Creativity Series: Marian Dolan

Photo: “Creative Stillness”

My friend Marian Dolan, a choir conductor living in Naples, Florida, USA, was the first person I asked about creativity.

It all started a long time ago, when I felt surprised to hear people around me saying they were not creative. This always left me wondering about how different people define creativity.

It was a few weeks ago that I saw the value in asking – and sharing – different views of creativity. And so I started asking around me: how do you define creativity? It’s a simple question, but not an easy one.

Every Monday, I will share with you my friends’ replies to this question. Would you like to share your view, too? Let me know by mail or in the comments below.

Let’s start this series with a beautiful poem written by Marian herself, and then some insights she kindly shares with us.

Thank you Marian!

To be creative is to tell a story.
To tell a story takes courage,
to step into one’s own vulnerability,
to let go of external approval or validation,
and to tell the story with one’s whole heart and ‘voice.’
Because it matters…
the story matters,
and my telling of it matters.
It’s also about compassion…
for the story,
for what it ‘tells,’
for myself,
and for those who might ‘listen.’
Because the *process* of crafting that story into words, sounds, images, motions… matters.
(~@2013, marian dolan)

Thank you, Ana, for inviting me to share about my ‘creativity.’ I’m a choral conductor, so my creativity is collaborative. It includes singers, composers, and poets. Truth be told, my singers and I are storytellers. The stories are in the scores and also in the  concerts we sing. We *re*create the story of the poet’s text as expressed through the composer’s music. Whether 20 singers or 120, we have to courageously and accurately re-present the ‘voice’ of the score’s pitches, rhythms, dynamics (loud/soft), balance between the voices, clarity of the text, ‘colors’ of the sounds, etc.

Risky? yes. Vulnerable? certainly! But the journey of the composer to write that score also involved creative risks.

For example, American composer Abbie Betinis’ “Be Like the Bird,” is a beautiful setting of a Victor Hugo text: “Be like the bird that, pausing in her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her – and sings – knowing she hath wings.” This beautiful text of hope and courage in the face of uncertainty actually embodies a number of very real stories: Abbie’s own journeys with cancer treatments, the discovery of her grandfather’s connection to this text, and her cousin’s work with a young women’s empowerment program. A composer’s process of crafting the ‘voice‘ of a score – even a single melody like that in ‘Bird‘ – involves great vulnerability to birth these stories into sound, and subsequently for us to become Abbie’s ‘voice‘ to re-tell her score’s ‘song-story.’

There is also another aspect of ‘creativity’ for choral conductors: writing a concert. We become the ‘composers’ of a larger story: weaving together 70-80 minutes of music to create a ‘journey’ for the listeners. A choral concert can entertain or enlighten, it can present an historic overview of musical styles, or perhaps deliver a tapas of international sounds. But there is also another type of choral concert – a ‘story-concert’ – in which the sung and spoken texts, visual images, and/or dance embody a powerful human story, experience, or event for the listeners. I deeply love the creative challenge of writing a concert, and am especially passionate about writing ones that tell a sensitive story with compassion and understanding: the ‘Voices of Courage’ from 9-11, the ‘Voices of Hope’ honoring International Holocaust Remembrance Day, or the ‘Finding a Voice’ concert which embodied the courageous journey of domestic violence survivors. Such concerts risk asking the listener “what does hope sound like? …despair? tenderness? fear? light in darkness?” Writing such concerts means finding the courage to step into my own creative vulnerability at so many levels, yet always with the knowledge that these ‘story concerts’ are exceptionally transformative experiences for the listeners and therefore for our community.

In the 21st century, the arts are more than an entertainment experience – the arts are a ‘voice’ of transformation. When we dare to step into our arts languages – singing, dancing, photography, video/film, theater – we step into giving ‘voice’ to deeply human issues that cry out for transformative social change. This is, to me, one of the most powerfully ‘creative’ aspects of the arts, including my field of choral music. The arts are not only about ‘producing’ a concert/performance/exhibit. The arts are about ‘process’ – about the journey of stepping into a very human situation and embodying it in that art-language, thereby inviting transformation.

An artist who truly embodies this is Shawn Lent, a dancer and Fulbright scholar currently residing in Cairo, Egypt. In a recent blog posting, subsequently picked up by Huffington Post, Shawn explains how an artist’s ‘voice’ is not just expressed in art but in all layers of human life, onstage and off:

“I am dancing, with and for others. I am and will always be a dancer. I take that with me, in the ways I think, develop ideas, collaborate, move… I am an artist who had decided to join tables off the professional stage.
When it comes to diplomacy,
an artist needs to be at the table.

When it comes to the Board of Directors or a School Board,
an artist needs to be at the table.

When it comes to sustainability policy,
an artist needs to be at the table.

When it comes to facing death,
an artist needs to be at the table…

I read and join projects relating not to Broadway but to cancer, death, green cemeteries, cultural diplomacy, religion, genocide, geography, databases, divided communities (from Belfast to Bosnia)… The artistic contribution to these areas can be revolutionary. And I am writing from Cairo, Egypt, so I do not use that word lightly. The dream is huge.” 

[Read Shawn Lent’s blog post here]

Amen, Shawn. ‘Creative’ artists have transformative voices. Stepping into that ‘voice’ to tell a human story takes vulnerability, courage and a passion for the process. May we all be inspired thereby to find our artistic ‘voices’ and be agents of change and healing in our communities.


Thank you, Marian!

Marian Dolan is a choir conductor living in Naples, Florida, US. Marian and I met through a discussion about our experiences in academia and soon after were exchanging music (her recommendations are fantastic!) and musing about creativity.

You can find out more about Marian on her Choir Project’s Facebook page, visit her bio page.

Listen to Marian conduct Fauré’s “Cantique”McClure’s “Kyrie” and “Motherless Child”.

This was the first post on my Creativity Series project, where I ask friends, on and offline, how they define creativity. Would you like to receive these posts in your inbox? Sign up for email updates. And let me know if you want to participate!