The Lessons from A Band’s 21-Day Musical Odyssey

By Yin Nwe Ko

In the crisp winter of January 1969, in a modest film studio nestled within London’s Twickenham, four iconic friends gathered amidst the clutter of musical instruments and camaraderie.
Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, better known as The Beatles, embarked on an audacious mission — to compose and rehearse 14 songs for their forthcoming album, “Let It Be”. slated to culminate in a legendary rooftop concert on London’s Savile Row.
Although much has been recounted about those frenetic 21 days captured by filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the release of Peter Jackson’s documentary, “The Beatles: Get Back”, in November 2021 revitalized the world’s fascination with the Fab Four’s enduring musical legacy.
Offering an unprecedented glimpse into their creative process, the documentary serves as a masterclass in extracting maximum creativity from the simplest of human attributes — silliness, downtime, collaboration, experimentation, and friendly competition. As we delve into the Beatles’ journey, we uncover valuable lessons on how to elevate our own creative prowess.

The Beatles were adept at engaging in playful activities, enjoying themselves, and being notably foolish. Seldom did we witness arguments in Jackson’s film, despite the widely held belief that the band was in conflict at this stage of their career. Instead, while clearly aware of their tight deadline, they also approached their task with a relaxed attitude.
“It shows the four of us having a ball,” Paul McCartney told The Sunday Times after watching the series. “It was so reaffirming for me. That was one of the crucial aspects of The Beatles; we could amuse each other … John and I are in this footage performing ‘Two Of Us’, and, for some reason, we’ve chosen to do it as ventriloquists. It’s hilarious. It just confirms to me that my primary memory of the Beatles was the delight and the expertise.”
According to Professor Barbara Doran, a lecturer in creativity and innovation at Sydney’s University of Technology and author of Creative Reboot, being fun-loving and playful are fundamental traits of creative individuals.
“Play is indispensable for learning, adapting, discovering new possibilities, and connecting socially,” says Professor Doran, referencing the work of prominent psychiatrist and play expert Dr Stuart Brown, who argues that society needs to reassess the role of play. “It has become something we associate with immaturity or childhood, but it is actually crucial for ongoing happiness, creativity, and vitality in our lives.”
Actor and comedian John Cleese has also extensively discussed the importance of engaging in playful activities in the creative process and the significance of being in an ‘open’ mode, rather than being preoccupied with delivering results.
“We might be goofing around, we might be experimenting, but we are actually tuning in to all sorts of things,” explains Professor Doran. “Then, when you reach a point where you must perform a task in a highly focused manner, you bring all that knowledge into those moments of action.”
What The Beatles did: They immersed themselves in silly voices, danced around, and ventured into playful diversions.
What you can do: Have fun and experiment alone or with others, but refrain from passing judgement. Just go with the flow and see what emerges.
Equally vital as the time spent engaging in playful activities were the numerous instances when the band simply hung out during downtime, sipping cups of tea, reading newspapers, and not doing much of anything. While these moments were not the most captivating parts of the documentary, they played a critical role in fostering creativity, especially in a group setting.
“Simply having time is incredibly important,” says Professor Doran. “We often consider downtime as a waste of time, but there is synthesis and connection happening within our brains, our bodies, and among each other… we are attuned to each other, and things that may have occurred during the playful or focused periods of activity have an opportunity to be processed.”
One notable instance of intense focus occurred when Paul McCartney began composing the song ‘Get Back’ seemingly out of thin air, by immersing himself in the process, singing and playing repeatedly, and almost willing it into existence.
Professor Doran describes this as entering a flow state, a concept popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “Being in a flow state means you are completely absorbed in whatever you are doing,” she explains. “You lose track of time and become so engrossed that the world seems to merge into one. When you discover what works for you, you can easily tap into your creative abilities.” Paul McCartney has spoken about experiencing this when composing the song ‘Blackbird’, where words and music flowed effortlessly without conscious effort.
What The Beatles did: They interspersed moments of intense concentration, focus, and ‘flow’ with dedicated downtime.
What you can do: Don’t work through your lunch and coffee breaks. Instead, take time to absorb your work.

