Freedom and Structure

I’ve been pondering today the relationship between innate creativity vs. the need for structure. Let me explain:

In the arts (and in life) there are two basic forces at work, freedom and structure.  You will see them highlighted in people: 1) Those people who are naturally gifted in their respective genre. They are “pushing the limits”, but their life is not very structured or organized. 2) Those people who are not necessarily naturally gifted but are structured enough to accomplish things in the particular genre they have chosen to pursue.

My question is this: In each case, how much does the one trait effect the other. In other words, for person #1, how much does the natural gift effect the lack of structure, or freedom? Conversely, how much does the lack of structure effect their creative gift? And for person #2, how much does their lack of natural talent effect their need for structure and vice versa? I’ve noticed that those people with less natural creativity tend to need more structure. It makes sense. If you have a piano player who isn’t naturally gifted, they tend to need to know what is going to happen so they can prepare. Whereas, someone who is more naturally gifted might feel comfortable walking in and winging it.

Of course, experience takes a part, too. Take someone who is naturally gifted, who never hones their skill. They will eventually find themselves in a situation that they feel unprepared for and have less freedom in that circumstance. Take someone who is less gifted, but because of their structure and preparation, get technically good enough to let loose more and more.

There seems to be a need for a balance between freedom and structure. So, if you’re free-spirited, preparing can actually help you have more freedom. If the canvas didn’t have edges (boundaries), would you feel the freedom to actually start painting?

When I taught Jazz Theory at the Sitka Jazz Festival in Alaska several years ago, I related the concept of improvisation to language. I went around the room and had everybody give me words they think of when they think of summer. We then created sentences out the words. Hence, we “improvised” on the word “Summer.” I observed that some sentences ended up being less coherent. It was because they focused too much on making the words fit, rather then using the words to express a thought. We also talked about the fact that we learn language by listening, not by learning the alphabet. So, you learn to improvise by listening not by learning all of the licks.

I highlighted the fact that in improvisation, it’s about taking risks. If you have planned everything out ahead of time, then you aren’t improvising. However, I also discussed the need for discipline. Learning how to play the instrument, listening to other players, learning theory, practicing scales, licks, etc. I sub-titled the Improvisation section “Taking risks” and the Discipline section “Don’t be Stupid!” This is a life lesson. Everything we do needs to be a balance between structure and freedom, between discipline an spontaniety.


4 responses to “Freedom and Structure

  1. Hello Mark!
    This might sound creepy, and honestly is a little bit, but. . . you have changed or altered my life. Your music was given to me over a year ago and well, needless to say it has drastically changed the way I view music, myself, and the world. I am a singer, an inspiring violinist, and all out music enthusiast. I am currently living in Spain- originally from Colorado- and your music has truly helped me get through a few very rough times. I would like to thank you for not only your music but now for you wise words as well. Gracias.

    Katy Parr

    • Katy,

      Thanks for your kind words. It is very encouraging to hear that my music has impacted your life. From Colorado to Spain? That is a big transition. Who gave you my music? I’m curious who the common connection is.


  2. Hey Mark,

    Excellent post. I work as a graphic artist, and I know that I tend towards the more non-structured approach, but I’m finding more and more that structure is just as important. But it was nice to read it all nice and thought out for me. =)

    • Thanks for your comments Layne. There is a Somerset Maugham quote I read in Steven Pressfield’s book, “The War of Art”. (If you haven’t read it, you need to). S. Maugham was asked if “he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.'” So, I guess I look at structure as whatever boundaries are needed to have a free and open environment within which to create. The desire is that structure is not the end in itself, it merely serves our creativity and expression.

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