Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

The 55 Bar - Thursday, July 25, 2019

A Noise From The Deep: A Greenleaf Music Podcast with Dave Douglas

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Creative Box Principle: The Possibilities within Restraint

The Creative Box Principle is the belief that thinking inside the box spawns more creative ideas than thinking outside of one. The idea is that having limitations, or a very measured parameter through which to create,  prevents us from arriving at typical outcomes. This goes against the grain of what we are commonly taught. Most believe that freedom and inhibition are the active agents generating creative fluidity. In many cases, this is not true.

Whenever I ask students, or even professionals for that matter, who typically plays more traditional forms of jazz, to all of the sudden to start playing free, their improvisation usually becomes more restrictive, not free flowing. I’ve heard many give up mid-solo, exclaiming that they don’t know what to play. The endless possibilities become too much to negotiate. They would feel much freer being directed in which time signature to play in, which chords to play on, and which form to follow. And think about the writers who sit down to write that 300-page New York Times best-seller only to end up with writer's block. However, I’ve never heard anyone getting writer's block from composing a tweet. In fact, only having 140 characters to work with, many find that they now have too many ideas. And this goes back to my theory that people think more creatively and divergently when forced to create inside of a box.

It has been said that what made many of Miles Davis's groups unique and original sounding, wasn’t so much what they played, but what they didn’t play. And this is the best-kept secret among most great artists. Their originality and seemingly endless flow of new and under-explored emerge from limitations, not freedom. Take the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollack. Many see him as the embodiment of unrestraint. Not true. Pollack’s work is filled with restraint. He restrained himself from using conventional shapes and colors. He restrained himself from applying paint to the canvas using conventional methods. And typically restrained he from painting onto a canvas sitting upright onto an easel.

Now you can begin to see my point of how creating within a box forces us to be even more creative.

Me making the conscious decision to only play the soprano saxophone is another prime example. For me, much of the tenor and alto saxophone vocabulary I had acquired did not translate over smoothly to the soprano. Consequently, I had to go deeper into the sonic sphere at hand. Because of my lower range limitations, I was forced to extend my upper range. Because of the few number of soprano players in jazz at the time, I was forced to seek out improvisatory styles in non-jazz genres, played on instruments with a similar timbre likeness. I could list numerous examples, and they all would prove my point that I was not thinking outside of the box, but inside of one. My box was to play the soprano exclusively. 

I spoke earlier of players who have trouble playing free music because they are unable to negotiate the innumerable possibilities. My advice to them is usually to apply the creative box principle.  And stress that they should not see free playing as a sea of endless possibilities, but a small lagoon from which they can negotiate a limited set of ideas effortlessly. One might even call it the Twitter method. Limiting themselves to the metaphorical 140 characters would often leave their creative appetites hungry for more. Many of the greatest free players had this. Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, and Albert Ayler,  all improvised in the free context with great clarity. It was pretty apparent that they were not creating in the metaphorical vastness of the sea. Their solos are often melodic, musical, and easy to follow—beautiful lagoons if you will.

I will continue to write about this because it's an interesting perspective that I feel warrants much deeper exploration. But in closing, I'd like to stress that when applying the creative box principle as a means to unconventional outcomes, you have to remember to be patient. It sort of like when you walk into a dark room, you have to give your senses a chance to adapt to the lack thereof.


  1. It is very much connected with the information overload. Because if you limit yourself to 140 character as Twitter does, you don't need to go into a lot of depth and no one expects that from you. However, if you want to be creative and have no limits, things can get quite complicated and most people give up in the process. It makes sense to me at least.

  2. Hi Melissa - Thanks for reaching out. And I agree that easy access and information overload does stifle us. Which is why it's even more imperative that we set boundaries for ourselves. It's like the saying: "If you want to get something done, ask someone who's really busy." These are the people who who have limited time, so they tend to use it prudently. But I appreciate your thoughts. Keep them coming!


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