Sound Stories #024 – The Creative Benefits of Self-Sabotage

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    For creatives, getting in a rut is a professional hazard. Jonathan De Souza, Professor of Music Theory at the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western University, has studied the ways that our bodies, the tools we use, and our minds come together to form our habits. These habits can help or hinder us creatively. Find out how you can use his technique of self sabotage to stir up your own creativity.

    Jonathan De Souza at the Don Wright Faculty of Music – Western University: http://www.music.uwo.ca/faculty/bios/jonathan-de-souza.html

    TRANSCRIPTION SOUND STORIES #024

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Hi there and welcome to another episode of Sound Stories, an inspirational podcast for creative professionals and storytellers who want to improve their lives at home and at work. I’m Stephanie Ciccarelli, your host and co-founder of voices.com. It’s one of the greatest ironies of creative life that the closer you come to achieving mastery, the more likely you are to fall into a rut. The struggle to find inspiration is real. Jonathan De Souza is a professor of music theory at the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western University, as well as the author of Music at Hand, Instruments, Bodies and Cognition published by Oxford University Press. Over the course of his career Jonathan has spent years researching how cognitive science, philosophy and music theory intertwined and in doing so has uncovered some very interesting insights into what fuels creativity. Today he joins us to discuss the creative benefits of what he calls voluntary self-sabotage and gives tips on what you can do, whether you’re a novice or a master to achieve that amazing state called flow.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    So welcome to the show, Jonathan.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Thanks for having me.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, I’m just tickled pink to have you here. Let me say for our listeners, Jonathan and I went to school together actually. We were together at the Don Wright Faculty of Music.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Yeah, absolutely.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    You do a lot of research with instruments, but the concept of a creative and their tool can apply across many disciplines from writers with their keyboards to video producers and their cameras. So what do you find when you analyze someone who has used their creative tool for a long time or even achieved mastery?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Yeah, I think a lot of the time we have this idea of creativity that the kind of ideas come magically from outer space or they just kind of magically arise. And then we simply use our tools, our instruments to express something that’s preformed or prefabricated. And in my studies of musical instrumentalists, where the creativity often happens is not so much in expressing something that’s fully formed, but it’s a kind of dialogue with your tools. It’s a kind of back and forth. And the resistance that your tools gives you is actually a key part of the creative process. That a lot of the times the tool will kind of function as a creative partner or as a source for ideas or as something that frustrates you and a set of problems to be solved. And that’s part of the creative process as well.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    So for me, the instrument is basically a creative partner and that happens at all stages of development, whether you’re just starting out and you really have to think about your tool or whether you are at a stage with your tool where the tool starts to disappear. So one of the philosophers I talk about in my book likes to talk about using a hammer. The idea is when you’re the hammer, you shouldn’t really be thinking about the hammer. You should be thinking about whatever it is you’re building or whatever it is you’re doing with the hammer. So in a sense, the hammer kind of disappears, or it starts to function as an extension of your hand or extension of your body. And you focus not on the tool, but on the work. And if you don’t develop that kind of fluency, it’s very hard to do certain things, to play very fast music for example. The notes go by so quickly that I can’t consciously think, “Now I’m going to move my first finger. Now I’m going to move my second finger.” I think that’s the same with any kind of creative practice when you’re using your tools you have to reach that stage where they start to disappear. You don’t have to think, “I need to push this button,” or, “I need to do this thing.” You want all that to kind of back away so you can focus on the big picture.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    That’s really interesting because I’m thinking with my background as a singer, then if I’m going to sing a song or just kind of speak, I’m not thinking about the placement, I’m not thinking about how I’m going to articulate it maybe even because I know where the vowel should be in the consonance and where to take a breath and where to continue the phrase. So as a creative person regardless of what your skillset is, somehow you figured out how to make that second nature, how to be like you just intuitively instinctively do something.