Inspiration and what you can accomplish away from your instrument

Just to address this concept of getting to your instrument and expecting inspiration to strike: yes, you do need to sit down and just play the damned thing. Generally inspiration will strike after about 15 minutes or so, if you go looking for it.

However, people frequently overestimate the importance of having the free time in the day to actually fart around on one’s instrument.

The fact is, you have to be looking for inspiration 24/7. Anyone who reads this blog (all two of you) knows that I like to write and am somewhat verbose. When I’m in a writerly mood, which is frequently, I’m playing with words in my head all the time, not just when I’m sitting here clicking away. It’s like being a card sharp who carries a deck of cards around with them and plays with it constantly. I’m constantly playing with words and verbalizing in the back of my head.

As a result, when I sit down at the laptop, I’m not having ideas. I’m emptying out the ideas that have welled up for the other 23 hours in the day into the laptop.

The 88-key keyboard is much the same as the 101-key keyboard in this instance. For me, they are especially similar since I have a very grammatical/linguistic concept of music. For me, my brain interprets playing piano as effectively identical to writing.

But anyhow, when I sit at that keyboard, I am also emptying out stuff that has been welling up during the rest of the day. Now, sometimes that stuff wells up at incredibly inconvenient times. When I’m in traffic, at work, on an airplane, on the john in a train station, etc. In other words, when I’m nowhere near my instrument.

I tend not to like most brain/computer metaphors because I think they’re overused, but there are a few that are decent, and in this case I think of this as sort of a background process that runs in my head all the time. It’s the same with any art — the visual artist is always noticing colors and shapes in their visual world and playing with them in their heads. The musician is always noodling in their heads. The writer is always playing with words in their heads. Dancers are probably moving in their heads even when they are sitting still. And all of that pours out into their device of choice when they get the chance to pick it up, be that device a brush, chisel, laptop, their bodies, or any musical instrument. It’s got to be something your head does 24/7 as a background process.

Now sometimes, inspiration will strike hard and happen to do so when you are sitting right there with your instrument in hand. The last 32 measures of “Bitter Clean,” my first six-flat piece, did that to me. I sat down on a Friday night with the time to fart around and just braaaap! out it poured, then and there. That was nice, even though it ended up being a terribly artistically challenging experience to finish the piece.

But those are rare moments. You can’t rely on them, particularly if you work a day job, have a family to raise, etc. etc. etc. You need to look for inspiration all the time, as a 24/7 background process that runs in the back of your head. If you wait for inspiration to strike when it’s convenient for you … well, you’ll have a long wait.

So this is both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the good side, you don’t need to have to have a ton of free time to be a musician or artist in general. If you are saying to yourself, “Yes, but I only have an hour a day to sit at the piano or pick up a brush,” that’s okay because you don’t need only that hour at which you are physically present at your instrument. Before you fall asleep, while you’re doing dishes, sitting in traffic or on public transit getting to work, eating lunch … all that is time during which you can go looking for inspiration within the blissful privacy of your own brain.

On the annoying side, this means that you’re just going to have to cope emotionally with the times that inspiration strikes and you can’t do anything about it. If you’re in traffic, oh well.

But the reason why this is okay is because what you want to do is not just find particular bits of inspiration. You want to train your head to go looking as a default activity. You want to develop the mental habit of looking for inspiration all the time, so that when you do sit down for that one hour a day that you have at your instrument, the mental machine will be well-oiled and ready to go, and you can use that one hour in the most efficient way possible. You don’t want to waste any of that time cranking up a poorly lubricated mental process, and if it’s already been humming away for the rest of the day, you won’t waste any of that precious, rare free time.

Also, you can in fact capture some ideas even if they strike at irritating times. Get a cheap handheld microphone. Put a keyboard app on your phone or other mobile device; you can find freebies that are fairly good. Keep some staff paper and a pencil with you.

At any rate, just don’t wait until your at your device before you go looking for inspiration. You have to sift those sands 24/7.