fulcrum – the point on which a lever pivots; a thing that plays an essential role in an activity (from Latin fulcire “to prop up”)

While the implements percussionists use—sticks and mallets and other kinds of beaters—are imperfect constructions, there are ways of holding these implements that feel closer to perfect. The key is finding the optimal fulcrum point along the length of the stick where you can grasp it between your thumb and index fingers and then—boom!—the stick magically becomes an elegant lever. As I wrote in my post Strike & Vibrate, the joy of percussive striking derives from the feeling that with a stick in hand you’ve become a complex and fluid arm-hand-finger contraption for getting objects vibrating. Finding the fulcrum is key to making this happen.

I was thinking about fulcrum points recently just before and then while playing marimba. As the song was about to start—we were about ten seconds out—I stood with mallets in hand and, without my thinking about it, my fingers were inching their way forwards from the back-end of the mallets towards their yarn heads. As my fingers walked and my hands gauged the changing weight distribution (marimba mallets are heavier on their mallet head ends), I became aware of what I was doing. I glanced down at my hands and realized that they had travelled a little more than halfway up the length of the mallets! In other words, my hands had, without my noticing it, gotten themselves to an optimal fulcrum point. As the piece began, I decided to experiment a little more by alternately holding the mallets even closer to their mallet head ends and then much further back. In each of these far from optimal fulcrum positions I lasted just a few seconds before my hands instinctively panicked and got the mallets back into the “right” position. What was interesting was the degree to which I felt my feel for the marimba was inseparable from my hands feeling good in their relationship to the mallets. My thoughts on the feel of fulcrum were reinforced a few days later when on separate days a sound engineer and another musician dropped by my instrument to say hello. On each occasion they picked up a mallet (fuzzy and soft) to strike the instrument (who doesn’t want at least one strike?!—and I never object) and each time the first thing I noticed was that they were holding the mallet too close to its end and thus there was no effortless fulcrum action happening. The mallet came down towards the marimba bars like a falling tower, and upon impact there was no optimal fulcrum point to cushion the blow, no hinge to counter the falling with a corresponding rebound move.

After these experiences I began to think more generally about fulcrums: Can we extrapolate outwards from this fundamental of drumming technique towards say, more general principles of creativity? Consider that another definition of fulcrum is something that plays an essential role in creative work by “propping” it up—by animating it in some way. While one’s instruments/equipment/gear/stuff is obviously part of this equation, in more conceptual terms a fulcrum can be thought about as a hinging balance point: between originality and derivative, between distance and proximity, between density and space, between belief and doubt, between effortless action or clunky effortfulness, and between intuitive adjustments and deliberate weighing. How one’s hands find the optimal fulcrum points along the marimba mallets becomes a metaphor for getting a feel for the up-down ergonomics of one’s own creative work. Fulcrums are a part of percussive technique that suggest that finding a balance point is the key not just for getting objects vibrating, but for handling the feels and flows of creative processes.

Resonant Thoughts: James Dyson On Creativity


Here is British inventor/engineer James Dyson,
known for his innovative vacuum cleaner design:

“People think of creativity as a mystical process. The idea is that creative insights emerge from the ether, through pure contemplation. This model conceives of innovation as something that happens to people, normally geniuses. But this could not be more wrong. Creativity is something that has to be worked at, and it has specific characteristics. Unless we understand how it happens, we will not improve our creativity, as a society or as a world.”

-James Dyson in Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking, p. 196.

Meta-Reflection: Talking About Creativity And The Value Of Performance


“Craft is what enables you to be successful when you’re not inspired.” – Brian Eno

