After spending almost every dime he had to be there, John Daido Loori walked out of a multi-day retreat with famed photographer Minor White after mere hours, when the class began at four o’clock in the morning with exercises led by a modern dancer.
“I had paid hundreds of dollars to study photography with Minor, and I wasn’t about to spend the week undulating in the dark! Furious, I stormed away,” Loori writes in The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life.
Several classmates convinced him to return, and while days did pass without him so much as taking a single photograph, he learned a great deal about himself, about art, and about creativity. That insight shaped him into a better photographer.
That style of instruction seems counter-intuitive, when we think of art as a craft. Loori expected to learn about aperture settings. A creative writing workshop participant expects to learn about plot and character. A student of guitar expects to learn fingering for chords.
We all need to learn the mechanics of our craft, what creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the domain. But Minor White knew you needed more than that to be an artist with a camera.
I experienced a similar awakening years ago when I was a serious singer. The greatest choir conductor of the 20th Century, Robert Shaw, agreed to guest-conduct us in the Duruflé Requium. We rehearsed with our conductor for months and performed first under him in a large hall. Mr. Shaw was sitting in the back, listening to us for the first time in anticipation of conducting us in our main performance three days later. We hadn’t met him yet, and with stage lights in our eyes, we couldn’t see him. But we could feel his presence.
Our performance was, at best, flat. In fact, we botched it.
We dreaded what Mr. Shaw would say when we walked into our rehearsal the next morning. After all, the man had won a Grammy Award for a recording of that very requiem with the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus.
We stood when he entered the room, and when he motioned us to sit we moved downward in obedient unison, spines straight, scores held out in front of us.
He waved his right arm dismissively. “Put those scores down. We won’t be needing them today.”
We then spent the next four hours doing… well, I have a hard time remembering the details, actually. We sang some scales. We worked on dynamic range. I think we even sang rounds, like children do with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” But we never sang a note of Duruflé.
We continued like that after lunch. In all, we spent nine hours with Mr. Shaw that day and our scores remained under our seats the entire time. Had you told me before his arrival that our first day would be spent without a crash-course review of the Requiem, I likely would have been as angry as Loori was at his photography retreat.
But instead, I was on a high like I had never experienced before as a musician. We all were. Somehow, Mr. Shaw had unlocked in us our creative souls, which had been locked away for the last two months as we stressed over details of the score.
The next morning we arrived wired, anticipation coursing through us. What crazy things would we do today, we wondered?
“Pick up your scores, please,” the conductor said before he had even fully entered the room.
It was our last full day of rehearsal with him. We spent the entire time going over passages of the Requiem we had struggled with two days earlier in our first performance.
Some of the passages had troubled us from the start. Our conductor, who was quite good, had fought us and pushed us, but with little effect. But now, in this new creative state, Mr. Shaw would tell a section of the chorus what to do, and that section would do it. The only bad taste I can recall from that day is seeing my conductor, sitting behind Mr. Shaw, clearly depressed that we hadn’t responded to him the same way.
Have you ever had your art taken to a new level by an instructor who avoided instructing you in the tools of your art? Are you an instructor yourself who understands the art and science of this approach? I’d love for you to share your stories below.