Inspiration and Improvisation in the Creative Process

I became interested in improvisational music in the late sixties, when I was 11 years old. My friend Greg was an electric guitarist, and he was familiar with all the cutting edge music. Together we listened to the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Doors, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix. We also listened to jazz artists such as Chick Corea and Miles Davis. What I loved the most was the sense of adventure and inspiration exhibited when these musicians took solos or improvised collectively.

My interest in such music continued over the years, and in high school and college I began to explore my own improvisations on piano and end-blown flutes. Though I was not a highly trained musician, and did not feel I had the aptitude to become a technical master, I nonetheless recognized in myself an intuitive flair and understanding for the “zone” which great musicians enter into during their improvisations. I became very interested in music improvisation as a journey of consciousness. I spent hours playing in practice rooms, and I experienced the resulting dance of sound as structuring the flow of my consciousness--music making as a form of thought. I was fascinated by how I or any musician could create music “on the fly.” Also, as a listener to improvised music I felt that the music gave me the rare opportunity to directly hear another person’s consciousness in action. I asked myself where the inspiration for this music came from? What is the source? How does improvisation work? What is the nature of inspiration? In trying to answer these questions, I felt tremendous excitement, as though I were discovering great truths.

I wanted to share the joys of improvisation. I had a college friend who was a classical violinist, and I convinced him to play with me, and soon we were jamming regularly. I organized group sessions in my dorm room where we created sound collages using ordinary objects such as combs, coins, and bottles, as well regular instruments such as my flutes. I turned my friends onto the music I loved.

At that time I also was studying eastern religious philosophies. I learned about the Mahayana Buddhist concept of sunyata or emptiness, and the famous teaching which explains that “form is emptiness and emptiness form.” From this I experienced both revelation and confirmation. Like a painting where the background is as integral as the foreground, so is empty space or silence interdependent with the forms and sounds of the universe. I recognized how improvised music depended upon emptiness. Like lightning across the night sky, music is a dance in the open space of emptiness and silence. Just as waves are not separate from the ocean, all creative expression is one with the empty space which surrounds it. Without silence we could have no sound; without emptiness no forms. Thus all the forms of the universe, whether natural or human-crafted, manifest inseparably from the underlying emptiness. This understanding changed my life and informs my work to this day.

My greatest love is to be in the open space in which inspiration and improvisation arise naturally, and to share that experience with others. When we open ourselves in the “now”, we allow for inspiration which is an expression of the moment. Inspiration is the flowing of energy that fills the open space. Employing this practice I have for many years created music professionally to accompany and grace a variety of events, from ritual ceremonies to dance classes. (Working with dancers is specialty.) I have also conducted many workshops and private sessions in which I facilitate others to open themselves into the improvisational state.

I’d like to share more deatils of the view of the creative process which informs this work, and how we can all access the flow of inspiration which lies at the heart of any creative journey. In 1924, Graham Wallas delineated a four-step model of creative thinking in his classic, “The Art of Thought.” Wallas’ four steps are
1) Preparation;
2) Incubation;
3) Illumination;
4) Elaboration.
Many people have used some version of this model to explain the creative process. In my own adaptation of Wallas’ model, I explain creativity as comprising four elements:
1) Preparation;
2) Emptiness;
3) Inspiration;
4) Actualization.
I refer to them as elements rather than steps, because they may occur in a non-linear order, often cycling back to earlier steps as necessary. These four elements are the building blocks of creativity.

The first element, “preparation” is much the same as Wallas explained. In preparation we gather information; we develop our skills; we work hard and give concentrated attention to our project. But creativity is not really possible until we break free of our predetermined patterns. At some point we have to let go and make room for the new. Wallas described this step as incubation -- when we take a break from all our hard work and let it all incubate. In his view our subconscious goes to work, and eventually the moment of illumination arises. I think the concept of incubation is important, but not sufficient. In some kinds of creativity, such as improvisational music or dance, we do not really incubate. But we still have to let go in order to allow inspiration to come through. Thus I believe that the essential feature of the 2nd element is emptiness or openness. An artist or creative thinker needs all the information, focus and skills developed during preparation, but creativity will not occur unless we open ourselves. Here it is that we invite our muse in, and the 3rd element of inspiration flows into that empty space. Wallas called this moment illumination which is an equally good word. Once we have our inspiration, our creative vision, then we must work hard again to elaborate on it (as Wallas named it ) and bring it into reality and completion. I call this actualization.

The 1st and 4th elements are where we work hard. Thomas Edison said that invention was 99% perspiration and only 1% inspiration. The elements of preparation and actualization are what he had in mind with “perspiration.” The 2nd and 3rd elements on the other hand are the magical aspect of creativity. They may only take up 1% of the time, but without them creativity wouldn’t exist. Moreover, without inspiration we wouldn’t have the motivation to follow through and complete our tasks.

These four elements provide us with an understanding for how to work with our creative process and assess what needs attention. The first element provides information, energy, and focus. The 2nd element provides the space to improvise and create. The 3rd element names the rush of ideas and feelings which infuse a new creative vision. The 4th element describes the process of bringing that vision into reality.

At the heart of all creative expression is the magic of inspiration and the emptiness which is the hidden fertile ground that makes it possible. When all the elements are in balance we feel sustained by the flow of inspiration, which makes the hard work of any creative process feel effortless. We work hard because we are inspired to do so. Amidst the work we enjoy glorious moments when the delight and ecstasy of the creative juices flow abundantly through us revealing a fresh and exhilarating vision of life. The core skill of an improvisational musician or any creative artist is knowing how to continually open oneself in the moment and follow the intuitive voice of the “muse” as she speaks. As the word implies, when inspiration occurs, the spirit flows into us. We become the vessel through which the magic of creation becomes manifest. Creativity is truly divine!


Back to Writings