What’s wrong with music schools (1)

creativity blogNot long ago, I was talking to students at a major music school about performances from the past, like the ones from the 1920s through the 1950s that I assign in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. (If you’d like to see them, follow the link, and scroll to the assignment for February 27.)

The students loved these recordings, and some had heard one of them before. They kept saying how much personality those old musicians had, and how they all just seemed to “go for it” (as the students expressed it) — to put all of themselves into the music, so it came vividly alive. 

Which led to a discussion about individual, imaginative performances, and whether students are encouraged to give these themselves. “Suppose your school gave a prize each year for the most imaginative performance of a standard repertoire piece,” I asked. “What would that be like?”

And the students burst out laughing! The idea just seemed inconceivable. Which, I want to stress, isn’t a critique of their schools, but of almost all music schools, including Juilliard, where I teach. No school, to my knowledge, offers a prize like that.

And students — for the most part — aren’t encouraged to be creative. Instead, they’re expected to do what their teachers expect. (I’m talking about instrumental and vocal teachers, studio faculty, as they’re called. Classroom faculty, who teach academic courses, would tend to have rules of their own.) Some teachers, of course, invite personal expression, and — as in one memorable story one Juilliard student told about her own teacher — get excited about student performances that jump way out of any normal box.

But most , it’s safe to say, aren’t like that. So the students (as I heard from the ones I was talking to, and have heard many times at Juilliard) know that they’re better off being cautious. They often need to be cautious with their teachers, and certainly have to be their school juries (where they’re judged by a group of faculty members), when they audition for orchestra jobs, and when they enter competitions. Just about everyone in classical music knows that competitions favor people who don’t take many chances. Because if you do something unique, there’s always a chance that one of the judges won’t like it, and then you have no chance of winning.

So this is one problem that music schools have, the first I’ll stress in this series of posts. Music schools don’t encourage creativity. Their administrations don’t fly a flag that says, “Let’s see what new things our students can do.” I’m not saying that their teaching might not be on a high level, but mostly it’s on a high level of doing what the rest of the classical music world does, making music the way your teachers, your chamber music coaches, and the conductors you play for expect it to be made. 

Which of course might happen in any field. College football players mostly learn orthodox football. Medical students, I’d imagine, learn orthodox medicine. But art students, I’m going to guess, are doing varied, original things, because that’s what they see in the art world. Dance students at Juilliard are taught how to found and run their own dance companies, because that’s what many choreographers do.

And business students  —now that it’s orthodox wisdom in business that you can’t be orthodox, because the world is changing too fast — are (from what I’ve heard) encouraged to break out of the box, and do new things. Which I’d think would be a good model for classical music, because classical music, too, is changing, and (as I hope we all know) badly needs to change even more, because it’s drifted so far from a culture that no longer may want to support it. 

(And to look ahead, just for a moment, here are the other two ways in which music schools need to change. They need to encourage entrepreneurship. Which many of them are doing, but they need to do it still more. And they need to break down internal boundaries, so that, just for instance, instrumental students learn how singers think, and everyone works with the student composers.

Back to creativity. I’m not saying that students should blindly jump off the deep end — that they should throw out tradition, style, and technique, ignore what’s written in the scores they play, and just do whatever comes into their heads. Anyone who understands art knows that art needs discipline. And the discipline of classical music is one reason it’s valuable, one reason why I want it to survive. Playing a great composer’s score, walking in a composer’s footsteps, recreating a composer’s flow of feeling and ideas — that’s a deep, lifelong study, no small thing, never to be taken lightly.

But at the same time you have to be yourself. No two people — and certainly no two great musicians — recreate scores the same way. The greatest musicians recreate them unforgettably, in ways no one else could possibly do.

And a completely objective performance of a score is impossible in any case. How could you even define such a thing? You could say you should do everything the written score says, but markings in a score are subject to interpretation. How loud is a forte? Do we make every passage marked forte equally loud? Every crescendo equally strong? Any performance of any piece mixes the composer’s spirit with the performer’s, and that’s how it should be, how it has to be.

