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Investigation into how musicians find creative inspiration at Cambridge

20th May 2015

An investigation into how musicians find creative inspiration has identified four key ingredients needed for creative expression. It also shows that musicians may be at their most inspired when they step away from their instruments and think about music in different ways.

Artists of any description are well-acquainted with the search for an elusive muse, but for musicians in particular, help may now be at hand. In a new study, reported today, researchers examining creativity in music-makers have put forward fresh insights into how musicians “find” their creative voice.

The results may come as a surprise – not least because they suggest that musicians may be at their most creative when not actually playing or singing. The study found that breakthrough moments of inspiration often took place while they were humming pieces to themselves, imagining dance moves or emotional narratives inspired by the music, or tapping out rhythms on nearby furniture, rather than using their instruments.

If that sounds like an open invitation to shower-singers and air-guitarists, however, the researchers, from the University of Cambridge, also found four main ingredients needed for an artist to achieve creative expression in practice and performance contexts alike. These are: freedom, flexibility, a sense of being “in the moment”, and a commitment to “giving” the music to an audience – even if that audience exists only in their imagination while they are rehearsing, or even just thinking about performing.

The project is one of the major research initiatives launched in 2009 by the Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice, a collaboration between the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, King’s College London, and Royal Holloway, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The work of the Centre is reported in a new film, “Passionate about Performance,” released online today, the fourth anniversary of CMPCP’s launch.

“One of the aims of the Centre was to research how musicians develop creatively, and how they can be supported and enabled as they undertake this all-important process,” John Rink, Professor of Musical Performance Studies at the University of Cambridge, and the Centre’s Director, said. “Some of our discoveries thus far may feed into a performance curriculum allowing students to aspire to – and attain – greater musical inspiration and creative individuality than they already achieve.”

Although creativity itself is the subject of widespread scholarly research, not many studies have examined creativity in musical performance. Those that have looked at it have generally been conducted from the perspectives of musicologists, theorists and composers, rather than that of performers themselves.

Furthermore, the researchers found that one of a number of barriers which limit musicians as they strive to find their creative voice is a sense that they need to respect the score that they are working from and the composer who wrote it. “There is a perceived hierarchy, in which the composer is deemed to be of much greater importance than the ‘mere’ executant,” Rink added. “This can be compounded by too much emphasis being placed by performers themselves on the acquisition of technique in its own right rather than coupled with deep, creative engagement with the music.”

Rink himself led the project called “Creative learning and ‘original’ music performance”, which set out to explore how creativity and originality can be fostered in performing musicians as they learn and refine their art in the practice room and teaching studio as well as on stage.

The team, which included two postdoctoral researchers, Dr Mirjam James and Dr Karen Wise, carried out fieldwork at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Royal College of Music. The two researchers used a combination of questionnaires, interviews, focus-group discussions, and observations of one-to-one lessons and practice sessions. Select students at both institutions were monitored as they practised towards an examination and a public performance over a period of weeks.

To gain access to the innermost thoughts of both students and teachers, the team also employed an innovative video-recall technique, which involved filming the one-to-one lessons and then asking each student and teacher to watch the films separately. In doing so, they were invited to identify moments when they felt especially creative in their playing or teaching, or when something new emerged about their understanding of a piece. These were described by the team as “creative episodes”.

Some students were also filmed practising on their own, and in addition they were asked to keep practice diaries as they prepared for their exams and public performances. The videos were, again, later played back to the student and their reflections on the film compared with the contents of the diaries.

Read more on the University of Cambridge website