The Zen of Teaching Creativity

After spending almost every dime he had to be there, John Daido Loori walked out of a multi-day retreat with famed photographer Minor White after mere hours, when the class began at four o’clock in the morning with exercises led by a modern dancer.

“I had paid hundreds of dollars to study photography with Minor, and I wasn’t about to spend the week undulating in the dark! Furious, I stormed away,” Loori writes in The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life.

Several classmates convinced him to return, and while days did pass without him so much as taking a single photograph, he learned a great deal about himself, about art, and about creativity. That insight shaped him into a better photographer.

That style of instruction seems counter-intuitive, when we think of art as a craft. Loori expected to learn about aperture settings. A creative writing workshop participant expects to learn about plot and character. A student of guitar expects to learn fingering for chords.

We all need to learn the mechanics of our craft, what creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the domain. But Minor White knew you needed more than that to be an artist with a camera.

I experienced a similar awakening years ago when I was a serious singer. The greatest choir conductor of the 20th Century, Robert Shaw, agreed to guest-conduct us in the Duruflé Requium. We rehearsed with our conductor for months and performed first under him in a large hall. Mr. Shaw was sitting in the back, listening to us for the first time in anticipation of conducting us in our main performance three days later. We hadn’t met him yet, and with stage lights in our eyes, we couldn’t see him. But we could feel his presence.

Our performance was, at best, flat. In fact, we botched it.

We dreaded what Mr. Shaw would say when we walked into our rehearsal the next morning. After all, the man had won a Grammy Award for a recording of that very requiem with the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus.

We stood when he entered the room, and when he motioned us to sit we moved downward in obedient unison, spines straight, scores held out in front of us.

He waved his right arm dismissively. “Put those scores down. We won’t be needing them today.”

We then spent the next four hours doing… well, I have a hard time remembering the details, actually. We sang some scales. We worked on dynamic range. I think we even sang rounds, like children do with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” But we never sang a note of Duruflé.

We continued like that after lunch. In all, we spent nine hours with Mr. Shaw that day and our scores remained under our seats the entire time. Had you told me before his arrival that our first day would be spent without a crash-course review of the Requiem, I likely would have been as angry as Loori was at his photography retreat.

But instead, I was on a high like I had never experienced before as a musician. We all were. Somehow, Mr. Shaw had unlocked in us our creative souls, which had been locked away for the last two months as we stressed over details of the score.

The next morning we arrived wired, anticipation coursing through us. What crazy things would we do today, we wondered?

“Pick up your scores, please,” the conductor said before he had even fully entered the room.

It was our last full day of rehearsal with him. We spent the entire time going over passages of the Requiem we had struggled with two days earlier in our first performance.

Some of the passages had troubled us from the start. Our conductor, who was quite good, had fought us and pushed us, but with little effect. But now, in this new creative state, Mr. Shaw would tell a section of the chorus what to do, and that section would do it. The only bad taste I can recall from that day is seeing my conductor, sitting behind Mr. Shaw, clearly depressed that we hadn’t responded to him the same way.

Have you ever had your art taken to a new level by an instructor who avoided instructing you in the tools of your art? Are you an instructor yourself who understands the art and science of this approach? I’d love for you to share your stories below.

6 thoughts on “The Zen of Teaching Creativity

  1. I love this story about Mr. Shaw!

    Yes, I believe in this kind of teaching. I do it with writers in my online course. I don’t call myself a *teacher* of creative writing – I think of myself (and the course material) as a creative muse. A writing teacher criticized me on Twitter for that the other day. “You’re not their muse – you’re their teacher!” She then proceeded to give me advice about how I need to make my students write a lot and then edit like hell. Yikes. I would not attend her class. I’d be afraid she’d brow-beat me into writing something and then give it the red pen.

    I would much rather help writers get into the zone by making it fun. They then teach themselves by seeing what they can already do. Things they feared they couldn’t do or believed they couldn’t do. Or things they thought wouldn’t be fun, because of all the usual “shoulds.”

    The highest satisfaction that comes from my work is to see a workshop full of writers happily writing and sharing, or to hear a student, guest blogger or member of one of my writing circles say “That was fun!”


  2. Milli, you sound like my kind of teacher! And of course, a muse is whoever or whatever an artist allows in as inspiration. I wasn’t aware there was a “Muse Police” out there decreeing who could or could not fit that description. 🙂

    I’m glad you liked the story about Robert Shaw. After I wrote that post, I dug out my CD of him conducting that requiem and relived it!


  3. Thank you, Patrick. I rarely unFollow anyone on Twitter, but it did feel like the Muse Police. LOL! Thanks for that. I needed to see some humor in it.

    That kind of attitude is exactly why we need more Robert Shaws in our world. Your blog also has that effect. I feel more creative after visiting. I would be happy curling up with a cup of tea and whole book full of stories like this one.


  4. Patrick – what a great story. Lots to be learned from it. Robert Shaw was an inspiration to many. Thanks for pointing me to this post of yours. I’m really glad I read it!


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