an article over the weekend in The Guardian's magazine, The Observer. This certainly caught my attention."Classical musicians are ‘clone-like’ these days, says Nigel Kennedy" - reads the headline for
Is that so?
According to the article, the violinist Kennedy, who is 66, "said that young classical musicians starting out in their careers are sacrificing creativity and individuality and becoming 'clone-like,' urged on by music schools teaching a formulaic syllabus."
"It’s wonderful to hear near-to-perfect playing, but it’s at the expense of perfect communication," he said in the article. While he called today's classical musicians "technically phenomenal," he bemoaned the days of individuality, with legendary pianists like Arthur Rubinstein and Edwin Fischer.
Classically trained himself, Kennedy gained popularity back in 1986 by recording one of the most popular classical pieces of all-time, Vivaldi: The Four Seasons. Over his long career he branched out into many genres and showed much creativity, re-imagining songs by Jimi Hendrix, and collaborating with some great rock stars like Sir Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, The Who and Led Zeppelin.
With respect to Kennedy, I have been listening to quite a few of today's classically-trained young violinists, and I have to disagree on the "clone" count. I'm seeing creativity and originality all over the place. I also find evidence that classical institutions are embracing not only rigor, but also originality. So I will present a few examples from a rising generation of thoughtful, original, and creative musicians who were "classically trained" and who are now showing us exciting new directions for the future.
Let's start with Latvian violinist Roberts Balanas, who recently emerged from the Royal Academy of Music. It doesn't seem like a classical education suppressed his brilliance or creativity. In fact I believe I hear a little Bach in his version of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." He also "scordifies" his fiddle right in the middle of the tune, it's really impressive.
And shiver me timbers, check out violinist Rachell Ellen Wong playing "Winter" from The Four Seasons.
It's been played so many times, you wouldn't think anyone could do anything new. But wow. She is technically brilliant, yes. Also, she has me jumping out of my chair and wondering what she will do next. "Clone"? No way! Her originality came through in the same way, when I saw her play live at last spring's Juilliard Symposium, which, by the way, was where she studied - she has a Masters in Music in Historical Performance from The Juilliard School. Here is another example of her playing - she makes something as familiar as Mozart Concerto No. 5 unfold like a new invention.
Here's another classically-trained violinist who is clearly not being a "Clone" - Curtis Stewart. Seems like he's using everything he ever learned - classical and otherwise - in his show-stopping arrangement of "Isn't She Lovely" by Stevie Wonder, which he played live the Grammys in 2022.
He did have that classical training, then vigorously sought to find his own unique voice. He's also now among that generation of new educators - a faculty member at Juilliard who teaches at the Perlman Music Program and at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts - who emphasize both good technical training and using music as an expressive means.
I'm sure my readers can help me come up with more "classically-trained musicians these days" who have either found their way to a variety of genres or who have stayed with classical music, who distinctly don't play like "clones."
Kennedy does have a point about education - that we don't want to get so strict and didactic that young musicians become locked into a single way of doing things. And yes, classical music education has been guilty of that.
But let's make a distinction between education and performance, the learning of technique and musicality, and the application of those things by an artist. I still had to learn my alphabet and phonics to learn to read. I had to learn spelling and basic grammar in order to write. I had to learn addition and multiplication before I could muddle through a calculus class.
Yes, violinists will ever have to learn scales, double-stops, keys, music reading, music theory. Even if you forego a "formal classical education" an artist will put in the time and sweat learning it all, by hook or by crook.
Nigel is right about this: a student's "love of music" should never be quashed, and a program or a teacher who systematically does that is bad news. But sheer "love of music" will only get most people so far, if the goal is to gain the freedom that comes with true fluency on an instrument such as the violin, viola, cello, piano, etc. If sheer "love of music" drives you to undertake the considerable work of mastering your instrument, then great. But if you need a teacher, a program, and a bit of grit to get there, then classical training is a pretty good bet, whatever direction you wish to go from there.
"We don't need no education"? Actually, generally we do. We don't need abuse, though.
Fortunately, a lot of classical programs "these days" are aware of the crushing dogmas of the past, and they aim for something better: the rigor of a good education alongside that "love for music" and exploratory spirit that drives us in the first place. Let's celebrate the successes of our best artists - young, middle-aged and old - and be inspired by their artistry and their creativity. Kennedy is among them.
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