A piano student’s parent recently asked my opinion about what sounded like a standard music learning matter, totally unaware how coincidental the timing would prove to be.
When the theme of this month’s Echo was announced, the subject he raised was suddenly perfectly ripe for exploration!
His question concerned his kids’ music practice and how much emphasis should be placed on rehearsing songs and exercises designed to build knowledge and skills versus experimenting and creating original music. What is the value of each and how do you go about striking a balance between them?
And there it is: “balance”.
The theme of the Echo issue in your hands at the moment, and something we strive for in the arts as much as in any facet of life.
This inquiring parent (we’ll call him Mr. Smith) probably didn’t realize what a true Pandora’s box he was presenting me in simply asking for some advice on what constituted productive practice for his kids. His question may have seemed completely innocuous, yet it smacked of what is likely a millennia-old conundrum. How DO you learn an art so that you come to understand it well without stifling your own creative intelligence? What part of life and learning does this concept NOT relate to? Was my unspoken thought as I started extolling the virtues of nurturing both the imitator and the creator, making it clear that both should be respected as equally important parts of learning.
The dual pursuits of learning an art (or any craft, trade, or skill) are following a model or receiving instruction, and going freestyle in making your own creation. Both are vitally necessary to any artistic quest. Our probing curiosity to know the specifics of how something is done drives us to seek out sources of expertise. But our natural penchant for spontaneity will often reject that same expertise and indulge our impulses instead. Follow the recipe, or throw in some mystery ingredient? Read the directions, or just start cutting? Learn the steps, or bust a dope move?
On the surface, this might look like a dilemma: two opposing forces in conflict with each other.
Yet imitation and creation are quite closely related, and in fact, when it comes to music they are inseparable.
It’s actually difficult to invent a musical idea that DOESN’T have a perceivable pattern, a regular rhythm, or a phrased outline! This is true even for the youngest musical explorers. Since we all incubate in an echo chamber with a backdrop of the steady beat of mom’s heart, we are learning rhythms before we are born. And this continues as soon as we emerge. When do we first introduce children to music or rhymes? I’m going to guess it’s on day 1, if not earlier in utero. When do we first notice a toddler can begin clapping along? When do we first hear a child responding in sing-song?
Intended or not, we come preprogrammed with certain musical imprints right from birth and the world continually reinforces them through sound patterns in music and speech all around us. We easily pick these up. Our instinct for imitation is so strong that some of it we do unconsciously (there is even a whole music teaching method called Suzuki based on this innate ability). We start imitating and practicing sound patterns from the get-go, so it should be no surprise that we start using them very early on to create our own music.
It should also come as no surprise to discover that imitation and creation are completely intertwined.
The expression “two sides of the same coin” is very appropriate here, but arguably so is “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” since we are constantly alternating between the two roles: chicken (creator, of course) and egg (imitator—work with me here).
Ok, back to Mr. Smith’s question. As you get introduced to music or begin learning an instrument, how much focus should be placed on repeating or imitating what is already created and how much on exploring your own whims? Well naturally, we all begin with the basics that have been developed and honed by those who came before us. Once the basic skills are grasped, they can be applied to produce something original. In music, this means training the ear to recognize patterns, and the hands or voice to imitate them.
When the current skill set is outgrown, however, variety in original work can dry up. Back to imitation! This time to tackle some more complex elements and work on some finer skills which will, in turn, help form the next new creations.
Of course, imitation doesn’t give us the full picture of how music works. There is also what’s called music theory. This is the infinitely helpful explanation of the patterns and formulas used to create the music we listen to. It’s the key to understanding why something sounds good, strange, ugly, beautiful, scary, etc. Music theory is important to the creator since it provides the formulas to make music, but it’s only when the imitator repeats the examples in already existing music that we get a clear sense of how those formulas work.
So Mr. Smith, how should our time be split between copying and originating?
The balance will be lopsided at first. Mostly copying when we’re newbies. Then as we collect ideas from the songs we practice, we can begin experimenting with them in our own creations.
It should stand to reason that when searching for that new style, new flavor, or new sound, you need to have a basis of comparison. In other words, you need to spend time recreating what others have created before you. What inspires you to play music? Listening to great music someone plays! What inspires you to cook? Tasting great food someone prepares! Have some yin with your yang, some ebb with your flow. Give each it’s due, and you’ll achieve total harmony of your inner imitator and creator.
Cara Walsh Dorman teaches piano with an emphasis in creative exploration balanced with solid musicianship. Cara and her husband, Eddie Dorman, opened Muse School of Music 12 years ago to offer the community a fresh, spirited, and modern approach to music education. To reach Cara, email: firstname.lastname@example.org