Not to mention that, as I said, classical music is changing. And that the culture outside it offers an entirely new world of spirit and ideas. And that any school that teaches historically informed performance already offers an alternative to the standard classical tradition, which means that it already offers a kind of alternative — indie — classical music. So looking only at that, students already are (implicitly, anyway) asked to take a position. Standard performance? Historically informed performance? A mixture of both? Where does each student stand?

All this should be talked about. A music school should celebrate choices, imagination, and artistic initiative. And should make it known — through statements and action by its administration — that students are welcome and in fact are encouraged to ask themselves how they want to play, and (when it’s appropriate, which among other things means when they and their teachers are comfortable with this)  to go for it — to bring music vividly alive, in their own original way.

(Maybe they even should do this, sometimes, when their teachers may not be so comfortable with it. Because schools may need to encourage their faculty, too, to make more room for creativity. But this is a tricky issue, as I’ll say — with sympathy for the faculty — in my next post. Schools still need to keep going, to teach the tradition, to honor the teachers they now have.)

But how do we do this? How do we foster creativity — celebrate the students who already are creativity, and encourage the others to be — without turning the school upside down?

I have lots of ideas. They’ll be in my next post in this series, coming shortly.

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    • says

      Absolutely! That’s going to be in one of my later posts — schools should bring their various categories of students together, and everyone should be encouraged to work with student composers.

  1. says

    Thank you Greg.
    Two central issues spring to mind. The tradition that worked has been (and by “worked”, I mean won the most students good paying jobs) to “master the standards”. Those standards were handed down from the European tradition and BENT by Americans who first mastered the standard. The American standard is (generally) more techinically clean and precise than the European standard (at least in orchestral instrument playing). But the unspoken rule that “you must first master a standard before you can modify the standard” keeps the standard model from disintegrating altogether and was supported by critics and the industry. That art-centric model “preserves the art form” as the industry will say. Now comes the bifurcation.

    Having preserved the art form in a major orchestra, I want to tell you why I’ve switched to an AUDIENCE-CENTRIC model. Because I MASTERED the standard model and now I can bend it with the authority necessary for (hopefully positive) professional critical review. I won the job and served my orchestra while I developed a NEW standard which I’m taking primetime only now. This model, OUR model Greg, EMBRACES and exaggerates the ENTERTAINING aspects of classical music: a full court press no-no in the art-centric model (with exceptions, of course). And we do this because we believe (among other things) that the wider community and the art itself WANT more exposure to each other. The wider community doesn’t want to be denied anything and inspirational art belongs to ALL of humanity that are open to it.

    Where that leaves the students today I think (or perhaps I should say their studio faculty) is to strike a BALANCE of doing BOTH, mastering a standard and developing/applying personality/creativilty. I find that just the slightest bit of personality refreshes the whole performance. The point in audience-centric paradigm is to understand what the bulk of your audience (or the audience you’d like to build) is most inspired by. We are in the INSPIRATION business thru music. And FEW in the new audience, even older new audiences, quite frankly seem to care if we all mastered the earlier standard as long as there is passion, context and some humor. It’s TIME to CUT some formality out of classical music.

    • says

      You go, Rick! And we all should note that you’re voting with your feet, so to speak, leaving the security of a major orchestra job (as you said), to do what you really believe in. And play music the way you feel it should go.

