Creativity, Deliberate Practice and Structure

A few months ago, I wrote a series of posts on creativity, deliberate practice and structure.  I’m actually quite excited about these posts; they seemed to have set a foundation for more thoughts and writing.

For this reason, I’ve compiled them into one long post so its easier to read and easier for me to refer students to.

Also, I should mention that these ideas aren’t only for musicians – they apply to all creative activities.  The first few sections are music specific, but if you’re not music literate, keep on reading!  It eventually broadens when I reflect more specifically on creativity and structure.

Hope you enjoy!

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A Simple Exercise

Sometimes, when students play for me, I hear that they’re not playing through the changes.

More specifically, they’re playing vertically, rather than horizontally or linearly.  More specifically, suppose they’re playing this:

Ex 1

Rather than this:

Ex 2

The first example neglects the voice leading that’s inherent in the progression.  The second example not only acknowledges the voice leading, but toys with it too.

I usually prescribe the following exercise, which at first seems easy, but my students come back next lesson so frustrated, they say they want to “strangle me.”

Check it out; here are the rules:

  • Pick a tune.  Preferably a blues to start.
  • Left hand plays roots; right hand improvises.
  • Rhythmically, you must improvise steady, constant 8th notes (no rests!).
  • You’re only allowed to move by step (intervals of a 2nd), no repeating notes!
  • Chord tones must land on all downbeats.

The be-bop scale is recommended because it helps determine the chord tones; but it’s not mandatory.

A chorus though the blues may look like this:

Blues Chorus

Try it!

Exploring the Simple Exercise

Though I’ve set rigid rules, there’s still opportunity for the player to make creative decisions.  This dynamic is very significant, let me demonstrate:

Suppose the exercise, with the rules I’ve imposed, is too difficult.  Mistakes are commonly made, improvement is sluggish and a foundation for more linear playing – which is the purpose of this exercise – isn’t being established.  The choices made available to a player are very strict, but maybe they’re being presented in an unfamiliar context and there still may be too many choices for him/her to focus.  Let’s consider some of these choices.

Here’s an example:

Ex 3

There are only three solutions, or choices a player can make.

Ex 4

Well, you could argue that there are five, but I don’t like these two:

Ex 5

For every two notes, a player has 3-5 choices.  For every four notes, a player will have many more.  How many solutions are there for:

Ex 6

The point is to understand that there’s opportunity to be creative, especially over more diverse chord progressions and in different meters.  If the exercise is too difficult, it’s probably because there’s too much creative opportunity, and all the possible choices are overwhelming.

I can make it easier; I can impose more rules.  Instead of playing over a tune, play over one chord, indefinitely.  This narrows the field considerably.  Players can relax and focus on navigating through one chord with one scale.  Ideally, the choices they make will become intuitive.  They’ll start recognizing patterns in the sounds, fingerings and images on their instrument.

This is the essence of discipline, deliberate practice and creativity.

Deliberate Practice and Structured Activities

An exercise like this, with potential to improve performance, fulfils Geoff Colvin’s criteria for deliberate practice (from Talent is Overrated):

  • It is designed specially to improve performance
  • It can be repeated a lot
  • Feedback on results is continually available (assuming the player is getting feedback)
  • It’s highly demanding mentally
  • It isn’t much fun

Actually, this list is mostly derived from Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s 1993 publication The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.  As a side note, this publication is also where Malcolm Gladwell got “10,000 hours” for his book Outliers.

Here are a few quotes from Ericsson:

“On the basis of several thousand years of education, along with more recent laboratory research on learning and skill acquisition, a number of conditions for optimal learning and improvement of performance have been uncovered.  The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance.  In addition, the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.  The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance.  The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.”

“The instructor has to organize the sequence of appropriate training tasks and monitor improvement to decide when transitions to more complex and challenging tasks are appropriate.”

“In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance.  Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further.”

This is what interests me: structured activities.

There is clearly a relationship between deliberate practice and structure.  Tightening, loosening and modifying structures facilitate learning and development.  The rules I imposed in my simple exercise are good examples of crafted forms and structures for an activity.

The challenge for musicians and teachers working to improve skills is in knowing what structures to impose, and subsequently, adhering to them.  Adhering to structure is synonymous with discipline.

