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Creative Career Path

Improvisation on a Harp Guitar2010.10.25

    When you meet someone who has travelled a creative career path, you find that they are like no one else because of why they took that path, and what they learned along the way. Tim Donahue has been on a creative career path for over 25 years, as a Canadian musician living in Japan, who plays, designs, and makes his own harp guitars.


    Tim is an artist with a remarkable and original career performing internationally live and on television, recording for the EMI label, designing and building his own harp guitars, generously educating others, and constantly pushing the creative envelope through collaboration and improvisation. A harp guitar is a guitar with additional unstopped strings, which can be plucked with both hands, on the neck and on the free standing strings, and it is truly a stairway to heaven.


    Having attended several of Tim's concerts and clinics, I interviewed Tim to learn more about the creative process. We became fast friends on the same creative wavelength. I've drawn a number of lessons from this remarkable artist, which are relevant for anyone in a creative endeavor.


    Share your work with the world


    Tim often shares with his audience the stories and creative process behind the music. The combination of clinic and concert is a valuable learning experience for those in his audience who are guitar players themselves, including professional musicians. For people who may not be as familiar with the music or the instrument, it is still a fascinating journey to a new world, and a new way of listening to music.


    Tim is equally at home on stage before 10,000 people when he performed with Joe Satriani in 2008 at the International Guitar Festival in New Zealand, as when he performs for his students in a small college music hall. He plays with all kinds of musicians, not just guitar players. In 2009 he launched a new collaboration called ECLIPSE, with Akira Yamazaki on drums, and there is magic in this guitar and percussion ensemble.


    Create with your head, heart, and hands


    Tim is also an inventor and a designer. He builds his own instruments, one of which he has been performing with for 25 years. He has also been making bicycles all his life. At the age of 14 he envisioned a hip low-riding 3-wheel bicycle, which he later built, blending high-performance and ergonomic design.


    Tim says that creativity is about, “Blending the artist and the engineer. They all come from the same place, and to me feel very much the same.” Creative people easily cross over different disciplines. Leonardo DaVinci said study the science of art and the art of science.


    The muse is in the moment


    I asked Tim what is the key to improvisation? “Improvisation is not a how. It is a feeling that you catch at the moment. It is as if the music is going by on a creative conveyor belt, and you have to catch it as it goes by.”


    Of course you need a foundation of technique and theory in your discipline. You can’t improvise in a foreign language if you don’t speak it. But these alone will not enable you to improvise.


    He teaches a class in Jazz Improvisation to beginners at Kunitachi Music Academy. It is not a technical or theoretical class. You don’t even need to read music to participate.


    Tim says that improvisation is like conversation, it is never rehearsed. He will limit the students to a few notes, and then start adding rhythm and melody. Many people think that improvisation is on a higher plane. They freeze up when they pick up their instrument, and lose their ability to go with the flow. So for first half of the class, they don’t even touch the instrument. He plays a rhythm track and they have a rap conversation with rhythm, and really get into it. It always goes overtime.


    Value the venue and the total experience


    “The venue, the place where you perform changes everything,” says Tim, who has performed on big stages, in art galleries, in a forest, on an island, even in a Planetarium in Hakone. “You are not going to play heavy metal, because the space calls for more ethereal music.” The acoustics are unique in each situation, and he writes music each time to fit the venue.


    Moreover, Tim is a synaesthete, that is he sees colors when he hears music, and has since he was a child. And the colors are consistently coded to the notes. We can only guess what color the chords are, but the effect is quite pleasing.


    Reach out to new audiences


    For many years it was always the record company taking the lead, and Tim has done lots of recording. Now he wants to play more live performances, which he has done in many countries, as well as in Japan where he lives.


    I asked Tim what advice he had for people on a creative career path. “You can’t find your path by watching TV. Don’t waste time, life is short, so make the best of the time you have.

    If you don’t know what your calling is, so just try as many things as you can. If you are worried about security and want to take a more conventional path, that is fine too. But if creative neglect bothers you, don’t let those years go by.”


    You can watch an excerpt on YouTube of Tim playing Norwegian Wood on the Harp Guitar he performed some years ago on NHK at


    Tim has given me permission to share excerpts from a video I took at a recent concert and clinic he did on the Harp Guitar at the Kunitachi Music Academy, which you can watch at


    William Reed


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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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