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Mastery, Not "Creativity," Should Come First in Arts Education

By Andrew Balio

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October 16, 2015

(Editor’s note: The following article by Andrew Balio, principal trumpet player for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is the third part of a three-part essay on potentially damaging trends in the conservatory and university educations of classical musicians. The first appeared on October 14; the second on October 15.)

The last theme around which we find the loudest and most persistent arguments for the reform of our conservatories is the need for music programs to focus on the cultivation of creativity. What makes these arguments so powerful and so sinister is that they often begin from that old, familiar attitude of resentment. We hear it rumbling again just beneath the surface in statements made by The College Music Society’s Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major (TFUMM), which complains that

contemporary tertiary-level music study—with interpretive performance and analysis of European classical repertory at its center—remains lodged in a cultural, aesthetic, and pedagogical paradigm that is notably out of step with...broader reality.

At issue, of course, is the fact that the purpose of the traditional music education is to prepare students to participate and collaborate in “the performance and analysis of European classical repertory” at its highest levels. The “broader reality” to which they subscribe is reflected in the modern tendency to see that emphasis as not only a slight to those who will fail to achieve those ends, but as a real offense to those who, like the Task Force, reject that purpose and the primacy of the European classical canon itself. 

It’s not far to step from resentment of the Western classical heritage to disdain for the tradition of “interpretive performance.” Each has bequeathed to us—and depends upon—the other. And so we should look with great skepticism upon those would like us to think that, as the TFUMM suggests,

Were Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt alive today, their musical lives would likely more closely resemble those of today’s creative jazz artists and other improvisers-composers-performers than interpretive performance specialists whose primary focus is repertory created in, and for, another time and place. 

We should take the time to acknowledge several glaring problems with this astonishingly bold assertion, because they will point us towards the mistakes that underlie our present obsession with creativity. To begin with the most obvious error: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, and especially Clara Schumann were trained, in the first place, as interpretive performers. Clara was in fact an “interpretive performance specialist” for the whole of her career. It would be generous to call this statement misleading

But the most important thing to notice about this mischaracterization, is the slippery presumption folded insidiously into it: that Clara’s focus as an “interpretive performance specialist” would have been therefore “repertory created in, and for, another time and place.” Now here is an idea that only a modern could have. And the narrow-mindedness of it would have confounded Clara Schumann – and indeed any of the artists in earlier eras, who all saw themselves as participants in a great and continuous tradition stretching beyond any particular time and place. The idea that the past masters reveal to us through their works something not only relevant but crucial to the vitality and success of all our present and future endeavors was not peculiar to the Renaissance. In fact it lasted until rather recently.

Master painter, teacher, and author Juliette Aristides notes

However, [that] in the cultural climate that exists today this pattern of receiving an artistic heritage and either building on it or reacting against it has been broken. Many contemporary artists acknowledge no relationship at all to the art of the past. 

This break with the past precedes our dismissal of both the canon and the tradition that created and sustains it. If we have no relation to one, then we have no relation to the other. It also justifies and reinforces our resentment. And for this reason, we should not be at all surprised that the revolutionary program for higher education requires that we sweep away the “irrelevant” works “created in, and for, another time and place,” be they musical compositions, paintings, literature, or even architecture. Though most will quickly protest that their vision is not so extreme, those who call for this kind of revolution in our conservatories are in fact only following their successful brothers-in-arms whose absolutism effectively destroyed our schools of art and architecture. I will return that cautionary tale later. 

It is a mistake steeped in the antihistoricism of ideology to imagine that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, and Schumann (Clara or Robert) saw themselves and their music in this particularly modern light—that they imagined themselves as standing outside of and apart from their musical heritage, bound to the times they were living in, and creators of something entirely original. And from it flows the chief mistake in likening them to “creative jazz artists” of idolizing them not for their place in and propagation of the tradition, but for what we imagine is their inherent originality.

This is a difficult subject and what I just said will no doubt rub many people the wrong way. And that is because we are generally convinced that there is no objective standard by which to judge art. We have rejected the traditional standards of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness as purely subjective: what is beautiful to you might be unappealing to me, your truth might be different from my truth, etc.—and there is no way to judge between them. But if there is nothing aesthetically objective by which to judge a created thing, we are left to judge it by its creativity alone. And this is what we accept as the point of art today. Judged only in this light, it is impossible to distinguish a complex, highly structured, masterly crafted Bach fugue from a stunt like John Cage’s 4’33.And if you point out that even you could have written the score for Cage’s four and half minutes of silence—as if to differentiate the stunt from the skill with which Bach composed his fugues—a quick answer will remind you sharply that creativity was the point: “But you didn’t.” 

Creativity becomes a great equalizer wielded in this way. A childlike scribble can be as important as one of da Vinci’s sketches, a pickled shark as monumental as Michelangelo’s David. And when you walk through our museums of modern art, you can see how convinced of the idea we are. It’s little wonder that creativity, like social justice and disruptive innovation, has become a holy grail for those who have taken up the reformation of our music schools. The cry goes up that we are stifling creativity, or at least not encouraging it as we should, as the TFUMM’s “Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors” attests:

Ironically, while appeals for inclusion of the arts in overall education are often grounded in the need to cultivate creativity in all students, music study has long been predicated on the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance. 