  2. ariel says

    Your thoughts are well grounded and make much sense, but it is a lost cause- conservatories , music schools etc . are not about music
    they are about money making careers – music is a stalking horse used to make this money .You know very well that droves of fiddle players
    and pianists are at whatever flavour of the month school that seems to provide a grounding for future” connections” and earnings .Most
    teachers are only about the facility of getting around the keyboard or fingerboard thus proving what great teachers they are (hence more pupils )
    they mouth the art of….. but are in the dark ages of what music is truly about – professor x at whatever school seems to have produced a
    hot shot virtuoso -the school trades on that- the professor becomes a celebrity – students flock in -hoping to ride on the same coat tails- the
    hot shot plays the same old same old to ever diminishing audiences – unless of course he is a Lang Lang which is another story ……..
    Unless you start school of your own I don’t believe you can turn it around –

    • says

      Well, I’d like to run a music school. But that’s another story, for later. Responding to what you said, I can’t blame you for being pessimistic. I’ve been on the inside, and seen how things work. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of change in the air. Entrepreneurship programs promote creativity, though they may not have been designed to do that. I’ve heard top people at one of the biggest schools say almost wistfully that they know their school discourages creativity, and that they’d like to fix that. The students, too, are a force for change, because many of them are already doing creative things on their own.

      Anyhow, for positive examples, look at NEC, where the Entrepreneurial Musicianship program sponsors a concert each year conceived and produced by students, going way outside the box. Or at the University of Maryland, where the orchestra (look for the video on YouTube) played Afternoon of a Faun from memory, dancing it with the help of a genius choreographer. As I said, there’s a lot of change in the air, and I think we’ll see much more of it as time goes on.

      • Ronald Ein says

        There is a quote (maybe Buckminster Fuller) that argues we stop battling the existing model and create a new one. If the new one is successful, it will kill off the old. I look forward to reading about your new music school model.

      • says

        So, you want to run a music school? We tried starting a school of our own in the 1990s (The Harid Conservatory). In a couple of years, with full four-year scholarships, we did pretty well … I mean some amazingly creative and musical performers came out of it and are leading musically rewarding lives to this day. Boy, was it heady! I thought, wow, if we could do this well in a few short years, imagine what this place will be like in 20 years! It will be the Curtis of the South. But then the money vanished and the place was sold for scrap! So, I guess it was actually a miserable failure.

        The key running through the educational approach we took was to empower students to understand how sounds could be put together in ways that were likely to result in the best conditions for an amazing musical experience to occur. We insisted on focusing on that in orchestra, in chamber music, in lessons, in choir … even in basic theory classes. (Yes, at Harid you could not get an A on your theory homework unless you could perform it from memory, in tune, in balance, with compelling musical phrasing. I kid you not. Maybe this pervasive over-arching focus on bringing technique, knowledge, passion and understanding to achieve a single goal: playing music in a way that might offer a transcendent experience … maybe this is what empowered the few who came there.)

        I hope that if you get to run a music school you’d create a utopia that could show the world the view from Parnassus. The world will keep trying, whether it’s you or not!

        • says

          So nicely put, Paul. And what a brave, lovely, wise, inspired effort it sounds like you made.

          If I ever run a school, I’ll try to do good things. But forgive me if I set my sights short of utopia. A brand new school can do entirely brand new things, but an existing school will have to change gradually. The pace might be faster (or, frustratingly, slower) than I might expect, but I think it’s important not to try to do too many things at once. Again, to be clear, I’m not at all talking about what you did, in a brand-new institution, but about what seems feasible in an existing one. What you did was, I can well believe, exactly what you should have done! And bravo for it.

  3. says

    You’ve certainly shed some light on one of the key pitfalls classical music today has descended into. Academics and art are often like oil and water… not that they have to be. The great performers of the past were not trained in the assembly line conservatories of today (and neither were the great composers).

    I think you’ve just given me an idea for a new post.

  4. Suzanne says

    Maybe a lesson or 2 could be learned from The National Centre of Excellence In Traditional Music, located in the Scottish highlands. I know the focus of this article is classical music, but the methods and delivery of music education are relevant. I studied at NCETM for 3 years and am still astounded as to how much my musicality and creativity flourished, as well as my technique and performance skills.

