IssuesMay 2023

Reigniting Creativity

By Stephanie Rea

As flutists, we are creative creatures, but sometimes the well can feel like it runs dry. As students, professionals, performers, we can face burnout. Spending a little time informing yourself about creativity and thinking about your own can help replenish and rejuvenate your artistic wellspring. Here are four ideas for your consideration that I hope help fan the flames of your own creativity during the inevitable times when we flutists find the fires flickering lowly.

Creativity is born out of limitations. The most creative works of art are also ones where limits have been placed. Not every color is used in the painting, nor is every note on the piano used in the composition. All of the instruments in the orchestra are not playing at the same time for the entire length of the symphony. You can’t write a piece of music that is tonal, atonal, and polytonal. You have to pick some confines or constraints for your work to operate within. Form and structure create a framework that contains a balance between fulfilling expectation and offering an element of surprise. If there is no structure, it will feel random, but if it follows convention too closely, we become bored, and the music comes across as unsophisticated, trite, and uninteresting.

So, how do we find our own creative interpretation within this framework? As non-improvising performers, a large part of the limitation is built into the musical score. For modern works, the scores are usually meticulously written with great care placed on every dynamic, rhythm and articulation, and our first aim is to bring everything on the page into being with as much accuracy as possible. The more interesting second aim is found in the creative work of highlighting and balancing the elements of fulfilling expectations while also creating surprise, what is sometimes called doing “more than what is on the page”. How do we do that? What sparks are you adding with the musical nuances that you are learning to create? Play the piece or section over and over and over. Record yourself. Listen to it. How are you going to bring to life the musical ideas that you find in a piece of music? Spend time thinking about this. I will cover this topic more in the next section on Musical Expression.

Creativity is born out of boredom. One of our calls as musicians is to establish and keep aural interest alive, though this should not be arbitrary. Random articulations added in Baroque music or a crescendo placed with no particular reason are not artistic choices. Our best musical choices are when they serve to bring out a musical message of a phrase or section. If you are bored with how something sounds, that’s a real clue. Don’t ignore that - it is missing something! We have the power as musicians to change that with critical thinking and attention to musical details. Sometimes we might be performing music that we don’t realize is coming across as boring because we are so involved in the processing that it takes to play it, that we have fun and enjoy ourselves even while creating a lackluster rendering. This is why it is so important to listen to yourself on a recording - tape doesn’t lie - and to listen to others. Where are the places that musical ideas sound boring? What can be changed in those spots? This boredom with a particular passage is often the catalyst to ignite the creative fire needed to bring more life to that particular area of the piece. Revel in the boredom and use it to trigger better and more sensitive performances.

Creativity is born out of your intellect and life experience. The more you know, the more connections you can make. This is a really powerful driver for creativity. The musical connections we create between elements that are not so readily obvious are a big part of the fun of creative expression. Finding these also helps bring about awareness of other patterns and ideas that might not have otherwise been so easily noticed. Bringing some sense of relatability through music where it was previously not seen, heard, or experienced offers something unique for the listener. And combining interesting ideas is more fun when you have more raw material from which to draw. Your intellect and life experience can serve as that raw material. Study hard, read books, watch films, travel, learn a language, go to museums, listen to NPR, hang out with smart people, take a course in photography, go dancing, challenge yourself, carpe diem!

Creativity is born out of the psychological freedom that allows you the permission to be creative. Insecurity and shame are the enemies of creativity and happiness. When you do the hard work it takes to develop your musical skills, you will develop a grounded confidence that will grow through repeat performances. Performing is an affirming experience for the performer when it matches current ability levels. When you see someone performing and it looks easy, you’re probably right! All musicians should practice what they will perform to a point that it becomes effortless. For students still developing, performing progressively more challenging works will help create a record of successful performances. This is a huge topic that I covered in Chapter Six in the section on Performance Anxiety, but it relates so closely to our creativity, it helps to think about it a bit more in this context as well.

There is something innately freeing about recognizing the inherent worth of our ideas and feeling that we have the right to bring those forth in performance. Realizing this is sometimes hard when students in the learning stages and are so focused on the many finer points of the craft. At some point, we have to let go of all of the things we wish we could do better, and enjoy where we are in the moment and go out and create. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Here are a few books I recommend for further reading on this topic. I wish you the best on your creative odyssey.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
A little “out there”, Cameron offers some helpful exercises and advice on getting in touch with your inner artistic self: taking yourself on an artist date, writing stream of conscious morning pages, answering various questions. For those experiencing a creative dry spell, there may be something here for you.

Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by John Cleese
I love reading about creativity and various creative people’s processes, and I think there is much to be gained from actors and comedians, especially those skilled in improv. This short, humorous account is sure to please.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp
Again, I just enjoy reading about other people’s creative process. Writers, dancers, composers, these people fascinate me. The discipline and determination are not unlike that of a performer, so I always feel like I gain by learning from their experiences. Tharp is no exception.

Stephanie Rea is Professor of Music at Murray State University. Her Flute Hygiene: A Guide to Developing and Maintaining the Habits That Lead to Better Flute Playing will be released in summer 2023 as a free pdf on  You can connect with her on LinkedIn or YouTube.

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