After complaining to my friend about a ridiculously long and uninspiring practice session, he asked me:
“So I don’t really understand how being a classical musician is creative?”
I was insulted. I immediately went on the self-righteous “excuse me!?” defensive, and told him to get stuffed. But then after reflecting on my previous whinging about the constant long practice sessions, how my left-hand inadequacies are directly correlated to my feelings of inadequacy, and how “my paradiddles sound like fart”, I totally understood that I wasn’t being day-to-day creative. I then started to entertain the thought that my lack of daily spontaneity was contributing to my constant state of depression and anxiety.
I started to question why this was the case. I figured that the classical music world is extremely competitive and relies on precision, as the ‘good’ players are the ones considered to be the most consistent and accurate. I guess when audiences see an orchestra, they want to hear a performance that’s completely faithful to the composers score. So therefore, I justified that a lot of the work I was doing was for the purpose of being consistent and reliable, and as a result my practice was always uncreative.
I think many classical musicians feel the same way about their practice. Preparing for a performance or for an audition is like preparing for a sporting event, highlighted in the plain fact that sport psychology directly relates to music psychology. However, treating what we do like a sport can make it difficult to create spontaneous and creative music. So many times I’d go through periods of super intense technique practice, and come out feeling like a total music boss. Yet when I’d perform a piece to someone, everything would feel great under the hands, but my whole performance came across as rigid and uninspired because I was so focused on the technical details rather than the bigger picture.
I guess with more people pursuing classical music in the context of an institution, and with the general standard of playing getting better all the time, it’s easy to feel like you’re falling behind the rest of the pack. And in a world where classical music mainly exists inside institutions, the focus, of course, will be on the ‘textbook’ side of music rather than the creative side. Textbooks aren’t all that bad though, as they teach you how to be accurate, consistent, and how to perform a piece artistically appropriate to a given style. However, textbooks can’t teach you how to be creative and find your unique voice and sound.
I’ve had music friends tell me that institutions aren’t the place to find your creative voice; they’re a place for learning the essential basics and foundations, and you discover how to be a musician in the ‘real world’. But with so many classical musicians suffering from depression and playing injuries, maybe we need more creativity and less rigidity in both our institutions and in our approach to performing.
As well as loving classical music, I am a shameless pop music addict, and I often draw comparisons between my two favourite music worlds. While the haters may say pop music is vapid and soulless in comparison to the lush and intricate counterpoint of a Beethoven Sonata, the energy of a pop music show undoubtedly eclipses that of a classical music gig. Of course classical and pop music performances are inherently different for a multitude of reasons, but the one thing classical music can take from pop music is the palpable creative energy and spontaneity onstage. Even though there may not be much room for spontaneity in an orchestral context, I believe through our rigorous, machine-like processes and practice sessions, we are sacrificing creative energy (and our sanity) for the desire to be a particular kind of ‘perfect’ when we perform.
And it’s not just us. When world famous Chinese pianist Yundi Li completely messed up a performance of a piano concerto last year, audience members demanded a refund. A pianist featured on the Facebook page Humans of New York in March 2015 also reflects on audience expectation for perfection. Although we’re not all world-class musicians, the pressure we feel from our audiences is very real, and in combination with the pressure we put on ourselves, it can all be a little too much.
For the most part, I’ve had teachers who are conscious and supportive of my mental health, but it’s still easy to become depressed and disengaged after hours of ‘necessary’ uncreative practice. However, it’s possible to get yourself out of a rut. Whenever I started to become desperately frustrated with the process, I began to think about being creative and spontaneous in the practice room. I would read more, or see more gigs, or try to absorb other forms of art. I’d constantly remind myself that technique is not the goal but an unsaid part of the creative process.
A teacher once told me to be the Beyoncé of my instrument, and although I laughed a lot when he said it and hoped it would never happen because Beyoncé would undoubtedly become the better marimbist, it’s such a great thought. Creative energy, individuality, and raw fierceness is attractive and contagious, and people love to watch it. However, the biggest killer of creativity is rigidity and the desire to be a particular type of perfect. That’s not to say we can’t aim for perfection, I just believe we shouldn’t be bound by it.
I think if we work harder on finding our creative identity within a classical music construct, it will make the whole process much more enjoyable for performers and audiences alike. Because even though classical music can sound inspiring and creative, the process can straight out suck. If we can focus on our creativity more than our imperfections, I think we will be happier as a whole and will make more inspired and exciting music.
I leave you with the most awesome orchestral video on the internet.
Now get practicing.