In the middle of the current episode of the Bill Simmons podcast, guest Larry Wilmore talks about how a comedian’s performance is best when he knows his material so well that he can relax on stage and respond to the audience. He calls it “active listening” and compares it to an athlete who regains his timing after weeks or months of not playing their sport.
This reminded me of a quote that my first film school professor typed at the top of his syllabus:
“Learn your chords, learn your chords, learn your chords, then forget them”
– Charlie Parker
I’ve since seen the quote written differently, but the point is the same. A great artist learns the rules, masters the fundamentals, then free himself to do whatever comes naturally. It attacks what many people assume creativity is, the free form content that emerges from an artist who is blessed, or talented, or on the right drugs. In reality, art is what happens when a creative person understands their medium so instinctively that they can turn off the cognitive part of their brain and just express whatever comes to them. Genius happens when a finely crafted work of art appears to be emerging from the artist naturally, with minimal interference from outside forces. But the reality is that even the most instinctive, improvised work of art is built upon years of experience and centuries of knowledge.
Creative endeavors don’t happen in a vacuum, and great artists aren’t just born as great artists. It takes time and effort to be an artist and people interested in being great shouldn’t be so quick to get to greatness that they overlook the building blocks of their craft.