Yesterday I attended a winners’ recital for a piano competition that my daughter did not win (she got an honorable mention and a $30 check, which felt like a win to us). The players ranged from first graders to seniors in high school, the latter performing nine-minute compositions by, mostly, Chopin. By the end, I admit to stifling a few yawns.
I began to reflect on this system that I myself have bought into: of paying someone to teach my daughter to play someone else’s compositions, and paying to have her judged on her performance.
Creation vs. Iteration
My first question: Why do they work so hard to memorize and perform these pieces? (They obviously work really hard. My daughter worked hard for her honorable mention.)
Made me think: It’s just like all the time I put into writing a story. No one really cares whether the story exists, but I invest so much of myself to bring it into existence.
But then I thought: No, it’s not exactly like writing a story. Yes, the time, the technique, the focus are the same. But the end result for these piano players is not a new creation but an iteration.
And: Why aren’t we teaching them to create?
Why is there an entire system—of teachers (there were a half-dozen in the audience making a living on their ability to teach the playing of Chopin), of students (more than a dozen winners and another dozen honorable mentions), of parents (here!), of judges (featured in the program), and of sponsors (the university, library, and local music store donated their facilities and pianos)—dedicated to the mastery of a technical skill whose primary value in the real world is the performance of background music at weddings and funerals?
I teach creative writing; I creatively write. I understand the importance of foundations, of technical skill, of mastering the masters. I also understand that creative writing has even less real-world cache than music. Maybe I’m just jealous that parents will shell out hundreds a month on the playing of piano instead of on the writing of stories. Or that music students arrive at universities with excellent technical backgrounds while some of my students’ only experience in writing—not to mention reading—takes place on their cell phone.
Maybe the Ph.D. in Creative Writing is the best of both worlds: you study literature while you write it. But is it a wee late? Olympic swimmers don’t wait until they’re 25 or 30 to get serious about swimming.
Imagine if parents (people!) valued writing as much as music. Imagine there were private lessons and public competitions and cash awards in your community. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not.
Variations on a scene
Imagine the following lines of dialogue in households all over America:
“I’m taking Maddie to writing lessons!”
“Jackson, have you practiced your story-writing today?”
“Honey, have you paid for poetry lessons this month?”
“Mom, I need a new outfit for my prose poem competition!”
I don’t begrudge music its success, and I certainly don’t mean to overstate it.
I commented on this article in the NY Times by Jason Freeman, a music composer who wants to bring composition to the masses–or at least to audiences:
As a composer, I want audiences to experience creating music. In my work, I blur the traditional divisions between composer, performer and listener, inviting others to make the music along with me. It is not enough for me to share only a polished performance or a mastered audio recording. I want to share the experience of composing music.
Kudos to him!