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Yeah, absolutely. And I love the phrase second nature. That it’s this thing that feels natural, that feels normal, but it’s actually acquired, right? So for example, I play the violin and actually how to hold it as a very tricky thing to learn. And it’s actually kind of ergonomically ever kind of a weird thing, but because I’ve been doing that basically my whole life and spent hours and hours and hours in that position, it feels like the most normal and natural thing in the world to me.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. Oh, I played the violin at one point as well and it is kind of strange for those listening. You remember, you hold your bow and you’ve got the frog, your thumbs in there, and you’ve got your pinky up on the other side and just cradling it, right? But once you’ve done something over and over again, like an artist holding maybe a pencil, it would just feel so natural and just part of what they do. So I’m really interested in this. And I wanted to ask you, Jonathan, I’ve noticed that at some point in every professional’s career and especially after they’ve been doing it for a while, they’re doing their job for a few years, they can start to develop a feeling that they’re in a bit of a rut. They’re drained, they’re burnt out. Why does this happen and why don’t we just keep getting better at writing or playing music or designing or whatever we might be doing?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Yeah. I think about this a lot in terms of habit and habit kind of has two sides to it. The habits you develop, those skills you develop, that’s what makes it possible for the tool to disappear, because you’re used to it. You’re comfortable, your hands know what they’re doing, right? There’s a kind of muscle memory there that you can reach for the right thing without having to think about it. So habit really can empower you as an artist, but at the same time, as things become automatic in habit then you can also end up doing the same thing over and over. And so then people can feel that that is getting stale or getting repetitive or that you feel it’s becoming mechanical, right? You lose some of the excitement. I mean, a lot of the excitement comes from learning something new, right?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    A lot of the excitement comes from developing the skill. And if you kind of hit a plateau then you kind of can lose that sense of development. So I really think a habit, a lot of the times people are very negative about habit and treat habit as a kind of a bad thing. And I don’t think it’s all one thing or the other, I think it’s a mix. I think habit really empowers us. But then the flip side is that habit can also limit us because the habits have been learned and have been formed in the first place. They’re never set in stone. So it is always possible to rework a habit or to relearn or unlearn something that you’ve learned. Because again, it’s not something that’s actually kind of hard-wired. It’s something that is always potentially changing.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    As you said, these are learned behaviors, right?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Right.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    We’ve been conditioned to hold an instrument a certain way or implement a certain way, or maybe even go about a task a certain way. So when it comes to breaking free from that rut and becoming re-invigorated, we can try a little something that you call self-sabotage. Can you tell us more about that?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Yeah. So one of the examples I use in the book is a jazz guitarist named Kurt Rosenwinkel and very successful guitarist and composer and he also plays the piano and a very accomplished guy. But at a certain point he started to feel like what he was playing to him felt predictable. I mean, as a listener, I don’t think it really sounded that predictable. It’s not a great to me, but for him, for himself, he felt he knew what it was going to sound like. There wasn’t that sense of surprise. And so one of his strategies was to retune the strings on his guitar randomly just to put them all out into some unpredictable tuning and then start playing in that new setup. Now, obviously he wasn’t able to play as well, but he felt that it kind of reinvigorated his ability to hear the music because he couldn’t always predict what was going to happen.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    He felt he was reconnected with music. And so I talk about this and I talk about some of his music and the phrase voluntary self-sabotage comes from one of his colleagues who was describing this practice and saying, “It’s a way to make yourself into a beginner again.” Now of course the other flip side of it is you’re a beginner who is a very, very privileged beginner because you’re a beginner who’s already kind of a world class musician, but still I think it recaptures that sense of excitement and that sense of risk that we can sometimes lose as we become more and more competent.