Today we speak with Kenny Thames, a pianist, composer, music teacher, author and speaker who lives in Phoenix. I’ve interviewed Kenny several times as part of my work as managing editor (and later freelance contributor) for Echo Magazine in the Valley of the Sun. I knew from that connection that Kenny’s always working on something creative, and that he has been able to make a living doing what he loves for nearly two decades!
Kenny offers some good advice about timing, calming one’s mind to create, and living in the moment as an artist. Enjoy!
Tell us about your creative pursuits, paid and unpaid.
I have been fortunate to earn my income from my music, on a full time basis, for the past 20 years. Though I have always been involved in music, my first career did not allow the time to engage in musical pursuits.
I became music director for my father’s church at the age of 17. I wrote my first cantata and my first song at that time. I have written almost 100 songs – from gospel, jazz, country to children’s songs.
In 1990, one of my children’s songs, “God Loves Ugly” won first prize in a Rambo Music songwriting contest. I released the song, along with a coloring book, in 1992. In 1993, I made a decision to earn my income solely from music. It has required a lot of discipline and a change of lifestyle, but the rewards have been tremendous.
In 2008, I wrote a play which I have produced in Phoenix several times called “Kleo the Kat.” I am currently working on releasing it for publication, and re-writing it as a children’s book. In 2010, I released an audio-biography of my life, “Lona’s Son.” I perform throughout the state in country clubs, resorts, and casinos. I have recorded 5 CDs.
I am currently music director of Unity Spiritual Center in Sun City, Ariz. I also teach out of my home/studio in central Phoenix, and have helped more than 500 people to realize their dream of playing piano/organ.
Do you have any formal training in your creative discipline(s)? Do you feel training is important in creative development? Why/why not?
I studied private piano for 16 years. At the age of 13, my parents enrolled me in the Stamps School of Gospel Music in Dallas, Texas, for two consecutive summer semesters. I continued my studies in theory, performance, and composition at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College and Florrisant College of Music in Florissant, Mo.
To me, training is an ongoing process. There are so many facets of music, from writing and performing to the business of music. Knowledge increases the creative development. However, in music, I think it is essential to gain knowledge, yet not lose the individuality of the artist in the process.
What habits do you cultivate to facilitate your creative “flow”?
Meditation and “quiet” time are essential for me. I must be silent to hear the voice of the musician within. When I am centered and focused, the creativity flows through me, most often to my surprise. I do not attempt to force a “project”, but have learned to wait until the work comes through my mind and fingers. I determined many years ago to give myself the same energy and time I would give an employer. I do not turn television on during my work time at home. During my music time, my home becomes my studio/office. When I am done, I consider it my home … to be used for relaxation and entertainment. I do not mingle the two concepts.
What advice would you give to a “blocked” artist in your discipline to free up their creative energies?
If an artist is feeling “blocked”, I would say set the project aside and wait until the creativity flows. Sometimes a song or arrangement comes quickly and immediately. At times, it is a work in progress. With myself, the delay is usually because I need to experience something to continue. The “something” could be enlightenment, a “dark time” of questioning. Music touches the emotions, so I often have to feel the emotions. It took me five years to complete “Kleo the Kat.” “Kleo” started out as just songs I had written for my animals (pets). Over time, a story evolved, with a message of acceptance of diversity.
Which artistic project that you are working on excites you the most right now?
I am preparing to release “ God Loves Ugly” with updated music and coloring book cover. I am also forming a performance troupe of talented vocalists and musicians, and producing a musical show for performances.
How do you select your creative projects? What elements of a potential project tend to intrigue you the most?
Great question! I don’t actually select … I think they select me. I have learned that timing is important. When I first began writing, I would arrange and perform it immediately. I now wait until I feel it is time. However, there are times that a song comes through me, that I have performed the next day. Again, timing is important.
Any other advice to artists to help them make their creative activity more satisfying?
For me, all creativity comes from tranquility. When I am in touch with the Creator within, the project flows. If the flow stops, I stop and wait on it to begin at another time. Also, it is important to emulate other artists, but develop your own individuality in your creation. Shakespeare’s words are timeless: “to thine own self be true.”