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Kenny Wheeler and Flow

Martin Gladu
When we are involved in creativity,
we feel that we are living more fully
than during the rest of life.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

recently happened upon a quote from Kenny Wheeler in which he describes his

compositional process to a cohort of aspiring composers. Much to my surprise, he makes

references to flow, the mental state theorized by psychologist of creativity Mihaly
Here is the quote, which is said (Hum 2014) to have been written by Wheeler himself in a
notebook and later photocopied by a music professor :
The process I go through to write or compose a new melody is this : I get up about 7:00 and don't
wash or shave or anything, but put on a bathrobe or dressing gown and take a couple of biscuits, a
tea, and sit at the piano which is an old slightly out of tune upright. Then I play through some 4part Bach Chorales. After that I try, with my limited technique, to play through some Bach 2 or 3
part Inventions or maybe Preludes. Then I fumble through some more modern music such as
Ravel, Debussy, Hindemith, Bartok or maybe the English Peter Warlock.
And then begins the serious business of trying to compose something. This consists of
improvising at the piano for anywhere from 1/2 hour to 3 or 4 hours or even more. What I think
I'm looking for during this time is something I'm not looking for. That is, I'm trying to arrive at
some semi-trance-like state where the improvising I'm doing at the piano is kind of just flowing
through me or flowing past me. I don't mean at all that this is any kind of a religious state but
more of a dream-like state. And then, if I do manage to arrive at this state, then I might play
something that catches the non dream-like part of me by surprise. It may only be 3 or 4 notes. But
it's like the dream-like part of me managed to escape for a second or two from the awake part of
me and decided to play something of its own choice. But the awake part of me hears that little
phrase and says "What was that? That's something I didn't expect to hear, and I like it." And that
could be the beginning of your new melody.
But there is no guarantee that you will reach this semi-dream-like state. After many hours you
may not get there. But you might take a break, or you might have a little argument with your
wife, and go back to the piano a little bit angry and bang out a phrase in anger which makes you
say "Wait a minute! What was that?" There doesn't seem to be any sure way of reaching this state
of mind where you play something that surprises yourself. I just know that I can't start the day all
fresh at the piano at 7:00 and say to myself "And now I will compose a melody." It seems I have
to go through this process which I described.

There are many things I find telling in this quote :

- Wheeler composes on a slightly out of tune piano
- he works in the morning
- the amount of time he spends noodling varies
- he never cold-calls inspiration; rather, he first warms his ears with works by master
- improvisation is the basis of his compositional process
- he tries to go into a dream-like trance (ie : flow)
- he makes a distinction between the conscious mind (the awake part of him) and the
unconscious mind (the dream-like part of him)
- he believes the unconscious mind has a life of its own and that it has its own free will
- his goal is to surprise himself with a motif hitherto unknown to him, something that
will make his ears perk up
- he thinks flow is fugacious and tends to be hard to achieve
- taking breaks sometimes proves fruitful
Lets take a closer look at each point :
The out of tune piano
Though this may seem like a trivial information, I think it is quite important, not only
because Wheeler mentions it but because it implies that he has trained his ear to pick up
certain overtones and correct them in his minds ear.
Working in the morning and the importance of having a morning ritual and taking breaks
Performed with intent, mindfulness and discipline, morning rituals are a great, productive
way to start the day. Wheeler makes his morning ritual a priority.
His mention of breaks is also telling. Resting, sleep and taking a step back from the
object of our attention has been shown to be greatly beneficial :
Dr. Ellenbogens research at Harvard indicates that people are 33 percent more likely to infer
connections among distantly related ideas after sleeping, but few realize that their performance
has actually improved.
In other words, you are likely more creative after sleep, but you might not recognize it because
its hard to identify which specific insights were prompted by sleeping on it. (Mercola 2008)

Wagner et al (2004) similarly concluded that sleep, by restructuring new memory

representations, facilitates extraction of explicit knowledge and insightful behaviour.
The time variable
Wheeler himself decides how much time he spends noodling (mindfully and intently).
This is a key element to flow experiences (see Table #1 below).

