Creativity AWAY from the page starts with STEALING?


No one likes the word steal but I must confess, that's what I've been doing for quite some time. Before you call the cops and lock me up, let me explain.

I stole this "mindset" from Austin Kleon thanks to my mom who shared his book with me years ago. Kleon is the author of the book Steal Like an Artist. His book transformed, codified and validated my approach to improvising, composing and teaching, too.


Think about it...

How many times do you see a clever game on Pinterest, save it and then tweak it to make it work for your studio?

Have you ever followed a recipe but added more chocolate chips? Omitted the nuts?

Have you ever seen an outfit and pieced together something similar from your own closet?

Have you ever changed the fingering on a piece, added more dynamics than the score indicates, changed the last chord to suit your taste?

When we find an idea or a piece or a game or a recipe that works for someone else, we're attracted to it because it's a guaranteed win. Then, once we experience the original, it gets our creative juices flowing and we often see more possibilities beyond it and it becomes our own. In Kleon's words:

A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we're incapable of making perfect copies. Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. That is how we evolve.

Consider how the iPod transformed into the iPhone which spawned the iPad which generated competition like the Surface Pro, the Kindle...

As Kleon states:

Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.


For the record

I'm NOT advocating blatant plagiarism or taking credit for someone else's work and neither is Kleon. His premise?


All creative work builds on what came before.

If we're free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.

Even Mozart didn't start with a completely blank canvas! We all know that he was a fan of Mr. Alberti's bass pattern. I'm not sure who first thought of the Walking Bass, but I do know that my students know what it is and can now use it in their own creations.

Colleague, friend and creative guru Wendy Stevens of says it like this:

Creativity is recombining elements that already exist in a new way.

So why this post now?

As I was preparing a session for teachers at the Creative Keys conference in Idaho Falls, it occurred to me that my approach, my method to creativity usually begins on the page which then revs up the imagination.

In order to show the Idaho teachers and my students (and you) how the process works, I created the resource Twinkle with a Twist, a catalog of ideas on how to create a spooky version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

I invite you to use this catalog of ideas to guide and influence your students as they craft a spooky twist on a simple tune. Too late to use this with your students this year? Get it here now, study it and plan ahead for next October.

Here's how I initiated Twinkle with a Twist:

Week #1

I spent about 10 minutes playing through the catalog of options with students. It was their job to decide their favorite items, learn how to play them, tweak them and memorize the names of each.

Why name them? As an improviser, you need a file of "ingredients." Giving each one a name can help the user pull them out when needed. As a good friend likes to say:

In order to grasp something, it needs a handle.

Next, I played my own spooky setting to help them see the big picture.

Between lessons it was their job to fold their choices into their own original arrangement.

Week #2

Students played their arrangements for me and we identified places where they needed more input or practice to build confidence. They were assigned to prepare to record it at the next lesson.

Week #3

Lessons kicked off with students playing their twist on Twinkle while I recorded it.

Get inspired and try it in your studio

Below is a collection of videos showing students' output after just a few short weeks. Some will stand out above the rest because of their clever combinations and confidence. These students enjoy improvising, are comfortable with the task and play off the page frequently.

I believe ALL of the videos are gems because I know each student well. Some are NOT that comfortable improvising or are new students who are not used to my "shenanigans." But...they did it! Stepping out like this was a major (or minor!) step in a new direction.

Notice how most are playing from memory. The page that some are looking at has no accurate notation. They are playing OFF the page and BEYOND the page in style and equipped with ideas that they explored and made their own. This activity wasn't about planned fingering, a well-designed form, a perfected performance. It was about "stealing" items and morphing them with an original DNA stamp.

Improvisers were asked two things:

Here's a chart documenting how some students felt about the assignment.

#1 How much did you like or enjoy this assignment? (1-5 stars)

#2 How comfortable did feel doing it. (1 or Sad Face through 5 or Happy Face.)


By the second week, all felt more comfortable and were warming up to the idea and many moved their names over to the right.

This photo includes only some of my students but, it gives you a pretty accurate picture of my student population. Not all of them are keen on playing away from the page.

It's proof that this activity works for anyone at any level and any stage of comfort with improvisation. You can do this in your studio, too!

Check out these twists on Twinkle

Josie decided to add a modal tone to her Twinkle.

Rylan's a veteran improviser and added a sprinkle of jazz to his twist.

Parker tried out some spooky sounds on the Clavinova.

Here's the entire playlist of student arrangements. Feel free to share these with your students so they can be inspired by fellow improvisers and steal from them, too!

Here's to stealing like an artist in your studio.

Leave your questions and thoughts below.