Deep creativity is the ability to make something interesting from subjective experience. It is the ability to enter a state of flow and find meaning in your life. Deep creativity is a way of working with the full force of your own life and discovering things about yourself you did not know. It is a way to broaden and expand the feeling of being alive. Deep creativity helps you to live a life worth living.

The root of “create” is “to make.” It is a pliable word with varied senses. Creativity can be simple or complex. It may or may not involve artistic expression. Creative work can refer to various undertakings. Imagine a spectrum from shallow creativity to deep creativity. An example of shallow creativity is “creating” a model by following a set of instructions. The creativity involved is minimal and hinges on the ability to follow a predetermined process. An example of deep creativity is pursuing an intention to transform an undesirable emotional reaction that causes friction into a source of self-awareness and wellbeing. Both endeavors are creative but in different ways.

The underlying mechanism of creativity is mysterious. There are clusters and constellations of skills, abilities, and capacities that coalesce into creative work. Deep creativity unifies body, mind, and spirit and induces a state of flow in which you become immersed and absorbed in creative work. It demands contemplative skills such as focus, concentration, visualization, and discernment. Deep creativity also provokes uncertainty because there are no instructions to follow or methods to show you the way. You do not know what ideas you will produce or where your creative work will take you. There is only one task that you must face and that is to find your own way.

From a creative perspective, a musical performance can be shallow or deep. We pursue creative depth on an instrument by finding our own voice, style, and manner of playing it, not by becoming technically proficient. A technically proficient performer capable of dazzling pyrotechnics may sound shallow, while another performer with moderate technical skills may play in profoundly creative ways. My own trajectory as a pianist reveals movement from shallow toward a deeper creative performance.

From Chopin to Dr. John
As a classical pianist I interpreted and performed music composed by other people for an audience. Interpretation was the extent of my creative input into the music because the notes, melodies, harmonies, and form were all predetermined. In this sense, musical notation is like following a set of instructions to make a model. A classical musician interprets music by adding their own nuance and personality to a composition. Altering the notation or improvising is the equivalent of a criminal offence.

Does that sound creative? A little bit. Is it artistic? Maybe, if my interpretation inspired an aesthetic response in my audience. Can you be artistic without be creative? Yes. Am I engaging in deep creativity when I perform the Chopin Ballade No. 1 in an interesting way? No. Moreover, just how many interpretations of the Chopin Ballade No, 1 does the world need?

I left piano playing behind in my mid-twenties to pursue a “serious” career path and support my family. Piano playing went into hibernation. Thirty years later, I returned to the piano this time with a passion for blues piano. Not surprisingly, I came back to the piano a much different person than I was thirty years ago. Classical and blues music are two different realms of musical experience. Classical training gave me good technical skill, but the blues initially taught me that I had nothing to say because the conversation with the piano had shifted. Instead of interpreting someone else’s composition, the blues invited me into the performance as co-creator. Instead of starting with notated music, the blues was more embodied and experiential. The result is that I became a beginner again and embarked on a new creative frontier of musical experience.

In blues music, you play other people’s songs, but the performance is more like a conversation, not an interpretation. The relationship between performer and a blues song is more intimate because of the presence of improvisation. Blues music is the language of oral transmission. It is embodied. Classical music uses a system of paper-based (visual) transmission. It is intellectual. You learn blues songs by feeling them and then experimenting with them through trial and error. You learn classical songs by decoding notation and translating visual symbols through your fingers into sound. These are fundamentally different approaches to piano playing.

The presence of improvisation in blues music increases the creative depth of a performance. It also increases the thrill and risk of live performance. In the beginning, my improvisations sounded technical and forced. I sounded like a classical player with an abundance of technique abusing a foreign language. There is a cultural milieu and aura surrounding blues that is important. You cannot just “learn” the blues; they are a life experiences moving through a unique musical language. Ironically, even though modern classical music training ignores improvisation, composers such as Back, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, and others were all master improvisers.