It may be true that the popular argument for including arts in general education today cites “the need to cultivate creativity,” and if it does, then that is a serious problem in itself. But it is certainly true that “music study has long been predicated on the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance.” In fact, this was true for students of art, as well. As the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds said in his presidential address to the Royal Academy when it opened in 1769,

I would chiefly recommend that an implicit obedience to the rules of art, as established by the great masters, should be exacted from the young students. That those models, which have passed through the approbation of ages, should be considered by them as perfect and infallible guides as subjects for their imitation, not their criticism. I am confident that this is the only efficacious method of making a progress in the arts; and that he who sets out with doubting will find life finished before he becomes master of the rudiments. …Every opportunity, therefore, should be taken to discountenance that false and vulgar opinion that rules are the fetters of genius. They are fetters only to men of no genius….

The discipline and pursuit of technical proficiency, of course, is not antithetical to creativity and was the rule throughout the periods of history that produced our civilization’s greatest art. Juliette Aristides notes that, “Historically, the practice of master copying was a central component in the methods of training painters; it started at the very beginning of a student’s training and often lasted long after the individual had reached mastery.” She added:

‘Copying,’ [Eugène] Delacroix wrote, ‘herein lay the education of most of the great masters. They first learned their master’s style as an apprentice is taught how to make a knife, without seeking to show their own originality. Afterwards, they copied everything they could lay hands on among the works of past or contemporary artists.’

It was the same, of course, for the musical training of history’s great composers. “Interpretive performance,” a form of “copying,” has been the central component of a musical education from the very beginning. And there is one more, very important reason for that fact: music, unlike art, only exists when it is being performed. It is not like a painting, which only needs to be painted once in order for us to experience it fully. The composition of a painting never changes; when we come back to it, it is always exactly as it was, and only we change. But music only exists when we are hearing it. It must be “copied” again and again and over again; and every copy is different like every human fingerprint is different. It changes and we change, each time we hear it. And if we cease to play Beethoven’s symphonies—or if we fail to cultivate in the next generation of musicians the skills and the love necessary to faithfully “copy” them—then in a very real sense they will cease to be.

What the revolutionaries and reformers, in their zeal, also seem to forget is that the vast majority of musicians – that majority they profess to have always in mind—even in Bach’s, Beethoven’s, Mozart’s, Liszt’s, or Schumann’s time, were interpretive performers. Though they’d like to imagine it otherwise, we can safely say that virtually none of us are born with creative powers even remotely equal to those of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart. In fact, we’d be lucky to have one such genius in our midst during the course of an age. And I think that even today, most of the students who enter our conservatories do so, not because they believe they are in line to be the next Mozart, but because they love performing the music that has found its way into our canon – and the time and energy they’ve invested in learning to be worthy of playing it attests to that fact. It’s part of the great miracle of classical music that the preponderance of musicians who have come and gone throughout the long course of its history were interpretive performers inspired to play “repertory created in, and for, another time and place”—overlooking for the moment the sophistry already mentioned, and taking that phrase to mean instead “music composed before one’s lifetime”—because if they weren’t, we’d know little or nothing about the music of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart today. Perhaps that’s fine with the Modernists, but I think the rest of us would object loudly.

It seems to be a triumphal bit of amnesia that confidently injects the modern reformer’s rhetoric with that “false and vulgar opinion” that “the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency” is somehow a detriment to the development of a student’s creative genius. But it’s an argument that is as popular as it is unexamined. A former music critic who is now one of the Internet's most popular bloggers on the future of classical music—and who admittedly would “like to run a music school”—weighs in:

Music schools don’t encourage creativity. ...I’m not saying that their teaching might not be on a high level, but mostly it’s on a high level of doing what the rest of the classical music world does, making music the way your teachers, your chamber music coaches, and the conductors you play for expect it to be made. …But art students, I’m going to guess, are doing varied, original things, because that’s what they see in the art world.

We are invited over and over again to compare our conservatories to our art schools. And it’s a useful comparison, though not in the way the reformers think it is. Art schools already and thoroughly made the mistake—according to Julia Aristedes—that the musical academy is being encouraged to make:

In our arts climate, historical education and art training are often considered antithetical to genius. Rising artists are frequently expected to tap their knowledge directly from the ether, disconnected from history and labor. However, when the instincts of the individual are elevated above education, the artist can become stuck in a perpetual adolescence where his passion outstrips his ability to perform. A far more powerful art form is created when artists seek to first master the craft of art and then use it to express their individuality.

But it is hard to convince us of this because we really want to believe that technical proficiency—which concerns itself ultimately with Beauty, Truth, and Goodness—is a dictatorial grey area eclipsed by the shining genius of innate creativity. And after all, if four and a half minutes of silence can stand next to one of Bach’s fugues as a work of creativity, why do we need to bother with technical proficiency? Of course, when faced with this absurdity, we realize that there is something that precedes creativity, just as we know that there is a way for creativity to reach beyond technicality. Sir Reynolds described it this way: 

How much liberty may be taken to break through those rules, and, as the poet expresses it, “To snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,” may be an after consideration, when the pupils become masters themselves. It is then, when their genius has received its utmost improvement, that rules may possibly be dispensed with. But let us not destroy the scaffold until we have raised the building. 

