”Intuition is more important to discovery than logic.” Henri Poincaré, scientist and mathematician.
Are you someone who is comfortable accessing your intuition? Or when someone says to you, “What does your intuition tell you?” do you feel confused, or unsure what they even mean? Do you wish you had better access to your intuition? Do you even accept its existence?
When I was first encouraged to listen to my intuition, I felt very uneasy. How would I know if what I was hearing inside had any validity to it? How could I tell what was intuition, what was intellect, and what was just an opinion or a habitual response?
The clearest answer I’ve had to this question was from my creative writing teacher, Deb Norton, an expert in assisting people in moving past the intellect into exploring wilder creative terrain. The intellect will tell you what you already know, and it is useful to help you work something out using logical methods. However, by writing, writers find out what they don’t already know (or don’t know they know), and the results are often far more interesting and illuminating. Writers have developed all kinds of strategies to get to this territory- morning pages, free writes, prompts, ways of improvising on the page to get past the critic, the one who thinks he already knows.
As musicians and music teachers, this process of developing one’s intuition can be useful in all kinds of areas. Firstly, attuning to oneself- learning to distinguish what is ‘on track’ and what is ‘off track’ – is extremely rewarding. Secondly, attuning to others- colleagues, students, parents, employers- is a necessary and worthwhile people skill to acquire. And thirdly, attuning to music in deeper ways- exploring its wild terrain- can be immensely satisfying.
Over time, I discovered through some great teachers, and through my own experience, that the best way to access my intuition was to ask myself a question, pause to listen inwardly, take time to see what came forward, and then check it out. Of course I didn’t know initially whether what I was hearing had any validity. But the only way to know was to experiment.
Another piece of the puzzle was to notice how I felt physically, emotionally, and mentally about whatever came forward. If I felt uptight, had a pain in my stomach or a tight throat, or even just a numb feeling, then I probably wasn’t on track.
However, if there was a warm glow, a frisson of excitement, or just a sense of naturalness and spontaneity, or a burst of energy, then I was more likely to be heading in the right direction.
Here are some useful questions to ask when attuning to others. How do you feel after you’ve been with someone? If you feel consistently worse about yourself, they may not be a healthy person to be around. Or if you notice a disconnect between what they are telling you and what you sense, be aware of that. All may not be as it seems.
In terms of using your intuition musically, the possibilities are endless. One of my favorite activities is working closely with a score to bring it to life, particularly when bouncing ideas around with a student or colleague. Why did Chopin write accents in those unexpected places in that mazurka? Why exactly does he want a sudden crescendo when I feel it more as a decrescendo? How can I be faithful to the score, sense the composer’s intentions, and yet make the musical expression sound completely natural and unforced?
And then when working with students, how often have you found yourself saying something helpful that suddenly clarifies their issue, even though you have no idea what made you say it? Or with an ensemble partner when you both spontaneously decide to play a phrase differently, and you instinctually know what the other person is about to do although you’ve never done it before?
Of course, composing and improvising both require the ability to let go and trust what comes forward- to allow oneself to fall and rise again, to trust that there is something inside that is worth sharing, something that no one else can express. As Stephen Nachmanovich says, in his wonderful book, Free Play,
“Originality does not mean being unlike the past or unlike the present; it means being the origin, acting out of your center. Out of your spontaneous heart you may do something reminiscent of the very old and it will be original because it will be yours.”
Do you feel comfortable following your intuition? Do you find it useful? I’d love to hear your thoughts.