The following excerpt is the Introduction to Unintentional Music: Releasing Your Deepest Creativity (Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2001)

Strange, discordant sounds came unwanted from my guitar. It was supposed to be a love song. Yet each time I sang a certain verse, my fingers played the wrong notes. I started again, enjoying the harmony of the chords, singing the soft melody, until I came to the same passage and my fingers again refused to play what I had composed. How puzzling. The sound was so weird, so different from the feeling of the rest of the song. I tried once more, this time making the mistake on purpose. My eyes slowly moistened as I realized that this particular line described what life had been like before meeting my beloved. The out-of-tune notes evoked that same longing and emptiness. I decided to include the “mistake,” feeling that the moments of dissonance made the song more poignant.

Whenever we create, just like in other areas of our lives, some things happen that do not go along with our intentions. The unintentional aspects of the music we make – the unwanted note, the cracked voice, the strange croaking sound we try to avoid, the rhythmic problem we cannot erase even after hours of practice – contain more wisdom than we think. The same is true for the unexpected splash of color on the canvas, the ungraceful turn on the dance floor, or the writer’s block that makes us pull out our hair. They are intimations of parts of ourselves, and of our music and art, that lie beyond our awareness. Exploring the unintentional with curiosity and love can help us to tap into the wellsprings of our deepest creativity, and make our music, our art, and ultimately our lives, more authentic, meaningful, and original.

But how can we believe in things we don’t like? Why make music that sounds wrong? Shouldn’t we focus on improving the things we are trying to do and make every effort to make our art the way we want it to be? What could possibly be useful about troublesome interferences?

There is an old Jewish story about a king who had a large diamond that was exceptionally pure. He was very proud of this peerless gem. One day, though, there was an accident and it was deeply scratched. All of the diamond cutters agreed that the imperfection could not be removed no matter how much the stone were polished. But one artist engraved a delicate rosebud around the imperfection, using the deep scratch as the stem of the rose. The diamond became even more beautiful than it had been before the accident.

An old Taoist tale tells of a man who meditated in the mountains. After a few years, an immortal appeared and asked the man what he was doing. He replied, “I am trying to meditate on that mountain, but there is too much fog for me to see it.” The immortal laughed and disappeared. The man went back to his meditation. A few years later the immortal returned and asked the same question. The man replied, “I am meditating on the fog.” At this, the immortal bowed low and said, “You are my teacher.”

These stories illustrate ancient truths. Rather than ignore or try to get rid of the things we don’t like, we can transform them into things of beauty, or shift our focus and realize that they are what we have been seeking all along. Like the alchemists who sought to transform base metal into gold, we too can be enriched by the things we normally consider to be garbage.

This perennial wisdom is at the core of process work, which is a strange and wonderful way of perceiving and interacting with people and the world, developed by Arnold Mindell. Whatever happens unintentionally – what disturbs you or ruins your best plans – can, if followed, turn into a thing of great value and meaning. When something unexpected or disturbing happens, this signals the appearance of Nature, of the Tao, of Spirit, of God. Every culture has its own name for it.

Mindell calls it the dreaming process. The process worker’s job and passion is to find, support, and unfold the dreaming process in all areas of human experience. Originally developed as a form of psychotherapy, process work is now applied to such far-flung spheres as dreams, physical illness, extreme and altered states of consciousness, comatose states, dying and near-death experiences, meditation, relationships, group dynamics, organizational development, and conflict facilitation.

This book shows how to follow your dreaming process as you are actually making music. These methods work equally well with the voice, any instrument, and any style of (written or improvised) music, with professional musicians and people who can’t carry a tune. You’ll see that the same ideas and tools can be used with all kinds of creativity and expression. Such work can be incredibly fun and exciting. It also produces unexpected and powerful effects on both the musician/artist and the music/art itself. The line between self-discovery and creativity blurs as we cross between these two seemingly separate realms and find that they actually complement and enhance one other. The door between these worlds is the unintentional.

