You Have My Permission: Creativity and the “Classical” Mindset

I am always filled with a strange mix of excitement and jealousy every time I shop at a music store. As I walk past hundreds of beautiful guitars, hanging like expensive ornaments, I wonder if they will be played, if they will be practiced enough to share the human experience, to create life and community. I am not interested in having a violin collection as elaborate as the collection of guitars typically owned by the average guitar player; but, I am jealous of this luxury – not that I will not have a violin collection, but that I cannot. Electric violins have yet to rise to the notoriety and technological attention of the electric guitar, and acoustic violins are a very expensive and rare commodity. It is difficult to be a violin collector.

Any instrument is difficult to master; but, the violin is especially difficult to enjoy in the beginning stages: there are no frets to correct pitch, the method of sound production is mechanically nuanced, the student instruments are of relatively poorer quality than student models of other instruments. A string can be plucked, or a key can be pressed with greater ease and cleaner results than the pulling of a bow. The player’s imagination is completely occupied with mechanics. These may be reasons for the relatively marginal popularity of the violin.

But there is a greater culprit to the relative scarcity of the violin. If instrument popularity was based solely on playability, then we would be shopping at Kazoo Center instead of Guitar Center. Imagine…a wall of kazoos of all types: shredder kazoos, jazz kazoos, blues kazoos. The main cause comes from the way creativity is encouraged in classical education.

I am grateful for the classical training, for my instructors, and for the opportunities of my childhood, without which I would not be a professional musician today. However, there is tremendous pressure for educators and students to burn through repertoire, to build a portfolio of standard concerti and concert pieces. Though much can be gained from this approach, creativity merely extends to musical interpretation of the composer’s intentions, stylistic phrasing, minute ornamentation, and the efficiency of the memorization process itself. If the goal of memorizing a piece is only to add to repertoire and credintials, to “keep up”, to compete with another musician, to qualify for a position in an orchestra, or any other reason that is not motivated by enjoyment and a desire to understand so as to create and share the experience of music, then the musician will suffer great damage to his self-esteem and principles. Furthermore, the musician will be robbed of learning the most valuable elements hidden within the notes of the piece – mainly the form, function, and the higher purpose of music as a means of expression and communication.

The authority of classical music education – the authority where technique, replication, and recitation are the indicators of musical success – can cause anxiety, insecurity, and separation. The tremendous pressure to perform perfectly can steal joy and excitement from an aspiring musician. Musicians that are dependent on the genres set by the composer may never create music with improvisers. This isolation may prevent them from knowing how their instrument can contribute to other genres of music. Given the impossibly competitive state of the classical world,  this reality can be disheartening.

Through no fault of their own, many classical musicians and educators have not developed the ability to improvise or compose. For many, the knowledge of the shaping forces in music ends with the college credit requirements of harmony and counterpoint. Improvisation and composition reveal the faculties of comprehension and manipulation of the governing principles of music. Improvisation is intimidating to musicians who pride themselves on memorizing repertoire. These musicians can produce great beauty as long as it is written for them.

The conclusions thus stated are reflective of my experiences in music. I was raised in the Suzuki program from age eight. I was given many great experiences and opportunities for musical and personal growth. The pressure of auditions, performances, competition, and a false reality that orchestra was the only career option had taken the enjoyment that I had in music. During my third year of highschool, I almost quit.  I tried to learn the electric bass in order to play in jazz band, but the other bass players were more advanced than me, and I had trouble keeping up with the group.

I had taken an elective music theory and improvisation class called “Music Workshop”. The instructor had graduated from Berklee College of Music, and had used the fundamentals of the Berklee harmony curriculum to teach the class. There were two other bass players in the class. The instructor knew that I played violin, and he openly invited me to play my Yamaha electric violin instead of the bass. From the first note, the course of my life was changed. I discovered a new joy in creating melodies over the interesting harmonies and rhythms. I had never before played violin with a drummer and a bass player, and was excited at how the violin contributed with the sound of the group. I had learned the basic mechanics of harmony and how they can be practically applied in an improvisation. In a sense, I was liberated from the page.

If college auditions had not loomed over the horizon, I would have completely rebelled from classical music. When I eventually enrolled in the Berklee College of Music, I completely abandoned classical repertoire, and was immersed in other genres, music theory, improvisation, music technology, and composition. It was like a musical Disneyland. Initially, I was preoccupied with imitating John Scolfield’s guitar phrasing; but I eventually broke away from this mentality and learned how to be comfortable with my own instincts. I also learned how to pursue a musical career that was not limited to the orchestra.

After graduation, I had developed an admiration for piano players who could accompany themselves and improvise a solo piece. I had a desire to develop the ability to accompany myself on the violin – to improvise unaccompanied violin music. I remembered the little bit of Ysaye and Paganini that I had learned, but went first to the solo violin works of Bach. I knew that Bach was an improviser, so I approached his pieces with the mind of an improviser. Every phrase was filtered though the questions: “If Bach improvised this, how did he come up with these notes? How can I improvise something like this?”. Through patient and careful disection and analysis, I learned that it is worth the effort to understand a piece of music. I will never be Bach (Terminator reference intended), but I learned that the violin can be a powerful chordal instrument for accompaniment. More importantly, my relationship with classical music was healed, and I learned that the understanding of classical music can be a powerful and liberating inspiration to a creative spirit.

There is so much to learn about music; too much for one lifetime. Our relationships and the development of our personal character are more important than the acquisition of knowledge. Music can be a great healer, a joy-bearer if it can communicate affectively, if it can be shared. Sometimes we need the soothing sounds of an orchestra. But, sometimes we just need to jam!