Close this search box.

Reflections on Inspiration and Spontaneity, Part 1

Mark Sparks | March 2015

    Have you ever felt uninspired, or felt as if you have lost the excitement of playing? In the long process of learning to play, I think we all have felt this way at one time or another. Sometimes the reason for these feelings can be hard to find. If you are down in the dumps about playing, it is useful to know how the forces of inspiration work in your particular case, and to understand some of the barriers to them, should they arise.

    As a musician your most precious gift is inspiration. This energy is what you must possess to develop your skills and remain motivated. It is made of goals and dreams, experiences, ideas and hopes. Whether you are inspired to perform, sound like your favorite players, or just try to be the best, it is the force which transforms your talents.
    Knowing what to do with your inspiration is a talent in itself, and inspiration alone is not enough to result in great performance, nor is just loving music and the flute. The whole recipe needs a catalyst, some ephemeral ingredient to activate everything so that your inspiration is clear, alive, full of energy, and captivating. This ingredient is spontaneity. As the Hollandaise transports the lowly egg to the heights of Eggs Benedict, so does spontaneity take the merely correct performance to the realm of the beautiful.
    The problem is that the freshness that was once felt about the music can become dull or faded. At times it feels as though the barriers to spontaneity in performance just go up, not to be overcome. Like the Bluebird of Happiness, does spontaneity haphazardly alight at random times, more often in the practice room than not? When the time comes to perform, are you too self-conscious, nervous, over-practiced, or blocked to really be able to let go the way you want to? How can inspiration be revitalized? Is spontaneity in playing something that musicians can learn to control?

Inspiration, Experience, and Intuition
    To understand inspiration and spontaneity flutists should first look to themselves instead of simply how they play or practice. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines inspiration as “something that makes someone want to do something or that gives someone an idea about what to do or create: a force or influence that inspires someone.” Sounds pretty mysterious. It could be that many people do not have the opportunity, resources or permission to feel inspired about something, perhaps because beauty in their lives is inconsistently present or obscured by burden. To feel inspired is a gift indeed.
    Inspiration is rooted in possibility, or the idea of creating your own reality. It is also about perception, how you see the world around you, being open to experience and to new things. Influences can be important. This is essentially a positive and creative state of mind.
    Of course there are limits because people cannot control everything, and negative things do happen, but in terms of visualizing a different turn of events you have more control than you think. There are always choices, and choices open the doors to possibilities. For example, let us say you had a bad plane flight, but instead of getting upset about that, you chose to get to know your seat partner and made a good friend for life. Suddenly the reality of the bad flight seems a mere annoyance. You are rewarded for your attitude when your new friend asks you to go into business with him and create a new restaurant, which is wildly successful.
    The outcome may not be this dramatic, but the result is the same; you had emotional doors open instead of being stuck in a bad mood, or thinking of the past or worrying about the future, therein missing opportunities. Forgetting to stop and smell the roses is not just regrettable; for artists, it may be a threat to their development. At the very least it does close those inspiration doors. If it is indeed a force, then inspiration is more closely related to the spiritual than the mundane, which leads back to the music. For musicians, our technical and tonal skills, acquired through patient repetition, should serve our inspiration.When playing, strive to create not only an accurate version of the piece, but the spiritual world of the piece as you see it.
    Inspiration takes direction not only from knowledge, but on the emotional level, it is guided by intuition, which is what you know without understanding why; a type of power that guides you towards certain things. Intuition is like a gateway to your true self, and as a musician, you must trust it. For example, it can guide you to practice a certain way at a specific time, or tell you how to phrase, or what tempo to play. It may have guided you toward music in the first place. Using intuitive practice is important: it is positive and creative. Practicing intuitively is fun especially regarding tone. Try inventing various challenging tone exercises. You can even base them on your favorite tunes. However, do not practice this way all the time; like most things, zu viel ist ungesund, or too much is unhealthy. Intuition is always powerful but it can also be disorganized, inappropriate, and directionless unless it is backed up by knowledge.

Spontaneity, Process, and Barriers
    Intuition also leads to spontaneous action. Spontaneous is defined as “something done or said in a natural and often sudden way and without a lot of thought or planning.” It is the volitional aspect of intuition. In a split second you see the rose and without thinking about it, experience its beauty and the complexity of its fragrance. This is similar to the way you have an immediate emotional response to the music upon hearing a piece you like.
    In performance you should ideally be responding to the music; to the composer’s spontaneity and creativity. Composers indicate their intentions for the piece as best as they can, through the notes, dynamics, and other indications. Examine the piece from the point of view of finding where the composer may have spontaneously come up with a new idea. This can be fairly obvious many times, such as in the example from Prokofiev’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 94 below.

    In this passage, Prokofiev has transformed motives already introduced, which along with the change in dynamic, result in a sudden shift in mood. The dynamics and rhythmic character of the music are the cues here. It is not hard to make the passage sound spontaneously energetic, but experiencing it in the context of spontaneity is substantially different than replaying it with the same old set of previously established expectations.
    Sudden shifts not accompanied by a change in the dynamic or prominent change in the form are even easier to take for granted, and can go unnoticed unless you highlight them somehow. Such a shift is shown below.

