How do you get inspired? This is a common question at composition forums. Performers are asked the same question. We know a performance or a composition is inspired when we hear it, and we want nothing less. For musicians, inspiration must become a way of life—but how do we find it again and again?
MuseInspiration may come from anywhere: moonlight, mountains, mathematics, a phrase of Mozart; birdsong, a crack of thunder, a starry night, dark chocolate, a stranger’s glance. The possibility of inspiration is always out there in the world—and you must be willing and prepared, open and ready.
Take moonlight. It has inspired poets, musicians and artists for centuries. Even after humans learned that the moon reflects the light of the sun and has none of its own glow, even after astronauts landed on it and stuck a flag in its soil, the moon holds magic for those who seek the feeling and are ready to receive it. Its magic is all about our perception and desire.
Inspiration is the connecting of experience to emotional memory and to imagination. Emotional memories are felt in the body, relived in the moment, experienced anew—fear, delight, joy, passion, sorrow, anger, yearning. When you feel an emotion pulse through your body, and your mind suddenly floods with related memories, that is a key moment for imagination and inspiration. Memory and imagination work together.
Working with music students over many years, I developed some exercises that use memory to trigger the imagination and help find that feeling of inspiration. A good way to begin is to start with a memory, any memory at all, and remember it with as much detail as possible. The next step is to let the image evolve “on its own” into something new. Take note of how it feels to allow the image to change without your mind seeming to control it. That is how the imagination works best, and it brings with it the sense of aha! that we call inspiration.
…you will find that technique is about expression, not something separate.
Years ago, Itzhak Perlman commissioned me to compose a solo violin work for him, and he asked that it be about food. Food? I asked why. He said it was for the fun and joy of it, and that was enough for me. We asked Louise Gikow to write short poems about food for each solo violin movement. Louise and I presented a movement called “Brandy” to Itzhak. Reading through it, Itzhak stopped and said that he doesn’t really like brandy and that he would prefer to think of this very lyrical piece as chocolate cake. He immediately began to play the piece with a deliciously sticky chocolate legato. Not only did the notes stick but the title “Chocolate Cake” stuck, too. Itzhak found chocolate inspiring and brandy not so much. But more importantly, the technique of the gooey legato that he suddenly found is a perfect example of how performance can be affected by inspiration. There are many kinds of legato a violinist can employ, but a legato inspired by chocolate is bound to be unique, personal and sound inspired … because it is.
But what if you are playing a solo sarabande by Bach, where chocolate is not a particularly appropriate image for the technique? Just as Itzhak used the music to lead him to chocolate, which then led to a new idea of how to play the music, try starting with the music itself. Play the sarabande without thinking of technique, but instead allow the music to stimulate your emotional memory; perhaps the music will make you feel sorrow or grief. But you don’t want to merely indicate grief in your playing, you want to actually feel it and then allow your memory to reveal its source. From there, you will find that technique is about expression, not something separate. Just as the chocolate inspired a thick kind of bowing, grief may lead you to an expressive use of the bow and vibrato that are more emotionally authentic, more connected to the music and your own life than you may have discovered by practicing the notes over and over, and working on a concept of phrasing that is not your own.
I have found inspiration in all sorts of extra-musical events and ideas, including real-life experiences, concepts in neuroscience, moments in history, visual arts, literature and other music. When composing the music for the film Einstein’s Light, I took phrases of violin music by Mozart and Bach that Einstein played and loved, and imagined these phrases floating, bending, shifting and transforming as if they were part of one of Einstein’s remarkable “thought experiments.” Imagining Einstein being inspired by the music inspired my own musical thinking. I don’t understand the mathematics involved in Einstein’s theories, nor can I know what Einstein may have been thinking when he played Mozart or Bach, but the sense of wonder sparked by the feeling of the thought experiment was really all I needed to be deeply inspired.
So it is connections that inspire us. The moonlight, mountains or the stranger’s glance triggers an emotion, which sparks our memory, which ignites our imagination. So to be inspired you must be ready to make those connections; pay attention to your feelings, your inner life, and pay attention to your surroundings. Then, when inspiration “strikes,” remember that “technique” should serve the imagination. Practice the techniques of inspiration and imagination, and you will be ready for the real thing.
Find Your Muse
You can train yourself to be ready for inspiration with exercises that stimulate emotional memory and imagination. Just as you practice your instrument for intonation and technical mastery, you can practice your ability to be emotionally engaged and inspired.
Here is a series of exercises for discovering other ways to play that same Bach sarabande with inspired feeling. In each case, a strong emotional scenario is set up as the environment for your performance and so your imagination is triggered. Before you play the sarabande, imagine each situation shown below:
- You are about to play the sarabande for a group of prisoners who are condemned to death. What do they need from the music? What in the music will speak to them? How would you play for them?
- Pretend now that you know nothing about music and have never played violin, but you are given an enchanted violin that lets you magically play the sarabande when you hold it. You are bewildered as the music unfolds. How does the music sound when you have no control over it? The enchanted violin plays so beautifully, yet you are surprised and delighted by what it does. Let it happen.
- You bring your violin to a hospital where you play for patients every day. Today, the only person listening to you play the sarabande is very depressed and has not said a word for days. There is total silence in the room before you start. Is the patient hearing you? Can you play in such a way as to draw her out of her cocoon? Is it possible that the music you play can bring her relief? How do you play under these circumstances?
- You read a scholarly musicological article that says that Bach clearly intended each phrase of this particular sarabande to be more joyful than the previous one. You are convinced that this is true. Can you play it that way?
- You are captured by terrorists who immediately notice your violin. They tell you that they will spare your life if you can move them to tears by your playing. You play the same Bach sarabande for them. Should you exaggerate the passion in the music to save your life, or should you trust that your audience would understand it if you perform it as you would in a normal concert setting? Under these circumstances, perhaps you must deeply feel what in the music moves you and thus should move your captors. What is the deep message in this music, and how do you let it speak? Perhaps the less you “do” to the music, the more beautiful it will be. You can only play it once for the terrorists in this exercise, but, of course, in reality you can try this exercise many times.
The point of technique, whether instrumental or compositional, is to serve an inspired imagination. Technique should never display itself but should, at every moment, reveal the spirit of the music. And so an important aspect of our daily practice should be merging technique with inspiration. What about practicing scales, you ask?
Here is an exercise that addresses the problem of playing scales in the same old boring way every day:
- Play a scale as if you hate it.
- Play a scale as if you are a robot with no emotions. This is tricky. Feeling detached or bored is not without emotion. Is it possible to do this?
- Play a scale as if you have just recovered from paralysis of the hands and this is the first time you can play a scale again.
- Play a scale as if you truly believe it is a wonderful piece of music.