Music education and creativity

Whenever I teach piano to young kids, I’m aware that every time I teach them something, I have to try not to limit them at the same time.

Here’s what I mean:

When a young child plays the piano for the first time, before lessons, everything’s a “blank slate.” Sure, they might not be able to play a song yet, but they have the freedom to try anything, provided they want to. (I wish we as adults still had that freedom!)

“What do these notes sound like?
“What if I play with my whole hand?
“Wow – it’s fun to bounce my fingers on these black keys!”

And if the child stays with it and comes back the next day or week, they’ll stumble upon something that sounds great. Alive and full of energy. And what’s more, they’ve done it all on their own!

So what happens when I show them something? First, they’ll learn to play it, and that’s a good thing. But secondly, they’ll tend to stop experimenting on their own. After all, now it’s become “practice,” not “play.” They’ve learned a “rule” like “place your hands here” or “play with a nice tone.” But this means they’ll stop placing their hands “there” or playing with a different tone.

This is necessary, of course, in order to learn the instrument. But at the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could still play with the creativity they played with before the first lesson?

The same thing continues at every stage. You can even hear it in jazz, which is supposedly the music of self-expression. A teenager learns a few Charlie Parker licks and all of a sudden she sounds like every other jazz pianist. Why? What’s going on here? Or they learn their A and B chord voicings and spend the next 10 years comping like a thousand other jazzers. It’s not exactly self-expression anymore, is it?

Is there any way to avoid this?

Yes, there is. But it takes a big effort on the part of us teachers (and students) to stay creative at the same time that we’re teaching/learning a highly specific and technical musical language.

The great musicians have managed to do this. They’ve mastered their particular musical idiom at the same time they’ve developed a personal sound and style. But this isn’t just for them. If they can do it, we can too. And when we’re teaching a piano student, it’s our job and responsibility to show them how to do it too. This applies to every style of music, from jazz and classical to rock, pop, and gospel. It’s not a question of imitating someone else for 20 years before you can start developing your own style. You have your own speaking voice and you can have your own instrumental sound and style as well. Start working on this from the very beginning and you’ll be a much happier and expressive pianist. Don’t wait. Start now. (It’s worth it.)

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