Write or woodshed? More on Edberg’s post

A quote from Eric Edberg’s review of Zoe Keating’s performance:

“She has great technical chops for what she does. At the same time, she probably couldn’t play much of the virtuosic solo classical repertoire. This is not a criticism, just a fascinated observation. She rarely plays in what cellists call thumb position, where the thumb is on top of the fingerboard. When she does, she doesn’t go very far up … [M]aybe she can do what she does because she didn’t spend years killing off her creativity, learning to play this sort of thing.”

This jumped out at me as a possible oversimplification only because I’ve been running into the same annoyance lately. I often say that the second thing that popped into my head after I realized I could write music was, “I can’t do this and keep studying viola.” (The first thing was, “HOLY SHIT!”) I knew that when I had achieved the epiphany I needed in order to write music, that mechanical woodshedding had to give way on the viola; I couldn’t be 30,000′ off the ground and a half-inch off the ground at the same time.

What I hadn’t realized at the time was that the same thing went for the piano as well. It takes an unbelievable amount of time to get really, really good technique-wise. Really. If you want to play Rach, you really do have to devote your life to mastering technique uber alles.

But if you are composing, that also pretty much owns your brain. It seems that the only people who can do both are people who started young enough that they were able to accumulate insane amounts of technique before they realized what was happening (Rach).

So I am constantly struggling to master a certain bit of technique I need, and will invariably be blindsided by another idea. Or I will be in the middle of writing a piece, as I was with the canon-y thing, “Before the Fire,” and working my @$$ off figuring out how to hit that crazy 5-note monster chord reliably, not rolling the sixths, hitting the octaves cleanly and not losing the top note … but meanwhile, I can’t devote too much mental space to that, because I’m still writing the blasted thing.

So I don’t know if technique really murders creativity in quite the way that Edberg was talking about. Certainly, being judged in a hostile fashion on technique will murder one’s ability to perform. When audiences are uniformly against you (as they often are for young classical performers, let’s face it), that will kill your musicality. But for me, I haven’t found that technique inherently harms my spirit or anything.

It just sucks up too much time. Maybe I could do both if I found myself a winning lottery ticket or a senile 90-year old Texas oil baron, but until then, I balance my free time like a wirewalker, and for now, I value my own writing more than finally getting a decent trill down. I imagine Keating feels the same. She could either take the mornings that she devotes to music and spend that time getting her own ideas down and moving toward completion on her own projects, or she could crank out four hours of thumb position exercises. The exercises would “kill” her creativity only because they would occupy the four hours that she would otherwise spend on creating her own stuff.

You can only do so many things in a day. I’m a pianist who works at a non-musical job for a living, and a fairly demanding one. Keating is what amounts to a small international business owner and a cellist at the same time. Another finished piece, or flawless thumb position? You really have to pick your battles.


One comment on “Write or woodshed? More on Edberg’s post

  1. […] guess it’s another way of looking at the question of whether one can be creative and also master thumb position. Maybe if there were 42 hours in a day (and maybe if the virtuoso demands on classical musicians […]

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