Monday, March 4, 2013

Being Original

I learned to play the violin according to the Suzuki method.  For those unfamiliar, Shinichi Suzuki was a Japanese violinist and music educator who developed a method of teaching music based on the principles of language acquisition.  Like an infant learning his first words, a student of the Suzuki method learns a piece of music by listening to it over and over again.

Rightly or wrongly, Suzuki violin students have gotten the reputation for uniformity: an almost automaton quality.  The method does have a very specific repertoire of pieces that are taught, and it does begin with imitation - so a large group of Suzuki students playing the same piece in the same way can come across as a little robotic.  But most Suzuki students move past this phase and, as with language development, use the "vocabulary" they have learned in their early studies to develop their own unique "voice" as musicians.


The next phase in my musical development was in high school, when I got interested in Irish and Scottish folk music.  My Suzuki-student ability to learn music by ear served me well, since this is the typical way that folk musicians learn and teach.  Folk musicians within a specific tradition also have a shared repertoire of tunes that can be heard wherever they get together to play, anywhere in the world. 

You often hear that Irish music "all sounds the same."  And it's true to a certain extent - a musician or band playing Irish music in the traditional style doesn't put a huge premium on doing something new.  They value their connection to a tradition, and though many bands write some of their own tunes or try to frame up old tunes in new ways, the building blocks are still held in common.  The shared, communal nature of this music is one of the things I love most about it, and the best way to experience it is at a session, where everyone is playing the same tune and the shared energy, or "craic," is electric.


All of this is my rather convoluted way of raising the question: what is the importance of originality?  What is the comparative importance of doing something new as opposed to doing something old well? 

My perception is that originality has become overvalued, or maybe that our understanding of originality has become distorted.  Various movements in every art discipline over the past several decades began elevating originality as the one true indicator of artistic merit.  Technical skill was no longer a prerequisite – as long as you were saying something you felt strongly about, or something people hadn’t heard before, it was worthy of applause.  After a while this devolved even further, and originality now seems to be equated with mere novelty or shock value.

Of course art needs innovators and pioneers and visionaries.  We would have missed out on quite a lot if T.S. Eliot had confined himself to writing Shakespearean sonnets.  But we also would have missed out on quite a lot if T.S. Eliot had not had a thorough grounding in the Shakespearean sonnet and other established poetic forms.

Appropriately enough, my response is not very original: I don't think the answer lies at either extreme.

But I do think there is a proper balance to be found between slavish conformity to tradition at the expense of creativity and unqualified glorification of originality at the expense of excellence. 

Anyone else have thoughts?  Maybe about an art form other than music?

No comments:

Post a Comment