Cold-calling inspiration vs warming up by playing works by master composers

This aspect of Wheelers routine may come as a surprise to some. Why would a
composer that aspires to create original music begin his ritual by playing someone elses
music? Well, if you think about it, it makes total sense. These composers are geniuses :
he who plays their music daily not only trains his ear with prime material but pick up
knowledge along the way.
Composition as improvisation
Arnold Schenberg (1975:439) wrote that composing is a slowed-down improvisation.
Wheeler concurs.
Entering into a dream-like trance : the conscious mind vs the unconscious mind
As the growing number of papers published on the subject evidences, there are many
things to say about flow, most of which scholars are still trying to explicate, especially
when it comes to the workings of the musical brain. That said, I believe it is important to
highlight Wheelers awareness of his augmented creativity when in a flow state.
Research, such as the three experiments conducted by Dijksterhuis & Meurs (2006:145),
shows he is spot on :
The findings reported here speak to the relevance of unconscious thought in general and to the
relation between unconscious thought and creativity or divergent thinking. One could say that
unconscious thought is more liberal than conscious thought and leads to the generation of
items or ideas that are less obvious, less accessible and more creative. Upon being confronted
with a task that requires a certain degree of creativity, it pays off to delegate the labor of thinking
to the unconscious mind.

Note : Levitin (2009) has observed visual cortical activity during the act of inventing
melodies. This finding confirms that the unconscious mind thinks with imagery rather
than words. Many other scholars Dr. Joseph Murphy being the most well-known
thusly posit that creativity, imagination and the implementation of positive changes all lie
in our ability to hack our unconscious mind.
The volition of the unconscious mind
A question remains : is the unconscious mind a discretely operating unit or not? CarlGustav Jung, like Sigmund Freud, believe it is. Jean-Paul Sartre, an existentialist, thinks
otherwise. Because he mentions the dream-like part of me (...) decided to play
something of its own choice, we can definitely place Wheeler in this camp rather than in
Surprise, Surprise

What Wheeler is looking for is to be surprised by a motif that will spark his creativity.
The quote above is 425 words long. Interestingly, the word surprise is used twice, and
the state of being surprised is alluded to a total of 5 times.
The characteristics of flow experiences
Through lay terms like semi-trance-like state, dream-like state, semi-dream-like
state and dream-like part of me, Wheeler actually refers to flow. Csikszentmihalyi,
who coined the term, describes it as "being completely involved in an activity for its own
sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows
inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and
you're using your skills to the utmost." (Geirland 1996) He argues (2003:92-95) there are
several reasons why flow experiences are rare in most workplaces :
Table #1
Not in flow
few jobs nowadays have clear goals
contemporary jobs seldom provide adequate
in many jobs, the skills of the worker are not
well-matched to the opportunities for action
lack of control (...) over every step of the
the use of time is specified by rhythms
external to the worker

In flow
Goals are clear
Feedback is immediate
A balance between opportunity and capacity
is achieved
Control is no problem
Altered sense of time
The present is what matters
Concentration deepens
Loss of ego

Psychologist Daniel Goleman offers a similar list of the key elements of flow in his
monograph The Meditative Mind :
the merging of action and awareness in sustained concentration on the task at hand
the focusing of attention in a pure involvement without concern for outcome
self-forgetfulness with heightened awareness of the activity
skills adequate to meet the environmental demand
clarity regarding situational cues and appropriate response
In summary, I find it fascinating that Wheeler mentions flow and how he strives to
achieve it in his morning ritual. That said, he and Csikszentmihalyi diverge on one thing :
flow can be achieved more rapidly, more frequently and be sustained longer than
Wheeler seems to believe. How to facilitate its attainment shall be the topic of a future

Works cited
CSIKSZENTMIHALYI, Mihaly (2003). Good Business, Penguin Books, New York, NY.
DIJKSTERHUIS, Ap & MEURS, Teun (2006). Where creativity resides: The generative power
of unconscious thought, Consciousness and Cognition, 15, 135146
GEIRLAND, John (1996). Go with the Flow, Wired, Issue 4.09, September 1996.
GLADU, Martin (2012). Wheelerisms: An Analysis Of Kenny Wheelers Harmony
GOLEMAN, Daniel (1988). The Meditative Mind : The Varieties of Meditative Experience,
Tarcher, Oakland, CA.
HUM, Peter (2014). How Kenny Wheeler described his musical journey and and composing
process, Ottawa Citizen, September 19, 2014.
MERCOLA, Joseph (2008). Why Are You More Creative After You Sleep? [Accessed December 15, 2014]
SCHOENBERG, Arnold (1975). Style and Idea : Selected Writing of Arnold Schoenberg,
University of California Press, Oakland, CA.
WAGNER, U. et al (2004). Sleep Inspires Insight, Nature, Jan. 22, 427 (6972), 352-355

A music publishing expert and former professional musician, Martin Gladu also freelances as a
translator, writer, and researcher. His research interests deal mainly with issues relating to
specialist discursive competence and terminology in certain educative and workplace