orchestra solvent. They managed to get rid of a board of directors that wanted to cut their season and the size of the ensemble, and produced their own concerts to raise awareness of their plight. Now that’s creative!

My point is, if you are that person telling me (or someone else) that I’m so creative, please step back and look at yourself. You have everything it takes to create at any age, but it helps to have passion and curiosity. What are you passionate about? What are you curious about? What would encourage you to get up in the morning and embrace the day? Ask yourself these questions, they are the building blocks to a creative life well lived.

You may say to yourself that you weren’t born with creative genes, but I’m here to tell you that that’s nonsense. Studies in creativity have been done on identical twins, and the only determining factor regarding the extent of their creativity is whether it was encouraged, or not. Humans are not genetically disposed to be creative or uncreative. Nurture your creativity, and it will appear. If your parents or family members thought they were uncreative, chances are they did not try to encourage your creativity. The good news is, it’s never too late, and your hibernating creativity is just waiting to be enabled to make its grand entrance!

We all have Eureka moments, those tiny bursts of imagination that can solve problems and/or open doors to new ways of thinking. The very sad thing about these moments is that most people either miss them or ignore them. If you’re an artist, poet, writer, etc., you learn to pay attention and write them down, because they come in a flash of insight and then they’re out of there….for good. Because I didn’t recognize them for what they were, a lot of mine have been lost. Now I know better, and very few escape. It’s like creativity thumbing its nose at us: “Here’s a free and easy one, but you won’t remember it in the next five seconds if you don’t record it!”

People report being visited by these tiny flashes while listening to music, or driving, or house cleaning. That’s how they get through - they wait until your brain is occupied elsewhere, which opens a channel to the subconscious. It’s almost impossible to force them, which is why writer’s block is a thing. When I’m writing or practicing, I take breaks to go do something entirely different, and allow my brain to open up its idea receptors.

Find a way to express yourself by thinking up and making stuff, and be on the lookout for these moments. You will find in a very short amount of time that, once given permission and attention, your creativity will start to flow. Follow it, encourage it, embrace it, and notice what happens.

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