As a research flâneur, one of my favorite meta-subjects is the nature of the creative process and the question of how new and original ideas arise. Over the course of reading about music I’ve wandered into some compelling efforts to unpack how creativity works and I’ll begin by sharing a few of them with you. In a 1960 article (“Blind variation and selective retentions in creative thought as in other knowledge processes”), the psychologist Donald Campbell speaks of creativity in terms of “blind variation” or wandering which is subject to chance discoveries and “selective retentions” or recognition of these discoveries. Arthur Koestler’s 1964 book, The Act of Creation, posits creativity’s key as “bi-sociation” or bringing two seemingly unrelated entities together. In a 1988 article (“Society, Culture, and Person: A Systems View of Creativity”), the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (famous for his “flow” concept) triangulates creativity as a by-product of an interaction between an individual and a cultural domain with rules and conventions, and a social field that evaluates and judges the creative work. In his 1979 ethnographic memoir Ways of The Hand, the jazz pianist and sociologist David Sudnow describes creativity as a terrain of pathways for “various critical tasks faced when sustaining orderly articulated movements” (3). In her 2003 book The Creative Mind, cognitive scientist Margaret Boden applies a computational perspective on (re)combining familiar items, and exploring and transforming an established conceptual space. In his 2014 book Antifragile, statistician and essayist Nassim Taleb frames creativity in terms of tinkering or trial and error experimentation to generate small mistakes that are rich information, setting the stage for discovering “something rather significant” (236). In her 2015 book The Storm of Creativity, architect Kyna Leski describes the creative process as transforming via “displacing, disturbing, and destabilizing what you (think you) know” (13). And in his 2017 book The Evolution of Imagination, Stephen Asma likens creativity to inquiry—“an intellectual, artistic, and even bodily form of investigation and expression” (4).

This blog is in some ways fundamentally about creativity and vectors of invention. I have reviewed books on the topic (such as ones by Ed Catmull, Philippe Petit, and Kyna Leski), and I have written obliquely about it in my Working Knowledge and Performance Notes posts. Insights regarding creativity are everywhere. Take cooking, for example. I have found similarities between how chefs think about generating ideas and how composers do. The work of Michel Bras, Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi, and Alain Passard is particularly interesting. Here is Bras, the self-taught master, describing his process: “In cooking, I often identify with the ingredient. I try to understand it, become one with it in order to recreate it.”

When it comes to talking about my own music making, I’m circumspect about detailing techniques and methods because doing so seems reductive. But I do write about them. Offline I make short notes about what is and isn’t working to gradually steer myself towards productive rather than dead-end paths. Interestingly, most of the notes have something do with “leaving more space.” (Note to readers: leaving space always helps!) In my experience, if there is an essence of creativity it emerges not so much from techniques or methods (and certainly not from one’s “gear”) but within the flow of a performance. Performances, of course, are complicated staging or spectacles that we see all around us: politicians and reality TV characters—who are sometimes one and the same—perform, teachers perform, and so do novels and musical improvisations. One of the things that makes performances complicated is their sense of urgency—that is, their relationship to pressures, real or imagined. (I have written about performance here.) Performances have led me to cool places where the most interesting-sounding discoveries are by-products of serendipity, transpiring halfway between accident and my less than ideal technical facility for “sustaining orderly articulated movements” as Sudnow says, within music’s time. A plainer way of saying this is that although I’m not always sure how I get things done, things get done through a performance. And while I usher them along, connecting their moments, the better performances seem to draw on alternate bio- and psycho-energy sources. Why rule out the effect of ineffable intangibles such as your disparate thoughts, the time of day, your location, your hunger, or your muscle memories on your ability to conjure something apropos for the project at hand?

What though, are the sources of performance skill? When I’m in a pragmatic state of mind (e.g. it’s morning), I might say that creativity through performance depends on how you draw on and apply your experience. In my case, I’ve been playing two musical instruments (percussion and piano) for about thirty-five years. With the piano, not playing it very dexterously, but that hasn’t stopped an understanding from developing between the layout of the keys and my sense of where I want to go over them. (Knowledge proceeds independent of practical skill.) Based on knowing a musical instrument, I can reliably find ways to get from here to there and, most of the time, back again. (If not, we’re going to have a surprise ending folks!) When I’m in a more associative mood (e.g. it’s late afternoon), I might say that creativity is about how you use your experience to defy the materials with which you work. Whether making a bird out of folded paper or a chordspace out of tones and semitones, you imagine that your craft is always gesturing somewhere else.