The problem is that the project of our art schools, and the project of reforming our conservatories, has become rather to raze the building.

Art Schools and the Atelier Movement: A Cautionary Tale 

Music conservatories have until now largely resisted the impulses that have transformed our art schools. But art schools long ago succumbed to the delusion that sets creativity and originality ahead of discipline. They long ago embraced the widespread cultural rebellion against tradition in all its forms; generations ago they rejected the practice of “teaching as it was taught to me.” They have effectively broken with the past. They’re even wildly successful at turning out entrepreneurs: modern artists are now rolling their “art” off of assembly lines straight into museums. A 2011 Wall Street Journal article by Stan Sesser, “The Art Assembly Line” described this phenomenon:

Alexander Gorlizki is an up-and-coming artist…[whose] work has been displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Denver Art Museum and Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, among others, and sells for up to $10,000. Mr. Gorlizki lives in New York City. The paintings are done by seven artists who work for him in Jaipur, India. “I prefer not to be involved in actually painting,” says Mr. Gorlizki, who adds that it would take him 20 years to develop the skills of his chief Indian painter, Riyaz Uddin. “It liberates me not being encumbered by the technical proficiency,” he says.

We don’t have to squint to see where this road that our reformers are rushing down ends. Indeed we are fortunate to have such an explicit example to study. Before we bid our conservatories follow our art schools into the great modern experiment, then, we ought to ask ourselves—and consider carefully—whether or not the experiment has been successful. 

There is a growing movement of students and artists who are convinced that the answer is no. They are flocking to ateliers that continue to spring up all over the world. The modern atelier movement is the correction to the art schools that first abdicated their responsibility to teach technical proficiency and tradition—and subsequently lost the ability to do so altogether. Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, wrote in his foreword to Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice that:

Against all odds and facing ridicule, a handful of artists who were still academically trained managed to preserve the core technical knowledge of Western art and to continue the process of teaching another generation. There is now a growing movement of artists demanding to be taught the classical methods. They are part of a new Renaissance that has brought the atelier method full circle and back into the art world of today.

The atelier is an artist’s workshop, set up much as it was 150 years ago and with its roots in the guilds of the early Renaissance. It is the place where a student trains for many years under the careful, meticulous, and demanding eye of a master artist. Often, only a handful of promising students are accepted at any one time, and they are immersed in the intensively slow and steady process of acquiring technical proficiency, of mastering foundational principles, and of realizing the historic artistic achievements upon which the tradition of Western art has been built. Juliette Aristides was trained in an atelier and now trains her students the same way:

The atelier movement attempts to rebuild the links between masterpieces of the past and our artistic future. As such, it sets a different course than the one prescribed by the arts establishment of the modern era. By reinvigorating arts education we can give the next generation of artists the tools that have been lost or discarded over the last one hundred and fifty years.

As serious students of art begin to realize that they do have the option of learning the tradition and the disciplines that art schools cannot – or do not – offer, art schools in turn are starting to realize that serious art students are willing to forego the accredited college degree—along with the possibility of a university career, a steady salary, and tenure, to say nothing of the approbation of the art establishment—in exchange for the opportunity to learn the craft, to master technical proficiency, and to spend their time tediously copying history’s masterpieces. Their ambition is fired by love for, not resentment of, the canon and its creators—and by a burning desire, which perseveres in the face of failure, to participate in the long and living tradition that is our Western heritage. As Peter Trippi, editor-in-chief of Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine, points out:

[A]telier enrollments have continued to soar nationwide…. These enrollments have slowly been “stealing” business from mainstream university art departments, so some are now responding by creating their own programs in this vein. 

It is very possible that the music academy, if it proceeds in the proposed march toward “relevance,” “reform,” and “progress,” will make itself irrelevant just as art schools have. 

Can we say, then, that all is well in the world of higher music education on this side of the pond? For now, the nation’s very best music schools continue to ignore the leveling trends and still reliably produce the world’s top musical talent, with the technical proficiency, confidence, and maturity to faithfully perform the great works that were handed down to us. Occasionally—no more often than we might expect it to happen—a creative talent rises visibly from the cohort, perhaps one day to join the canon and the masters at whose feet he studied.

If our music schools are in danger, the danger is a knowable one that rumbles predictably and pharisaically. The course of man, like the labor of the student, was always fraught with mistakes. But the tale of higher art education is ultimately a hopeful one. For there will always be those students who, hungry to participate in that transcendent experience that is the miracle of classical music, will seek out and heed the advice of Cennino D’Andrea Cennini, imparted to us in Il Libro dell’Arte at the dawn of the 15th century—ever as fresh as the day he inscribed it: 

You, therefore, who with lofty spirit are fired with this ambition, and are about to enter the profession, begin by decking yourselves with this attire: Enthusiasm, Reverence, Obedience, and Constancy. And begin to submit yourself to the direction of a master of instruction as early as you can; and do not leave the master until you have to.

 


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