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Shifting the Focus back to Expression and Creativity

The Sensible Flutist: Shifting the Focus back to Expression and Creativity

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Shifting the Focus back to Expression and Creativity

I've been having a conversation on Twitter with @MazzaClarinet otherwise known as Marion Harrington, a professional clarinetist and motivational author ( The conversation began as a discussion of the importance of academia on musical interpretation and the positive or negative impact it has on one's natural inclinations and this discussion has transformed into one about the sacrificing of musical expression for technical perfection.

Students that enter college to study music must take an assortment of theory and history lessons in order to develop a framework for them to become better musicians. It's critical to a student's development to have this academic education in order to return to music with a enlightened view of its structure and historical context; however, viewing music in strictly academic terms will render the music void of any expression whatsoever. I discussed this point in an earlier post ( I would go further than I did in my previous article, and state that having a certain amount of talent paired with a solid musical education will produce a musician with a heightened sensitivity to the music.

From this, the conversation took a turn towards the question of creativity and how so many performances nowadays are technically accurate or "note perfect" but lacking in musical expression. For flutists, the current focus leans toward technical superiority and perfection. My guess is that this focus extends through all woodwinds because of the physically emcompassing requirements of playing a wind instrument. We get so wrapped up in the physical and technical side of playing the instrument that we forget why we committed ourselves to music in the first place. I certainly didn't start playing the flute because I wanted to learn to control my breathing or have fast fingers. I began playing the flute for the expressive powers and potential it holds.

I attended several masterclasses over the summer, and most of the focus was on technical aspects of flute playing. This approach is ingrained in me so much that I find it incredibly difficult to listen to beautiful flute playing without scrutinzing every detail rather than appreciating the beauty; however, by the same token, it's difficult to find recordings that give you a glimpse into the whole package. Encouraging young musicians to attend live performances is one of the most important steps we can take to shift the focus from technical playing to free and creative.

So what other ways can we start changing this focus? We're musicians with a creative urge to find solutions. We are always looking for solutions to improve and do things better. I think that flutists (and any other instrument that falls into this perfection obsessed category) should take the opportunity to listen to vocalists, pianists, and stringed instruments. Attend masterclasses for other instruments than your own - it's eye opening to see how they approach their music. Take the universal musical ideas you learn from them, and apply it within your own playing. Go to solo recitals of other instruments.

Improvisatory exercises are extremely useful when exploring the bounds of your own creative musical expression. When you take away the visual, your heighten your other senses and the music begins to become a natural, non-thinking extension of who you are. I really enjoy attending jazz concerts to see and hear the freedom of these musicians. I strive for the same freedom in my playing. As David Thomas (@DTClarinet) stated on Twitter, playing a piece of music is a "recreative" process, but also takes imagination. I think that pairing the improvisatory freedom of non-thinking with real imagination will increase your control over a piece of music and bring out expressive qualities in your playing that will engage your audience in a real-time narrative.

The beauty of music lies in its ability to engage the entire realm of human emotion, and express happiness, sorrow, anger, tell a narrative or paint a picture. By engaging the self through creative and imaginative self-exploration, we break the mold and become free-thinking, musical individuals.

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At September 5, 2010 at 7:12 AM , Anonymous Marion Harrington said...

Your last paragraph encapsulates precisely what I want to achieve as a musician. To be a "free thinking musical individual" is my main motivation in everything that I do.

I am SO encouraged by the number of musicians that feel the same way which, regretfully, is more than I can say about some members of the academic community who seem to be bent on squashing anyone who dares to step out the box of accepted practice.

I started out on a normal graduate degree course at the RCM in London and changed to the performers version after a couple of terms. I have no regrets.

As a listener, I would far rather hear a talented player who has no qualifications at all than one who produces flawless but expressionless performances.

I'm a person of extremes - although I'm working on it! - so I guess in amongst this debate there is a balanced middle ground.

An excellent post, Alexis. Thank you.

At September 7, 2010 at 6:07 AM , Blogger Mike Lunapiena said...

I think the problem comes down to two things:

1. The general american education system and its focus on standardized tests as opposed to creative/critical thinking.

2. Music teachers dictating interpretation instead of guiding the student to form their own.

Basically, everybody is concerned with doing it "right" and there is only one right way way to do it. Music teachers dictating would be ok if students weren't getting an education with so much emphasis on conformity (even still, there is some value to it).

Your suggestions on improving this are great!


At September 8, 2010 at 12:10 AM , Blogger Jeannette said...

My creativity as a musician grew when I played my flute in a worship team. I was stretched by having to improvise . Even though I enjoy improvising, I still think that focusing on technique keeps me balanced.

At September 8, 2010 at 6:57 AM , Blogger The Sensible Flutist said...

Jeannette - there is a balance, and I think it's different for every musician. Technique is an essential part of playing any instrument, but it has encompassed so much of our playing at the expense of being really musical. I'm quite fond of improv after avoiding it for years, and I'm glad it has had a positive impact on your playing.

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!


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