I once worked at a seminar with a professional flutist, Sharon, who began by playing a beautiful, meditative, Japanese piece. I was entranced by the loveliness of the music and her full, smooth tone. But I noticed, at times, a breathiness that seemed unintentional. Sharon said that she had often been disturbed by this breathiness, which she could not get rid of, despite years of practice and work on her technique. I asked her to intentionally play even more breathily. When she did, there was more vibrato in her playing, the sound now making the air in the room undulate. As this next unintentional signal was encouraged and Sharon tried to play with more vibrato, she complained that she had to use lots of air. I suggested she use even more air. But then she could only play short phrases, because she ran out of air too quickly. When she did this on purpose, the way she held her mouth got sloppy, and so the tone became very weak.

A few minutes before, Sharon had played beautifully. Now, after following a succession of unintentional signals, she could hardly play at all. At such moments, I tend to wonder whether anything useful can come out of all of this, and sometimes I start to feel sorry for the unfortunate person who volunteered to explore her unintentional music. But then I remember how many times such processes have been transformed, how many roses have grown out of irreparable scratches. I relaxed and continued.

I asked Sharon to allow her mouth to get even sloppier. When she tried to play this way, no tone came out of the flute at all. I thought, there you’ve done it, Lane, you have ruined her playing. But I waited. She said, “I have no voice.” Then she started to cry and said, “I never had a voice.” She told me that no one has ever heard her in her life, that she feels powerless and defenseless. I asked her to play that feeling. A barely audible, sorrowful melody came out of her. A few seminar participants began to cry. Suddenly, in the middle of a note, she stopped. She said a voice in her head had told her to stop. She realized that this voice is the one who always stops her. This is why she has no voice. This is why no one hears her – because she is never allowed to express herself.

Blood surged to Sharon’s cheeks and her eyes opened wide as the effect of this inner voice became clearer to her. She was furious that it had stopped her all her life. I suggested that she pick up her flute again and first play the voiceless one, then the stopper, and finally her reaction to the stopper. This was incredible. At first she played with lots of feeling and almost no tone, the same mournful tune as before. Then came a loud sudden note, followed by silence. Then she began to play frenzied, wild, violent, angry, ecstatic torrents of notes. It was passionate and intricate, resonant and complex. It came out of her like a volcano erupting, like a machine gun, like an ecstatic dance, like the spit that was flying from her lips.

When she stopped, she just stood there for a long time in awe of what she had done. She had never played like that before. She had had no idea that it was possible to play like that. She did not even know all of those emotions were inside of her, much less that she could express them with her flute. She did not know this part of herself or of her music.

Was this music or was it self-discovery? Yes. Unintentional music led Sharon inside herself to places she had never known. And it helped her to play music in ways she had never imagined. Music and personal growth are intertwining lines of a dreaming song.

Music is my passion and the focal point of this book. But everything discussed here can be applied to any creative medium. Actually, you can read the whole book thinking of music as a metaphor for whatever you want to create, or however you want to express yourself. It’s shorthand. Every time I write “unintentional music,” feel free to read unintentional painting or writing or film or dance or whatever your chosen medium is. You can use these same principles all the time, whether speaking in public, talking with friends, making love, planting a garden, decorating your home, or whenever you feel inspired or seek inspiration. Life itself can be your creative project.

This book is meant for musicians and people who are convinced they will never be musical. It is for artists of all kinds and people who think they don’t have a creative bone in their bodies. It is for anyone who longs to express herself more fully and authentically. For that person who has always been told how boring and average she is, whose tiny creative spark just needs a little love and encouragement to turn into a creative flame. For that person who was stopped at an early age from trying new things, who dreams of the courage to experiment. For anyone who has experienced blocked creativity and is looking for ways to tap back into the source of inspiration. For anyone who wants to walk the path of heart, and yearns to open her ears to an inner guide. For music teachers and music students, art teachers and art students. For music therapists, art therapists, speech therapists, and psychotherapists. The many examples I’ve included will give you a taste of the huge variety of ways that unintentional music arises and unfolds. I hope that by reading about other people’s experiences, you will be inspired to explore your own unintentional music.

A strong wind is blowing outside my window. I can’t see the wind itself. But I can see the leaves shaking on the trees, the sheets billowing like sails on the clothesline. In the same way, the dreaming process — though impossible to see directly — affects you and your music in untold ways. If you tap into that mysterious source and learn to follow it, you and your music will never be the same.