Challenging Performance: The Book. 7.4 Conservatoire 1

7 Teaching

7.4 Conservatoire and creativity: Juniper Hill’s Becoming Creative

Some attempts are now being made at the next stage of musical education, in conservatoire, to deal with the problem of classical music as the obedient performance of ‘proper’ behaviour. By this time it is already very late, since such tight reins have already been placed for so many years on the child musician’s delight in creative self-expression. Moreover, conservatoire’s overriding task is to fit its students for work where, as things stand, there is rarely any room for individuality beyond those tiny differences between soloists that the culture celebrates (and often, in its claims, exaggerates) for want of any other distinguishing characteristics.

Creativity in conservatoire is thus difficult and can easily be perceived in some quarters as unhelpful. We get a sense of this from Juniper Hill’s recent studies of musical creativity.[1] Comparing attitudes in different musical traditions, and on different continents, Hill (2018) emphasises how strange WCM is in its fear of creativity and hostility to improvisation, and also how damaging that can be to classical musicians.

Hill sees six ingredients in creativity: ‘(1) generativity, (2) agency, (3) interaction, (4) nonconformity, (5) recycling, and (6) flow.’ (More discussion of this in Chapter 18.1.) She notes that ‘realizing pre-existing works should only be considered creative when the process also involves other components of creativity’ (Hill 2018, 4). Yet several of these ingredients are perceived as dangerous for WC musicians: above all ‘it is the component of nonconformity that threatens to make creativity socially undesirable. Powerful social mechanisms encourage conformity and work as adverse motivators against individuals’ intrinsic desire to be creative’ (Hill 2018, 12).

Hill identifies ‘Four mechanisms for enforcing conformity to sociocultural norms [which] emerged as significant in this study: (1) direct punishment, (2) socially induced emotions, (3) anticipation of judgment from others, and (4) internalization of norms as values’ (Hill 2018, 12). ‘Feeling that they are being watched, individuals anticipate the judgement of others and thus modify or censor their own behaviour accordingly’ (13).

Direct punishment takes the form of strong criticism by teachers and other gatekeepers of non-normative performance, leading readily to being thought unsuitable for work and thus to ingrained fear of transgression. One of Hill’s string-playing participants recalls that:

‘One of my teachers wanted to play this game where he was standing like this pretending he had a whip and if I did a mistake then he would [pretend to] hit me. He didn’t hit me, but of course I was in total panic of making a mistake. I’m a perfectionist myself and I was really struggling not to hate myself because of a mistake …’

Many readers will find this story quite horrifying and will readily agree with the participant who continued, ‘I think it is very dangerous, this kind of being destructively critical towards yourself or to your student … I just learned … that this is killing me, being so destructive’ (Hill 2018, 107).

For performers, overly-prescriptive teaching can be psychologically crippling: ‘Those years with [my teacher—this is a different participant, a cellist] had such a strong impact that I couldn’t survive without somebody telling me what to do and how you have to do it’ (60). And ‘I had just so much schooling in all around the violin and everything, and I just couldn’t tap into where my voice was anymore’ (37).

It’s all too easy to see how this kind of treatment generates the socially-induced emotion of shame as a habitual response to any kind of mistake or overstepping of lines (Hill 2018, 114–6). Thus self-esteem and courage are vital for creativity (13), fortifying one against criticism and against attempts to shame one for challenging normative practice. Many young musicians, ground down by years of criticism and obedience, simply don’t have sufficient self-esteem or courage to fuel a desire to be creative. As Hill points out, ‘One of the main factors inhibiting improvisation in today’s classical music communities is an underlying attitude that the creative potential of performers is somehow inferior. To encourage the incorporation of more improvisation into western art music is inherently to advocate for performers to be allowed—and to allow themselves—to exercise greater authority in the creative process’ (Hill 2017, 223).

Thus pianist Kristiina Junttu: ‘I try to keep myself open and not have too criticizing an attitude toward myself. That’s hard because that criticizing attitude is something that I learned from a very young age and it’s destructive, it does not help me play well at all.’ Hill comments, ‘Junttu’s experiences here are representative of many musicians who found that overly critical and perfectionist attitudes towards the execution of the score impeded technique and heightened performance anxiety, whereas maintaining a more playful attitude can help musicians better perform to the full extent of their abilities’ (Hill 2017, 226).

In routine professional work many musicians will play beneath their best rather than risk a mistake: ‘I was not putting my whole personality or whole soul or heart into it, because I was trying to play perfectly … All the time I was putting this kind of big mute on myself … You’re so afraid of missing something that you miss the music’ (Hill 2018, 108, quoting the string player cited above).

Consequently, starting to exercise creativity once one reaches conservatoire or professional life can be exceedingly challenging, if ultimately empowering. Hill reports on courses at the Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, in which students are routinely introduced to improvisation as part of their basic training (Hill 2018, 174–91). Tellingly, it takes all three years of the course, in carefully controlled conditions with safe spaces and the very gradual introduction of new ideas, to make significant progress. Even (or perhaps especially) at higher levels it can be a challenge to let go of years of training in obedience to the score: vocalist Päivi Järviö describes a situation with her masters students in which there were several interpretative options and no one right answer: ‘they had never done this. They were really scared of making decisions’ (Hill 2017, 228). But the benefits of this kind of training can be very great:[2]

On the moral level … the promotion of diverse musical expressions may help musicians realize that their previously internalized value judgments are relative, situational, and socio-culturally constructed. Challenging their community’s aesthetic judgement system may in turn help them feel less compelled to conform to socio-idiomatic boundaries and give them more inner resources for coping with negative feedback. On the social level, seeking and building supportive social relationships may help to provide a relatively judgment-free space in which musicians experience less fear and anxiety about receiving negative feedback and thus feel freer to explore, experiment, develop new ideas, and take creative risks. On the psychological level, increasing self-esteem and improving perception of one’s own potential are important for motivation, … developing … inner resources…, and for developing the self-confidence and courage to take risks in one’s own creative work. (Hill 2018, 172)

Continue to 7.5 ‘Conservatoire and conformity’

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[1] Hill, Juniper. 2017. Incorporating Improvisation into Classical Music Performance. In ed. Rink, John, Helena Gaunt and Aaron Williamon, Musicians in the Making: Pathways to Creative Performance. New York: Oxford University Press, 222–240. Hill, Juniper. 2018. Becoming Creative: Insights from Musicians in a Diverse World. New York: Oxford University Press.
[2] On the relationship between flow and creativity, with special reference to the social level, see also Ford, Jessica, Vosloo, Justine, and Arvinen-Barrow, Monna. 2020. ‘Pouring Everything That You Are’: Musicians’ Experiences of Optimal Performances. British Journal of Music Education.


1 Comment

  1. Reading on teachers behaviour I remembered my own training as a child who started the violin at the age of six. In our school, you would hear teachers screaming to children who were not playing in tune, who were practising under terrible cold rooms or corridors never managing to have a proper warm up and who after all despite their efforts to meet their teachers expectations where in the end beaten for their mistakes. The worst of all was that this was considered normal and was practiced every single day…

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