Friday, August 5, 2011

Does Formal Training Stifle Creativity???

This post is mostly about creative people and their art. While I have quite a few creatively gifted children as well as  gifted extended relatives, I'm going to focus on my son, Alexander (Alex), in my discussion. The question I'm posing to you, my readers, is: "Does a university degree or formal "education" in an artist's expression such as a musical instrument, dance, mediums such as pen and ink, painting, mixed media etc., or voice training hinder or facilitate one's creative gift or gifts? From another perspective, "Does formal training in one's art damage or rob that person of his creative soul"?
Yesterday, my daughter, Tellanova, her fiance, my husband and myself discussed this topic over dinner. My daughter and her fiance  are professional musicians. Both of them attended the same elite music school in Boston, Massachusetts. One opinion presented was that formal training tends to remove spontaneous expression making one's art conform to the status quo of what is "normal" in that genre. Another perspective is that when exposed to a wealth of information from an "expert," one can glean tremendous knowledge that can only serve to make one's art eventually better. Indeed, in the early stages of study students may adhere to a strict standard, but eventually, over time, a student blends his own creative juices with the acquisition of formal training to produce a better product than if he had not been mentored by an expert in his field.

This question brings to mind my son Alex. Alex has never been to a prestigious music university, but he plays the piano quite well. Alex, a Filipino, came to our family when he was nine years old. While Alex is blind, he taught himself, while still in the Philippines, to play the piano. It didn't hurt that Alex has perfect pitch! Our family was stunned when we heard him play. I felt a tremendous responsibility to give him every opportunity I could to pursue his musical talent. So, when Alex was about eleven, I enrolled him in piano lessons with a classical piano teacher who had previous experience teaching people who are blind. Until then, Alex had only played the pop music he heard on the radio. (Alex also has a photographic memory.) Alex was quite accommodating to me, never complaining about his classical training and practicing everyday. As time passed, I noticed that Alex did not play the piano for fun anymore. He didn't seem to have any interest in music. His music, while playing the notes perfectly, lacked a sense of spirit. After, two years of classical training, I stopped the classical piano lessons. I thought that Alex would be overjoyed to be rid of the pesky scales and music by such composers as Bach, Mozart and Schubert. I imagined him with a big smile on his face, hammering out the pop tunes that he so loved.  Not so..... Alex didn't sit down at the piano again for almost two years after we had stopped the classical lessons. Those lessons had zapped him of his spontaneity and passion for music! I worried that he would never again return to the piano. I was so relieved when finally, he did sit down at the piano again and play.
This was an important lesson for me: what I think is an outstanding opportunity is not necessarily the best choice for someone. I'm just happy I realized that the classical lessons were hindering rather than furthering Alex's musical creativity before I made him take years and years of lessons. 
So, readers, do you have an opinion on this topic? Have you or someone you know actually had their artistic creativity harmed by "formal training"? I'd love to hear what you have to say!!


Ona said...

That's interesting. For myself formal lessons helped me the most. It showed me how to play and what there is to play. To me, when I make music (record), it's just whatever I want to play. Going over the basic major arpeggios over and over again with increasing speed is important for my style of playing, but if that is all I ever did, then of course I would lose the level of creativity I once had. It seems like practicing on creativity is just as important as practicing technique. I have some music books from the navy that have huge amounts of information - info that I would probably never think of doing.

There is a guitar player named Steve Vai. He went to Berklee as well. He's also one of the most creative musicians everrrrr. Here is a great example of what I'm saying:

When I was taking music theory, I learned what a diminished arpeggio sounds like. So I practiced and practiced. The sound comes from the minor third and the diminished fifth. I also learned about major chords - they sound happy. So after learning that, I put them together and found that it sounds really cool do play a major arpeggio and then another major arpeggio but up a diminished fifth. Sounds cool! I'll probably use it in my next recording.

My music site is if you want to check it out!

Sarah said...

Hi, Ona! I appreciate your comment on this topic!! I listened to your music on your site!! You are really good!! I enjoyed your music so much!! I don't play a musical instrument, so I don't understand about arpeggios and such.....I just know what sounds good to me. I think, for Alex, he felt a bit claustrophobic with all the musical scales and playing music that he was not naturally inclined to play. He does compose some of his own music. But, his personality is just not disposed to rigid study.
If I were to play an instrument, I would have to take lessons and only play music that was written by someone else. I'm not naturally creative musically to compose my own music.
When I was young, I was a ballet dancer. Actually, I even was a dancer in university classes, as well.But, the classes were so intense and overwhelming for me. The ballet master walked around the class with a cane ready to "pop" anyone who lost proper form. It was hard to find any encouagement in my art while in that environment. Personally, I think creativity within one's art is a balance of structure and having the freedom to create. Thank you, Ona, for your thoughts! God Bless You!