#7: Musician and composer Ellie Westgarth-Flynn on creative strategies, instruments as an extension of our bodies and creative feedback

Ever since I was a kid my Dad has been sharing musical composition strategies with me, so I think music has been a lens thorugh which I’ve thought about creativity for a long time. And so I jumped at the opportunity to interview my friend Ellie Westgarth-Flynn, pianist, singer, composer and performer about our shared interest in creative techinques for composition. As in many of these podcast interviews, I think that creative techinques from one domain can easily be transported to another, and so I hope that whatever your domain of work, you find something useful in the creative techinques that Ellie and discuss. In this episode, we get into:

  • The tension between technical mastery and creative freedom.
  • The freedom that rhythmic and harmonic templates or restrictions bring to our compositions.
  • Building up composition from motifs and building blocks.
  • The importance of feedback in the creative process – acting on feedback is where change takes place.
  • There comes a point at which you need to leave yourself out of it and get on the with the job of writing the music.
  • Three creative techniques for anyone trying to get into song writing.

  • Listen to it on iTunes
  • Stream by clicking here
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Related podcasts

If you enjoyed this podcast, then check out my interview with another creative individual, Nick Cobbing: photographing the Arctic. Nick what happens to photographic equipment at minus 38 degrees, using drones to take photos, the role of the audience in the creative process, being reduced to tears by the beauty of the planet, the best places to swing dance north of the Arctic, life hacks for creative people working on their own and whether penguins tango or waltz.