During the initial week of rehearsals, The Beatles were feeling somewhat stagnant and struggling to find their groove. It wasn’t until they invited keyboardist Billy Preston to join them that they experienced a noticeable boost. “What Billy brought to them was a surge of excitement; their songs suddenly came to life,” Peter Jackson recounted on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast when recalling the moment he first saw it on film.
Professor Doran suggests that seeking new stimuli is crucial for creative thinkers to find the motivation to move forward. “Being comfortable with making yourself slightly uncomfortable or introducing something that may or may not work can often be a precursor to creativity.”
Billy Preston wasn’t the only collaborator to join the rehearsals. John Lennon’s partner, Yoko Ono, who mostly observed quietly, occasionally stepped up to the microphone for impromptu vocals. John accompanied her on guitar, while Paul McCartney happily took to the drums.
“That’s serendipity,” says Professor Doran, who admires the band’s ability to adapt to what’s happening around them. “Suddenly, you’ve made a discovery, and it’s like, ‘whoa, we’ve stumbled upon a new sound or a new set of lyrics…’ and we would never have found it if we hadn’t allowed ourselves to experiment with it.”
What The Beatles did: They accepted, embraced, and welcomed new stimuli and ideas (and people).
What you can do: Seek help and look outward for fresh ideas.

The traditional Beatles lineup featured Paul and John as songwriters, Paul on bass guitar, George on lead guitar, John on rhythm guitar, and Ringo on drums. However, throughout Jackson’s documentary, all four members are seen playing the piano, Paul plays the drums, and George writes songs. The band’s willingness to step outside their expertise and experiment was a crucial part of their creative genius in music and songwriting. “There’s always tweaking, shifting, and modifying in the creative space, going beyond your current capabilities,” Professor Doran explains.
“It’s also experimenting with the materials they’re working with, such as sounds, and instruments, and discovering their medium. It’s all part of that creative playground.”
Another example of play and experimentation in action was when the band rehearsed George Harrison’s new song ‘Something’. While most of us have grown up singing along to the lyrics “Something in the way she moves or attracts me like no other lover,” George was struggling to complete the second line. John jokingly suggested ‘a cauliflower’, but George settled on a pomegranate.
This makes for an amusing moment, but Professor Doran points out that it once again underscores the importance of play and the willingness to take risks.
“If you’re willing to play, you’re willing to fail,” she says. “You have a wide range of options, so it’s a matter of going with whatever is available but not being so tied to it that you can’t change it.” (In this case, we’re glad he did.)
What The Beatles did: They continued to learn, evolve, and explore new avenues.
What you can do: Don’t confine yourself to your comfort zone. Consider trying a course or class that’s slightly different from anything you’ve done before.

We often hear that there was a healthy competition between Paul and John, contributing to the band’s creative success. While competition can indeed fuel creativity, it is not an indispensable element.
“Stuart Brown articulated it best by saying we all have different ways of playing,” says Professor Doran, referring to the Harvard University psychologist and head of the US National Institute of Play. “Some people are naturally drawn to being competitive, they thrive on that sense of outdoing one another.”
However, she adds, there needs to be an understanding that it’s a healthy, creative, and collaborative space rather than a destructive, tear-down space.
In 1992’s The Making of Sgt Pepper documentary, Paul said of his and John’s competitiveness, “He’d write ‘Strawberry Fields’. I’d go away and write ‘Penny Lane’. If I’d write ‘I’m Down’, he’d go away and write something similar … you know, to compete with each other. But … it was very friendly competition because we were both going to share in the rewards, anyway.”
What The Beatles did: They used the friendly competition to spur each other on to greatness — ‘getting better all the time’.
What you can do: Collaborate so you can grow and learn from your peers, colleagues, and mentors.
In the annals of music history, The Beatles’ creative journey during those 21 days in January 1969 remains an enduring testament to the boundless wellspring of creativity that resides within each one of us. As we dissect the playful antics, the moments of stillness, the welcoming of new ideas and collaborators, and the friendly competition that fueled their legendary music, we uncover a roadmap to our own creative potential. The Beatles’ legacy isn’t just about the songs they wrote and performed; it’s a blueprint for embracing the joy of silliness, harnessing the power of downtime, and daring to step out of our comfort zones. It’s about fostering a collaborative spirit and understanding that competition, when healthy and constructive, can ignite our creative flames.
In brief, The Beatles showed us that creativity isn’t just a gift bestowed upon a select few; it’s a playful, ever-evolving journey that we can all embark upon, each in our own unique way. So, as we take inspiration from the Fab Four, let’s remember that within us all, there’s a melody waiting to be sung, a masterpiece waiting to be composed, and a creative spirit yearning to be set free.
Reference: Reader’s Digest May 2023

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