In regard to the exercise I’ve presented, am I certain that these rules and structures are ideal to achieving more linear improvising?  No.  There may be better ones, and I’m sure we could derive many other exercises with different rules, but all fashioned to achieve the same goal.

Furthermore, what amount of structure is optimal for learning? If an exercise is too easy, a player won’t improve her skill level.  But if it’s too difficult, a foundation for learning can’t be established.  Structures designed for deliberate practice have to be both challenging and manageable.

Is it possible to measure an optimal balance between the two?  This is how I picture deliberate practice:

Graph 1

Graph 2

I see that Ericsson has published numerous articles since 1993; hopefully they’ll shed some insight; I’ll be checking them out over the next few months.

Creativity and Structured Activities

What rules would I have to impose to take away all possible creative choices?

In the context of my improv exercise, this is easy.  I can instruct the player to play only two notes, over one chord, for one measure.  It would have to look like this:

Ex 7

As far as the notes, the chord and duration are concerned, there’s zero opportunity for creativity (You could improve this slightly by adding a third note and increasing the duration to two measures).

What about the other extreme?  What rules and structures would I have to remove to allow full creative freedom?  This is more difficult for two reasons.

First, it depends on the player’s skill level.  Creativity is dependant on one’s ability to process and react to all this information.  To improve this we impose rules, and then remove them.

Stravinsky PoeticsThe second reason can be expressed using Stravinsky’s words from the Poetics of Music:

“…my freedom  will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength.  The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

This seems counter intuitive.  To optimize creativity, one may think the best way would be to simply remove all rules, structures and boundaries.  But you can’t take this too far. In the context of my improv exercise, yes, you could remove all the rules I outlined for my simple exercise.  But as it turns out, no matter how many rules you remove and loosen, the choices a player makes will always be governed by other structures, boundaries and “unwritten rules.”  I’ll write about these later.

The point is that creativity can be hindered by structure, but it also requires structure.  The inverse is also true, if you replace “structure” with “freedom.”  Creativity can be hindered by freedom, but it also requires freedom.

Considering all of this, the dynamic between creativity and structure can be expressed in a graph.  It would look something like this:

Graph 3

Three Reflections on Creativity

So how does creativity relate to structure?

1) Improving Creativity in the Short-Term

The answer to this question depends on the player’s skill and their familiarity with the structures governing their choices.

When I first give my students my simple exercise, their capacity for creative improvising is almost zero.  After a week, this will improve slightly.  After a lifetime of deliberate practice, their capacity to navigate through, and be creative within this specific structure will be more significant.

Graph 4

In the short term and in the context of my improv exercise, improvement in a player’s capacity to be creative can be expressed as such:

Graph 5

2) Improving Creativity in the Long-Term

Thus far, I’ve presented these relationships as if learning to be creative evolves linearly.  This has been useful up to this point, but I realize that creativity has to be considered more holistically with structures interacting on many levels.

For example, if a player wants to learn to play through changes, he/she will have to do much more than practice my improv exercise.  There also needs to be a familiarity with many other musical concepts.  Knowing what a 12-bar blues is, knowing what an F7 is, and knowing how to play an instrument would all contribute to a player’s ability to play through changes.

Likewise, when a player practices my improv exercise, they’re also practicing things that aren’t directly related to the exercise’s primary objective.  This includes technique, the piano (for pianists), fingering, theory and time.

Considering the holistic nature of creativity, after many months and years of deliberate practice and learning how to navigate through many exercises, a player will be more comfortable and more creative with less structure.

Graph 6

3) An Alternative

At this point, it would be a good idea to step back and examine the meaning of “creativity.”  Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value.”

Consider the term “original ideas.”  It’s important to establish a context here so that it doesn’t appear too abstract.

Having an idea that’s considered original depends on the conditions in which the idea was formed.  I may have an idea that’s original to my experience, but old news to you.  Additionally, consider a composer who writes music in the Baroque style.  His/Her ideas may not be original in a broad, historical context, but creative, original work could still be achieved within the nuances of the style.

