by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on December 29, 2005.
"I have no gifts to bring..." Never before had I so strongly felt the beat of the little drummer boy. A poor child, with nothing but his simple, dinged-up instrument, has to compete with the mysterious Magi from the East who lay out their finest gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. He probably doesn't even know what "myrrh" is.
And so there's Mary under the bright stars, with her newborn baby, surrounded by the stately and wealthy Magi and some shepherds, and all eyes turn to the little boy. So, what did you bring?
Uh, deep breath. "Sh-shall I play for you?" The kid looks like he may keel over from nervousness, but he's got guts. One of the Magi puts a comforting hand on his shoulder. Mary nods. And he plays his very best. And the little one smiles, at him and his drum.
The funny thing is that the version of the song that got to me (no, really, that was just an eyelash) didn't even involve a drum. It involved an ex-drummer, Mark Megibow. Now he performs percussion vocally with the Boulder a cappella group Face.
But saying that Face is an "a cappella group" is sort of like saying Jimi Hendrix is a "guitar player." It's true, but it doesn't really get the point across. Face rocks. So put out of your head the stereotypes about vocal groups. "Edge and attitude," faceonline.biz claims with understatement, "an all-vocal rock band." They cover everything from Journey to Men Without Hats to the Pink Panther theme. I saw them early this month, so they mellowed their usual lineup with some sweet Christmas songs.
They obviously love doing it, and they're really good at it. So what sparks this creativity? What drives them to spend so much time and energy practicing and arranging music, traveling and performing? Why does the little drummer boy drum?
A lot of people continue to think of creativity as something you're either born with or not, or else something that just mysteriously strikes some people. But, reading the bios at Face's web page, it's obvious these guys have worked very hard for a long time to create such music.
Sure, some people are naturally more talented in some areas than in others. But the key is the development. Some years ago I had the good fortune to meet Michael Newberry, who has painted some extraordinary works. He told Navigator, "In college I discovered that I could paint, draw, and sculpt easily." But something becomes easier if you do it all the time. Newberry said he "needed to master essential attributes of painting, such as human anatomy, composition... color harmony, form, and spatial depth." Newberry, who endured years of poverty, added, "if your passion to create outweighs your obstacles, you've arrived as a 'real' artist."
This creative spirit is not unique among artists. Thomas Edison created a thing or two, and he said, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Andrew Bernstein, the creator of The Capitalist Manifesto, who visited here some weeks ago, discusses Edison's inventions. In addition to the quadruplex telegraph, Edison invented the "phonograph (1877), the incandescent light (1879), the electric power plant (1882), the motion picture camera (1893), the storage battery (1909) and numerous other devices."
Bernstein writes that creativity is all about the application of the mind: "By what means did George Washington Carver revolutionize agricultural science? How did John Roebling improve the design of suspension bridges and create his masterpiece, the Brooklyn Bridge? What instrument did George Eastman employ to utterly transform the field of photography? In all of these cases and in many others the answer is: the reasoning mind. The great achievements of science, technology, industry, as well as those of philosophy, literature and the arts, that uplift men and carry them from the caves to the skyscrapers, are the products of genius, of superlative thinking, of rationality."
Generally, I'm against resolutions for the new year. Why wait? But it's as good a time as any for reflection. A lot of people seem to be stuck with the idea that values are something we "have to" create at work, and then we go home to have "fun," which means to watch television or find some other diversion. I stick myself in that rut too often; I procrastinate and find ways to waste my time and avoid doing good works. Of course, rest and relaxation are essential to a value-rich life, but rest and relaxation should complement creativity, not stifle it.
So the lesson of all these creative people is that the pursuit of values is hard work, but rewarding work. And it's totally within your control. Whether you mindlessly watch television or passionately pursue your goals is entirely up to you. Of course, creative work requires the development of good character and habits.
By the way, the remaining founder of Face, Ben Lunstad, Ph.D., is also a biochemist with a local firm (apparently his co-workers have adjusted to his vocal experimentations), and his wife just had a baby. Though I've talked with him only briefly, he has all the signs of somebody who knows what's valuable in his life and who pursues those things with vigor. Scientist, musician, proud father: he's playing his best.