I found myself relating to Jennet Ingle’s recent blog post about an independently-thinking oboe student and the subjective qualities of tone. I related both to the student and to the teacher.
… I had to lecture a student on Sound a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe how uncomfortable it made me. It is truly such a personal thing. I felt like I was criticizing his smell, or his personality – it was that delicate for me.
I don’t actually think I am leading him wrong in insisting that he sound more “American” to fit in at his Midwestern college – but I hated telling him so. I would love for him to use his own unique voice and have it be accepted for what it is. But instead I have to encourage him to get more generic, and to sound more like everyone else. This rubs me wrong, philosophically.
I have been in the position as a student of trying to do something that I think is a personal artistic expression, and being told that I need to toe the line. I have also been in the position as a teacher of watching a student pursue an individual course that conflicts with what I am trying to teach.
Should music students (or students in any kind of artistic field, for that matter) be expected to conform, or allowed to explore freely? By letting a student do his or her “thing,” am I incubating innovative, boundary-smashing Art? Or am I failing a student by not grooming them in the established tradition?
I’ve dealt with this question previously in discussing jazz improvisation education:
When a person learns a foreign language, they learn first to repeat some standard useful phrases. Then they learn to rearrange the vocabulary and syntax of those phrases to create new ones. Over a lifetime of study and practice, they may learn the language well enough to speak or write with their own distinctive creative voice. But if a student tries on the first day of French class to be creative and original, they aren’t likely to make much sense. To speak the language, you need to hear it, imitate it, and then repeat over and over. Genuine individual originality comes much, much later.
But I also wrote this:
Classical musicians hold themselves to very high—and very specific—standards when it comes to tone. But in jazz, we take what we consider a more open-minded approach. In jazz, the fact that my tone doesn’t meet classical standards doesn’t mean that I’m undisciplined. It means that I’m an individual. I worked just as long and hard to develop my sound as you did. It’s not that I’m unconcerned about my tone; it’s that I’m unconcerned about yours.
Here’s how I reconcile it all. This a comment I wrote on Jennet’s blog post:
I sometimes tell my students, “You can play it your way after you have mastered what I am teaching you.” Rather than trying to teach them an artistic point of view, we can teach them the skills, techniques, and traditions that are part of the current general consensus about oboe playing, then send them into the world equipped with those “marketable” skills PLUS their unique slant. Many of those students are then able to blend the best parts of their unique voice with the more traditional/mainstream approach.
Students aren’t “wrong” for having an individual approach, but they do need us to teach them the skills of fitting into typical musical situations.
What I’m getting at here is that a well-rounded musician needs both: a firm grasp of the tradition, and a taste for freedom and discovery. Innovations aren’t made in a vacuum; they happen in context of what has come before.
In most cases, I am inclined to think that music majors at an undergraduate level (including my past self) need a large dose of tradition and just a little bit of wiggle room. Students in English class are being required to write according to strict grammatical rules, aren’t they?, and science students are being made to replicate other people’s experiments—they learn to go by the book first, and explore later. But, on the other hand, I want my students to get comfortable with the idea of making artistic choices autonomously.
I try to achieve this balance by not teaching repertoire by rote, but by teaching guidelines that students can use to make educated interpretive decisions (even if those decisions are somewhat formulaic, at least at first). Then, if they wish to do something a little off the beaten path, the decision can be an educated, considered one. Their artistic “intuition” can be grounded in experience and executed with skill—not the result of rebellion for rebellion’s sake, and not the result of flailing.
How do you balance individuality with conformity in your own playing, or in your students’?