All art is theft, with varying degrees of directness. Creative ideas do not emerge from nothingness, nor are they divinely inspired; instead, musicians recycle. Musical fragments enter the vat of the subconscious and are morphed, deconstructed, combined, elaborated, and recontextualized into original forms. Generally, this process is opaque. We experience creative ideas with the same naiveté that we experience dreams, unaware in the moment of the source material.

That being said, there are many ways to intentionally rehearse this process of artistic digestion. Every piece, exercise, or fragment learned has open potential for exploration and extrapolation. When we read books or essays in school we don’t simply sit with the information but rather are encouraged to apply it to other studies and observations, using it as the foundation for further thought. Practice, for instance:

  • Playing pieces in different places on the keyboard.

  • Playing the same melodic shape with different intervals.

  • Playing the same notes in a different order.

  • Playing the same notes with various rhythms (a la “Hamburger, Cheeseburger”)

  • Playing a song with different chords in the left hand

  • Playing the rhythm of a melody on random keys

  • Repeating small fragments of a song

  • Repeating a small fragment with one hand while improvising in the other

  • Inventing new beginnings or endings to familiar repertoire

Unstructured improvisation is the most comprehensive way to exercise one’s creativity, but the aforementioned suggestions might help forge pathways through the wilderness of free play.