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Show notes

  • 00:42 The Mudflappers
  • 00:42 Tuesday nights at the Scolt Head
  • 1:23 Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel
  • 1:50 When did you start writing music?
  • 3:10 Do you need to master an instrument in order to be creative? Technical mastery can be the antithesis of creativity – it can railroad you into taking certain directions
  • 3:30 Ellie works with young people who don’t have technical mastery – they are barely beginners but they take a very creative approach, and she’s very keen to get them improvising and writing if that’s something they want to. Good playing is a lot about muscle memory and habit forming, and so once those habits are formed it can be very difficult to break out of them.
  • 4:40 The piano becoming a prosthetic voice – it comes from the same place in her brain as speech. Reaching a technical level that does allow this fluency has been important, but she now has other tools too to stimulate creativity
  • 5:00 The use of other instruments to help explore chords from different perspectives.
  • 5:25 When does an instrument become an extension of your body?
  • 6:30 By seven or eight there are huge differences in the abilities of the kids that she works with. Some of them don’t have the finger strength to play the notes they want to; others are obsessed with getting things technically correct. The age at which you start probably has a large impact on how much the instrument becomes an extension of your body.
  • 7:40 So we had a tension between the technical mastery which might railroad you into a particular form, and yet on the other mastery enables the instrument to becomes an extension of your body.
  • 8:05 Ellie tries to get the young kids she works with to take their mind off technique (like relaxing your knuckles, etc) and gets them instead to imagine there is a record playing in their head and that their hands and the piano are the speakers. This meta-cognitive approach seems to magically sort them out because it gets them thinking more musically, and less about technique, which isn’t necessarily very interesting to a tiny kid.
  • 9:00 It’s very easy to learn an instrument without internalising the music if you are purely technical about it. There are people who make it a long way up the scale of making it up the scale of success without really engaging with the musical practice.
  • 9:15 There’s a parallel with comparing technically masterful ballet dancers and at the same time valuing people with little or no training and still finding something worth watching in their dance.
  • 9:35 Parallel with watching people learning to dance. There is a point at which they forget their feet and just start moving. They no-longer have to think about what to do with their feet.
  • 10:10 Using different instruments as a way to explore different harmonic and melodic material.
  • 10:30 Creative technique on the guitar – just using one or two fingers.
  • 11:00 Playing something simple on the guitar produces a sound which it wouldn’t have made any sense to have tried on the piano.
  • 11:10 The noise that the guitar makes as I slide my fingers over it becomes part of the music. I wouldn’t have made that sound on the piano.
  • 12:10 The way our physical environment shapes our creative process.
  • 12:50 This is why when you work in a studio, the equipment that they have defines the sound of what you produce.
  • 13:10 Things that both constrain us but also make us more creative. Constraints are super important in a creative process. If you improvise endlessly, what are you making? You are just doodling around.
  • 13:50 Constraints have been really important in helping Ellie write lyrics. For example, writing songs with only 30 words.
  • 14:14 Limitations in blues music are really fun.
  • 14:30 She wanted her compositional work to be quite separate from the blues playing she is performing, but blues playing has definitely influenced her writing.
  • 15:00 It is really fun working with a limited set of chords, and also having all this space rhythmically – you have a lot opportunity to mess around rhythmically.
  • 15:15 It taught me to treat my instrument as a percussion instrument, which it really is as opposed to a melodic instrument. With the blues I’ve been learning to be in the rhythm section.
  • 15:50 From a compositional point of view, is there a basic template you go to for writing? When I’m playing blues piano for my work, I definitely have things that I do to fill in the gaps.
  • 16:30 For her first ever blues gig, Ellie downloaded 100 blues riffs on a PDF, learnt them all and pieced them together. These are building blocks. But it less about what you do and more the way you do it. So for instance you can really stretch them, play about with them.
  • 17:50 – Sticking two sevenths together
  • 18:30 From a creative point of view you try one of those techniques and experiment with it and see where it takes you. But if you have a completely open space it is much harder to come back and say this is what I was trying to do and this is where it took me.
  • 21:00 The difference between the composer writing for piano, and the composer writing for orchestra. What’s been really interesting is recording music with software that opens up all those orchestral possibilities.
  • 21:37 The music software as an instrument. For instance, Ableton as a performance tool.
  • 22:04 DAWs – stands for digital audio workstation.
  • 22:35 You can go in with an intention and come out two hours later lost. You have to be strict with yourself and your intentions. Some artists restrict themselves to just four tracks at a time, even if they are choosing from hundreds of samples, they only use four at time. Others use dozens of samples at any one time and crash their computers. At that point it becomes really hard to track what you are doing and so you ask why are you doing it.
  • 23:36 It’s taken her a while to stop doodling around in that space and make something that is actually finished.
  • 23:50 You need an overarching logic to help you write for a larger ensemble.
  • 24:20 In the past Ellie has written pieces for larger ensembles on paper but has never heard them played; whereas now she has that possibility.
  • 24:40 Parallel between large-scale composition and architecture. Architects seem to play with so many variables – is this why architects get less sleep?
  • 25:30 Kids should learn production skills right from the start because you need to have an ear to how you want it to sound.
  • 25:40 The role of the audience in the creative process. If you don’t put something out there and don’t get a reaction you don’t even know if you are in the right ballpark. Ellie has always been performance-shy – she has always preferred playing for other people, on side stage, for dancers or theatre – and so it daunting to put something out there for other people.
  • 27:45 Who even is the audience today? Where are they? How do you define them? That can be very confusing. It is very hard to see that reaction unless you do it live, but then your recorded music is likely to be very different. Nevertheless, that feedback is one of the most important parts of the creative process.
  • 28:20 The same goes with teaching. You can tell a student to do something a thousand times but unless they actually do it, what have they learnt? It’s that point at which you give feedback and they respond to it – that’s when the progress happens; that’s where change takes place.
  • 28:40 If you had someone who was trying to get into song writing, or was trying to get back into it, what would you advise?
  • 29:00 If this is your job, go and do it: pick up your tool bag, go and apply them, then come home again. Leave yourself out of it, essentially.
  • 29:10 Creative technique: free writing – this is something Ellie has borrowed from someone else. You set a timer for five minutes and spend the time writing about an inanimate object, and try to capture as much as you can about it. And then you take whole phrases from that natural writing and putting them in order until they start to form something like a song. Do that rather than just writing about how I feel, because what comes out of the free writing process is probably much closer to what you feel than attempting to write about big abstract ideas. Plus you end up with a much more visceral thing which is much easier for listeners to relate to.
  • 30:05 Another technique: this time for starting with the music. Set a timer and record everything you do. Then takes bits of it that you like and then repeat them.
  • 30:30 Third technique: go out and learn something new, something different to what you are good at, and then bring this back into your composition and make it yours.
  • 31:45 Playing the blues – Miss Ellie
  • 31:45 Ellie’s own composition – coming out under a different name – details to follow soon.
  • 32:25 Engineering Showoff – 23rd May.
  • 33:06 Materials Showoff – 20th June.

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