Category Archives: inner hearing

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

And the ear shall lead them

The fingers, I mean.  I haven’t written a cello post for a while, and I’m in a writing mood, so here goes.

You can’t play (well) what you don’t hear in your imagination.

This is probably the single most overlooked fact of string-playing life.  Many teachers don’t talk (enough)about it or hammer it in enough.  Some, it seems, assume that students do hear things.  Maybe those teachers have “great ears” and automatically hear thing themselves.  Some (inexperienced) teachers may not realize how important it is because they haven’t discovered it for themselves.  We might call it the deaf-leading-the-deaf syndrome.

The movements we make on the cello are visible.  The finger tip goes to the right place, and the right note comes out.  So much of teaching focuses on what the student and teacher can see.  Where things go and how to get them there.

A cellist sits in front of you me.  I whisper in her ear.  She plays just one note.

You listen. Was it the right note or a wrong one?  Did she play the note I asked for?

There’s no way for you to know.

We repeat the experiment.  This time, I hum a pitch into your ear before she plays.  I didn’t tell her what to play, I hummed it to her, it turns out.

Now you know if she plays the intended note or not.

You or I sit behind with our cello.  There’s a note, or a series of them on the page.  In high positions.  In, perhaps, a clef we haven’t quite learned to read.

We deduce where our left fingers probably should go.  We put them there.  Something comes out.

Is that really it?

We don’t know, because we don’t know how it is supposed to sound.

As a teacher, I see this a lot.  It shows up often in passages that have chromaticisms (notes outside the key) and modulations (changing keys) and are written in clefs (tenor and treble) and positions (especially higher than fourth) that are unfamiliar to the student.  The fingers may be in the right general vicinity, but a quarter or half or full inch makes a huge difference.  Emphasis on huge.

I used to tell students where to move their fingers.  Now I first make sure they now what it’s supposed to sound like.  It’s quick to diagnose;  just try singing it.  If you can’t, you aren’t hearing it.

What I like to do is to have the student go to the piano, play the notes and sing along, and then go back to the cello.  Most of the time, voila!–it’s cured.  The fingers magically go to the right place.

The ear has led the fingers.  It has taught the hand where to go.

It also works to play it on the cello for the student, but going to the piano is especially useful.  Using it makes clear that it’s an aural thing.  There’s not question that by watching the teacher’s hand, the student has just figured out better where to put hers or his.  It also shows the student that the process can be done without the teacher.

When I was sixteen, I found I played better and more in tune after I’d listened to a recording, especially one by Rostropovich.  It didn’t last all that long, this “Rostropovich effect,” and it puzzled me.  What I understand now is that I was imagining Rostropovich, hearing Rostropovich in my inner ear for a while, and that not only energized me but had me hearing, had my ear guiding my hand.

So that’s my cello advice for today.  Make sure you hear it before you play it.  Cello playing works a lot better when you do.


Filed under cello playing, inner hearing, intonation, Rostropovich, Uncategorized