Originality and creativity are relative to experience.  They depend on our fluency in, knowledge of, and relationship with the structures in which we live and create.  Whenever we expand our relationship with structures through deliberate practice, we are consequently being more original.  Likewise, a person’s assertion that something is creative will depend on his/her own knowledge of structure.

With this in mind, here’s another way to view creativity:

  • We are all equally creative.
  • We are all constantly working at our highest, creative potential
  • There’s no such thing as “improving creativity.”
  • Original ideas are a consequence of deliberate practice
  • We differ only in that we operate within different structures.

It could be represented as such:

Graph 7

Again, representing structure on a left-right, linear, x-axis isn’t totally appropriate.  Structure is more holistic and always interacting on micro and macro levels.  But it will do for now.

Six Reflections on Structure

Let’s explore the idea of “structure.”  I’ll admit I’m unsure if the word ‘structure’ is the best for characterizing this idea and consequent relationships. I also thought about using ‘form,’ ‘formula,’ ‘boundaries,’ ‘rules,’ ‘restrictions,’ and others.  ‘Structure’ seemed most appropriate, but I’m open to suggestions!

I’m going to move away from applying this idea only to music.  This is where it gets interesting!  These ideas are interacting everywhere I look and in every activity I observe.

1) Purpose defines structure.

Structure depends on purpose; it depends on getting from Point A to Point B.

Without purpose, conscious or subconscious, we can’t achieve anything, and therefore will have no structure to achieve it.

Structure 1

Once there is purpose – for example: “Travel to the grocery store,” or “write a song,” or “increase happiness” or “pass on genes” – a structure, through which it can be achieved, begins to take shape.

Structure 2

2) Available options vs. unavailable options

The reason purpose and structure are essential is because they’re the first step to separating available options from unavailable options.

Quick!  List all the ways you can travel to the grocery store.

Unless you have wings, flying won’t be on your list; it’s an unavailable option.  So is playing Xbox and traveling to the drug store.  There are plenty of available options though:

Structure 3

Having the ability to actively distinguish between “available” and “unavailable” further solidifies structure.

Notice that it’s just as much fun listing unavailable options!  This represents a confident knowledge of the current structure and can contribute to our ability to further shape and expand it as we please!

3) Expanding Structures

I wrote previously that originality and creativity are relative to experience.  They depend on our fluency in, knowledge of, and relationship with the structures in which we live and create.

I proposed that a person who is deemed “more creative,” really isn’t.  He/she only has more flexibility and knowledge of structure.  Even with limited knowledge, or restricted freedom, there is still a plethora and perhaps an infinite number of ways to navigate through structure.

Structure 4

Nevertheless, more knowledge, experience and deliberate practice expand structure, further increasing the number of ways to navigate through it.

In listing the ways you can travel to the grocery store, suppose you didn’t think – until I mentioned it – that you also have the option to crawl backwards, or take 2 steps forward, 1 step back.  You just increased your vocabulary; you expanded your structure.

Structure 5

Likewise, suppose you want to travel to the grocery store, but don’t know where it’s located.  Getting from point A to point B is impossible with your current knowledge.  After you look it up on a map and get directions, point B is within reach.

Structure 6

4) Structures Within Structures

I’ve written previously that representing structure as part of a point A-point B, left right, linear process isn’t totally appropriate.  Structure is more holistic and always interacting on micro and macro levels.

These relationships are very complex.  For example, walking to the grocery store first requires the ability to walk, one foot in front of the other.  How fast should you walk?  Do you have good walking technique?  Walking is itself a complex activity made possible though intricate biological processes.

Furthermore, on your way to the grocery store, you’ll probably want to wear clothes.  While you’re thinking about ways to travel to the grocery store, you can also think about all the different combinations of clothes you can wear.  Plus, how many different ways are there to put on a sock?

Suppose you’re on your way to the grocery store.  What if you bump into a friend?  How would that change things?

And why are you going to the grocery store?  Maybe you’re hosting a dinner party.  You’ll need structure for cleaning, decorating, cooking, entertaining, conversing, connecting and waving good-bye to name a few.

Why are you hosting a dinner party?

I’ll stop there; you get the idea!   The point is to appreciate the sheer number of structures we are engaged in.  Also, because of this complexity, it is difficult to fully specify the nature of these structures.  Structure is symbolized as a solid line in my diagrams; maybe it would be more properly represented as a dotted line.