    Find out more about the school at http://www.musicplockton.org

    I’m saddened to hear that the importance of creativity is lost on some students. I teach it from day one – looking at what harmonic choices composers have made, and looking at what we would choose. If you’re making musical choices like this from a young age (as well as learning standards as a separate activity) you’re left with an “intuition” which can’t be found going through the same process once you have an adult mind.

    There can and should always be personality and individuality in music, regardless of genre. Otherwise what are we?

    • says

      Thanks, Suzanne. I think it’s important to find models for what we can do, wherever those models are. Classical musicians can be inspired by things outside classical music. I’ve heard that creative young classical string players are now going to the Berklee School in Boston, which is known as a place that teaches jazz. But, again from what I’ve heard, it’s a very open-minded, creative place, and for classical players who want to play music in many genres, it’s apparently a good place to be.

  5. Leighton says

    A school should be nothing more than a step on the path towards developing into a professional. Too much is expected of institutions like Julliard. A school should provide a foundation upon which a student may grow once they leave. Most cases are the opposite. As a singer I know that the former students are expected to be performance and career ready once leaving grad-school. The expectation is that they will be singing small roles on some of nation’s biggest stages. Then we wonder why they burn out. Performing at a high level on a consistent basis takes years of practice and work, yet if one is not finding high levels of success by their late 20’s it is seen as failure. The one exception being larger voices which are often granted a few more years of shelf life by the powers that be. The problem is that the schools themselves perpetuate this circumstance by forcing the issue of their own relevance. They need their students to find success early and often for the sake of their own prestige. Julliard more than any other school feels this pressure. A school cannot teach artistry. It can perhaps hope to encourage it, but it is ultimately up to the artist to find their expressiveness. This CANNOT be rushed. You CANNOT put a timeline on when one finds it.

    • says

      Good points, though to be fair, I don’t find the pressure at Juilliard quite as intense as you paint it here. But the pressure is real. It can especially hurt students with original minds, creative students who may not want the usual kind of success. They — up to now — won’t get encouragement to follow their own paths.

  6. Kenneth Berv says

    Bobby Routch, a great French horn soloist, once explained to me that a musical score is a gift from the Composer to the performer. Once IU lea es The composer’s desk, it’s expression is up to The Artist.

    • says

      Wow, Peter! Thanks so much for telling us. I’d love to visit, see what’s going on. I’m so impressed with these videos, and with lots that I found on the website. The mission statements, for instance, like this one:

      In rehearsals, in class and on stage, our students interact with an exceptionally gifted faculty and with leading visiting artists in ways that are supportive, yet rigorous. Our faculty and students recognize that arts careers in the 21st century will blend new works with master pieces; unite performance, engagement and education; and above all will pulse with a sense of adventure and creativity.

      And the quotes that show up on all the pages, and keep changing:

      “One must approach music with a serious rigor, and, at the same time, with a great, affectionate joy.” Nadia Boulanger

      “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Einstein

      “I remember loving sound before I ever took a music lesson.” John Cage

      “At least one day out of the year, all musicians should just put their instruments down and give thanks to Duke Ellington.” Miles Davis

      Such a fresh, living spirit breathes from all of this!

  7. says

    Greg, great post! The U. of Nebraska Lincoln (where I teach) has a music entrepreneurship program and students lives are changed (positively) for ever!! Students say it’s the most important and motivating class they’ve taken in college. So thanks for bringing attention to this important subject. But back to performances– the MOST IMPORTANT thing to keep in mind is everything you say in the paragraph that starts ‘Back to creativity. I’m not saying that students should blindly jump off the deep end …” I sincerely hope that students don’t think being creative means doing crazy things. If we first send all our intuitive musical ideas up to our brains, where it can be filtered through KNOWLEDGE, then travel back to the gut then out through our hands (I’m a pianist) then we’ll have something worth talking about. Knowledge fosters creativity.

