Category Archives: creative process

Writer’s Block

The last couple of weeks brought writer’s block, and now I’m two weeks behind regaling myself, and those of you along for the ride, with tales of the musical events I’ve attended.

“I write about my experience going to concerts,” I was explaining to my personal trainer today (by the way, the best way to get yourself–or at least myself–to actually work out is to purchase an insanely, near-irresponsibly expensive, non-refundable package of personal training sessions), “and the experience part started taking over and getting too personal to put on my blog.”

That’s the thing about writer’s block, I’ve been told–it’s almost never that you don’t have something to say, it’s that what wants to come out isn’t what you’re looking for.  So I gave in and did some unpublished writing (i.e., journaling).  All the real juicy stuff, the emotionally authentic stuff, which I’d to share somewhere but not necessarily with high-school cellists thinking of coming to Depauw to study with me.

I also sat around feeling stuck and sorry for myself (anyone else good at that?). And did things like post videos here so the blog wouldn’t just disappear.

Yet I’ve had some fantastic times, too.  Honest to gosh, last week was a combination of peak experiences and periods of despondency that seemed to respond only to lots of sleep.  How do you spell mood swings?  E-R-I-C.

I was describing this to someone who explained, “Oh, you’re creative.  Isn’t that just how creative people are?”*

Well, maybe.  I’ve felt like Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless, all disheveled and forlorn and stuck, before he starts taking the pills that turn him into a superman (man, did I want me some of those!). So I’m starting to imagine just how difficult it would be to write for a living.  Lucky for me, my on-sabbatical paycheck keeps coming regardless of when something gets posted here.  No deadlines, except self-imposed ones.

Part of it is that writing, like practicing the cello, is so damned isolating.  I don’t like being stuck in my “lonely room” (as Cole Porter put it in “Night and Day”). An Andrew Sullivan post this morning inspired me to go write in a coffee shop, and damned if it isn’t working.  (I see people typing at their laptops in Starbucks all the time, but it never dawned on me that it would be a better place to write than at home.)

It’s a cool afternoon, so I threw on a sport coat as I was heading out with my backpack.  “Going to the office?”asked one of my apartment mates.

Guess so.

OK, that’s off my chest (I hope).  Now back to musical experiences in NY.  With this two weeks stored up, I’m going to try writing about them in a random and probably  mashed-up order.  I can’t do separate reviews for each one.


*Back when we were married, Allison (who’s a magnificent violinist) complained (justly, I’m sure) to Thelma, our elderly, old-school neighbor, about some sort of asshole behavior I’d committed .

“Oh, he’s an artist,” Thelma told Allison, serenely excusing whatever I’d done.

“You’re an artist?  What about ME?” Allison exasperatedly berated me later.  After all, she’s as much, probably more, of an artist than I am.  (And has better rhythm. Right, sweetie?)



Filed under and everything, blocks (of the creative and writing variety), creative process

Classical Music Establishment to Young Performers’ Creative Selves: Drop Dead

In a comment on my previous post, S.W. raises an objection:

If composing was an equivalent skill to performing, then there would be far more composers than we see today. Moreover, if world class performers were also world class composers — in equal number — then the world would be awash in new music with a clientele clamoring to hear it as they clamor to see world-class performers. Neither is true. The input and output channels for composition and performance seem to be quite distinct and different, distributed very, very unevenly amongst any given population and not clearly understood as different processes. This was true in Bach’s day and remains true today. Else, James Levine and Yo-Yo Ma and Placido Domingo and Joshua Bell and Jessye Norman would all prove your thesis by their prodigious output of compositions. Additionally the recently deceased Milton Babbitt and his only world famous student Sondheim would both have shown their performing gifts in many, many concert appearances. I venture the opposite view, that most performers cannot and do not compose for a very basic reason, and that is that the two skills sets are not equivalent, nor equally distributed in a population, and your assumption that they should be is incorrect.

There’s a lot of truth in that comment. High-level composing and performing aren’t equivalent skill sets. As I said in the original entry, “It’s true that not everyone with a great gift and skill at composing has the gifts to be a great performer, and vice-versa.” I’m not proposing that the skill sets should (or could) be evenly distributed.