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    And just thinking of Joshua Bell or Yo-Yo Ma decided to become a self-sabotager and they’d be at an extremely privileged beginner, as you said.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Absolutely. And I mean, these kinds of strategies you do see in all kinds of different musical and creative contexts. So in terms of Joshua Bell or the violin, there are these pieces from the 17th century for re-tuned violin and the music is written so that it just shows you where to put your fingers. When you look at the page, it kind of looks like nonsense. You can’t predict the piece, what the melody is going to sound like, but if you put it in that tuning and you put your fingers there, it makes beautiful music. And I played some of these. It’s a very strange feeling to be putting your fingers in these unusual patterns and getting these familiar sounding melodies. And when I put it back into regular tuning, then I couldn’t play that piece in regular tuning. It’s this whole other kind of world within the instrument that I wouldn’t experience otherwise.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wow. So it’s like you enter another world potentially, but you can also challenge yourself to develop maybe a new way of doing something, a different skill. I don’t know if maybe someone who draws would try to draw or paint with their opposite hand. I’m just trying to think of some practical way that you can try.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Sure absolutely. So for example, I have an uncle who’s a web comic artist. And so most of his art that he does is digital. And that’s his main medium. He’s very competent in that medium. He’s very experienced with that. But periodically what he’ll do is he’ll get out watercolors or he’ll get out ink, or he’ll get out these other things and he’ll do drawings or paintings using those media that are not part of his main every day creative work, but that’s something to challenge himself. Something to kind of get out of his kind of usual setup and to develop something a little different. With writing, I mean, a lot of the time it’s amazing how different a piece you’re working on feels if you print it out and you’re actually looking at it on the page, instead of on the screen. It feels different somehow, right? Even though when I’m there with my notebook and then say I’m not connected to the internet, or I don’t have my database of info that I need, there are limitations there too. There’s only so much I can do in that context. I’m not going to switch to make that my normal way of writing, but there can be something challenging and freeing about putting yourself a little on edge or a little out of your normal comfort zone.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I completely agree with that Jonathan, because when I write with my hand, I feel like the thoughts that I’m writing are formed differently than when I’m typing with my fingers. And when I’m typing, it’s a different kind of flow. A different way and I can Google something and try to get more context around what I’m trying to do. I can even fix my words really quickly. I don’t have to erase them if I’ve misspelled or want to stroke something out. It’s just a completely different process and it’s good to unplug. And I’m glad that you had mentioned that about just kind of taking yourself away from the technology if that’s part of what your work involves. And distancing yourself from that because then you connect with other neural pathways I’m guessing, where you can either learn to do something or be in a different state of mind while you’re doing it and get really different results.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Yeah. So one of the ideas that I’m interested in here is when we kind of sabotage ourselves a little bit that brings the tool to our mind and to our awareness in a different way, right? So if something goes wrong, you notice the hammer in a way that you don’t normally, and same thing when you retune the guitar, you start paying attention to the guitar and in some ways appreciating the guitar a little more. So I think there’s this aesthetic side to our tools which can become really clear when we kind of engage in this kind of self-sabotage. The guitar isn’t just this conduit for expressing my intentions. It’s something that’s a beautiful object. It’s something that I have a kind of intimacy with, right? And if I change the instrument a little bit to make myself more aware of it, it can actually be just very enjoyable and you can just enjoy your tools, enjoy the feel of the guitar, enjoy whatever it is.