Yesterday some friends came to visit, with their five year-old son. Their son likes a bird book we have, with big pictures of birds, each with a number. Punch out the number on a keypad on the side of the book, and you hear the bird’s song.
So the kid was playing with the book, and soon he started making up birds. He’d drape himself with a blue blanket we have, to give himself wings, and he’d announce what bird he was, and make up its song.
Then he announced that he was going to do some “bird remixes,” his exact words. He’s wonderfully musical, makes shrines to Annie Lennox, and comments wisely on the strengths and weaknesses of cover versions of her songs (he really does). And he can drum, with strong and vivid rhythm that’s astonishing to hear. (I’m serious about that — he’s got better rhythm than many professionals.)
To do his bird remixes, he found a low table that he could put the book on. He found a bird he liked — the golden-crowned sparrow — and started mixing its song with Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu.” He was doing three things at once, drumming, singing, and (like an old-time hiphop DJ, dropping a needle over and over in exactly the same place on an LP, to create a repeated riff) touching “263” on the book’s keypad, to keep the bird singing. He was amazing, singing exactly in tune with the bird, expertly fitting his singing to the rhythmically irregular repetitions of the bird song, building to a fine boyish climax, and then letting the song die away. His parents and I sat there, astonished. Apparently this was one of the best musical things he’d ever done.
His father, as it happens, is a figure in the classical music world, but both he and I were very glad that the kid knows pop music. Why? Because if kids who do nothing but classical music are going to show you what the can do, they’ll play some piano or violin or cello (or whatever) piece they’ve learned. I’ve heard that many times. And while sometimes the kids can be quite good, they rarely sound creative. I’m sure someone will rise up here to tell me that many kids compose, and in fact last week I went to the ASCAP Concert Music Awards presentation, where they always have young composers, including, this time, a striking six-year old whose piano piece showed a real understanding of musical structure. (The father of the kid I’m praising here had been there, too.)
But there are some limitations to classical composing, where young kids are involved. First, they might not be encouraged to do it. Composing isn’t rampant in the classical world, the way songwriting and song production and remixing are in pop. You’re supposed to have a special talent for it. And once you start to write a piece, a spectre starts to loom — you have to finish it. You can’t play it for your parents’ friends until it’s done. (Or mostly done.)
Whereas in pop, you simply can sit down and play. You can make your music up, right here, right now, and make it anything you want. And the idea that you could do this is readily available. You’re a five year-old with a bird book, and you know what a remix is, which means that you can make one for yourself.
I know that this boy is exceptional, that not many five year-olds, in classical music or pop, could make up music as fluently as he did. But I’m convinced that if his musical world was purely classical (as it once was — when he was three, he loved Mozart opera videos), he wouldn’t be half as musically creative asI heard him be.
Footnote: it was time to go, but he couldn’t stop the bird remixes. He did one with an Annie Lennox song, and another with a song by Beyoncé. These weren’t as good as “Xanadu”; maybe he’s too young to judge when inspiration flies away. But the bird he picked for Annie Lennox (or for whose song he picked the Annie Lennox tune; I think that’s how it went) had a rhythm that I couldn’t quickly find a beat for. The kid found one, expertly, letting one part of the bird’s song function as a triplet over two quarter notes in the drum accompaniment. I could tell he was hearing that, feeling the pulse in his body, despite the three against two.
(And no, I’m not attacking classical music, not saying that it’s worthless. But I do think that it’s often — maybe mostly — taught in ways that work against creativity. I remember hearing about the ten year-old son of someone my wife and I met at a party in New Mexico. He was widly talented in music, we were told, but when his piano teacher caught him varying a Mozart piece he’d learned, he was sternly told he shouldn’t do it, that he had to play the piece exactly as the written score decreed. Which is not what Mozart would have said — meaning that in past centuries, kids could be just as creative with the music we now call classical as my friend’s son was with pop.)