    Here Prokofiev modifies the material through sequence, but the harmonic shift is unexpected 5 bars after 1, and creates the impression of rather suddenly reducing the energy of the passage. A slight change in the color of the tone would be necessary to show this, even though a change in dynamic is not indicated. Try to make the tone a bit less directly focused without subtracting too much sound. Avoid pushing the tempo.
    Shifts like this can be difficult to communicate, but occur all the time, in many styles. Whether the composer intuitively got to this point, or not, it must sound as if he did so. Even if you don’t feel spontaneous, view the action in the piece as spontaneous action, and react to it.
    This is telling the composer’s story, which musicians filter through their own lens for the listener. The need to communicate is key because in the case of spontaneity, this desire is strong enough to short-circuit the thought process. However, it is still more complex. We want to be seen and heard by others telling this story, and we want to tell lots of people at the same moment.
    As there are hindrances to feeling inspired, there are many barriers to spontaneity. It is risky. It feels vulnerable, and maybe others will not like it, or will not understand. Maybe you will feel nervous and fail, or appear inappropriate. Fear kills spontaneity like water on a flame. The inspiration, level of your skills, and the desire to communicate must be strong enough that they override fear.
    Regarding performance, it is easy for education to block spontaneity. Study of history and theory, until they become internalized, can be a distraction from the music, or seem to be irrelevant to playing. Things can get so intellectualized that playing your instrument can feel like getting lost in a maze. You can lose sight of naturalness, and the basic inspiration which attracted you to the music in the first place. To make matters more difficult, students are constantly corrected, or receive conflicting information that adds to the confusion about how to play. The mechanics of playing and hours of practice to develop skills can act as a barrier to spontaneity.
    It is also easy to become desensitized to the true sound of your own playing and the music itself. Musicians listen to the same music so many times, that they may think they understand it well, but this is often not the case. For example, I frequently teach the Mozart G major concerto, and I have discovered that often students do not know the accompaniment well. In Mozart’s music it is the messages in the accompaniment that tell almost everything about how to play the solo part. The two cannot be separated or the music becomes one-dimensional or inappropriate. Interestingly, in spite of this lack of true familiarity with the piece, many of these students are weary of it. They have become desensitized to it due to a one-dimensional view. They should look more deeply at each passage of the piece, as in this example from the first movement.

    Play this passage with piano and listen carefully to the harmony in measure 50. The momentary transfer to the parallel minor, G minor, casts a gentler feel to the beginning of the measure before moving on in the previous tonality. It is easy to miss if you have not studied the harmony. At the beginning of the bar, briefly and rather suddenly play a bit softer and make the articulations very gentle and expressive. If this were an opera aria with text, this would have the effect of creating a secret twinge of regret, subtle misgiving, or sadness in the mind of the character singing the aria.
    By understanding in depth the details of a familiar passage, you become more involved with the work, more sensitive to it, and reinspired to play it. You rediscover it. Your appreciation of the piece becomes multi-dimensional, and spontaneity can play a greater role in practice and performance. The goal, it seems to me, is to reexperience the messages of the music every time you play it.
    Looking at the big picture, desensitization is also part of the modern lifestyle. Taking the time to truly appreciate something complex is not really what people are encouraged to do these days. We may just look for something new because there are new things out there; and new things can be inspiring, but in performing classical music, musicians should ask themselves if they are just bored with a piece because they actually have not really studied it. Hurrying on to the next thing sometimes means not stopping to smell the roses, and the door to inspiration or new ideas can slowly close.

Not Always Spontaneous
    On the other hand, planning how to play something is necessary, especially in the learning process, and spontaneity sometimes is not productive, especially without knowledge. Technique should serve an interpretation, and repetition is important. This is certainly true in competitions or auditions, where reliability and consistency are necessary to produce a desired result. One has to learn to perform securely in demanding circumstances, and play things the same way over and over. Certain kinds of spontaneity can also be very risky in orchestra auditions, where brevity of the excerpts is a factor, and consistency is rewarded. Trying something a new way, or playing at a new tempo may feel fresh, but often ends in disaster, or at least sounds unstable. The preparation for this type of performing can be difficult, as you can lose sight of spontaneity in your playing.
    If you are preparing for an audition, make sure you play other repertoire sometimes just for fun, or perform in another context as well to keep inspiration fresh. Once, after having worked for a couple years mostly on audition repertoire, I had the sudden opportunity to play a full recital, something I had not done recently. I found it nearly impossible at first to focus on anything larger than a few phrases and wanted to fuss with each note. Spontaneity was out of the question, much less the ability to conceptualize the entire form of a movement. I finally made the adjustment, but it took a lot of work on the larger issues before focusing on the details. It was educational, because as I obtained a bigger view of the piece, spontaneity became easier.
    In orchestra as well, spontaneity is often inappropriate. Taking your colleagues by surprise is usually a bad idea, unless they are very bored. Most conductors rehearse with a specific result in mind, and one has to be able to reproduce that result. In solo passages, there may be a certain license for freedom, and the occasional maestro may actually like small variations from one reading to another, but in ensemble passages, spontaneity puts too many cooks in the kitchen, and you know what happens then.
    The basic question is: how can serious study, complexity, repetition, consistency, and the risk of desensitization coexist with spontaneity? To be continued…