    • says

      Beautiful, Ann. Thanks so much! I’d love to know more about the entrepreneurship program. I know what’s going on in a few schools, but that just scratches the surface.

  8. says

    I think it really depends on where a student is, too. All throughout graduate school, creativity was encouraged. (I did my MFA at CalArts and my DMA at UW-Seattle.) There’s such variation among music schools, it’s kind of hard to lump them all into one pool.

    I’m more concerned about the issue of funding in higher ed, and how that impacts the arts (and other humanities disciplines.) Creativity will sort itself out, but it’s a dismal situation for arts and academe these days.

    • says

      Jen, if you were at CalArts, then you were at one of the few music schools that, from everything I hear, is thoroughly creative. As for variations among schools, sure, they’re different. No surprise there. But there also are similarities. I’ve visited and conferred with people at a wide variety of schools, at least 10 in all, maybe more. And while you might find creativity in some departments at some schools, it’s not widespread. I was in residence for two years at the U of Maryland at College Park, where the orchestra program was wonderfully creative. But not necessarily other parts of the school!

      It would be lovely if creativity sorted itself out. In one sense it does — the people who are supremely creative, who can’t be anything else, will keep on being so, almost no matter what obstacles they face. But people who aren’t like that may be overdisciplined, even repressed, by their musical education. Or simply not stimulated to think about what they’d like to do, given any choice. They tend to be channeled into existing pathways.

  9. Stan Cornett says

    Very thoughtful! I and others out here have discussed the future of classical music and the schools that seem to focus so obsessively on it. My doubts these days center on the need for undergrad and grad school as pathways to career musicianship. They seem to form a perpetual loop that sometimes spins successful performers or composers into the markets for live music. To follow one of your comments, academia in particular tends to make the study of classical music a type of monastic experience with methods and goals rooted in the period of common practice instead of today. I’ve talked with many non-musicians who tell me they avoid orchestra or wind ensemble concerts because the formality and “rules” of sitting quietly and applauding ONLY in the ‘correct’ places while dressed in more or less formal clothing. One person told me itwas like “being in church for 2 hours only without a sermon.” Many technically wonderful orchestras have increased their costs in a number of ways such that ticket prices alone drive many potential audience members away. Unless they are devoted enough to remain basically motionless for a long time, lots of people are opting for aesthetic experiences that allow them to be in a more natural setting where they don’t feel confined by expectations of seving as a ‘prop’ for musicians who sometimes seem remote, aloof, or at least distant enough to be uninteresting. So they gravitate to popular and traditional performances that accept and even encourage their natural enthusiasms. I don’t have a crystal ball. None of us do. But, just maybe taking classical music out of its black ties and long, black dresses and putting it into more relaxed settings would help somewhat. It would also help for these groups to understand that audiences need to see and feel some variety of styles and ensembles to stay interested. In the few cases I’ve seen something like that done it appeared to be well received. That’s my best guess. I’m sure there are other, more imaginative ones out there too.

    • says

      The path to a better future lies in much that you’re saying. And I think that’s realized in many places. Certainly there’s a lot of discussion of it. I think a tipping point is coming, at which the majority of people in the field will agree with what you’re saying, and act on it. The agreement may actually be there, but the tipping point for action may not have arrived, because the people who hold these views don’t yet understand that they’re a majority. Which is another way of saying that the people in the highest positions aren’t yet ready for change. Time will take care of that! As a new generation comes to power, I think we’ll see faster change than we might expect.

      Thanks so much for your detailed, passionate comment. Should have started my reply by saying that!

      • Stan Cornett says

        Thank you for bringing this topic forward in a context that includes music schools. I think many of us realize that references to “music schools,” or any school for that matter, do not describe a unitary concept of “how to do it.” Some are doing many brilliant things; others seem to hold more of the past in their curricula.

        I worry sometimes that some institutions keep many of their old practices because it’s better known and easier than finding more ways to expand into educating and training musicians to participate in the wider applications of classical and popular music to include modern digital recording practices. Otherwise, the offering is very narrow and cultivates unrealistic expectations among students and, perhaps, faculty.

