Creativity is messy. Its path is littered with the failures and incoherence of experimentation. Though our creative efforts can lead to something beautiful or useful on occasion, acting on those creative impulses is about the effort more than the result, don’t you think? This particular variation, building on the freneticism of the previous one, has a lot going on.  It seems like Bach might be exploring an incoherent stage of his creative process.  What will emerge from all this experimentation in the final variation?

Goldberg Variations, 29 (Creativity)

A few years ago I saw and wrote about a documentary, “Seymour: An Introduction,” about pianist Seymour Bernstein and directed by actor Ethan Hawke. Bernstein doles out wisdom in heaping spoonfuls in this film, and his wisdom goes from how the two-note slurs in a Beethoven Sonata can be played more beautifully to the purpose of being creative. He talks about learning to integrate his creative self into his daily life, a simple life that is extraordinarily focused on simply being kind and caring enough to want to bring out the best in his music and in people he meets. Music is really only a vehicle for living his creative life. That vehicle could just as easily have been nursing or engineering or parenting.

Bernstein tries to dispel the idea that art only comes from great suffering. He makes the case for practice – the detailed hard work of really focusing, with great care, on the preparation of something – being the thing that informs one’s art. While I do believe something very special can happen “in the moment,” a magical moment doesn’t often happen without preparation. The preparation might be as hard as thousands of hours of practice, or as simple as being open-minded enough to act on a untested idea. In fact, creativity seems to call upon so many of the things I’ve been writing about for the past 30 weeks – persistence, openness, playfulness, listening, curiosity, fearlessness, resiliency, perspective…

Creativity is about more than having imaginative ideas…it’s about the work of bringing those ideas to life in a process that uses both sides of our brain. Our creative impulses originate internally, but with plenty of external help coming from conversations and opportunities of time and place. It requires a level of rebelliousness, but the rebellion born of an appreciation for tradition, and a discipline which emerges from passion.

There’s also the element of chance. The film about Seymour Bernstein came about because the 88 year old pianist happened to get seated next to Ethan Hawke at a dinner party, where the two discussed their fears – Bernstein’s stage fright that had led him to give up concertizing 37 years earlier, and Hawke’s fear that his life as an actor is meaningless.  From those fears came a life devoted to teaching and believing in the power of creativity, and this brilliant film.

Thinking of practice as art was a revelation to me. One of the young, extraordinarily talented students in the film talks about learning to really listen to people, because he has learned to listen so carefully to the music he is practicing. We are all creating our lives each day, ideally practicing the details that make us kinder, more compassionate, and ultimately, more whole.


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.




I met a renowned musician last week and we shared a laugh – one of those incredulous laughs that mask the fact that you actually want to cry – when he told me that he was asked by someone he was working for at the time why he had to practice so much. Hadn’t he already learned how to play his instrument? I had the same question asked of me several years ago by someone who really should have known better and I didn’t have a good comeback then, though I’ve thought of a thousand since. Should a professional athlete forgo practice and just show up for the games? Should a lawyer read up on new laws and court decisions or just wing it? Same for a doctor? And shouldn’t we all just be able to sit quietly in a comfortable seated position for extended prayer or meditation at any given moment?

There’s a reason we use the word “practice” for musicians and athletes, medical and legal professionals, and even yogis. Anything we want to do better requires us to practice, and these pursuits are lifelong commitments for many of us.

To practice something which we want to have as part of our lives was an idea brought to my mind again this week during a Rosh Hashanah service for which I was playing (I practiced quite a lot for it, by the way). The Rabbi talked about a practice he wanted to incorporate more fully into his life – that of thanking someone for the blessing of allowing him to perform a mitzvah, a word which can mean an act of kindness. He wants to make it a habit to thank those who allow him to be helpful.  Habits don’t become an integral part of our lives without practice.

Does anyone remember the bumper sticker that was quite popular in the late 1980’s which read: Practice random kindness and commit senseless acts of beauty?

These things don’t happen without practice. The practice of lifelong commitment to being and doing better.


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Where I’ll be:

September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical.

Also in October, I will be playing for the High Holy Days (a first for me) for the Bethesda Jewish Congregation.

November 6 – 4:00, playing for John Rutter’s Requiem with the choir of All Saints Episcopal Church, Chevy Chase.

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

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