One of my passions in the church and as a general rule is that we learn how to get creative well. Too often we settle for less when God deserves our best. It starts with this statement: we need to be learners. Here are four steps that I believe are crucial to learning how to be creative:
Step 1 – Inspiration
Of course, in order to progress in any creative field, we need to be inspired to do so. I was inspired to learn the guitar by the shellbacked acoustic my step-brother left in the living room of my dad’s house once, combined with a Green Day song called “Time of Your Life”. Two creative geniuses back in England, Andy White and Lee Rowbotham inspired me to learn about graphic design because I wanted to replicate the amazing work they were creating. I learnt how to record music because I was inspired by some more friends: David Cottee and James Hosker. Whether it’s a song, a friend, an ambition or a frustration, we need to be inspired!
Step 2 – Imitatation
Regardless of the creative avenue you long to explore, I’ve found that one of the best things you can do is copy those that are ahead of you.
The idea is not to publish it and breach various copyright laws and so on; but rather to dissect and analyse the work of someone with more experience than you. Writers – study an excerpt of an author you admire – why do they choose those words? Designers – note the fonts, spacing and the use of colour in a design you love. Songwriters – what effect does that octave jump in the melody have on the song, why did they use the chord progression that they did and how does that impact the song? How does the electric guitar fit with the keyboard in the arrangement?
…I could go on.
Dissecting a piece of work is like lifting up the bonnet (hood for my north American friends) of a car and taking a look at its inner workings. We can reverse-engineer it, learn what makes it tick and in doing so, try and understand what steps to take to recreate it ourselves (at this point, recreating the piece is basically a game of ‘spot the difference’ between your work and theirs).
An example for me personally was in my guitar playing a few years ago. I just couldn’t understand why, when I played the same notes that the members of Hillsong United played on guitar, it sounded totally different. I spent hours trawling the cyber-space until I learnt about some of the effects they used to get their ‘sound’. It was then a case of researching, practicing and experimenting until I could understand how they achieved the tones they did. Another musician I studied lots was John Mayer – to me, he’s the best guitar player in the world, so I would learn his songs as note-perfectly as I could to try and understand the theoretical concepts that underpin his style.
Step 3 – Implementation
The next step in this process is to take the concepts that you like and apply it in your own creative space. For example, as a designer you may spot that the background of your chosen study piece isn’t simply a block of colour – rather, it gets darker around the outside. This is called a ‘vignette’. Where appropriate, this technique can be distilled from a larger piece of work and applied to your own future work.
Going back to my guitar example, I learnt a huge amount about how different sounds create different feels. Emulating other bands helped me to learn about what sounds my guitar was capable of so that when we came to write our own songs, I had a larger toolkit at my disposal. For example, there is a particular electric guitar part that comes up again and again in 6m-4-1-5 progressions. No, you don’t need to know what that means. The same is true of the chord inversions that John Mayer frequently uses.
Step 4 – Imagination
With a toolkit filled with the techniques used by the people that inspire you, now is the time to put your own creative stamp on whatever it is you’re interested in. This could be a time to deviate from previous models, tweak, mould and pull together various ideas to create a rather more beautiful Frankenstein’s monster of creativity with your name on it. Or perhaps it’s a time to break new ground, to try something previously unseen or unheard of – but this is a well-informed and deliberate choice rather than an unaware and unwitting one.
In the last year or two, I’ve finally feel that I’ve created a sound that I’m comfortable with as a guitarist – a sound that’s ‘me’, and not a cookie-cutter imitation of another. When asked, I usually find it easiest to describe it as the middle ground between John Mayer and Hillsong United but in truth, there are far more influences than that. Shapes or positions on the fret board, pedal uses and sounds and various other techniques have collected over time. This is certainly the hardest step and be under no illusion – it takes time. I’ve been playing guitar for eleven years and am only just finding my own sound! It may be quicker for you; it may even be longer!
Originality is our ultimate destination, but please don’t take that to mean that you should ignore the mountains of fantastic work that has gone before you. Learn from the people that have paved the way for you!