On the evening of the 28th of November, 2015 my toosh was sat on a very rigid wooden chair that was not designed for reclining of any sort. The uncomfortable seating situation didn’t matter because I was mesmerized by… him.
I was in Madrid. At a flamenco club. It was my birthday.
Delgado danced—oh, man—did he Move. Those. Feet.
Sweat dripped like slow-moving honey from his black hair… over his nose, his lips and then down onto the hardwood stage.
His performance was so…passionate…joyful… that the woman next to me from Berlin had to look away from time to time. Others had to take a sip of their wine for some kind of momentary distraction from the intensity.
Delgado danced my grief. Love. Nostalgia. Pain. It all bubbled up to the fore. This brand of flamenco gave me cold sweats; my heart did the biggest ker-thickety thump to see such unabashed rawness…vulnerability. Sensuality.
He was….as the song goes… quite apt at killing me softly.
Flamenco mystics would’ve said the spirit of ‘El Duende’ was undoubtedly being expressed that night. Whatever you want to call this force– creative flow, God’s inspiration, a muse, the art fairy, touching the ether— you know it’s there but you can’t say exactly what it is. It’s a feeling, a spice, a heady force in the air.
Let’s put the pause button on and exam this a bit more, shall we?
As I write this in Cornwall, on a foggy February afternoon in my St. Agnes flute studio, I might argue that to get any kind of Duende spirit going here like Delgado did might be difficult to conjure in this cold light of day.
That’s because it would be super easy to believe that in order to produce some creative magic you’d have to do things like drip sweat while creating it, possess some exotic bloodlines, have extensive training in foreign lands, win many competitions and have a face like a god (hello, Delgado!). This would mean most of us would have a fairly reasonable excuse to leave all that woo-woo art-making to the divinely gifted and go watch the new series of Mr. Selfridge on ITV instead.
Yet despite the odds that could suggest otherwise, given my 17+ years of flute teaching I’d have to lean more into the views expressed by writer Elizabeth Gilbert in her latest book Big Magic. She describes who gets to be able to create the magic in the first place:
The guardians of high culture will try to convince you that the arts only belong to a chosen few, but they are wrong and they are also annoying. We are all the chosen few. We are all makers by design. Even if you grew up watching cartoons in a sugar stupor from dawn to dusk, creativity still lurks within you. Your creativity is way older than you are, way older than any of us. Your very body and your very being are perfectly designed to live in collaboration with inspiration, and inspiration is still trying to find you—the same way it hunted down your ancestors.
I know that this point of view rings true in my own experience because every single day I happen to randomly witness a flicker of Duende-like genius from my flute students (beginners included):
–Moira’s magic appeared when a tricky technical passage landed under her fingers with the same smoothness as a sinewy purple ribbon whirling in the wind
–Alison met hers when she found a tone so light and sweet it had the texture of a heavenly ball of cotton candy
–Daniel’s was when his cadential timing was so exquisitely placed I couldn’t help but shout “YEEEEEESSSSSS!” when he finally arrived to the tonic resolution
Here’s the irony: I don’t think that the ability to capture artistic magic is necessarily something that is easily teachable. This is because when I see a student in a flow state I don’t think it has much to do with how ‘good’ or ‘advanced’ someone’s playing is. Sure, technical know-how like diaphragm support, playing with less tension and a resonant tone are important. But at the end of the day, they’re simply tools to help build the magic. Here’s another irony: at times magic happens when my students weren’t even aware that it was occurring because they were too much ‘in the zone’ to notice. They had lost themselves to their love of flute playing in that all sense of awkwardness, inhibition and external time disappeared—even if just for a dashing moment. Afterwards, emerging from their artistic spell, they realised what had occurred (“I did that?”; “whaaaaat just happened?”)
How the magic appears if it were a person:
A description of a muse from Danielle La Porte’s Fire Starter Sessions:
Certain conditions are more optimal for some people’s muses than others…the trick is to find out what your muse loves the most and set the stage for her to enter… Muses simply must be adored, they are as grandiose as they are generous. They like to be respected. If you meet them halfway they will give you the moon, the breakthrough concept, the stroke of…genius. She’s busy for sure, but the muse loves it when you actually play with her… Ignore your muse at your own peril. She doesn’t always have it right, or maybe we don’t hear her clearly, but the more you heed her inspired wisdom, the faster you can drive on the Creative Awesomeness Highway. From idea to idea. You and the muse in the diamond lane.
I can attest that I find my own Duende moments are already waiting in the wings to meet me when I actively do something that brings me joy. Last night I was dancing around the living room with a black Labrador to The Caterpillar. Whoosh— after those bongos started a cloud of euphoria hit me. But it was only afterwards that I realised something pretty divine had visited because all sense of worry and time stopped (insert woo-woo alert). A split-second and all had returned back to normal: my dog decided he was tired of being my dance partner, the song moved on, reality resumed. Believe me, this experience had nothing to do with the ‘quality’ of my dancing (always untrained, free-form, living room curtains always closed).
At times, I imagine magic probably paces a bit impatiently wondering when (and if) I’ll turn up because honestly, sometimes I don’t. I tend to look at my relationship with this force as an unspoken agreement that reads something like
“I turn up for what gives me joy. You turn up to give me your sparkle (even momentarily) and everyone stays sane. Got it?”
Of course, like many love relationships sometimes we let each other down. But when we both show at the same time? Oooooh gee, it’s deeeeee—–licious.
So, to answer the question: “how do I get more magic in my playing?”
I think that magic/ the muse/ inspiration simply happens because of you turning up to do the creative work that is yours to do, too.
Find it by doing what you love to create, to make, to do, to give. The thing that lights your fire.
… And just keep on doing more of that so magic will know where to find you next.
I don’t think it’s overly complicated.
How about your own magical musical experiences? What do you think creates the je ne sais quoi in your own playing? Feel free to respond in the comments below.
You might also like these articles:
What I Tell Myself When I Don’t Feel Like Practicing
How to Play Flute From Your Heart + Soul (Here’s 7 Things I Know, For Sure)
With Special thanks to Mystic Mama for the use of the gorgeous pics above.