When is one ready to be creative?

We Drove Eight Hours To Hear Zoe — a great review of a Keating performance from the point of view of more traditionally classical cello professor (and even he’s a bit off the beaten path) Eric Edberg

Toward the end of the review, he starts moving into territory that I’ve gotten more and more interested in: the fact that there are meaningful things to say on an instrument at any ability level. We forget this. In the past, I’ve used the example of Dennis DeYoung’s awful trill at the beginning of “Come Sail Away.” Thank dawg he didn’t imagine that he had no right to write that wonderful piece of music until he got that trill under control. He had something wonderful to say, and he said it. Andre Watts or Yuja Wang would bury Billy Joel in any technique-based contest, but … who cares? Look what Joel’s done. We should all be grateful that he didn’t wait until he was in his 50s and had acquired the technique needed to play Rachmaninoff before he began writing music. Any conservatory kid could play “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” but which of them could write it?

Classical training is about technique mastery. I’m not about to say that that’s bad. It’s not, inherently. The more things you can do on an instrument, the more things you can say on it. This is why many of the best composers began studying their instruments young; they had the time to acquire amazing technique, and then when they started wanting to say things of their own, they could do so without being impeded by the instrument. Their instrument wasn’t an obstacle between them and what they wanted to get across.

The problem is that the classical world often acts as if the technique is its own endpoint, and it is to be used to speak someone else’s truth on the instrument, and not your own. I recall hearing an interview with Renee Fleming where she talked about having a masterclass and telling the kids there that they were “too young” to worry about artistry and that their job is to acquire technique, that artistry won’t come into play until they are in their 40s. Now, I admire Fleming and love to listen to her, but she’s way off base here! Could you imagine what we would have lost had someone said that to Steve Perry? Aretha Franklin? Pat Benatar? Sam Cooke? Art Garfunkel? Jesus! How lucky we are that no one told them that.

How lucky we are that no one told Mozart that! He was dead by 36. He had studied technique since he was a little kid, but he was also studying composition from that age as well. Okay, you can say, “Yes, but he was Mozart,” but … he wasn’t Mozart the 300-Year-Old Mega Genius when he was six, was he? He was just Wolfie the bright little kid from that musical family with the pushy stage father. How do we think he got to be Mozart the Mega Genius? It wasn’t by having people tell him that Bach got to improvise and write music because … well, he was Bach and you’re not.

There are meaningful things to say on an instrument at any ability level.

In fact, some of the most meaningful things can be said below the virtuoso level, because very often, the only thing that seriously virtuoso pieces say is, “Look at me!

I analogize music — as I do everything — to language. No one would consider that the fast-talking guy from the Federal Express commercials in the 1980s was a Great Orator. But … look how fast he can talk! Wow! What a … brilliant and moving speechmaker?

Not quite.

On the other side of the spectrum, no one would imagine that Nelson Mandela is not indeed a very moving speechmaker simply because he didn’t acquire English as a child and hence is not a native speaker. Or that Jo Rowling isn’t a moving speechmaker because, coming from a different “school of speech” (speaking with an accent that’s not the same as mine, which is always the gold standard, right?), her ideas are invalid to anyone who doesn’t say their vowels the same way she does. Neither of them pronounce their r’s the same way some native speakers do so they … don’t say anything worth listening to?

Again, not quite.

In fact, the non-native accent of a speaker who didn’t acquire a language natively can actually be an artistic plus. Many people love listening to a foreign accent, and many of the large variety of native accents (I’m thinking of Welsh and Irish here) originated as bone fide foreign accents that acquired lives of their own. And they can add a zest and charming flair to someone’s words, over and above the meaning of the words themselves (as can the native accent of a speaker who acquired a different version of the language as a child than I did).

There are meaningful things to say on an instrument at any ability level.

There are meaningful things to say on an instrument at any ability level.

There are meaningful things to say on an instrument at any ability level.

And if you wait until someone else tells you that you’re ready to say them, you’ll wait for a very long time. There will always be someone out there (or inside your head) ready to tell you you’re not good enough yet. Don’t listen. Start now.

Also, in a very nuts-and-bolts purely left-brained sense, it’s foolish to wait to acquire a skill that one wants to acquire, be that skill trilling or composing. We don’t teach kids how to shift on a cello by telling them, “You aren’t ready yet. When you’re in your 50s, you’ll be ready. Until then, it’s far too difficult.” Of course it’s far too difficult if you wait until long past the point of any sanity to teach them to do it. Why do we do this when it comes to composing? “It’s far too hard, so we won’t teach you for another few decades.” If it’s that hard, then again — start now.

And the classical music world wonders why the Age of the Great Composers™ is over. Oy.