De-Slogging Your Creative Practice

May 10, 2018

Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they’ve been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don’t explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing.” — Tom Waits

To people who live and work outside creative disciplines, it seems like “creativity” is all sunshine and rainbows. It’s fun! It’s new! It’s flashy! In reality, working as a creative involves just as much screen-staring as any other office job.

To me, creativity has always been a mindset and a thought process, not an end product. But to some — and, admittedly, I have chosen an industry that literally monetizes what I’ve always considered an essential personal tendency — creativity can be misunderstood. I’ve heard it described as a renewable resource: “How do you refill your creativity?” It’s been held up as a meaningless benchmark: “Can we just make this more creative?” And there’s the most insulting and toxic request of all: “Can I just use your brain for a minute? I have a problem.”

I’m not trying to be exclusionary — I think the single biggest contributor to a creative mindset is curiosity, and anyone can be curious. As a profession, however, developing creative mastery takes practice, structured challenge and rest. Simply powering through a creative task (“I’m going to write for ten hours straight today!”) leads to slog and burnout — a sad outcome, given how energizing and affirming the process can be.

Anyway, I’ve been testing this concept — practice, challenge and rest — in one specific creative outlet over the past year or so, and it has reaped big dividends for me. I’m finding ways to apply it to my work life and other personal expressions, and it might help you too.

Notes on Notes: Yawn

I’ve played the drums since I was 16 years old with varying degrees of commitment. I’ve taken lessons; I’ve studied on my own; I’ve watched videos; I’ve read books; I’ve simply learned by ear by played along with songs. I’ve been in bands and I’ve bashed around in the basement. The drums are great!

At some point, I realized I had reached a solid beginner-intermediate level but wasn’t moving forward. My hands weren’t working correctly; I couldn’t play songs, licks or patterns I wanted to; I had little consistency from practice to practice. So I said, as anyone would do when in crisis: “I’m going to sit down and force my way through George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control, the foundational instruction text for drummers.”

Okay, maybe I wasn’t that pedantic about it. But I did throw myself into that book, and I experienced immediate growth and development. My hands were loosening up, my ability to hear music improved, my technical chops snapped into focus — and then I hit a plateau. No matter how many hours I spent in my basement barreling through endless variations on hand patterns, I couldn’t make any meaningful forward progress. (In many ways, it was like plateauing in a weightlifting routine.) Each page of notes blended into a soup and I found myself slogging once again through joyless, hours-long practice sessions.

Reappraising Creative Inspiration

Then I read an article by Marc Dicciani in the December 2016 issue of Modern Drummer magazine, titled “More Effective Learning: Improving Practice Skills, Memory and Drumming,” which reoriented how I approach creative practice. Dicciani argues that recent discoveries in neuroscience, anatomy and even genetics have shown that shorter blocks of more focused practice foster deeper learning and cognition than hammering information into your system — which often goes against your brain’s will. To quote Dicciani:

Select specific aspects of your playing that want to improve, and then make your practice session focused, directed, creative, conscious, dedicated, contextualized, repetitive but interleaved (divided into varied segments of short chunks of time for each idea), and broken into small components. Practice is never automatic and should always include your own input, imagination, and creativity.

He also provides this helpful chart that breaks down where we learn best, neurologically speaking:

Dicciani suggests identifying areas or genres of study to which you can devote short periods of time (20-30 minutes, say), and then alternate among a few sections within the frame of a larger practice session. Now, instead of forcing myself through a page of Stick Control over and over until “it’s perfect” (spoiler: impossible benchmark), I set my metronome in 25-minute blocks and work through a few different concepts.

In a two-hour practice session, I might address things like time feel, hand exercises, limb coordination and independence, specific patterns, jazz playing and the like. I might say, “I’m going to focus on developing my left foot next” or “I’m just going to improvise through this next block.” In between chunks, I take a minute to breathe, stretch or have a drink of water. If I start into an exercise and it’s just not clicking, I can put it aside and work on something different. The stakes at practice seem lower, but I’ve noticed I’m more focused, lively and engaged when working under this method.

Since adopting this more atomized practice routine, my playing has gotten better and more natural, my understanding of my instrument has gotten deeper and I’ve grown in both breadth and depth as a musician. I feel energized when I pick up the sticks and I feel better able to express myself. I show up at band practice twice a week loosened up and ready to contribute. Best of all, I’ve learned a strategy that helps me harness new stimuli in order to produce better creative work.

Of course, not everyone plays the drums. But I’ve applied this strategy to my work as a copywriter, too, and found some success there as well. I’ll divide my work time into smaller chunks, notice when my brain is ready to switch gears and try to be in the “learning zone” more often than not.

Creativity is a thought process, but turning it into a career, and producing work you’re proud of, requires you to deploy it effectively. Taking the time and effort to engage with your creative practice — whether it’s writing, designing, drawing, developing, cooking, gardening or dancing — will help you understand your talents better and discover new ways to produce amazing work. Here’s to practice!