27 Ways to Break A Creative Block

  1. Make a list. There’s something about making lists that just flows.
  2. Just write something. Anything. Even if it’s garbage. If all you’re getting is dirt, keep digging.
  3. Come back to an old idea you’ve written and see it in a new light.
  4. Get in character, like an actor. Find the “emotional core” of whatever you are creating.
  5. Make up a title. For some reason, having the title of something really helps music come to me.
  6. For music: write words that describe the emotional core of the music.
  7. For prose: imagine what the soundtrack for a particular scene would sound like if it were a movie.
  8. Start conducting.
  9. Start humming or singing randomly.
  10. “Write out loud”: your book is a movie, and you are the narrator.
  11. Improvise on your instrument.
  12. Look at visual art. Paintings, sculptures, photos.
  13. Look at visual art and write descriptions of it, or depict the art musically. Ask, “If this sculpture were a character in my story, what would he be like?”, or, “If this painting had a soundtrack, what would it sound like?”
  14. Come back to an old idea. See it in a new light.
  15. Read.
  16. Read, and then “riff” on something you have read. A character, a scene, a concept. How would you end this story?
  17. Listen to music.
  18. Listen to music, and then “riff” on one melody or fragment you have heard. How would you have written it differently?
  19. Imagine you are one of your own students. How would you tell yourself how to solve this problem?
  20. Change tasks. If composing isn’t going well, orchestrate something you’ve already written. If writing isn’t going well, flesh out an existing character or concept.
  21. Take a walk outside. Look around. Imagine being able to change anything at will. The tree in front of you is no longer a tree: it’s a space elevator. The birds aren’t birds. They’re dragons. Let your imagination explore.
  22. If nothing is going well, take a break. Do something fun. When you come back to creativity, you’ll feel refreshed.
  23. Remind yourself of what one of your teachers has told you. I recorded some of my trumpet lessons (with my teacher’s permission, of course); when I had a practice session that wasn’t going well, I listened to one of the recordings to remind myself of what was truly important. (In many cases, I was simply overthinking the whole process.)
  24. Return to an old idea. See it in a new light.
  25. Give yourself a deadline and be absolutely inflexible. To get my creativity back after a long period of disuse, I wrote a short piece every day, beginning to end, having at most only a couple of hours each day. This helped me to stop being perfectionistic and simply focus on completing projects. This also provided great material for future projects, since I now had plenty of ideas to develop later.
  26. Start with a small, simple idea.
  27. Listen to music you’ve already written, or read a story you’ve already written and are proud of. If your creative block lasts a long enough period of time, it’s good to remind yourself that you can still do this!

Music: “Hummingbird”

I saw a glowing hummingbird hovering around a flower, taking nectar from it. The bird finished, and then darted about before joining a number of other hummingbirds of all sorts of colors. They were too numerous to count; seen from a distance, they would have appeared as a resplendent and rapidly shifting cloud.

They flew together into a large vortex that spiraled up into the sky, which appeared to lead into another realm. I wonder where they went?

Music: Twirling Dance

“Twirling Dance” depicts the following scene:

I saw a young woman dancing outside near a lake, clad in an iridescent blue dress. The environment around me had a distinctive cerulean glow all around, as though I were looking into a celestial realm of sorts. She continued to dance until suddenly transforming into a small bird.

When she transformed, the environment also transformed into a tunnel through space itself. The bird swooped throughout the tunnel, flying in all directions, before transforming back into a young woman. This time, she danced upon the lake itself. When finished, she froze in place and became a statue.

The original art depicting this scene was created by my dear wife.

Music: “Flurries”

I saw snow falling in large, light flakes, blanketing the grass. It was late evening, with the distant sun barely an ember of orange within the deep gray backdrop of sky.

The snowflakes grew into each other upon hitting the ground, as though they were fast-growing yeast or sinew. Each flake carried a story and reflected, as a mirror, the environment surrounding it.

The flakes poured from the sky, which was a nexus  – a wormhole of sorts – between multiple realms or realities. The story carried by each flake was a history, or a tale, or simply a thing of beauty, from its realm. Some of the flakes carried their realm’s entire history. Were the flakes creating a new realm or universe as they fell and melted into one another?

Each flake appeared to be alive, sentient, and conscious.

Listen directly on SoundCloud

How patient can I be with myself today?

