One of the things that makes improvisation so challenging for many classical musicians is that we are so often in the mindset of being correct rather than creative. Especially in the post-WWII period, classical musicians developed a “modern” approach which I call textualist. It’s summed up by the philosophy that the performers purpose is to play (or sing) exactly what is on the page (the text), no more, no less. Sometimes the word “execute” is used, as in, “the performer ‘executes’ the score.”
Execute is an apropos term, because the more rigidly textualist we become, the more we often “execute” (as in officially murder) our creativity.
I am not suggesting here that it is not essential to a good performance of classical music to know the score inside and out, and to be acutely aware of tempo, dynamic, and articulation markings. Nor am I suggesting that any of these things should be ignored.
With the vast majority of composers, however, there is much more to the music than the text of the score. There is the need to use one’s intelligence, experience, and intuition to develop a sense of the human meaning (the emotions, the feelings, the images) the music is meant to express and/or evoke.
Scholars of performance practice argue about these issues endlessly, and this is not the time or place to fight those battles once again. The important point is that many classical players are taught not to put their “self” into the music.
When it comes to interpretive matters, the developing interpretive ideas of students are often “executed” when a teacher dictates an interpretation. The student is not allowed to develop her or his own ideas. Instead, the teacher’s interpretation is substituted for what the student may have been able to develop.
On top of all that is the never-ending quest for technical perfection. Technical perfection is an elusive goal, one that is achieved by a very few people. The rest of us may find we sacrifice our very selves, our souls, in the process of trying to accomplish it.
It’s not unusual for an experienced, burned-out classical player new to Music for People to half-joking announce, “I’m in recovery from my classical training.” My own crises regarding my playing have resulted from trying to play perfectly. (Ironically, my playing usually achieves a higher technical level when I am in good cello shape but not trying to play perfectly, or impressively, but rather to play with imagination and feeling. And I am far from alone in this.)
Technical perfection. Playing correctly. Playing not my ideas and interpretation, but the correct interpretation. Trying to play just like my teacher, or some favorite artist. If playing an orchestra audition or in a competition, trying to play both technically perfectly and in a fairly neutral, yet musical, manner that will not offend any of the judges.
The fear and anxiety these burdens create are tremendous. And when a player’s self-esteem is bound up in how “good” a player is, who she’s “better” than, etc., it is a wonder that more of us classical players aren’t in sanitariums. (Maybe it’s because so few of us have health insurance!)
The “correctness = good, creativity = bad” mindset of so many classical musicians is a soul killer. And it also leads to boring and ineffective music making. Masterful classical musicians not only have plenty of “technique,” but they also play with imagination and sensitivity, with life, with imagination, with emotion, with soul.
In the past 20 years or so, music educators have finally begun to recognize that creativity is essential to the development of young musicians. The National Standards for Music Education, and the National Association of Schools of Music accreditation standards for college-level music programs now both stress the new for improvisation and composition to have central places in the curriculum. But changing a culture, remaking a system, is going to be a slow and sometimes painful process.
It’s not about being correct or creative. It’s about being creative and being as correct as humanly possible—while remaining human.