Enemies of Promise

Conrad Cork, 18th August 2000ce

The enemies of promise I am talking about are the second rate teachers in the arts, who, knowing nothing of their subjects, manage to extinguish the desires of people to become practically involved in some form of creative artistic activity.

My criticism applies across the board but, because of my personal experience, particularly to teachers of music. I'll deal with two issues, one general one specific.

The general one is the assumption that every artist must be 'original', possibly even 'innovative' (the dreaded 'i' word). A friend of mine, who wanted to go to university to do Fine Art, was squashed by a teacher who said there was no point because she had 'nothing to say'. Even now, years later, her painting is still crippled by that thought, and I take the liberty of hating the guts of that teacher.

Let's be clear. Very little art is 'original' in the sense teachers mean. It doesn't stop what you do being individual though, but that will happen of its own accord. The composer Mike Gibbs said 'I didn't invent the English language, but I sure sound like me when I speak'.

And this notion of 'ideas' is, from the practitioner's viewpoint, irrelevant consumerism. It's an outside-in thing. Audiences have one perception of what's happening, artists have another. Confuse the two, and you get as self-conscious and crippled as you would if you were trying to watch a video monitor of your daily life instead of living it.

Here's the answer. Art is what artists do. And what they do is get on with their life's work, wherever that takes them. Whether it ultimately gets called art, and what kind of art it is called, is a matter for others. And by definition, the others are not artists, they are audiences and/or critics.

Years back, when I taught jazz at university, I would regularly get students bemoaning their 'lack of ideas' - ie their having 'nothing to say'. Always, the cure was to show them how a song worked and get them to improvise for as long as they wanted until they felt comfortable. At the end I would say stuff like 'why did you take seven choruses there' to which they would reply 'because it took that many to come up with one decent one'.

I could then point out that while they had been working with their material, trying to get it into a shape that did what they wanted, an audience would have perceived it as an endless flow of ideas. A Tibetan lama of my acquaintance, faced with someone who referred to 'the magic and mystery of Buddhism' said 'no magic, just hard work'. Artists have work to do. Audiences have ideas to comprehend and appreciate. It's as simple as that.

The specific issue I want to deal with is about learning music.

So-called 'classical' music (I call it WEAM for 'Western European Art Music') presents special problems, because 'music lessons' are pretty much all WEAM lessons. And the imperialist Western European orthodoxies that prevail mean that such lessons are deemed - especially in the profession - to be the only proper music lessons. Let's look at what WEAM is, and because of what it is, what WEAM lessons are.

WEAM, at its point of origin, is written, not played. The WEAM artist (the composer) writes a score. The people who play that score (musicians) have no license to do anything other than play it accurately. So WEAM lessons, which you might naively have thought would be about music, are actually about being able to process the score. You have to learn to read anything a composer might choose to write, and you have to be able to play anything your instrument is capable of, in case a composer requires you to do it. So WEAM lessons are dominated by sight reading, and instrumental practice. Everything else, including musicality, is sacrificed to those ends. So if you have tried 'music lessons' and not got on, you can see now that it maybe wasn't your fault.

It may be that WEAM lessons can offer you nothing at all, not even how to hold your instrument. Indian classical players hold the violin in a totally different way to WEAM ones. Who is right? Well we know who the WEAM-ites think is right!

There have been good WEAM teachers of course. Chopin for example used to start his piano students in the key of B. The key of B has 5 sharp notes and is tough to read off a score, so why did Chopin do it? Because it is the easiest for a pianist to play. The layout of the keyboard and the shape of the human hand have their best fit with the key of B.

Here's the theory versus practice thing: In my jazz teaching, I would show students how to find a starting chord in any key, and then to play two other chords to make it sound like a bit of music going somewhere. The two other chords were reached by mechanical instructions, not theory, and were things like 'move the bottom note down to the very next note'. These other two chords, especially the middle one, sounded like real jazz. But they could be played by complete beginners accurately and in any key, from day one.

On the other hand I was frequently criticised by the WEAM staff for teaching them to run before they could walk. Specifically, and this takes some beating as an example of how a mindset can blind you, they said I shouldn't be doing that 'move the bottom note down to the next note' thing. Why? Because it was something called 'substitution', a highly advanced piece of theory, which should be kept until much much later. What did they propose I do with my students instead? Why, make them find a note half an octave away instead. In their book, doing that, which none of my beginners would have been able to do at first, was easier than moving down a note!

In all areas of learning there exist teachers, who whether from myopia, ignorance, or a desire to preserve the mechanics of their unsavoury livelihood, will make their unwilling pupils hack their way through the dense jungle, even though there is an arterial road just one side-step away.

The ideas of needing originality and extensive tutored skill are used to discourage anyone who feels impelled to get involved in anything creative. The first impulse is often not respectable, or indeed, is completely laughable. (In music, think of all those wannabes for whom 'rock star' or even 'spice girl' is it). Encourage 'em: let them jump in the water and get themselves wet. How else are they to learn to swim?

Conrad Cork has been a teacher and lecturer for many years on many subjects. He's the author of Harmony With LEGO Bricks, a ground-breaking teach-yourself book on jazz improvisation. Details at http://www.tadleyewing.co.uk