Participation in the activities ought to be, however.  If a world-class performer composes and improvises and keeps it private because the music isn’t great, that’s fine by me.  But if more performers had been composing and improvising all along, as a standard part of their educations, some of the music might be really, really good. We’ll never know, though, because for the most part they weren’t encouraged or allowed to explore their creative potential.

Compositional talent may be inborn, but compositional skill is developed through training, practice, study, and being mentored.  It doesn’t just happen.

We need to get away from the all-or-nothing mentality, the idea that you have to be great at something or not do it at all. Classical-music education, and classical-music culture, lacks widespread engagement by performers in the process of creating.  And suffers for it.  It’s a systemic problem.

Welcome to our school. You’re eighteen and have yet to manifest great skill at composing?  That’s OK, you’re a performer, or a music education major.

Oh, you have musical ideas in your head?

Hmm.  Just ignore them.  You’re not a composer, after all. No portfolio.  Your ideas are not worth hearing, exploring, or developing. No (significant) institutional  encouragement or support will be offered.

Failing to nurture the creative selves of young musicians, the structure of most classical-music education doesn’t allow students to develop their musicianship in the integrated way that, for example, jazz students experience.  Many others have argued this better than I.  Harold Best, who was the Dean of Music at Wheaton College for many years and a leader in the movement to mandate compositional and improvising activities in the National Association of Schools of Music accreditation requirements, has a great way of putting it.  Music schools (the ones focused on the classical tradition) do a great job of teaching students to think about music, he says.  But we need to do better at teaching students to think “in” music (i.e., to develop inner hearing), and the one of the best ways to do that is by “thinking up” music.

But for the most part, the classical-music education system, and classical music culture, says (in effect) “drop dead” to young performers’ creative selves.

Where I teach, at DePauw University, there have been tremendous differences between the periods when we’ve had a composer on the faculty and when we haven’t.  Students want to compose.  With guidance and training, they learn and grow a tremendous amount.  When there’s no composer on the faculty, no composition courses or lessons or informal mentoring, there’s something deeply lacking.  Some of these kids might develop into good composers if they had encouragement and support.  They’d absolutely become more complete musicians with greater insight into the process of composition.  But in a composer-free environment, that’s not going to happen.

It doesn’t seem much better at large institutions with a composition faculty.  The composition majors get trained, but there’s little opportunity or encouragement for performance majors to compose, or to improvise.  To create.

Virtually the entire pedagogical repertoire for any instrument consists of pieces written by performer/composers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  When it comes to the 20th century and beyond, there’s almost nothing.  Classical music education became about learning to play the canon of great works, and much academic composition about writing pieces for other academic composers and a small, highly-educated audience of new-music followers.

Obviously people are going to specialize, especially in high-level careers. But that doesn’t mean that even the most gifted and disciplined and virtuosic young musicians wouldn’t benefit from an educational system that insisted they create music, good, bad, or indifferent.  Right now, in this time of great challenge, we continue the folly of forcing students to put arcane details of pre-Renaissance music into their short-term memories for a test while ignoring their creative selves.  (Despite the NASM standards, composition and improvisation activities tend to be of the low-impact, exercise variety in the form of theory and class piano exercises.) I’m not saying students shouldn’t learn Western classical-music history. But something’s not right when memorizing things we know the vast majority of students will quickly forget is an iron-clad, top priority while discovering what it is like to create a piece of music is not even on the list.

Those of us setting music school curricula (faculty) were trained in this same system.  It seems normal to most of us; for the most part, we are blind to the fact that we are perpetuating the same sort of creative abuse that we may not even understand we experienced.  We don’t want to admit to ourselves that we could have had richer lives if we’d composed and improvised music.

The idea that the whole system, the system of which we are both products and perpetuators, is screwed up?  Too awful to for most of us even to contemplate.


Filed under creative process, crisis in classical music, future of classical music, future of college/university music education, improvisation, inner hearing, Uncategorized