Improvisation was a regular part of live concert performances in the classical period. During a concert, for example, Bach would be given a theme from someone in the audience and then improvise a composition live. We cannot know what he sounded like because recording devices had not been invented. But we know with certainty that improvisation was a vital musical skill. What happened to it? As a classical piano student for fifteen years, improvisation was never part of my training. Why? Because modern classical music training is mired in shallow creativity. Somewhere along the way, we lost the creative depth of the classical masters and we cast improvisation aside. This is one of the greatest tragedies of modern music education. It is symptomatic of the deterioration of creativity in modern culture. John Mortensen summarizes the problem this way:

“There is something stultifying about a tradition where millions of pianists are all playing the same 100 compositions. The way we’ve developed musicians is falling apart, as it was designed for a very narrow outcome – preserving and perfecting the canonic repertoire. When you say everyone has to play a Bach prelude and fugue, a Beethoven sonata, a Chopin nocturne, and we’ll do that until the end of the world, something in our soul dies.”

I cannot be deeply creative by performing Ballade No. 1 because Chopin has already done the deep creative work. At the same time, I will never be able to improvise New Orleans blues like Dr. John or Jon Cleary, nor do I need to. But I can be more deeply creative as a pianist. Jon Cleary advises, “You have to have something of your own to say without music in front of you”. And then there is the summit of deep creativity inhabited by gifted creators like Keith Jarrett who merge improvisation and composition during live performance.

Inside Deep Creativity
I use deep creativity to describe a way of improvising with the confluence of situations, circumstances, and events that become your life. To live a creative life is to go deep into the questions, assumptions, beliefs, limitations, ambiguities, and impermanence that coalesce into the privilege of being alive. The purpose of deep creativity is to cultivate meaning, engagement, and belonging.

An important benefit of deep creativity is the rehabilitation of embodiment, the renewal of sensory experience, and a return to nature. Aging defines your relationship with time. In a deep sense, aging is the experience of time moving through you. However, survival in modern society often means living a disembodied life in which we lose track of the primal rhythms of life while hurrying to get things done. We spend so much time thinking about what to do that we forget how to live. You can never get things done because there are always more things waiting to exhaust you. And before you know it, you are retired and staring into a new, unfamiliar, and humbling horizon you have not prepared for.

Deep creativity promotes depth of participation in life. It encourages a moving out and into the world, not retreating into a state of mind-numbing individualism. The experience of deep creativity encourages the responsibility of contributing something of value to the world, not just making things to profit from. More than just a pursuit of novelty, originality, or something new, deep creativity pursues a practical and useful philosophy of how to live a life that is good for self and others at the same time. Deep creativity is the means by which we turn into the full force of our own life and learn to make decisions, develop perspective, adapt to the unexpected, accommodate new challenges, adjust to difficult circumstances, confront anxiety and fear, seek consolation during traumatic situations, respond to unintended consequences, forge new friendships, lean into the transience of life, move through periods of hardship, cultivate wellbeing in the world, and, hopefully, reach the end of our life having produced something of value to leave behind.

Notes

  1. In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport defines deep work as: “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” The idea of “depth” in work is partially a response to the attention-deficit cultural malaise in which qualities like concentration, focus, and discernment are weak. Deep creativity is an effort to rehabilitate and optimize creative experience.
  2. There is an important movement in classical music training to embrace improvisation. John Mortensen describes the disconnect between classical training and improvisation in, “Why today’s musicians should follow classical greats… and improvise.” He asks why classical pianists tend to play the same 100 compositions and advises them to follow the “follow in the spontaneous spirit of Bach and Beethoven.” Here is an example of Mortensen improvising a Fantasia and Fugue on a Theme of Lübeck.
  3. Keith Jarrett is one of the most important piano improvisers of our age. You can explore his music and thoughts about improvisation in, “Keith Jarrett: The Art of Improvisation.”
  4. A creative life occurs at the intersection of subjective experience and deep creativity. It is the joining of the full force of one’s life with the pursuit of meaning. Corporations view creativity as the underlying mechanism of problem-solving. Otto Rank thought that the arts and creativity “could be understood as a joining of the material and the spiritual, the specific and the universal, or the individual and humanity.”
  5. David Mackinnon notes that, “Creativity, although currently much emphasized in psychological research, has been one of the most neglected topics in the history of psychology.” It is important to remember that creativity is more than a psychological concept.