V.com weekend vote: Does rigorous classical training keep violinists from being creative?

August 17, 2012, 3:12 PM · Does rigorous classical training keep violinists from being creative?

Lately I've seen a lot of discussion on Violinist.com and elsewhere about the idea that a rigorous classical training, which teaches a high level of technique, can sometimes pound the creativity out of a student.

I'd like to have a little vote on this, and encourage people to chime in with their thoughts on the matter. So here's the vote, and then I'll give you my thoughts:

In our modern world, we are surrounded by what I'll call "immediate gratification music." Punch "play" on your iPod and you can instantly hear -- rendered with perfect clarity and sound mix -- anything from a Beethoven Symphony to '80s techno pop to jazz to rap to Lady Gaga to... ANYTHING.

Why should anyone work at acoustic music? Particularly, why work to achieve a high level of technique, when it takes SO long to get there. If someone decides they like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, it could well take 10 years of studying the violin, just to play it. Won't that beat the desire out of a student, all the scales and double-stop etudes and other pieces they must play in the interim?

But, whether you want to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto or a really kick-ass version of the Orange Blossom Special, at some point you need to actually learn how to play the instrument. That means you need to know some very specific things about how to hold the instrument and bow, to produce a good tone, to play in tune, perhaps to read music. If you want the thrill of playing that fast, high-risk high-reward music that is such a fun ride, you'll also need to learn to play up high on the fingerboard, to do bow with strokes like spiccato and ricochet, to produce a great vibrato, to play with fast fingers, achieve a very high level of coordination and more.

It takes a lot of work, and likely a lot of help, support and mentorship. I think that classical music actually offers the highest level of help, support and mentorship for completely mastering an instrument! And with mastery, you can create whatever you want, in any genre of music.


August 17, 2012 at 08:14 PM · I'd like to think that rigorous training gives us the tools to be creative.

The definition of creativity, however, varies from person to person.

August 17, 2012 at 09:01 PM · I believe creativity (or originality, ingenuity) is largely a personal disposition and rigorous disciplines such as classical violin training can only strengthen it. Musicality, on the other hand, can be killed by doing too much technical work mindlessly, and if this is coupled with a weak creative disposition, a classically trained violinist can sound quite boring.

August 17, 2012 at 08:51 PM · Creativity for me in classical music means looking at a phrase and asking yourself "What does this phrase say to me? How can I make this come across the way I hear it in my head to the audience?" As a student it's easy to just listen to recordings and trying to emulate them and ignoring their inner voice and just listening to their teacher. I think it's important to teach yourself to use all of those things as sources that you can distill through your inner musician. It's also important to not get stuck in trying to play a piece a certain way every time. Being spontaneous while performing is also very important.

August 17, 2012 at 09:22 PM · Mastery of the instrument is important. The ability to make the instrument do what the musician commands is fundamental to the being creative with the instrument. To be truly creative though requires more than mastery of the instrument. It requires a sound basis in the theory of the art. Knowing what makes up music is just as crucial. Playing a scale or arpeggio by rote won't help with creativity. Knowing what goes into making the scale and arpeggio sound the way they do is just as important.

To be fully creative, the artist should expose themselves to as broad an experience as possible. Study different techniques. Learn music theory, chord progressions, different musical styles.

It all starts with mastery of the instrument and builds from there.

I've got a long ways to go.

August 17, 2012 at 11:16 PM · On my side, my training in classical music and ear training/theory help me to be creative.

I agree creative can be:

- To dare to play something with our own voice, fingerings and phrasing.

- To make little arrangments, transcriptions or compositions. I do some of these to be able to play with my clarinettist sister, if a violin score doesn't exist, if I need something customised for an event etc.

- To find a way to produce the sound you want, find the good equipment, experiment things etc.

- Find your own practice routines that work for you.


As said previously, I also find a classical training gives tools to create!

August 18, 2012 at 03:00 AM · Training is tools, skill, facility.

