In response to COVID-19, the Glasscock School has moved the majority of our upcoming offerings online. Learn more here

'Reveling in the Creative Jungle' - Up Close with Dr. Anthony Brandt

I’ve met a lot of people who’ve said at one time or another they were told that they weren’t creative—to which I reply not possible…Virtually everything that surrounds us was brought into being by human imagination. - Anthony Brandt

Feb 08 , 2019

Anthony Brandt, Ph.D., is a composer and professor of composition and theory at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music. He is co-author with neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman of “The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World,” in which they write: “Few capacities hold as much lifelong value as an active imagination.” Assistant Dean of Community Learning and Engagement Cathy Maris asked Dr. Brandt to share his thoughts on creativity and his upcoming course “Creativity Up Close: Creative Process and Practice.”

Dr. Anthony Brandt and Glasscock School students


1. You’re a composer who teamed up with a neuroscientist to write a book about cultivating creativity. How did you become interested in the topic of creativity?

In 2012, the Houston Arts Partners held its first conference, with the idea of bringing artists and educators together to promote creativity in the classroom. I was originally invited to give a talk about how music could help teach social studies. But I thought, “If I’m going to have the chance to speak to 300-400 principals and administrators, I want to talk how about how all of the arts can help teach the whole curriculum.” That talk was the jumping off point for my interest in creativity. It led to a TEDx talk the following year, and eventually a lunch with David Eagleman, who as both a world-class scientist and novelist has a unique cross-disciplinary perspective; after several hours of discussion, our book project was born. In one interview, David was asked what did success for our book look like, to which he answered, ”More creativity in the classroom.” I completely agree.

2. A few years ago, we collaborated on another continuing studies course called “Creativity 360: The Art, Science and Practice of Creativity.” I was struck by the diversity of people who enrolled—artists, writers, scientists, attorneys, businesspeople, medical professionals, retirees and others. Almost all said they were seeking more creativity in their lives. Why do you think creativity has such wide appeal?

Caring for one’s family, helping a person in need—and creating something are among the most deeply fulfilling activities a human being can do. That’s not bounded by age or background or discipline.

3. What are some common misperceptions about creativity?

That it’s a gift, a luxury, or a privilege for the select few. I also think it’s a misperception that creativity can’t be taught.

My parents...never ready-made playthings...It taught me that, if I loved something, the natural response was to make it myself.
- Anthony Brandt

4. You argue that “to innovate is human” and that creativity emerges from “bending, breaking and blending” the creative raw material of our lives. Can you share an example of an approach someone can use to deepen their creativity?

I’d like to give a shout-out to my parents. They never bought my sister and me ready-made playthings, instead only giving us construction toys. Anything we wanted we had to build: I remember turning my room into a museum with various exhibits and charging my parents money to visit. And we weren’t allowed to buy greeting cards, but had to make them ourselves. It taught me that, if I loved something, the natural response was to make it myself: so not long after I started taking violin lessons, I started writing music (I came across some of those early scores—very embarrassing!). So I think the best route to deepening one’s creativity is to find things one loves—because that’s where the greatest motivation lies—and then bringing it to life oneself.

5. While strategies to foster creativity may be broadly relevant, a person’s creative practice can also be deeply personal. Do you have any unique creative habits that you turn to when composing music?

Let me answer this question a little indirectly. Sometimes a student will come to a composition lesson and say he or she is stuck. And one of my first questions is: are your sketches and your final copy the same? In other words, in order to try out a passage a different way, do you have to erase what you’ve already written? The answer is very often “Yes.” That’s a real impediment to creativity: if you have to destroy what you’ve done before, you’ll be much more reluctant to test alternatives. The solution is to have lots of paper and save every draft. I compose at the computer: so if I change even one note, I’ll save it as a different file. Knowing that I can recuperate any former draft gives me free rein to keep working the material.

6. How do you hope this course will affect those who take part?

First and foremost, I’d like everyone to leave with a better understanding of the creative thinking that is going on in their brains all the time. As I’ve travelled around, I’ve met a lot of people who’ve said at one time or another they were told that they weren’t creative—to which I reply, “Not possible.”  We know of nothing created by nature or humans more inventive than the three-pound mass we carry around in our skulls: we may express it in different ways, and have different things that motivate us, but creativity is a defining feature of our humanity. I’d also like the class participants to enjoy stepping out in the world and reveling in the fact that our habitat is a creative jungle: in an urban environment like Houston, virtually everything that surrounds us was brought into being by human imagination.  

Learn more and register for the Creativity Up Close: Creative Process and Practice course, which starts Tuesday, February 19th. Dr. Brandt is also hosting two public lectures with other nationally-renowned creativity experts at the Moody Center for the Arts, in conjunction with this course.