Creativity: How to Put in the Time

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In the music profession, advice related to the amount of practicing one must do each day abounds. One may have heard that it requires 10,000 hours of practice with an instrument to acquire a “virtuoso” level of skill with it. One may have also heard that several hours of practice per day are required; advice ranges from three to six hours, or even up to eight, depending upon the instrument in question.

There is no doubt that much practice is required to achieve mastery, and that few are willing to invest this much time in learning such a craft. It puzzles me, however, that I have rarely heard this advice given to composers. If one does not speak in these terms, then in what terms does one speak in? How does one achieve creative mastery without thinking in this way? Why is this so, and what might it imply for other aspiring creative professionals?

The language of composers and those in several other professions appears to be different. Composers often speak of the projects over which they currently labor, as well as the projects that they complete. Visual artists speak in the same terms. Authors may speak of their daily word count, though there seems to be no universal agreement regarding what it ought to be; rather, most authors speak in terms of their latest completed work.

The commonality between these professionals is the language of completion. Each creative project is a specific goal that may be broken into simple steps. Each step becomes a sub-project, and the sub-projects are completed before they are brought together to form a coherent whole. My composition teacher never recommended a number of hours for a student to “practice composition”; he simply set deadlines for completion of the projects, and the student had to invest whatever time was necessary to meet these deadlines. Some projects were simple, taking less than an hour to complete. Others were longer-term projects, requiring hours of time invested every day for several months. In many cases, a student worked on multiple projects at a time that varied in length and difficulty. “Putting in the hours” was a means to an end, but was not, itself, the goal.

I have always thought and worked more effectively on these terms. I find simply “putting in the hours” to stifle creativity, as it becomes a directionless, aimless exercise in maintenance. Maintenance of skills is, of course, vital, but it appears that it may be more effectively achieved in service of a greater goal. After all, would one send a ship on a long journey without a destination?

In fact, as I work to complete various projects, I find that I end up investing ample time in the practice of my craft. The time investment is a by-product, or simply a necessary step, rather than the goal. Completing my latest work required several hours of composition daily, which, in turn, required the use of melody, counterpoint, harmony, form, knowledge of instrumentation, editing and engraving, and other aspects of the craft. My skills were maintained and strengthened, and I received for my efforts a completed, saleable project.

To conclude, “putting in the time” seems to be only half of the equation. The other half, and perhaps the more important half, would appear to be the achievement of goals. After all, no one speaks of Beethoven thus: “Beethoven was one of the greatest composers of all time; he spent more hours composing than any of his contemporaries.” Rather, we speak of his ingenious piano sonatas, his epic symphonies, and his innovative use of musical structure. The focus is on his accomplishments, rather than on his processes.

Perhaps this is how a creator should approach all of his work. As one of my trumpet teachers was fond of saying, “Think product, not process.” And, as one of my composition teachers said, “It doesn’t matter how long it took him; all that matters is if it’s any good or not!”

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