Recently I ran across an article that mentioned that Jerry Seinfeld has for several decades kept a custom of coming up with a new humorous idea every single day, and that he’s never let it lapse --- a continuous line of red x’s marked in his calendar as he has concocted a fresh gag every day. Impressive!
Then coincidentally --- or providentially --- the same day as I was reading elsewhere I found that Dolly Parton has had that same practice since she was a child: dreaming up a new song idea every single day for her entire life. Wow!
We must confess that both of these folks have had marvelously successful careers in the very endeavors this habit engages.
I’ve been frustrated that, as a creative artist, the past five or so years have not been very productive of new original musical pieces. Well, these two stories came as a hopeful challenge, and I began on February 1, 2015 to mark an x in my pocket calendar every day after recording a new musical idea in one way or another. Five weeks and still cruising along!
How to record these to make them easy and usable? I carry around a handheld digital recorder, as I often have over the years, but I make a point of turning it on every day at some point, saying the date, and doing something new. If I don’t have it at hand, or if I have to be silent, I can record in my phone or type a short score in a computer program.
What shall make the new sounds? Anything! Humming, hammered dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, pennywhistle, melodica, harmonica, ukulele, guitar, bamboo flute, silver flute, keyboard, psaltery, whatever is handy or strikes my fancy!
Where do the ideas come from? Well, I make a point to grab any notes or patterns or concepts that come into my mind, and immediately do something intuitively with that. For example, the notes E-G-B popped into my mind the other day, and I thought, ‘Why, maybe that could be the start of a pentatonic series to mess around with: E-G-B, then anything that feels like it’s flowing from it in the set of five notes including GAB DE. (That’ll be explored in the next blog post, with some variations I tried in that pattern.)
Sometimes I particularly want to do a pretty melody; sometimes I think it’d be neatest to do a crazy rhythmic pattern of some sort; sometimes there are a lot of notes, and sometimes there are a few. And so forth! One of the tricks is to limit myself to things that take very little time or effort --- I have to keep reminding myself to keep it cool, to keep it fun, to keep it short.
Today I had the video camera set up at the hammered dulcimer, and I had this other series of notes that just serendipitously popped into my head and I grabbed it and tried it on the dulcimer: A-D, E-A, a cascading-downward pair of jumps. I decided to use my separated-hands technique with a few triangular-shaped chords carrying the harmonies in the right hand. Then I explored a variety of variations and continuations of melody and chords beyond the opening series.
A lot of the time the new ideas are only mildly interesting or beautiful or organized; occasionally they’re obviously poor, but I record them just to keep the ball rolling and move on. But sometimes a new exploration feels quite good, and today’s pattern was one of those!
So I decided to post it on Youtube and give it a title, in hopes that it will grow and develop over time into a bona fide performance piece. (After all, that’s the real goal of this new habit, isn’t it?) I thought, ‘What am I feeling as I’m absorbed by the mood of the music?’ Immediately I was back at Beaubien Camp at Philmont Scout Ranch, on the delightful July night in 1969, after dinner at the campsite with my backpacking buddies, sitting on logs and rocks and gazing into the mellowing wood fire. (That was a unique night: The camp director came by the site just then to let us know that on the two-way radio he’d heard that Armstrong and Aldrin were just now walking on that full moon up there in the vivid New Mexico sky!) The working title, then, is ‘To Gaze into the Embers.’ You’ll find the video below.
I’ve gotten a new lease on creative life!
But why am I sharing all this with you? Because perhaps you, if you’re a musician of any sort, might be encouraged to develop a daily habit of new creations too! And if you’re any other kind of creative artist --- painter, writer, mathematician, whatever --- there’s certainly a way for you too!