Individuality, conformity, and music students

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?

Photo, sgrace
Photo, sgrace

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’?

5 thoughts on “Individuality, conformity, and music students”

  1. The totally out-there oboist (is there really such a creature!?) might be very self-satisfied with their free-form honks and screeches if performing all alone and only for themselves. But other than self-indulgence, what would be the point? A performing artist needs an audience, and Art must communicate something, or else it’s pointless.

    I think your analogy with learning French is apt because art, like language, is a complex dance between artist and audience. Both participants come together with certain knowledge, expectations, and levels of comfort with the unexpected.

    The audience/artist-knowledge-intersect might be represented as a Venn diagram. If the performer never strays from the common area, it’s a dull show. If they don’t have the chops to at least occasionally touch down in the audience’s familiarity area (and at precise moments of the skilled artist’s choosing), those sad folks in the chars will be left wondering why they didn’t just stay home.

  2. Yes.
    I remember going through the same exact situations, in both classical and jazz, in your studio. I am very grateful for the approach you took and that little hit of wiggle room I did get.

    When I started in your studio I was playing with an “antiquated” sound and I did switch to a more “American” sound and I am thankful for that. That is a generic sound, if you will, but I had to learn the basics in order to appreciate what would later become my sound, that is still in need of work. But I certainly this post hit the nail on the head in both the classical and jazz aspects of it.

  3. This is such an interesting topic, Bret, and one that (as you mentioned) arises constantly. As being primarily an improvising musician, I’m most likely prejudiced towards the importance of a personal sound. Even the concept of “blend” can be interpreted differently (at least within the context of the jazz idiom). Some of the best blends I’ve yet to hear in any saxophone section were those from the various versions of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Hodges, Carney, Webster, et. al, sounded so fundamentally unique and different from each other, yet blended together in such a gorgeous manner. Thank goodness there was no “standardized sound” they felt obliged to.

    Having said that, I really do think that one of the jobs of a good teacher is to teach choice. It’s highly valuable to learn to conceive of and shape one’s sound in a particular way. Not only for practical reasons (you’ll probably get called more, especially for the more generic gigs), but also, because this kind of imitation leads to deep listening, to really paying attention to detail, and learning to turn that into technique.

    As somebody who is multilingual, and has studied linguistics, I don’t agree completely with the foreign language metaphor, however. I think that when we’re learning jazz improvisation, we’re learning more than a new foreign language: we’re learning to create a new native language, meaning that we’re teaching our brains to process and recombine information in an entirely new way. So yes, for sure, if you’re studying French as a foreign language, it makes no sense to try to express yourself deeply and personally until you’ve learned more about the structure and sounds of the language. But my two-year old daughter can express herself quite authentically and immediately in her two native tongues, mistakes and all. And of course she learns by imitation. But from the start she was saying what she needed to say (within the limits of her skill and knowledge) in a very personal, immediate and authentic way.

    At any rate, sorry to go on for so long here. I’ve become quite interested in your blog, and always appreciate your depth of thought and practical advice. Thanks for that!


Leave a Comment

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.