Some artists excel at multi-tasking. Some simply strive to broaden their artistic horizons. Others do both. Consider Peter Himmelman among the latter. A critically acclaimed singer and songwriter whose fan following includes listeners drawn to his uniquely literate blend of rock and pop, as well as the ever-burgeoning children’s market, his work has gained national notice courtesy of kudos from USA Today (“One of Rock’s most wildly imaginative performers”) and Time magazine (“songs written with the same emphatic edge and aesthetic urgency that impelled the Lost Generation to write songs”).
The winner of six ASCAP film and television awards, six consecutive Parent’s Choice Gold Awards, and the NAAPA Album Of The Year, he boasts a catalog of sixteen albums and a resume that includes credits for several films and television shows. Add to that a Grammy nomination and an Emmy nod (for the score he composed for the series “Judging Amy”) and Himmelman’s resume has ample ammo to affirm his far flung talents.
Even with these accomplishments, which also include his one-time cable program “Peter Himmelman’s Furious World” and an exceptional collection of original art which he sells online at his website www.peterhimmelman.com, the ever-restless auteur has another new project to tout these days, one far removed from his usual artistic ambitions. Labeled Big Muse, it’s described as “a method that’s used by every kind of organization to increase innovative thinking, team building and leadership ability. Its main metaphor for teaching these skills is songwriting.” Designed for those who wish to simulate their dormant creativity and expand their own personal parameters, Himmelman brings his seminars to companies and organizations seeking new and creative ways to foster their employees’ abilities to excel in any number of work related arenas. By setting specific time limits and applying the basic rules of song structure, the seminars create the means for bolstering problem-solving possibilities, improving communication skills and unlocking leadership potential.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Peter regarding the theory behind his Big Muse concept and his plans to expand it into other formats.
How did you get the idea for Big Muse?
In some ways this whole “new” reinvention had been in the works for quite a while. It’s basically an amalgam of things and ideas I’d been developing for several years. The actual genesis of Big Muse goes back about fifteen years, when I was asked by the people who run the Telluride Folk Festival if I might be interested in being an instructor at their songwriting school in Lyons, Colorado. The idea of teaching songwriting was not something I’d really thought much about, but since the song school was pretty much in the middle of the woods, near a rushing mountain stream, it sounded like a good idea.
I came to the class unprepared – at least in the sense that I didn’t have any PowerPoint materials or flow charts or even a syllabus. I had some broad ideas about my own process and I figured I’d rely on the universality of those ideas. One of the things I discovered right away was that most of the students — who ranged from rank amateurs to real professionals — were especially challenged when it came to finishing their songs. It seemed as if everyone was walking around with these bits and pieces, spare parts for songs that might gestate — or languish — forever. Actually making a complete, cogent statement was the difficulty for many of them. The fact is, it’s that way for me too, connecting all the bits and pieces. And so I began to share my ideas for overcoming what I consider to be the protestations of the internal critic, which I later gave the name Marv. I think of Marv as the guy in our heads that’s always telling us to slow down, that our ideas are no good and that somehow, by pursuing them, we’ll get ourselves in serious trouble. I believe that Marv, which from a neuroscience point of view, is part of the primitive or limbic brain, is not something we want to fight, but rather, something we want to pacify, and make feel comfortable. He’s there after all to save our lives. He’s the one who pulls the adrenaline lever when a ferocious tiger’s coming to get us. The problem is, we rarely need the protection Marv affords us.
I created all these exercises that, while relating to songwriting, could actually be used for any kind of creative endeavor. One of them, which is currently a foundational metaphor for the Big Muse work I do for brands ands corporations, is to have people write a finished song in a short time frame – say, 15 or twenty minutes. The idea isn’t to write a masterpiece — although many people who’ve gone through the experience have written what they tell me are some of the greatest songs of their lives — but to simply finish and deliver.
Several years later I started reading some books on the subject of creativity, in particular a book titled “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink, and I sort of saw myself in his pages. While reading I thought, ‘I’ll bet I could take this idea, this metaphor, to all sorts of places’ and after quite a long and arduous process of finding my way, I began doing this work for major brands like Gap and McDonalds as well as pro bono work for hospitals and the Wounded Warriors project.
How does it differ from other self-help type of seminars?
I’m not sure I’d categorize it as “self help,” any more than I’d consider that a great film or song might be inspiring in some way or help us look at life from a new perspective. To me, Big Muse is a method that gives our fear — Marv — the confidence to leave us alone. Once the imposition of our fears is reduced, we have access to the wellsprings of creativity, which surrounds us naturally like air or gravity.
