Thursday, July 7, 2011

Getting in touch with your Inner Punk.

Flux of Pink Indians

I was never part of the punk scene. The music is too loud and I am not an anarchist at heart. But we classical musicians are missing something in our esthetic.  Punk screams from its own primal creative soup. I am of the belief that it exists in classical compositions - Beethoven was way punk. Listen to the Grosse Fuge. It screams. Check out Bartok's Fourth String Quartet or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. 

I spend a lot of time teaching music. It can be wonderful, and it can be challenging. My students are lovely people, and I enjoy them very much. It takes anyone a ton of devotion, time and work to learn an instrument and they are definitely stepping up to the plate. But it's hard as a teacher to guide them on the path to finding their musical identities, while simultaneously equipping them with the requisite technical skills to support their musicianship.

Balance can be hard to achieve. Some teachers emphasize technique so much that their students seem to have seriously underdeveloped musical sensibilities. On the other hand, students who go out into the musical world (professional world is what I'm thinking) without adequate technical preparation are going to experience severe career disappointments.

I think about musicians on the other side: non-classical, non-conservatory-trained musicians who taught themselves guitar, wrote songs in their bedrooms, learned some chords on a keyboard and sang along...and I think sometimes all of our training to do things at a really high level can get in the way. For instance, I know a lot of superb instrumentalists who are too scared to try improvising. I know I was. It took me six weeks of going to jazz lessons with David Balakrishnan before I was no longer experiencing abject terror at the notion of improvising two bars of music. And for all the immersion in great music we have, very few of us ever try our hand at composing or even arranging.

Back to the students. I try very hard to get my students to play technically correctly, because good technique is what makes it easier to play well. And playing well is the goal, yes? But I wonder if there's something of putting the cart before the horse here. Long ago, I taught a little girl violin. She was a lefty and a real cutie pie, starting at age 5. She came into her second violin lesson and absolutely ripped through the first Twinkle variation. She probably broke a few hairs on that micro-bow, if you know what I mean. She was punk. She struggled to get a handle on technical issues that didn't come as easily as for other students, especially bowing, which, for a lefty, is sometimes counter-intuitive. But she pushed her way through and today is a professional violinist who performs on both modern and baroque instruments.

It's one thing for a youngster like her to show up at age 5 with all that uninhibited verve to tame and focus, but what about older students? Fifth and sixth graders who are just starting out but who are already aware of the need to do things "the right way"? Can we teachers open the door to that room where their inner punk dwells? Do they need to find that door themselves? Or should we be simply giving students permission to explore what's in there? Maybe just knowing it's good to explore is all that is needed. 

Finally, I would like to offer this video  from violinist Nigel Kennedy, who once described the essence of it all as being "animal". When was the last time you saw a performance like this in a concert hall?


  1. Great post. The punkiness, I believe, is about fire. Bonfire. And reckless abandon (although as in trance, that may be more controlled than it appears). Even music that is airy or watery or earthy can be imbued with this quality. Love the video. That guy is definitely punky. The 'do helps. Peace and, er ... chaos.

  2. Punk, rap,blues, country and other emotionally charged music forms are from people engaged with a direct struggle with life and it's problems. (punk was a response to the dire economic circumstances in England in the 1970's. Most performances I have heard from classically trained musicians of rock or jazz compositions are DOA. Nigel has spoken of the hostility he faced over his forays into jazz as a young musician. Is classical music training too entrenched, not in technique, but in academics to allow for deep passion? Thanks for the thought and the link.

  3. Larry, I think it's a very salient comment. Classical musicians are trained to interpret emotion through technique, and one unfortunate consequence can be that the direct emotional involvement can be pushed away for favor of "letting the music speak through the execution". There are good reasons for this, technically, but I think the classical music world is wrestling with this exact issue as it struggles to continue its existence. I think some young classical players these days will face less opposition than Kennedy did. So-called "alternative styles" are making their way into conservatory curricula. But I think it starts with inner fire, as you said, Philippe.

  4. Gilles Apap can awaken the senses of his audience and students through his vibrant personality as seen in this video clip:
    Yehudi Menuhin proclaimed Gilles Apap the "Violinist of the 21st Century". He remains the trailblazer for all others fusing stylistic boundaries.