        Music as art (a perennial domain of classical music), music as service to institutions (religion, educating youth, and others), music as entertainment (pop music, TV, movie and video scores, dances, concerts and many others), are still very often seen as discrete, specialized “stovepipes” that peremptorily stereotype certain instruments, styles, methods, and sounds as excluded or unworthy.Where they exist, these self-inflicted walls tend to suppress the creativity and passion that characterize vibrance and relevance in a community of arts or musical practice.

        “Teaching as we were taught” is not a likely route away from the distant past. Innovation tends to be borne of other innovations. Teachers and students alike who want a more creative, more expressive modus operandi must put themselves in the places and frames of mind where creativity and powerful expression are openly nourished.

        Yeah….that’s a lot easier said than done. But, if you can’t think of any performances or groups or schools that produce creativity, innovation, and expressivity regularly maybe it’s time to jump directly out of the box and start looking with an open mind and heart.

  10. Larry Bauer says

    Thank you so much for this article. I got this from a friend who teaches in the opera world and after reading it, I think that you can substitute the word “music” for the word “theater” or “arts” and the argument would still hold water. I received a full ride to Rutgers University about two years ago to do my MFA in Theater Lighting Design and I ended up leaving after the first year and sacrificing the (out of state tuition) scholarship. The main reason why I left was because they did not encourage students to think for themselves or to think critically about the designs of the shows they were doing. They wanted people who would simply do the assignment their way from the perspective of the professor and check the box and move on (after all, the professors were successful in their careers by doing it “this” way, right?) I think this is a main problem with learning from the institutions of universities. Professors teach by showing things that worked for them; by teaching from real life. Yes, they may have been successful in their careers by doing it “this” way, but what’s stopping me from doing it “that” way? Isn’t school about learning for yourself or what works best for you? We are in school, and in a protected environment after all. I was frustrated because I hold a higher standard for graduate school and I thought that you simply had to look at things from different perspectives in order to evaluate how they work and to change those methods if they didn’t work. I would take pride in the fact that your opinions of music schools can be applied to all arts schools in general. Thanks for the insight.

    • says

      Thanks so much, Larry. Not long ago I was being interviewed on these subjects for a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the interviewer — a very smart young guy, but new to classical music — said that the problems I talked about were part of the larger crisis of higher education.

      Of course, looking still more broadly, this has always been the way of the world. People want things done their way. Or the way they’ve always been done. Now we’re in an interesting place, culturally, where everyone (at least outside classical music) recognizes that there’s constant change, and that therefore enterprises of all sorts need to change constantly themselves.

      And yet still people cling to the past. So often you’ll see people wanting something that’s comfortably like what they’re used to, but also new. A contradiction!

      What you ran into, of course, is all too common. Your teachers might defend themselves by saying that this is how you get lighting design work, by doing what everyone else does. But I wonder if that’s true.

  11. says


    check it out.


    This is not only what we talk about, it is what we do all the time. It is our mission.

    • says

      Yes! This is something I/we need to know more about. Would anyone like to volunteer a guest blog post about what happens at CalArts?

  12. Brian says

    Greg- Thanks for a great article! I can identify deeply with it. As a performance major in graduate school several years ago I started to really explore my creativity and artistry. This led me to experiment a lot with finding “my voice” and with presenting music in ways that were unique to me as an artist. While my private teacher (one of the top in the field) supported my creativity, he didn’t always know what to make of me/ how to balance my exploration against teaching me more standard practices. He supported me in several non-required solo concerts to allow me to get more in touch with my artistry/creativity. However, when it came time to do my Masters recital, I was expected to conform to a more traditional program. To me, this demonstrates the fundamental issue in music schools today (orchestras too!). My Master’s recital was performed at a professional level, but there wasn’t too much in it that was unique to me. It didn’t really represent the way I would present myself in recital after graduating- a missed opportunity for me and the school. I could list a slew of performers that could have presented the same recital at a higher professional level. However, if I had been able to utilize my creativity, I’m confident I could have presented a program that no other could have done better.

