Note: I originally posted this blog entry seven years ago, on June 2, 2009 on my old blog. I placed it in “limbo” back when I rebooted my blog (the first time) a few years ago. That said… I think this is probably my favorite blog entry. I hope you enjoy it.

Impositional Creative Paralysis

There are times where being a musician is extremely aggravating. Artistic frustration with your craft can certainly be part of the picture, but I would say more of it has to do with external factors. Lack of respect, financial capital, personal egos, personal agendas, “dues-paying”, and interpersonal conflicts of various sorts are all about being in the arts. Racial and intraracial – that’s correct… within the race – bias and discrimination are also apart of that life. Hell, I can remember going on my first job interview out of grad school at an elementary school in Dayton and being asked – not a minute after mentioning my Masters degree from Indiana University School of Music and other qualifications – whether or not I could read music. I damn near blew my stack. However, I am not going to discuss that one now.

The topic of RMD #2 has more to do with what I’ll call “Impositional Creative Paralysis.” Nice little pretentious phrase, isn’t it? What does it mean?

“Creative paralysis” is exactly what it sounds like. You’re in a rut. You can’t get out of it. You can’t think. You can’t create. You can’t come up with something new. Drop it in a search engine and you’ll probably get a hundred or so listings of self-improvement websites.

So, how does the word “impositional” fit into it? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure that “impositional” is actually a word. If it is, though, it comes from the word “impose.” (If not, then my brother-in-law is going to have fun with this one…) “Impose”, of course, means to force onto someone else. So, I guess a more user-friendly way of describing it would be “the stifling of another’s artistic expression.”

What is the cause of “Impositional Creative Paralysis”? Easy. VAMPIRES!!! Energy vampires, in fact. People who lack imagination and therefore desire to pass that affliction onto you by bleeding every creative impulse from your body until you are a lifeless, energy-depleted, husk trapped in a self-induced adaptive catatonia. In a worst-case scenario, a victim spontaneously manifests a cocoon only to awaken soon after as yet another blindly roaming, comatose, vampire eager desiring nothing more than to perpetuate the same heinous process that was done to him on countless others. (Yes. I know. I’ve read too many comic books in my life time. By the way! Just 10 more days until Chris Claremont’s “X-Men Forever” comes out!!!) The field of music is rife with vampires or vampire-victims.

What are some examples of Impositional Creative Paralysis?


The first one that comes to mind is this tendency for musicians of all stripes to perform something exactly the same way or in the same style as someone else and consider any deviation to be incorrect or somehow proof that the deviator does not know what he/she is doing. There was this one time at a funeral that I was accompanying a trumpet player to “Joyful, Joyful.” My friend is primarily into Gospel jazz, so I worked out a much slower rendition with some different chord changes. The idea was that he would play the melody and improvise over it. I’ll be damned if the church organist – who used to teach music at one of the local universities – didn’t hop on the organ after we started playing it, speed up the tempo, and play it straight using the chords out of the hymnal. I about wanted to hop up from the piano, rip a pipe off the wall, and cram it somewhere on his person where the sun didn’t shine. He then proceeded to give my friend – one of his former students – a lecture about how it was actually supposed to go. I seriously wanted to tell this guy, “Look. If I wanted to hear it as it was intended, I’d go listen to the original version… You know, the one which has an orchestra, choir, lyrics that aren’t indisputably Christian, and no fucking organ!”

I’ve seen this thing at other times, in particular while working with musicals. I have had people tell me “That’s not how it goes” and get offended when I inform them “Well, I’m looking at the exact same score that the orchestra has and I can tell you that is INDEED how it goes.” See, what they really mean to tell me is that “So-and-so’s Broadway version that I listened to in order to learn my part/choreograph/make notes has a different arrangement than what you are doing.”

Yes, I’m calling some asses out. Just because Jennifer Holliday can do those runs on that song doesn’t mean you can. Just because her version might have this big ol’ dramatic key change on this recording doesn’t mean that the version you receive from MTI has the same key change. Just because her version might have this extended section with the vamp doesn’t mean that the one you receive from MTI does. So, when you come up to me and tell me that I’m “doing it wrong” because it doesn’t match up with a recording you have, my eye is going to twitch.

The recording is nothing more than an interpretation. LEARN YOUR PART FROM THE FUCKING SCORE!!! Then instead of trying in vain to imitate Jennifer Holliday’s runs, develop or improvise some runs of your own. And for heaven’s sake, learn to tell the difference between a change in tempo and a change in texture. The only thing that pisses me off more than lazy singer/actors who use the recording as the bible are choreographers and so-called vocal directors who encourage and perpetuate this gross ignorance and expect the accompanist or orchestra director to make it happen. That’s why I usually handle both the vocal and the orchestral end of it, simply because it allows me to lay down the law. Don’t ever tell me “but the recording…” It could be the most awesome recording on the face of the earth. I don’t care. My answer is “fuck the recording.”

There have been many times I have wanted to beat my head against the piano or the desk simply to dull the pain of dealing with obstinate people who want everyone else around them to do it like this one person they like or think is awesome. There is nothing as deflating as the feeling that you are simply there as a substitute or a bench-warmer for someone else the bandleader likes better. No, I’m not Chick Corea, Ahmad Jamal, Laurence Hobgood, or any of the other pianists that I listen to. I do feel like I’m at a place where I can start playing around and it is developing. One thing I have been experimenting with is improvising solos across both hands rather than improvising with the right and comping with the left. Based on the reaction from one person in particular, you’d think that I had a stroke and forgot how to play piano altogether!

Like all the arts, music is creative. It doesn’t matter what type of music it is. You have to bring something to it. Classical, Jazz, R&B, Country, Gospel… it doesn’t matter. It’s all interactive. You aren’t engaging it at all of your attention is focused on playing it exactly as someone else would. Who says that “Kumbayah” can only be performed around a campfire with a guitar? Why can’t “Fly Me to the Moon” be sung with a salsa beat? Why can’t I play a solo piano version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? Yes, some things will miss. I could about guarantee “Toreador” would sound grotesque on a kazoo. I’m not saying that there aren’t standards, but when you constantly get caught up in virtual-fanatical mimicry, how are you ever going to get through that creative barrier? How are you going to find something new?

Impositional Creative Paralysis in the form of Mimicry is one of the reasons I refuse to ever perform “Ribbon in the Sky.” Stevie, I hate that tune, now. And if you ever get someone to read this to you, I consider you a bad person for writing it.

Does anyone out there have any other examples of “Impositional Creative Paralysis”? Or perhaps other artistic frustrations?

All the best,

T. Kareem Powell

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *