Where’s the creativity in music lessons?
Music is an art form—there can be no doubt of that. Yet, someone can play a piano skillfully without a trace of creativity. What, then, is the difference between a skill and an art?
The answer is: creativity. Art requires creativity, skill does not.
We assume that piano lessons involve creativity. But do they? In order to make them truly creative—in order to raise them to an art rather than merely an impressive skill—we must dare to ask a question that challenges our common assumptions: What is creative about piano lessons?
Learning to read notes is valuable, but is this highly cognitive activity creative? Practicing technical exercises can be valuable, but creative? Or learning music theory? And what about practicing notes over and over and over to get them right? What about performing everything correctly on a stage, just as the composer and teacher have asked? There activities are supposed to be gateways or even highways into creative realms, but are they? Are all these activities skills or arts? There is no doubt that Beethoven was highly creative at the piano, but when we practice and perform his notes, are we being creative?
Consider an actress on a stage reciting Shakespeare. Though she didn’t write the words she speaks, she can be creative in her interpretation and recitation. Once she has memorized the lines securely and grasped their various meanings, she can realize and perform them differently each time, accenting some words, adding dramatic pauses, varying the tempo, and so on. In the same way, we can indeed be creative when reciting a masterwork. Once we are able to play Beethoven’s notes both correctly and fluidly, we can play the notes “in our own way,” inflecting the notes just as an actor recites a script. Ah! Now we are touching on the borders of creativity. So there is a element of creativity when we recite musical scores in a spontaneous way, but this is actually only a sliver of the whole, delicious pie of creativity.
Before we go any further, we must stop and ask: how many of our students ever cultivate enough ease in their playing AND master the notes of any piece expertly enough to get to the point where they can freely and spontaneously add something musical of their own? Very few. Plus, composers and teachers prescribe almost every aspect of the performance: fingering, phrasing, pedaling, dynamics, tempo, and so on. In addition, many teachers believe that performers must be “transparent” to the will of the composer, and not intrude on the composer’s music with any trace of their individuality. Whoops! Does that mean we must bid farewell to the little bit of creativity that we have allowed into piano lessons so far?
On close examination, music study involves a great deal of valuable and disciplined skill, but not much creative activity. Perhaps this is why so many people—particularly those who sense that music and creativity should somehow be happily married—quit lessons in the first year. How can we invite creativity into music lessons, and make these lessons a place where creative people want to stay rather than flee?
We found that there may be an element of creativity in the interpretation and recitation of Shakespeare. But now, think of Shakespeare creating and composing a play. That involves a very different type of creativity. Or think of the Bard telling familiar stories and jokes in his own way, delighting in the spontaneous play of personal creativity. Or think of Shakespeare having lively conversations with his friends and reaching surprising conclusions. Here we come to the heart of spontaneous creativity.
The art of interpreting musical scripts is but one style of creativity, and generally more constrained than the wider and wilder styles of creativity that come into play when we improvise, arrange, or compose. In learning and encouraging others to learn the Four Arts, we are attempting to restore to musical tones the same sort of range of expressive powers that we now enjoy with words.The Four Arts of Music is about recovering the whole delicious pie of creativity.
This exploration of the Four Arts, and the desire to walk down this path of recovery, often begins by honestly and repeatedly asking a simple question: What is creative about piano lessons?
– Forrest Kinney
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Learn to add creativity to your piano lessons at an 88 Creative Keys Camp in either Ohio or Colorado this summer. We have tracks for teachers and students.