Becoming Creative: Insights from Musicians in a Diverse World, by Juniper Hill

September 20, 2019

Becoming Creative book coverBecoming Creative: Insights from Musicians in a Diverse World. Juniper Hill. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 280 pp. 17 b&w images. ISBN: 9780199365173 (hardcover), 9780199365180 (paperback). $99.00 (hardcover), $27.95 (paperback).

Ethnomusicologist Juniper Hill begins Becoming Creative: Insights from Musicians in a Diverse World with a quote from Finnish musician Jouko Kyhälä about “an internal imperative” of creativity: “humankind stops and degenerates if we do not have creativity in everyone” (1). However, there are barriers to development, realization, acceptance, and execution of creativity, and the reasons for and manifestations of these barriers can vary across time, demographics, and cultures (2). While Hill’s approach can be applied to any activity that involves creativity, the text focuses on musical creativity (3).

Hill recognizes her motivation for using her ethnomusicological training in conjunction with sociological theory to discover via “a thematic analysis … [the] six components that together comprise a cross-cultural experiential model of musical creativity”: generativity, agency, interaction, nonconformity, recycling, and flow (2, 3-4). To achieve this goal, Hill conducts semi-structured interviews with amateur and professional musicians alike at geographic sites with which she has linguistic and professional connections—Cape Town, South Africa; Los Angeles, California; and Helsinki, Finland—thus “facilitat[ing] cultural immersion and access to networks” (21). She thereby situates her own loci of creativity by showcasing her musical lineage. Within each location, she examines aspects of creativity in the genres of classical, folk, and jazz, noting the variations in each type, e.g., “Xhosan/pan-African neotraditional music cultures” in Cape Town, “old-timey folk” in Los Angeles, and “Finnish contemporary folk” in Helsinki (23); Hill also remarks upon the similarities of the latter styles, including authenticity, participatory aspects, and oral transmission (26). Hill reviews in detail the effects of cultural mores on the presentation, development, and omnipresence of musical creativity. While the locations and musical styles vary, the majority of the interviews with artists begin with two questions: “What does creativity mean to you?” and “When do you feel most creative?” (3)

Following her introduction, Hill devotes one chapter each to “Developing Creativity-Enabling Skills”; “Developing Psychological Enablers and Inhibitors of Creativity”; “Accessing the Opportunity, Permission, and Authority to be Creative”; and “Overcoming Inhibitors of Creativity.” In “Developing Creativity-Enabling Skills,” Hill addresses the role of ear training and the development and mastery of technique, while debating whether skills or improvisation should be taught first; she quotes numerous collaborators who state that being forced to master reading music and executing specific techniques can impede one’s confidence in one’s ability to improvise. (The subtitle of the chapter is “Correct Technique as Conformativity or Toolbox.”) Writing on pathways to musical knowledge, Hill declares that while technical mastery is often the initial focus in the study of classical music, with its “staticizing effects of notation” (53), by contrast in the study of folk music the focus is often on the overall sound or theme, given the latter’s frequent connection to oral transmission. However, she cites Finnish pianist Kristiina Junttu’s realization that identifying “cells of [Liszt’s] music” facilitates improvisations based upon his style (55). This chapter encourages one to reflect on one’s own training and to frame how one plans to teach (or to reframe one’s own pedagogy).

Throughout the text, Hill relays anecdotes of her own musical journey and her experiences with creativity. The greatest strength of the book lies in Hill’s ability to cause the reader to consider what barriers they may have faced, be they socioeconomic, educational, personal, etc. While intended for a music-centered audience, the text would be well suited for workshops on skill assessment and self-reflection. Hill raises thought-provoking questions: does the introduction of technique ahead of improvisational skills affect one’s ability to interpret music? Hill asks the reader to consider the roles of socioeconomic status, creative support, access to and acceptance of performance-related practices: Who encourages creativity? Who supports it? Who suppresses it?

In her chapter on “Developing Psychological Enablers and Inhibitors of Creativity,” Hill delves into “confessions of personal insecurities and fears… psychological factors… psychological inhibitors… [and] anxiety” (67) as they relate to “musical validation” (88). She questions who is seen within a particular society as being allowed to be creative and how this varies both within and across cultures and beliefs. The effects of a single negative audition or performance on one’s self-assessment of creativity can be profound and limiting with respect to future creative development. Hill cites multiple artists who share strong memories of formative musical experiences, and she juxtaposes these recollections with the view commonly held in many black South African cultures that “musical and creative potential, especially for singing, improvised vocal harmonization, and songwriting” are universals (74). Hill (75) cites Blacking’s finding (1986) that participation in South African culture is expected from everyone, rather than limited to a certain population. Hill’s interview with Angeleno violinist Camille (artist pseudonyms are frequently used in the text) raises the important question “For whom do we perform?” (89). Another excerpt with a Helsinkian classical musician calls into question how the audience’s knowledge of a piece can affect performance (107). Locating one’s internal and external motivations, e.g., “getting things right for the certificate” (97), is an unexpected self-awareness exercise built into the text.

In her text, Hill seems to exhibit a slight bias in favor of folk music, presenting more stringent analyses of classical music performance practice. It is at times disruptive the way inset interview excerpts, however valuable, deter from the main narrative. Excerpts are placed in gray boxes that visually disrupt the flow of the text; these snippets are sometimes as long as one or two pages. Such long passages can take away from the comparative nature of the book. 

The appeal of this book lies in Hill’s aiding readers to become more aware of their own creative processes. The book is useful for a variety of purposes, such as for music psychology courses, music education, pedagogical work, for a music retreat, or for reflection journals.



Blacking, John. 1986. “Ethnomusicological Fieldwork, Performance Theory, and Problems of Historical Evidence.” In Ethnomusicology and the Historical Dimension: Papers Presented at the European Seminar in Ethnomusicology, London, May 20-23, 1986, edited by Margot Lieth Philipp, 127-28. Ludwigburg, Germany: Philipp.

1499 Last modified on April 15, 2020