Notes On Creativity As Blind Variation And Selective Retention



In a chapter on the sources of creativity in his book The Wandering Mind (2015), Michael C. Corballis draws on a 1960 article by D.T. Campbell (“Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes.” Psychological Review 67, 380-400) about the constitutive elements of creative thought. Campbell distills the process into two concepts: “blind variation” or wandering which is subject to chance discoveries, and “selective retention” or recognition of these discoveries. Using the metaphors of paths and sparks, Corballis elaborates:

“Blind variation is captured in the very notion of wandering, whether ambulatory or mental–straying from a set path into unknown territory. What we find there depends on chance. It is the randomness of our wanderings, then, that supplies the spark of creativity, although when we do stumble across something new and important we need to recognise it as such–what Campbell called ‘selective retention'” (154).

This notion of blind variation/wandering subject to chance discoveries resonates with Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s notion of creative tinkering described in his essential book Antifragile (which I wrote about here). And the selective retention/recognition part reminds me of Gerd Gigerenzer’s work on gut feelings, which are intuitive judgments derived from paying attention to cues in one’s immediate environment while ignoring unnecessary information. To sum up, what’s powerful about Campbell’s blind variation + chance + recognition model of creativity is how it posits the process of ideational/artistic craftsmanship as not inventing per se, but rather setting ourselves on paths where we might notice sparks flying around.

Performance Notes: Imagining A Perfect Musical System


I imagine a perfect musical system would begin by asking me questions.

What are you feeling today?
What is on your mind?
Where do you want to go?
How do you want to be?

Then the system would generate a series of sound sets based on my mood and my imagination. These sound sets would draw on all the work I had ever done, plus other sounds I might be interested in. It could be a set of soft sounds like pads, or crystalline bell tones halfway between a wine glass and an organ. Or it could be a set of angular wooden percussion sounds. Or voices. Or chord kits. Or sounds so synthetic they sound hyperreal. Surprise me!

Another stage in the interaction would have the musical system ask me to improvise around an idea—say an image presented to me based on today’s mood. I would improvise around this idea, tentatively at first, then with more gusto-abandon, until I had played continuously for say, ten minutes—long enough to hopefully stumble upon some interesting trajectories across the musical terrain. The musical system would then guide me back to a few promising sections of my improvisation in which I had played melodic figures and chords that suggested a new moment, an altered state, a deeper consciousness—something that makes you take notice. These sections would then be offered to me as springboards for further elaboration through counterpoint, sampling, sound design, or some other manipulation.

Alternately, the system could also spin out variations of its own on these moments of inspired improvisation that I could then fold back into the new piece. In other words, the system would spot my moments of inspiration and in turn become inspired, improvising on me to push us further along. This symbiosis would circle around and around in an intensifying feedback circuit, until a novel music emerged from the encounter like a fireproof bird soaring out from flames. How did that happen?

But here’s the thing: while I believe in all of these ideas and understand they sound like an AI imagining, I don’t want my computer to do the work. No, I want to do it all myself because the fun and challenge of art-making is figuring out how intuitive and rational thinking can get along.

On Intensity And Focus: Applying Physical Training Principles To Creative Work


We often think about physical fitness and creative work as completely separate and unrelated domains, but training principles can be applied outside of exercise. Here are a few I have been applying from endurance sports:

The 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule suggests that 80 percent of your training should take place at a relaxed and easy or conversational pace. In other words, if you’re running or riding bike, you should be able to hold a conversation while doing so. The thinking behind this go easy strategy is that it gives you a chance to log miles while simultaneously recovering from harder efforts.

The Tempo Workout 
A tempo workout (and I like the rhythmic resonances here) brings you up to an effortful level, just below an all-out racing pace. Tempo workouts train you to be comfortable with an uncomfortable and sustained level of activity. If you’re running or riding a bike, you can’t talk much at a tempo pace. You just grunt.

Going Long
Going long is a workout where you move at a moderate pace for an extended period. If you don’t mind repetition, this is perhaps the most rewarding kind of exercise for the perceptual surprises it brings: a lot can happen after one hour or more of continuous activity.

Maximal Efforts/Intervals
Maximal efforts are relatively brief bouts of very intense exertion interspersed with rest or walking. What is interesting about this workout type is how it kicks your body into new mechanical gears. When you go this hard your body stretches into new postures, remembering the fluid ergonomics that accompany high speed and intensity.