What sort of fulfillment has it brought you? Have you seen the tangible results in others?
The medicine that it releases is strong. I’ve always been pretty good at making my ideas manifest, but the reduction of fear — and believe me, I test it out on myself daily — has allowed me to do things over the past year that I could only have dreamed about. They include a book, a television pilot, a new record album and, most importantly, a depth of communication in my personal relationships that I hadn’t believed possible. As far as others, the list of testimonials from corporate clients is extensive.
One letter I got from Robert Harley Miller, the facilitator of the Wounded Warriors group I worked with recently, is particularly meaningful to me. These are soldiers who were all gravely injured in Iraq and came with their families — all of whom are in pretty bad shape from dealing with the injuries themselves, the sense of loss, post traumatic stress syndrome, you name it — to heal. He wrote, “Wow, what a fantastic sendoff you gave our warriors! We know that there will be life-changing results in all their lives thanks to you and your team. We can’t begin to tell you how much your program meant to the success of our Ski Week. We’re sure your Dad would be very proud of what you have done for our most heroic and suffering veterans. We, too, are very appreciative.”
How did you discover that you were capable of imparting this information? Was it an outgrowth of your own creative abilities? Did you have training in this arena?
This work is something that I’ve been doing in effect for years. Being up on stage and allowing myself the opportunity and challenge of being completely spontaneous – for better or worse — has given me the ability to read people and the freedom to create in the moment. I’ve done shows where 75% of what I was doing up there was completely improvised. Since I’ve gotten older, and maybe it’s because I’ve got kids, I just find myself in a place where I get a lot of joy out of facilitating the creative work of other people. And by “creative,” I don’t necessarily mean art and music. I’m referring to a general deepening of communication, say with a parent and child or a husband and wife. Art and music are essentially just means of communication, reaching out and bridging the existential gap between ourselves and the “other.”
What has the reaction been from the corporate world?
Michael Perman of Gap wrote me the following letter: “During our recent Creativity Symposium at the Gap Inc., headquarters Peter Himmelman’s Big Muse was rated 4.7 on a scale of 1-5, 5 being “amazing.” Workshop participants’ comments included ‘SO entertaining and inspiring.’ ‘Loved, loved him! So inspirational.’ ‘Blown away.’ ‘Genuine, gifted, inspirational.’ ‘He challenged me to do something I never thought I could do.’ ‘Impacted my entire day…loved every moment of the presentation!’ ‘Wow- he was incredible! Great way to get creativity flowing from the beginning!’
Tim Westergren, Founder of Pandora radio, said: “Peter is a rare breed: talented, successful and very generous. These workshops are educational, entertaining and inspiring. Mentors like him hold the keys.”
Alan Tecktiel, the Senior Director of HR Client Solutions at McDonalds Corporation told me, “I felt actual exhilaration from the folks I’ve run into after your seminar. Exhilaration is a word I never use to describe anything that happens in the corporate setting so that is damn impressive.”
Emily Fowler, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Prize Development at X Prize, said, “It’s one of the most amazing experiences that you’ll ever have.”
John Bernstein, Vice President of Business Development at Superior Staffing Inc. wrote, “The real deal who will help your company not only think differently but perform with new energy, focus.” And there are plenty more testimonials where those came from.
How often are you out conducting these seminars?
I try to do four or five of these a month.
How is this transitioning to print and television? Why do you think it has the potential to be successful through these other mediums?
I’m in the process of writing a book and a television show, both of which are about giving people the tools to make their dreams manifest. We are also investing in creating an online version of Big Muse called Big Muse U, where people can access this information anywhere. I’ve reached out to a network of all sorts of creative folks — writers, actors, thinkers who’ve expressed interest in being a part of this endeavor.
What was the personal motivation for doing this?
About three years ago, with three kids in private colleges and the music business in “transition” it became imperative that I do something to re-imagine myself, rebrand myself if you will.
There are no jobs openings that come with the things I’m looking for — being highly creative, a schedule allows me to be in control, something that’s highly lucrative, the opportunity to work with people, freedom for tremendous growth, uses of the skill-sets I’ve developed over the past thirty years, something that’s tremendously exciting and rewarding… In that sense, I had to create something for myself. It was this personal reinvention that went along with my talking and writing about reinvention that made me, in essence, the guinea pig of my own methodology.
And, there’s a certain dramatic tension to it all. My particular Meyers Briggs psychological profile tells me something I already knew: I succeed best when there’s a high chance of failure.