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    And I think this is the same thing with writing. I mean, I love fancy pens, right? And do I need fancy pens? Well, I guess not, but it’s really nice to write with a really nice pen, right? And there’s that aspect of my tool that when you become more aware of it, it can, I think, also increase the enjoyment of the process as well as kind of changing your product in some way that might be useful to you. It’s a way to kind of refocus on where you’re starting. It’s the same thing with typewriters or these kinds of things. I mean, it seems on some level like, “Oh, it shouldn’t matter,” but the feeling of the keys is different. The sound, potentially the smell of the ink, all of these things are part of the experience of making whatever you’re making. And I think it can be a great thing sometimes to kind of put yourself off balance and kind of tune into those aspects of what you’re doing as well.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    So the other thing you mentioned was neural connections. And my book does have a lot of psychology in it, and even a little bit of neuroscience in it. And I think this is quite interesting. I mean, I’m always a little bit careful because we can easily over-interpret the findings of cognitive neuroscience. I mean, the cognitive neuroscientists that I collaborate with and talk with are often the most skeptical about applying brain research in everyday life. But when you practice an instrument, one of the things that happens is you develop a connection between your hand and your ear. Basically, you do some kind of action, you practice some kind of movement, and then you come to associate that with certain sonic effects. And so there’s a kind of translation from your movement, whatever kind of movement it is, into some kind of artistic effect in the world. So as you start to practice a musical instrument, you develop a connection between the auditory parts of your brain and the parts of your brain that are involved with the performance, so motor parts of your brain.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    It depends instrument to instrument. It’s different. So brass players, for example, the lip parts of their brain are very connected to their auditory parts of their brain. One of the things that happens when we sabotage ourselves is that we kind of can make those connections rewire a little bit or become more flexible, or become more dynamic or something along those lines. And then of course, there are also specific responses in the brain when you’re surprised ,when you expect something and then something unusual happens. You take notice, right, because our minds are always tuning into the regularities in our world. We kind of notice when things violate our expectations, because we’re always trying to kind of predict what’s going to happen next.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well for the creative, Jonathan, who may be putting themselves, him or herself into this exercise, it might not seem immediately obvious what the payoff is for the pain.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Right.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    So well what is the actual cognitive benefit of causing this discomfort?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Yeah. I mean, I think on some level there are no guarantees, right? And that’s partially what makes it interesting. A lot of these things are exercises or things to try out on your own, right, and not necessarily things to do in front of an audience before you’ve worked them out. But I think the potential benefit from these things is of kind of making something new, renewing your ability to kind of connect with what you’re doing and bringing some more awareness into places where things had become habitual or things had started to feel automatic. This can also lead into new creative possibilities, messing things up creatively can open up new possibilities. So another example I talk about is the prepared piano. So this composer John Cage, he did a lot of dance music and he also did a lot of percussion music, but he found himself in a situation where he wanted to do a percussion score, percussion accompaniment for a dance piece, but all he had was a piano. And he started sticking objects into the piano strings, rubber erasers, pieces of wood, screws, these kinds of things.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    And this transformed the sound of the piano. The piano, you could play it on the keys just like normal, use your normal technique and it’ll sound like bells or drums or all these kind of interesting noises coming out of the piano. And this was so successful that he ultimately wrote a lot of music for a prepared piano. And you see lots of people using that. I mean, I’ve seen indie rock groups, your kind of on the experimental side of indie rock at least kind of using this kind of stuff. And there’s a whole repertoire for that. It’s essentially a new instrument that came out of this very innovative kind of solution to this problem. And I think it nicely, again, kind of balances that kind of habit and surprise, right? We’re always kind of looking for that sweet spot so that you can play the piano using your normal piano technique that you’ve learned, but the sounds you’re going to get are going to be something totally new, totally unexpected. You kind of have both sides of habit working for you.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    We can experiment in little ways here and there that don’t really cost us anything, right?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Mm-hmm (affirmative)