Creativity is from within. There's nothing more tragic than a person with a strongly creative soul who lacks the tools, skill, facility to express that creative spirit.

August 18, 2012 at 03:02 AM · Something I learned in parenting classes: discipline gives you the freedom to do whatever you want. So many superexcellent and supercreative violinists have been showcased on v.com over the years I've been on it, that I could never say that classical training stifles creativity.

August 18, 2012 at 08:02 AM · No way! To me Classical music is a robust rhizome that has spread it's chutes in many of genres of music. Some chutes may flourish as some fade or wither, but classical remains deep rooted. That is why it has survived through the passages of time. And remain for futures to come.

August 18, 2012 at 08:13 AM · I think creativity is something that you have or haven't. It's a talent: a gift from God or Mother Nature or what you wonna call it. Obviously though, like any talent, creativity can be nurtured and expanded through various ways of learning and training, and classical training is certainly one of these ways. Some classical musicians are not too creative (they will admit it readily for themselves). Others are.

August 18, 2012 at 11:40 AM · Not sure what 'Classical' refers to in this context. If you mean rigorous VIOLIN training, it would encompass a broad knowledge of repertoire/genres, improvisation skills, composition skills and a sound technique that serves all these areas. These skills can be trained from day one. Their absence would certainly stifle creativity.

August 18, 2012 at 11:48 AM · When creating it all goes in there, so if one has a skill it will somehow come out in a creation, thus the more know-how the better, the thing to avoid is letting techique acquisition be to much of an end in itself. Wonder what people on violinist will make of my 48 inventions for violin and guitar.

August 18, 2012 at 03:27 PM · Having endless technique at your disposal frees you to do anything you want with it. Overly dogmatic or even abusive teaching destroys creativity and the love of playing.

August 18, 2012 at 05:28 PM · I don't think that *rigorous* classical training destroys creativity at all. But I do think that it can be easy to mistake things that destroy creativity, such as perfectionism, elitism, conformity, or hypercompetitiveness, for rigor. And that's where it gets complicated.

August 19, 2012 at 01:10 AM · I highly expect the answer here to end up being "No", given the likely bias of the Violinist audience, but I believe in practice, if more were honest about it? The "Yes" response would be much higher.

August 19, 2012 at 04:41 AM · Mark can we have a look at your compositions? Could you make them available on your website? I looked a bit at your profile but could not immediately find something. At any rate I am always interested in music for violin and guitar.

August 19, 2012 at 04:28 PM · Lack of adequate classical training causes lack of creativity. Real classical training included solfege, theory and harmony including counterpoint, and composition. It assumes that the student has enormous exposure to great literature, great art and great music.

August 19, 2012 at 08:14 PM · Ask Mark Wood. His classical training is very deep and thorough, but he is also one of the more creative forces in strings today.

August 19, 2012 at 08:38 PM · It all depends on what 'we' allow. If we aproach it as strict religious absolute truths then yes players 'can' choose to remain within established boundries and go no further. We see these as; "No or always Chin Rest!" No or always Shoulder Rest!" "No parelell perfect fifths." etc.

August 20, 2012 at 12:52 AM · I am the mother of two string players, one a cellist and the other a violinist. I believe that their classical training will only enhance their ability to be more creative on their respective instruments. After reading Mark O'Connors somewhat arrogant, in my opion, take on the whole classical vs. "American" (aka the O'Connor) method, I was left cold. My kids both have the ability to improvise and make music that isn't only found on the printed page. But that foundational knowledge they have acquired from their teachers has been crucial to that ability.

August 20, 2012 at 01:57 AM · Benedict Gomez wrote, "I highly expect the answer here to end up being 'No', given the likely bias of the Violinist audience."

What bias is that exactly?

August 20, 2012 at 07:17 AM · I think the answer is both yes *and* no.

