Thursday, March 21, 2013

Can music schools stifle creativity?

I haven't written a new blog post in nearly a year, and part of the reason for this was the chilling effect of a job interview. About a year ago I was being considered, along with over 100 other candidates, for a teaching position at a university with a fine, though smallish music department. In the end I was not offered the position, which spared me having to make a difficult decision (the position was thousands of miles away from where I live and work now). Fortunately for my professional growth, I was able, some months afterward, to get some feedback about my application. As this was a university and not a conservatory, the search committee wanted to insure that their choice could not only teach piano (where my qualifications are not in question) but also academic classes, like music history or theory. Although I have taught a number of academic courses (Piano Literature and Piano Pedagogy among them) at a college level, I do not have a doctorate that officially would certify my knowledge of academic subjects.

Some members of the search committee apparently looked at this blog and felt that it did not exhibit the level of academic rigor that they were looking for. But I am assuming that no one reading a blog is expecting (or wanting) an academic thesis! I certainly don't think of this anything other than an opportunity to voice my opinions and to hear others'. But as you can imagine, I have felt a bit paralyzed by the fact that someone – a potential future employer – might be reading this blog and finding examples of lapsed scholarship and statements made without citing sources.

It leads me to a subject that has been on my mind recently. Do music schools stifle creativity? This would certainly be a problem if true, and I think the general public tends to assume that arts schooling fosters and encourages creativity. But I think that for better or for worse, music schools (and perhaps other institutions about which I am less qualified to express my opinion) can be bastions of tradition – both a positive and a negative.

For example, I recently had two troubling conversations with students in a course I teach at Boston Conservatory. In one of the Piano Literature courses I teach, we have been discussing Mozart. During a recent class, I talked about the Fantasy in D minor (K. 397), which lacks a proper ending by Mozart – traditionally performers play eight measures written by someone named August Muller, though these were for many years thought to be by Mozart. The ending has always seemed unsatisfying to me, at least, and while most people play this ending, Mitsuko Uchida, one of the great Mozart interpreters of our time, plays a different ending using some of Mozart's music from earlier in the piece. (For a very interesting – and academically sound – treatment of this subject, read this DMA thesis by student at Indiana named Ephraim Hackmey:

The troubling thing to me was a question a student asked me in class: “But will I get in trouble if I play a different ending than the traditional one?” Mind you, this “traditional” ending is not written by Mozart, and really sounds abrupt and unsatisfying. But this student was concerned with what a jury of pianists – at a competition, at a music school entrance audition, at end-of-the-semester exams – would say if he played a a different ending. And truthfully, I understood why he was concerned. While individual musicians can be open-minded and interested in new ideas, it often happens that when you put a bunch of them together, the conservative ideas win out. There are right ways and wrong ways to do things, or so it seems when you get a group of pianists together.

In a previous meeting of the same class, we listened to a number of cadenzas to Mozart Concertos written by other composers. (Mozart wrote cadenzas for the majority of his piano concertos, even writing multiple versions for some, but several of the most frequently played, such as the D minor, K.466, C major, K.467, and C minor K. 491, require performers to find or compose one on their own). For the D minor Concerto it is most usual to play Beethoven's cadenza, but we listened to cadenzas to a variety of Mozart Concertos by Brahms, Alkan, Dinu Lipatti, Fazil Say, and others. I have not heard it but I believe there is a cadenza by Phillip Glass, which would be fascinating to hear. As a college student I wrote my own cadenza to the D minor Concerto, but it was definitely a student work and not quite good enough for my professional use nowadays. Still, it was a good exercise (and I did play it once as soloist with a student orchestra at Harvard when I was a sophomore).

After class, having discussed the myriad options for cadenzas, a student asked me which cadenzas were “permissible” for use at a competition. The official answer, of course, is that any cadenza is fine – but this student and I both understood, sadly, that the unofficial answer is that a competition jury will not always look kindly on an off-the-wall cadenza. Yet a concert audience might enjoy hearing something fresh and novel. In that way, the competition jury is not in sync with the kind of creativity or out-of-the-box thinking that is desirable in the “real world” of concerts. And it is troubling to think that while audiences crave and appreciate creativity (understandably), neither competitions nor music school entrance committees are always open to it.

There is, of course, a difference between being creative in a meaningful way, and just being “different” for the sake of being different. There is, for example, a male musician I have heard of who makes a career of playing relatively standard repertoire, but who dresses in women's clothing and wears his hair in a colored mohawk. I'm not sure how this aids or serves the music of Beethoven or Brahms more than wearing a tuxedo would.

I wonder whether these tendencies to be concerned with what are the “right” cadenzas for Mozart are also a function of the fact that we performers have become more and more divorced from the compositional process. Long ago, performers were composers and composers were performers. That is still generally the case in rock or jazz. But in classical music we have become specialists to a large degree. The performers job consists, in part, of accurately recreating music that someone else has written, and we engage in this process aided by an ever-increasing awareness of historical performance practice and the way earlier performers have played the same music on recordings. Of course any performer knows that there is a great deal left to us to interpret. Nevertheless, I think the preoccupation with being “correct” in our performances can cause us to miss spontaneity, spark, and excitement. It is no wonder that an audience can be bored by an orchestra that has spent a very limited amount of expensive rehearsal time primarily on insuring that the ensemble is together and in tune, and that the balance is good – but having no time left over to take risks, to try new and unexpected things. This is partially a result of finite money to pay for rehearsals, but I wonder if it isn't also part of a reluctance by classical musicians in the year 2013 to do something that might be considered “wrong.”

Please share your ideas and thoughts on this this subject. I'd love to hear from you!  


vp said...

It's also because many pianists see winning competitions as a primary route to career advancement. Sad.

Anonymous said...

I left a Conservatory program because it was so stifling. All it did was create second-guessing myself, inner-chatter during performances, worrying about what others thought etc. When I realized the music was not anything I created and stemmed from nowhere emotionally, it was time to leave that environment. I never went into playing piano as a kid with a career in mind, I played it to express myself - and the career followed. The instrument plays me and there's no personal gratification to reinventing the wheel when it comes to playing all the standard rep. What a conservatories neglect, is nature. The music has been well documented and well preserved and classical music in particular is a vast toolbox of which to draw from ..TO create original work. Being a sheet music slave is just that. Yes, people will pay you for that service but if money and accolades are your primary goal as a Musician, then that's a shame. I just think Music students today need to be more creative and leave their mark on the world by being original and taking us all somewhere else...not putting the car in reverse and getting nostalgic for what's already been done. Competitions, Juries, Panels...? Really? That's important? Why can't self-expression be enough? And if money is how one measures success because they can't "want less" in life, then perhaps they're letting their own social programming get the better of their gut instinct. The reality of our culture is commercial success in music means you need to get into the pop genre. It's called pop for a reason and the name of the game is not music but self-branding and target-marketing. There are countries that don't have running water and certainly no music programs and they can produce better musicians then what's heard in most cities because they're just instinctually good and rather pure and untouched by other people's rules and restrictions.