    In general, I believe music schools train instrumentalists and interpreters as opposed to artists, and I think this is very unfortunate. I look at artists like Yo-Yo Ma- what is it that makes him stand out from other cellists? Surely there are dozens around the world that are musical and technical equals. But what makes him the best (at least known) is his creativity, collaborative spirit, and incredible presentation style. Those are the skills we should be encouraging and teaching students because those are the skills that will separate them from others. The real value in artistic industries comes from creative/created content- not from simply recreating a work of art. These are values I aim to instill in my students. I really hope to see a change in the way music schools teach and encourage these skills.

    • says

      Very thoughtful, Brian, and so deeply felt. Thanks. I know someone who got her PhD in psychology by writing a thesis in which she extended one aspect of her thesis advisor’s research, full of things she didn’t agree with. But she saw this as the price of getting her degree, after which she could move out on her own (which she’s very successfully done).

      In art, though, I’d think this was less acceptable. To put it mildly. What do you gain by playing music in a way you don’t believe? You just throttle yourself. Ironically, the classical musicians we most celebrate, like Yo-Yo Ma, are the ones who are the most individual. But then we stand in the way of others becoming like them. Very sad.

    • says

      Peter Webster is an emeritus professor of music education at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. According to the school’s website, he’s the author of “Measures of Creative Thinking in Music, an exploratory tool for assessing music thinking using quasi-improvisational tasks.” He’s now scholar in residence and adjunct professor at the Thornton School at USC. Andrew, would you tell us more about him? Or would somebody else do it?

  13. says

    Thanks for this Greg, I wish you had been my teacher at Juilliard when I was there! The skill set needed to win an audition is narrow but deep and not many people have that exact mix of technical proficiency, competitiveness and nerves that will get them past the screen consistently. I bring up that process because I think it relates to what you’ve said above: the brass ring for orchestral players (good salary, endorsements, teaching) comes quickest with getting a job in the institutional setting. I camethisclose but didn’t get a full time orchestral job so I’ve had to branch out in some of the ways you describe above. That also meant finding a non-musical day job to keep the lights on, which back in my Juilliard days I thought would be death, but (surprise!) that is not the case at all. I can now pursue a lot of different things (alt. classical composition, jazz/world music, art, writing, etc.) and still have a place to live. Creativity is more than finding an artistic outlet, to me it’s at the heart of living life in a meaningful way. I look forward to following your discussion on this subject!

    • says

      Bravo to you, Ted. And a special bravo for what you said about creativity being the stuff of life. Absolutely! Living and working in a way that’s true to yourself, and leads to perpetual expansion — it’s not just a dream. We all can do it. Even if it means leaving the established path, and taking risks. That is — or ought to be — at the heart of the current emphasis on entrepreneurship at music schools. Entrepreneurship in creativity, making music the way _you_ want to make it.

      A story from one of my Juilliard courses. I ask students to do a five-minute presentation about a piece they love, probably something they play. I ask them not to talk about the history of the piece, or its structure, but to focus on their love for it, why they love it, what about it they love. The results are, year after year, quite spectacular. Often the students have never talked that way before, at least in school.

      One violinist picked one of the Paganini concerti, and said with no hesitation that as far as she was concerned, Paganini was a greater composer than Brahms or Beethoven. (Who, she said, were just too heavy-handed for her taste.) I’m not going to get in arguments about whether or not I or anyone else agrees with this. It was what she thought, and good for her for saying it.

      I asked her if she’d ever said this to her teacher. “I’ve never said it to _anyone_ before!” she replied, with a huge smile.

