“The cocoon of middle age habit”

August 16, 2011

I’m still thinking about the reactions I got last week at a networking event when I asked for folks who wanted to join in on an impromptu musical jam (There was a stage with sundry instruments ready to go–how could I resist?). Simple questions (“Do you play any musical instrument? Sing a little? Want to join us?”) were met with such revulsion, such instant “No Way”s and “You don’t want me to”s that you would have thought I was inviting them to commit a heinous crime.

Despite our amazing expansion of personal freedom and choices, I often wonder if the permission we give ourselves to experiment creatively has changed much in the past 100 years. How much permission do you give yourself to experiment with something you may not be that good at?  Let me dip into the archive for a little 20th century inspiration still relevant today.

“A childlike man is not a man whose development has been arrested; on the contrary, he is a man who has given himself a chance of continuing to develop long after most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle age habit and convention.” ~Aldous Huxley

“This creative power should be kept alive in all people for all their lives. Why? Because it is life itself. It is the Spirit. In fact it is the only important thing about us. The rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.
      How can we keep it alive? By using it, by letting it out, by giving some time to it. But if we are women we think it is more important to wipe noses and carry doilies than to write or two play the piano. And men spend their lives adding and subtracting and dictating letters when they secretly long to write sonnets and burst into tears at the sunset.
      They do not know that this is a fearful sin against themselves. They would be much greater now, more full of light and power, if they had really written the sonnets and played the fiddle and wept over sunsets, as they wanted to.” ~Brenda Ueland, “If You Want to Write” (1938)

More from Adam? Check out his Innovation on my Mind blog.

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One Response to ““The cocoon of middle age habit””


  1. Adam – allow me to stand up from the choir and applaud your post. I’ve had the same experience in my neck of the woods (University of Iowa), where my moonlighting course is Improvisation for Classical Musicians (a book came out of it: Improvisation for Classical Musicians, 354 p. GIA, see http://www.giamusic.com/search_details.cfm?title_id=8899), and I’ve taught some freshmen seminars in creative thinking. By age 18, most students have had what amounts to a creative lobotomy. Music (and other forms of) education systematically excludes creativity from early on. The main reason is that creativity is messy, tricky to teach and to grade (and of course we have to grade everything…). Education is mostly convergent thinking – one right answer – memorize it, spit it back, on to the next thing. The problem with ignoring divergent (creative) thinking is that it leaves out half the learning and nearly all the personality and potential personal contribution of the person. Why is it that a bunch of guys who get together on weekends and can’t even read notes can start a band, play instruments, write songs, and perform them and folks with advanced music degrees can’t write a simple piece for their own instrument or play Happy Birthday (to say nothing of making up variations or finding a harmony line) with ink? Even though I played jazz guitar, I was terrified to try improv on the horn (my main instrument) for decades. When I finally gave it a try ten years ago, it was a life-changing event. The few brave students who take my classical improv class (we don’t play Mozart improv – we try to improv (nonjazz) music that sounds like… music, convincing music of whatever style the players arrive at). They often say that this was the best or most useful music course they have ever taken – they finally have a voice, and it’s easy, it’s fun.

    I’ve encountered the same reaction you did, the No Way reaction. It helps in convincing them to join the fun to reference language. I often ask, at the beginning of a workshop, say, Trick question: who has improvised today? Usually no hands go up. I say, Answer to trick question: You all have. It’s called Conversation. You took something that is very familiar to you (language) and used it in a new, unrehearsed way (you didn’t read anything off a page) to express something personal, something that meant something to you to someone else. It was easy, it was effective. Improvising in music is no different – you simply have never been given encouragement or training (and, as you say, ‘permission’) to do so. All we need to start improvising is a new definition of improvisation. Old definition: improvisation = jazz = bebop = playing strings of 16th notes at 220 BPM. New definition: improvisation = you choose the note. A whole note is fine. A single quarter note and a lot of silence is fine. There are two basic principles to improvisation 1) stay safe, stay comfortable, choose notes that are easy. 2) (when you’ve done that for a while) Break rule 1 as often as possible.


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