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    But then there are other ones where it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so used to doing something a certain way that I’m like deathly afraid of changing it for fear that I will ruin it,” you know?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Right.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    So is there a line where people may fear to tread, I guess, in terms of experimenting with kind of going too far outside of what they’re comfortable with in terms of their tool?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Yeah. That’s a very interesting question. I guess that line is going to be different for every person. A lot of people, for example, are uncomfortable with something like prepared piano because they’re worried it’s going to damage their instrument. If you have some kind of expensive piece of equipment, you don’t want to damage that just messing around to see if you can get something new. Now in actual practice, the people who do prepared piano take very, very good care of the pianos and often leave them kind of in better repair when they’re done with them. But there are other pieces. There’s a notorious piece by a composer named Annea Lockwood called piano burning, where they actually burn a piano as part of the thing. I mean this is a kind of wild thing to do, but I mean, people sometimes feel like the payoff creatively is worth it to actually destroy a tool in the process.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    But I think everybody is going to have their own boundaries and have their own background that they’re bringing into this kind of stuff and have to decide for themselves. There’s another interesting example here that shows how powerful habits can be in these kinds of situations. So there’s a whole line of psychology research, really interesting psychology research on what they call altered auditory feedback. Which is something that’s quite close to these musical examples I’m talking about. So they’ll take a pianist, bring them into the psychology lab and have them play a piano that’s been set up to do something unusual or something strange. Now, if they set up the piano so that it just plays random notes, constantly, every time you hit a button it gives a random note.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    People actually perform just fine, because what you do is you very quickly realize like, “Oh, these sounds have nothing to do with what I’m playing.” And so you just ignore them. Same thing with a silent keyboard, you can play a silent piano. Doesn’t really hurt people’s performance to not hear the sounds because their hands know what to do. Your habits are strong enough to keep you going through that noise that’s coming at you. What’s interesting is this, when they do those experiments and they give you a note that’s later or earlier in the melody that you’re trying to play, but it comes in the wrong place. That’s what really mixes you up. It’s when you get a surprise that somehow related to what you were expecting, but not quite. That’s where you kind of get this unusual experience and your performance is affected. So, total chaos probably isn’t actually that detrimental, right? It’s actually just somewhere on that edge between what’s expected and unexpected that all the interesting stuff, comfortable and uncomfortable, happens.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    That’s really interesting because as you were talking about that, flaming pianos aside, I’ve got the image is still in my head is poor burning piano and hope they don’t perform that too often.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    It’s not very often, but it is done once in a while. And apparently it makes amazing sounds when all the strings start to break.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh my God.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    I don’t know. I’ve never seen it myself.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh. So what we’re really looking at is kind of the creative cycle. There’s a lot going on from just thinking about something and then making it and doing it and sharing it along with the trying something new and the self-sabotage, just how do we kind of grow from those experiences, Jonathan, to be able to take all of what was gained from the exercise to kind of bring it back into our own creative process so that we can achieve a more comfortable, natural second nature way of giving that performance?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Yeah. I think a lot of the time we’re kind of looking for this experience of flow and there’s lots of research about this, and lots of people have talked about this. When you’re in that kind of flow state, it’s a really satisfying place to be working. So flow happens with a kind of certain combination of difficulty and skill. So you’re not going to get that sense of flow if things are too easy. And if things are just impossible, you’re also not going to get that sense of being in the zone. Again, you want to kind of find a kind of sweet spot somewhere where you’re just pushing yourself a little bit past what you would usually be able to do or usually feel comfortable doing. And to be at that spot, you also want to draw on the skills you’ve learned and draw on your expertise very fully. So it’s really when you get something that’s challenging that involves a high level of skill that’s when you’re going to get that in the zone kind of feeling.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, this is so inspiring Jonathan. I’m just thinking what if people don’t know how to get to the state of flow. They just maybe don’t realize it’s happening or when it is or whatnot. Just thinking that when it comes to the creative process that we’ve been talking about, there’s a lot of romanticism around what it means to be an artist. So how do you think that compares to the reality?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    I think there’s often this idea, I think I mentioned earlier, about that ideas just kind of magically come to a creative person, and then they’re fully formed. You just kind of write it down or put it out into the actual form. There are a million different factors here. Any of those things can be a source of potential. Any of those things can be an obstacle. So it’s really just kind of always about navigating and negotiating all of these different things and kind of just being in the midst of this kind of rich, but messy world. That’s, to me, where creativity comes from. Not from some kind of disembodied idea, right? And as part of that, we don’t always know what we’re doing consciously. I mean, we can’t always know what we’re doing consciously, right?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    So, you try things, you experiment, you improvise and you kind of find your way through, how ever you do it. I mean, this is also partially what’s exciting about creativity and why if I’m going to create something that’s different from the next person, but it’s even if I’m going to sit down and make up some music, it’s going to be different today from tomorrow, or different depending on what I’m playing or all these things. That unpredictability can be a source of anxiety. But it really is also, I mean, that’s the great potential, right, because if everything were over-determined, if everything were kind of set by your tools, like you can just do this one thing. That’s not really very interesting either.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    So I have learned a tremendous amount from you and it is such a privilege to have you here today, Jonathan.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Thank you. It’s been a pleasure really.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Do you have a website, somewhere you’d like to point us to?

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Yeah, well, I have a page through the University of Western Ontario or Western University as it’s also called. And from there, there’s links to the companion website for my book, which has lots of videos of me playing examples from the book and playing different instruments to illustrate and some motion capture pictures and things like that. So if you go to my faculty page at the university, you can link to those things and my YouTube channel and all that kind of stuff.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    And the book is called Music at Hand, Instruments, Bodies, and Cognition. So if you look on Amazon, I know the book is listed there.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    Yeah. The book is available on Amazon and Oxford University Press, oup.com is also another great place to get that for sure.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Thank you once again, Jonathan De Souza for being on our show.

    Jonathan De Souza:

    My pleasure. Thank you.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Thank you for tuning in and if you haven’t already done so, I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, as well as give us a rating. We love hearing from you and gathering your feedback. Once again, I’m your host Stephanie Ciccarelli and I hope you can join us for our next Sound Stories podcast.

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