Monday, June 4, 2012

The Inspiration Problem

When I was in school I took composition lessons from a really wonderful composer named Michaela Eremiasova.  One of the first pieces of musical wisdom she gave me was her belief that one's supposed lack of inspiration was a problem that could be overcome simply by hard work. If you don't like the ideas you're coming up with, continue to write anyway, because you won't get anywhere by sitting around and waiting to be inspired.

No one likes to hear this, but it really is good news.  Why?  Because when you take this principle to its natural conclusion, you can make the argument that all of our assumptions about the concept of "inspiration" might be thrown out the window.  If Michaela is correct, and I believe she may be, then excellence is something that is far more attainable than any of us realize because we don't want to admit to ourselves that it will likely take a great deal of effort to get there.

In popular imagination, there tends to be a desire to see "inspiration" not as something that can be acquired, but as a gift bestowed upon its recipients by the cosmic forces of the universe.  This is comforting for a great many people because it says "if you're not a genius, that's really ok."  And, of course, it is perfectly ok to not be a genius or an inspired person in most areas.

But this view also allows us to let ourselves off the hook.  The film, Amadeus, is one example I can think of that really promotes the idea of God-given inspiration.  In the film, the character Antonio Salieri cannot understand why God would withhold the gifts of musical inspiration from such a loyal servant as himself, and instead grant them to a scoundrel such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  The film, while great entertainment, hangs its entire narrative on what may be a flawed premise: Mozart is inspired, Salieri is not, and there is nothing anyone can do to change that.

Of course, Mozart did possess a great deal of natural musical talent, but some have argued that it was just the result of deliberate practice undertaken from a very early age.  That's not to say that practicing 10 hours a day will turn a person into an inspiration machine, but it certainly helps your chances.  Composers are creative people, and you cannot just churn out greatness, but the more deliberate practice you have under your belt, the greater your arsenal of musical language.  We all lack inspiration at times, but if we have a solid foundation, we can somehow manage to fill in those gaps.

Could we all be great at something if we really wanted to?  It's hard to say, but what I do know is that if you take something by the horns, you're more likely to get where you want to go.  We don't like being told that we need to work through the problem.  It's much easier to stand back and wait for the light bulb to turn on, but most of the time, the problem doesn't go away on its own.

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