Structure 7


5) Taking Structures for Granted


My dog (named Jazz), has a keen sense for some structures we take for granted.  Jazz loves car rides; he gets very excited about the prospect of getting in a car.  So when somebody’s leaving, Jazz is right there, hoping he can tag along.

It’s funny though; Jazz knows when I’m leaving before I’m consciously aware that I’m “getting ready.”  There’s something about my pace, speech patterns and movements through the house that he picks up on and gets excited about.

We can’t help it: We take many structures for granted and are completely ignorant of others. We’re totally oblivious of the millions of neurons firing in our brain at any given moment.  We don’t usually think about blinking, or breathing or scratching an itch.

We’re born into structure; our bodies have inherent limits.  You might consider life and death the ultimate structure.

Another structure we often take for granted is language.

In some ways, language is impenetrable; we’ll never escape how it shapes our thoughts and minds.  But in other ways, structure in language is shady and permeable.  When you listed all the ways you can travel to the grocery store, you may not have thought of:

  • With a friend
  • Using the longest route possible
  • Wearing shorts
  • On the way to the library
  • Vigorously

There is weakness in the words “ways” and “travel.”  One can be liberal with their interpretations.  Or in other words, they enable one to mold a structure as they please.   This paradox of language is at the heart of this Buddist koan (from a post I wrote last month).

6) Modifying Structure

This is slightly different from expanding structure, which I wrote about in the previous post.

Rather, modifying structure is meant to mange creative freedom.  One reason to manage creative freedom is to optimize deliberate practice, which I already wrote about in the first three posts.

Another reason is to optimize purpose, whatever that may be.  To optimize purpose, one must first have good knowledge about available and unavailable options.  Then, he/she makes available options unavailable, and vise versa.  Here’s an example:

You’re going to the grocery store and you’re in a rush.  This eliminates walking, crawling and baby steps from your available options.  In weighing your options, suppose you decide to focus on running.  There’s still much creative work to be done!

What route will you take?  How fast will you run?  What shoes will you wear?  How will you get home with all the groceries?  Are you in shape?  If you truly want to optimize purpose, you may consider a fitness regimen to train your body appropriately.

Structure 8

Or maybe it should look like this:

Structure 9


This relationship between available and unavailable, positive and negative is very important.  Remember this graph?

Graph 3

When you reach the top of the red line, you’ve optimized purpose and creative freedom.  Another way to understand this point is through the relationship between positive and negative options.  The top of the red line signifies an optimized balance between the two.

Though I’ve mentioned the difficulty in specifying nature of structure, one can’t help but wonder if there’s a consistent ratio between positive and negative in all things beautiful.

Structure and Education

Alarm Clocks

These ideas, concerning structure and creativity, are evident everywhere I look.  I’m convinced that any theory about human activity, the arts, beauty, practice and creativity, would have to acknowledge this concept of structure.

The other day, while checking out at the grocery store, the young cashier (or should I say, the “grocer punk”) examined one of my items, turned to me, and said: “There’s no price tag on this!”  This prevented him from scanning the item.  Since it wasn’t in his structure to figure out what the price was, he was stuck.  So I said: “Does that mean it’s free?”  He got the hint and called for a price check.

These kinds of things happen all the time, when a person’s knowledge of structure is unsuitable or insufficient for the task at hand. In language, we attribute this to a vocabulary shortage.  In music, especially in jazz and improvisation, we often liken our learning to “building a vocabulary.”  This is a useful analogy for jazz musicians and educators, but it can be carried further to all activities involving any amount of creativity and spontaneity.

You may think traveling to the grocery store is a habitual, mundane and uninspiring act.  It doesn’t have to be!  In fact, there is endless possibility for creativity, spontaneity, meaning and beauty.  If traveling to the grocery store is dull and uninspiring, you’re working within too much structure.  Loosen up!  Build your vocabulary!

Teaching Structure

Though I’m scratching the surface here, these ideas form foundational principles for art, artists, beauty and much more.  So, while exploring these ideas further, the parallel question is: How do you teach structure?