Fartlek is a Swedish term for “speed play” which refers to a training that mixes up steady-paced activity with intervals of higher intensity. This workout type is fun because you can improvise on the fly.

In my experience, all of these workout types can be applied to creative work fairly directly. The 80/20 rule, for example, can mean that you do most of your work at an easy intensity. Tempo and maximal effort workouts can be applied by giving yourself a tight time constraint in which to get something done (like 10 minutes to generate a new paragraph, or 25 minutes to improvise your way into a musical theme). Going Long can mean staying with a single project for an extended period (like a few hours) without a break, to facilitate what Cal Newport calls “deep work.” And fartlek workouts can be a chance to mix everything up within a single work session–moving among different levels of intensities as you see fit.

The takeaway from applying these training principles to creative pursuits is that different levels of intensity bring with them different kinds of focus. And when you’re trying to make something new, focus is everything.

On Key Moments In Composing


Each time you sit down at the computer and the keyboard to compose it feels as if you have no prior experience to draw on. Even though all your conscious knowing tells you that this can’t be the case, you’re beginning as if from scratch, facing the empty screen without being able recall the hundreds of tracks you’ve already recorded and meticulously edited down to their nano structures. Sigh.

What’s going on here? Is this simply a default way of thinking, or is it a self-imposed constraint to focus yourself on the present? Either way, because you can’t recall what you’ve already done you hunker down with the unlikely prospect of doing something significant today. Your quiet desperation is registered as you pull in your chair a bit, wipe off some dust from the keyboard, stretch the hands. Sigh. But this is a key moment in the process because in momentarily forgetting your creative past and at a loss for what to do right now you’ve adapted a shoulder shrugging, whatever happens happens mindset, resigned to the reality that you’re not much improved since the last time you sat down to face down musical uncertainty. It’s a key moment because you’ve almost—but not quite—given up before you’ve begun. Usually we construe this kind of mindset as a species of negative thinking, but negative thinking in doses is not necessarily bad. In this case, your almost—but not quite—giving up frees yourself from self-imposed and unnecessary expectations derived from your past outcomes or imagined futures. A whatever happens happens mindset as you sit in front of your computer and keyboard is a perfectly imperfect state in which to dwell for a while. You’ve tapped into something priceless: attention unmodulated by assumptions.

It took a few minutes, but it’s only now, with your attention unmodulated, that you bring your hands to the keyboard. Evidently your hands didn’t fully absorb the lessons of your whatever happens happens mindset and they immediately move along their old pathways, finding friendly routes through g and d-minor maybe, or staying safe within F major. But your hands are just scared and need a little push. You ask them why they so often ignore D-flat and F-sharp or any of those terrains over the black, mountainous accidentals. This is not to say that you’re conscious of keys and scales all the time. You’re just trying to point out to your hands that, from where you sit, the terrain is wide open. Go explore a bit! This frees up the hands and now they roam. This is a second key moment because your hands have almost—but not quite—given up trying to make any definitive musical statements. They have permission to stay local or travel far, but either way it’s just messing around. It doesn’t count. No one cares what happens. It’s just music. Just do whatever seems interesting. And so it goes for a while, as your hands bounce around and you follow them. In your state of pure attention, no one—not you, not your hands, not your computer or your keyboard—really cares about what is happening.

Which brings us to a third key moment where not really caring transforms itself instantaneously into…caring deeply. Boom! Something happened—the hands fell into something and now you’re woke. It could be a dissonance, or a rhythm, or a symmetry. Playtime’s over, folks. Forget what you did yesterday or what you might do tomorrow—this thing here, right here, is something special, no? Your quiet desperation is now sure-footedness. Boom! Now you have goal and a purpose which is to flesh out the possibilities of this something the hands fell into—mobilize its potentials as quickly as possible before the magic dissipates. You’re like the mother whose child is trapped underneath the car who summons a bolt of energy to do some heavy lifting. What you thought was a quiet resignation, a shoulder shrugging, whatever happens happens mindset was not a lack of confidence or some calculated Zen move. No, you were saving your quality energy for this pivotal moment where you can rescue what may be a good idea from being crushed under the world’s indifference.