      School should be full of moments like this. I can’t say I try to make them happen (you can’t impose freedom, you can only create the environment for it), but I’m thrilled (and, quite honestly, flattered) that they happen from time to time when I teach.

      • says

        Your students are very lucky to have you opening those intellectual doors for them. The closest I got to that sort of ‘box free’ thinking at Juilliard was in my literature class with the writer Emile Capouya. I think fresh ideas like yours should suffuse the curriculum!

        • says

          Thanks! I’d love to see ideas, more generally, suffuse the curriculum. Not just mine. Since we know classical music is in crisis, the crisis should be a public subject of discussion in every conservatory, both as part of the curriculum, and outside of classes, too. Students should find themselves in a place where people are thinking, where ideas are expressed, and where they themselves are warmly invited to take part in the discussion. I’d love to see that!

  14. says

    This problem has much deeper roots than are mentioned here however. This problem starts in kindergarten. I have been teaching at the middle school level for many years, and this past year I finally realized what had happened to both myself and my students through years of public school. Children today are not taught creativity, individuality, or independence ANYWHERE in school. I had a student nearly reduced to tears the first time I pointed out something that she wasn’t doing quite right. The poor girl was TERRIFIED of making a mistake.

    That incident offered a huge burst of clarity within myself, as I realized that since the beginning of my career as a musician, I have been so terrified of making a mistake or messing something up, that it has become debilitating. Practice sessions became difficult and emotionally devastating as I sank deeper into the horrid spiral that is self doubt and loathing. I couldn’t do anything right so I eventually gave up practicing all together. Finally, a year later I joined a local choir, and in that first day, I received the first compliment I had ever gotten about my voice. (And I was NOT GOOD after a year without singing!). That one person gave me the courage to start practicing again and now I am back on track.

    After living through this I have made it my own personal goal to instill in my students, the confidence and courage to make mistakes and to try new things. It’s hard, because often they have the same problem that I have, but once they really begin to feel safe playing for me in a lesson, it is AMAZING! They can accomplish so much and they are so happy about music again.

    This article is very much spot on and I look forward to what’s next!

  15. Andrew Yates says

    The great composer W. Francis McBeth, in the mid 1970’s, devoted an entire side of an LP of his music to discuss interpretation. His main point was that most wind band conductors were classicists while the overwhelming majority of wind band music was romantic. As the great composer mentioned, hearing a classical work performed romantically is rather odd, but a romantic piece with a classical interpretation, was a travesty!

    But to the larger point, McBeth points out that creativity, or a creative interpretation, is squelched due to the contest. Volume variances is the composer’s main ability to convey what they want in their compositions. But to really dig in and perform those volume variances at a contest, would more than likely reduce your rating. I recently had a friend of mine, who is a prominent high school wind conductor, tell me he tells his wind ensemble to “play for the contest”. How sad! So the high school teacher cannot truly teach creativity or interpretation as it should be, but as the contest might dictate. That does not mean that ALL music teachers do not teach some form of creativity when they are NOT involved in contest, but this is just a major example.

    The performance contest is one of the main reasons young musicians come into the college without the ability to “feel” or “be creative”. They were not allowed to be exposed to it in high school. By the time they get to a music school where discipline of technique is an overwhelming requirement, creativity must be somewhat pushed to the background while this discipline of technique is brought to the fore. If the opportunity for creativity is squelched at a young age (unless the young musician already possesses this creativity at an early age), and probably not the majority fault of the teacher who had them at a young age, then the student is lost, and creativity will be very difficult to become natural.

    When Emory Remington (great trombone teacher at Eastman) passed away, composer Howard Hanson said he did not teach music, he taught people. That, I believe, is the key to creativity for any music teacher. It is also the beginning of teaching interpretation. I was fortunate to have had just such a teacher. Creativity and proper interpretation flowed. It was harnessed within reason by discipline of technique. Those teachers who have given this experience and experienced this from young musicians, you are indeed blessed.