This is an important question; knowing more about structure is key to leading a meaningful, purposeful life.  It’s also important because of its relationship with deliberate practice.  The more you know about structure, the more you know about learning and improving skills. In a sense, teaching about structure is akin to teaching people how to teach themselves.

This relates to one of my teaching principles: I teach my students how to learn.  This implies a pedagogy that involves an exploration of structure.  Students will face frustrating, meticulous exercises (like my simple exercise), but we’ll also discuss bigger issues such as practicing, inspiration, time management, aesthetics and more.  It’s more difficult to encourage discipline in these bigger issues, especially in a classroom, academic setting!

But regardless, teaching about structure requires some balance between the micro and the macro.

Exploring Structure

There’s only so much that can be achieved in a private lesson.  Teaching about structure is difficult if there’s no opportunity or environment in which people can explore it.

What makes an environment conducive to exploring structure?  I can think of two things: good students and good teachers.  There needs to be someone who asks: “Why?”  There also needs to be someone, or something, or some circumstance that can answer: “Because…”

I’ll elaborate, but first watch this video:

(For the impolite version, click here.  It starts at 6:20)

Every consecutive “why” explores the prospect of a bigger, meta-structure.  Every consecutive “because” confirms its existence.  The cycle continues until it bottoms out with “I don’t know,” “God,” or something similar.  If Louis CK answered, “I don’t know,” to all of his daughter’s questions, he would be inadvertently capping her perception of structure.

Children are brilliant explorers of structure; their obsessive questioning is probably related to this.  Their disobedience is probably related too, as they explore/test rules, boundaries and possibilities.

Sometimes parents have a difficult task in finding the right balance between structure and freedom.  For example, if rules need to be set, how rigid should they be?  How severe should the punishment be? If they’re too rigid and too harshly enforced, they’ll stifle exploration and creativity.  On the other hand, rules and structure are essential for exploration and creativity!

How do you balance?

Structure, Society and the Arts


So then, what makes an environment conducive to exploring structure?

A parent’s influence (as mentioned in the previous post) is huge, but it’s only part of the story.  Having an environment conducive to exploring structure depends on larger, cultural, societal issues too – not just for children, for everyone!

I’m writing these words in a very busy coffee shop. Tomorrow, I may go to a different coffee shop, or a library.  In a little while, I may go home and practice.  On second thought, I may go grocery shopping.  Then again, I may do neither; there are so many things I could do!

The fact that I have the freedom to do these things is significant.  Furthermore, I have countless options, and am free to explore them as I please.  This is due to major cultural and societal factors giving structure, giving freedom, and encouraging exploration.

Well, they encourage exploration up to a point.  That point is typically where cultural norms and/or laws get broken!  Just like parents, society needs to find a healthy balance between rigidity and leniency.  This balance relates to all activities, from shopping at the grocery store to issues in ethics and morality.

Structure and the Arts

I’ve heard many reasons why it’s beneficial to fund the arts.  One is because it has a positive impact on the economy.  Another reason is because it has a positive impact on the creative economy.  The arts enrich lives, inspiring creativity and innovation.

Creativity and innovation are a result of the dynamics inherent in structure.  Presumably, we support the arts because we want society to expand its structure – to make connections and draw parallels between structures that represent “the arts” and structures that represent other activities.  Funding the arts then, to stimulate a creative economy, is about funding connections.

But when society refers to “the arts,” it’s likely referring to architecture, dance, media-arts, music, theatre, visual arts, writing and/or some combination of all these.  This is a very narrow list.  It’s important to realize that if one of the goals of arts funding is to spur creativity and innovation, then cobbling, carpentry and barbering are equally capable.  The connections are what’s important, not the activity.

Furthermore, spurring creativity and innovation in artists doesn’t necessarily mean more studying, more practicing or more creating.  It could mean working on a farm for 6 months, or taking squash lessons!  I doubt an arts organization would ever fund such things, but if the goal is to make more connections, these activities are worth considering!

Interestingly, the lines between artists, artisans, craftsmen, tradespersons and the like are blurring.  But this is inevitable when you consider the nature of beauty and creativity – they’re all related in how they master and manipulate structures.

Check out these videos of Kevin Martin and Jonathon Power.  Both are master artists; their finest moments are certainly works of art and beauty.


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