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Simple Gifts

People have always been curious about the nature of certain artistic gifts, and, having been blessed with some of them, I thought it would be fun and enlightening to share what I think I know about musical talent and what I've observed about popular beliefs regarding them.

There are such a myriad of different kinds of abilities that it is not easy to zero in on what makes an artist. One of the most mythologized aspects of the craft is that it "springs from nowhere." People seem to want art to be mysterious, and, although there are plenty of great artists on record talking about how much work goes into their profession, most people don't seem to want to hear them. Inspiration is the key, we are told. Hollywood keeps feeding us movies about "just believing" or "following your heart" and the heroes of such films are successful just because they want it real bad, despite their lack of training. This kind of thinking may be so enchanting because it lets the rest of us off the hook. If it either happens to you in a bolt of lightning or it doesn't, and it doesn't, well, that's just too bad. No need to try. The funny thing about workmanship is that some of the greatest Symphonies ever written start off with tunes that just about anybody could've come up with. Frequently there will be a masterful subtlety that makes something that seems so simple actually evidence of a rare gift, but sometimes the theme is about as basic as you can get, and it is the working out of that theme that shows the composer's genius. That requires extremely hard work. It requires the kind of discipline that few people have. Many of my students could be much more than they are if they would only work harder. There is nothing profound about this. And there is nothing mysterious about the young lives of the great composers, either. Somebody was there early to impose a rigid work ethic on the child, in every case. A few composers known to history had little early education and so had to scramble in later life to achieve proficiency. Some were able to go a long way on what seems to be the strength of their inspiration, but the way was not easy. These composers are generally known for only a few of their best works. The lucky accidents, perhaps? To some degree, yes, but notice how luck favors the craftsmen, those with training, who know what to look for, recognize a great idea when it rains down upon them, and are able to transform even a mediocre idea into something sublime.

A few weeks ago the CBS show 60 Minutes featured a young man who is said to be "the next Mozart." One of the prime aspects of the story was how this 12-year-old could hear completed compositions in his head; that they just happened to him and he wrote them down very quickly. (Sounds familiar, actually; at 12 I was beset with the same phenomenon but without the drive to write most of it down!) Not that this inspiration isn't an important part of the compositional process, but it is certainly not the most important. After gushing about this amazing ability for a while, the reporter had the good sense to consult with a former child prodigy, Samuel Adler. Adler said that the fact that the young man wrote so quickly, never made revisions, and seemed so sure of his first inspiration was actually a bit worrisome. If you look at a Beethoven score, he said, you'll see that it looks like a complete mess. Beethoven was constantly crossing out his first inspiration and trying to improve it. He was working with his score constantly, never satisfied until every note made sense.

You'll note that the young man was being compared to Mozart, not Beethoven. Mozart is frequently considered the greatest genius of them all because he could hear those completed compositions in his head and just wrote them down without erasing anything. Actually, many of Mozart's early compositions are stylistically simple enough that it would not be such a stretch to imagine that a well-trained composer (Mozart's father just happened to be a worthy composer in his own right and taught the boy everything he knew from a very early age) could keep that sort of thing in his head, if he understood the musical processes going on well enough. You and I can keep the plots of 90-minute movies in our heads after just one viewing; we can't remember every detail, but imagine having the confidence to select the appropriate details based on much experience and knowledge. A young man whose head was always working on music, writing day and night for years, would certainly gain the experience and knowledge to fill in those details with style and clarity.

That doesn't make it not a miracle. Just because art often takes place on a conscious level does not make it mundane. Most creators have a healthy respect for their unconscious minds: for ideas that occur to them during sleep, for things that just seem to "come to them" out of the blue, but they also know that they have to work hard to make those ideas into art. Which is why before even discussing the specifically musical gifts, I want to raise up discipline and hard work, method and technique as possibly the ones that are most essential.

Music is often approached with a kind of mystic reverence just because people don't understand it too well. It seems all the more mysterious and wonderful if it seems to come quickly and completely, unbidden, as if from a world beyond the trivial, mundane one we know. There are innumerable myths about inspiration, some of which are sustained by the composers themselves! The masterful romantic composer Schumann wrote that his young genius Brahms had "sprung from the head of [the god] Chronos" surely, completely, and with a full knowledge of his craft. He did not need to learn anything, Schumann wrote, his instinct was perfect. Brahms himself thought otherwise, and frequently wrote about how a composer had to make those ideas that suddenly come upon him his own by sheer hard work. Always a tough self-critic, Brahms, who lived by the blue editing pencil, making constant use of it, actually wrote and destroyed 20 string quartets before he allowed one to survive. As a result, his published works are mostly of a very high quality, not because Brahms never had a poor idea, but because he was able to realize when he did, and because his workmanship lifts even his poorer ideas to a new realm.

But still the myth lives on of the great composer whose greatness can be proven precisely because he can write a towering work in just hours on the strength of his "inspiration," who never need second-guess his initial thoughts, who can't even control them.  It is such an attractive idea, too, because it exudes confidence and certainty. Never crossing anything out, sure of what you want to say and just saying it.  People love performers, too, who are brimming with self-confidence whether they are backing it up with real musical substance or just plain glitz.  I was once "accused" of playing the piano "boldly and surely" by the critic of the Baltimore Sun, but I tried not to take it personally!

I feel that I have some license to speak on these issues since I have created music in mere minutes or many months. Being able to "improvise" requires a pretty thorough knowledge of musical processes, willingness to experiment, to possibly get yourself into and out of a jam, and some fearlessness if you do it in public. What is interesting is that, whether you create music instantly, or with a great deal of forethought, you still need to be able to understand your medium thoroughly, and be willing to go with your gut sometimes when you don't.

Some years ago I worked in a church where I naturally had to prepare musical selections for the worship service each week. It is not easy to offer quality music every week, as many in this position have found out. Often the overburdened musician tries to find something quick and easy to fit the occasion and satisfy the requirements for another in the endless parade of Sundays. There is naturally a market for this kind of thing and the advertising blurbs that adorn the music catalogs never say anything is difficult. Everything is easy and comes with the promise that your congregation will love it.  Since I was not terribly interested in practicing just enough to sound terrible every week, I began to improvise. Every morning during the offering there would be a new piece, one that the congregation had never heard before. And neither had I!  It was a challenge, and it gave me an opportunity to create, to think, to dare, and to be more myself at the keyboard than if I had virtually read-at-sight some ready-made composition.

There is actually a long tradition of doing exactly what I was doing; wherever organists have had to provide lots of music in a hurry, skills in "making it up as you go" are quite useful.  In America the tradition is not nearly as prominent as in Europe; French organists consider it part of being a musician, but, being an American pianist, the number of my colleagues who can improvise is quite small. Only in Jazz does improvisation seem to be part-and-parcel of the musical experience, and yet, it can be done in any style. Beethoven, Mozart, Bach--all were inveterate improvisers, and some of those initial improvisations made their way later into written compositions.  Improvisation provided a way for them to try out ideas, to "think" at the keyboard, and it also came in handy when a composition wasn't quite ready in time for the concert and certain parts had to be filled in. Improvising was part of a musician's trade, and it has always been able to impress the public. During the 18th century, Mozart always set aside part of his concerts to improvise on a favorite tune, just as he would often make up those long piano solos that come near the ends of his piano concertos (cadenzas) where the orchestra stops and the star of the show is left with a monologue to show his inventiveness and his powers of prestidigitation.

What may be impressive to some, however, strikingly fails to register with others. Once before a rehearsal I was playing a Mozart sonata from memory. A man entered, listened, and said, impressed. "You must be making that up! There is no way you could be playing all of that from memory!"


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