Ask the following question out loud: “How patient can I be with myself today?”

Now, ask it again.

Now ask it one more time.

Say it when you wake up every morning, and perhaps also before beginning the day’s work.

Of all the skills that go into learning a new skill, accomplishing a difficult task, or achieving a goal, few are more important than simple patience.

Are you enduring a difficult trial, and do not know when it will be over? “How patient can I be with myself today?”

Are you attempting to learn a complicated piece of music, and it is not working? “How patient can I be with myself today?”

Are you creating a new work, but it is taking longer than anticipated, or the ideas are simply not flowing? “How patient can I be with myself today?”

It is tempting to fall into the trap of, “I must solve this specific problem”, or, “I must force the ideas to come quickly”, only for them not to come or the problem not to be solved (or even for it to be compounded). If the solution to a problem is like a cat, then simply calling it to come to you, or attempting to force it to do so, is unlikely to be effective. The only reliable way to entice a cat to come to you is to bait it with its favorite food…and then wait for it to come to you. (Read more about this idea here.)

This does not mean that a writer should not keep writing in an attempt to break writer’s block. It simply means that constantly writing serves a different purpose than it, perhaps, is thought to. The purpose of freewriting to break a block is not to actually use the material that is freewritten (much of which is likely to be utter rubbish). The purpose of freewriting is to identify the “favorite food” of the cat. The phrase, the concept, the small group of words, the character, the anything, that will entice the creativity to flow again.

This, of course, requires patience. The same patience exercised by an archaeologist who digs in the dirt to find a valuable artifact. The same patience exercised by a poet shaping words to find the perfect verse. The same patience exercised by a violinist who practices a given bow technique over and over and over until the bow glides across the string.

And this is the patience that a composer, a writer, a painter, a choreographer, or any other creative professional, must master. We do not wait patiently. We must write patiently. A composer must sketch melodic fragments…patiently. An illustrator must scribble random lines, shapes, and objects…patiently. Freewriting seems most effective when done quickly…but with an underlying attitude of patience. To the creative person who is stuck, who is frustrated, who feels no inspiration, but who keeps writing anyway, know this: you will find a great idea. You will identify the favored treat. The cat will come to you.

How patient can I be with myself today?

With all of these things, patience is the real game that one must play. The only one against whom I am competing is myself (and no competitor is more fearsome for an artist than himself), and patience quiets this inner competitor. It gives assurance not that a project will be completed by tomorrow, or that a certain skill will be mastered by next week, or that a trial will be over by the end of the month, but it does provide hope through a reminder that these things will be completed…sometime. They will be completed eventually. They will, indeed, be completed.

And when we complete something, we often forget about the effort that it took to complete it. A former student of mine who was a United States Marine said, “After the training is over, it just seems like it was a bad dream.” It did not “scar” him, and he did not appear to agonize over it. It was simply over, and he now possessed the skills that it was intended to teach him. A mountain climber may not remember the pain or endurance required after he reaches the top and beholds the glorious, cloudless sunrise. A child does not remember tripping and falling on his face while learning to walk. He simply knows that he can walk now.

In many things, patience is a key ingredient, and mastery of it is often one of the greatest determinants in success. As students, may we always ask ourselves, “Will I remember this struggle five years from now?” As teachers, may we always strive to remind our students of this simple, critical skill. May we provide ample opportunities for our them to practice it, and may we especially model it for them through our own patience with them. May we remind them that, whatever their current struggles with learning may be, they will not remember most of them five years from now. Let us remind them that struggles are often brief, but that the skills gained from them last a lifetime.

How patient can I be with myself today?

Music: Lonely Waltz

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Lonely Waltz is a brief and simple waltz. The classically-oriented listener may notice the influence of (and a blatant tribute to) Maurice Ravel, an early 20th-century French composer (one of my favorites).

Music: “Buried Hopes”

Buried Hopes was written for a short video, in which a person remembers her childhood dream to play the piano and wishes to bring the joy of music to her own children. The original composition used in the video ends with a “question mark” chord to segue into a contented jazz tune for the second half; I have altered the ending of the standalone piece to sound more “final”. In this form, the piece depicts a person who has had a lifelong dream of playing the piano, but now wonders if it is too late to learn. (Let me reassure anyone who wonders this: it is never too late.)

Listen to this piece directly on SoundCloud