As we focus more and more on specialization (as w/ the modern day rigorous classical violin training), I think we generally become locked into one particular mode of expression which makes it hard for us to cross into other very different forms. That's just the way it works in general, not just for the violin, but for most any other field/discipline.

However, I do also agree that the specialization can provide the means to delve deeper and be creative at a more refined/nuanced level w/in the discipline.

The former type of creativity on the broader (non-specialized) level is probably easier for casual (mainstream) folks to appreciate while the latter type is not.

For analogy, in my field (in computer science), the non-geeks :-) tend to be wowed by the simplest, most obvious things we might do, often calling us a "wiz" and paying good $$$ for such, but cannot fully appreciate the finer things that we may actually work hard to study and put to practice -- and those things often go unused and/or unnoticed in most of our work.

Another analogy can be found in the culinary field and how our mainstream fastfood-ish culture tends to view it. Often takes so called foodies (along w/ the fine chefs and cooks) to more fully appreciate the finer things that the avg folk probably does not. My own taste buds ain't exactly bad, but I can't really appreciate fine wines (at least at this point) if my life depended on it -- and that's not to say I can't taste any diff at all either...

BTW, my just-13-yo son (as well as slightly older daughter) would love to play the Tchaikovsky yesterday(!) if he could, but he's learned enough now to understand that he's at least a good ways away from being able to hack at it at all -- doesn't stop him from trying once in a while though. In his case, he almost gave up on violin after ~3 years of Suzuki-based study during his grade school years, but got hooked when he first caught a glimpse of the possibilities w/ the help of Vivaldi -- the kids just started learning Vivaldi's Spring concerto now to go w/ the standard Suzuki repertoire (among other things), and they (and even my 5-yo ;-) ) are loving that. :-) Yeah, my son doesn't exactly relish all the hard work that's needed, but he's gradually come to appreciate all of it as a whole, and practicing is no longer like pulling teeth everyday w/ him -- and I do believe this discipline is translating very positively to other areas for him as well.

And tangentially, I think the violin (and music in general) makes for a very nice analogy (and/or metaphor) for many other areas of work and life as well as I regularly use it to help explain all sorts of things to my violin playing kids. For instance, just the other day I used it to help explain some basic mathematical concepts to my son -- some basic ideas about mathematical expression and representation, forms and symbology, etc. which can also be seen in written music (and usually taken for granted) as well. I also often compare violin practice and technique to many other activities/interests they have. So the rigorous classical violin training (even though I'm mainly just an observer who dabbles) can lend itself to creative uses far outside of the music itself -- and I often remind my kids of that in one way or another so that they understand it's not just about the music (for us anyway)...


August 21, 2012 at 05:56 PM · Just watch Daniel Pioro improvising for a counterexample.

August 21, 2012 at 08:37 PM · Classical violin training gives the violinist the fundamentals of playing technique and the skills of ear training and aesthetic judgement necessary for being successful at performing classical music. To be a creative violinist means to me to be able to (1) exercise one's own intuitive sense with the interpretation of the composer's work or (2) to be able to compose one's own musical composition or perform by improvisation on the violin.

Improvisation is an intuitive and creative activity that does require a musical ear and technical ability on an instrument such as one would learn with classical training. A good way to develop this kind of creativity is to practice playing a busy counterpoint melody over a smoother line of melody or visa versa. Or, practice continuous variations over a basso ostinato (ground) or a repeated set of chords or repeated harmony. Another way is to practice playing your own made up part with a jazz or bluegrass recording - and yet another way is to play your own momentarily made up part with other musicians. They don't have to be jazz or bluegrass musicians. They could be sitarists or play the oud or bongos or hang drum, for example. Lastly, another way to be creative is to practice playing a solo improvisation. I believe that the more you play this way, the more creative your musical intuition becomes. I don't see why a classically trained violinist could not accomplish this if they really wanted to. Their fundamental skills are already there. So, my answer to this blog question would be no.

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