My oldest daughter, Mary, has spent the summer at Meadowmount, an elite summer music camp for aspiring professional string players.
It has certainly been an experience, full of both good and bad. She's learned so much, she's grown so much, but maybe not in the ways we thought she would.
Her playing has improved. There was no way it couldn't—she had to practice five hours a day plus participate in Master Classes and two chamber music groups. She went to fabulous concerts with amazing players—truly the rising generation of professional soloists.
But she's had to ask herself a lot of hard questions about what music means to her and what kind of a musician she aims to be.
I've had to ask myself some hard questions too, the most important of which is this: Is it possible to be creative in music?
Obviously, if you are composing, you are being creative. That's a given, but what about when you are in your room, practicing the notes someone else put together? Not only did the composer put the notes together, but they often put in dynamics and other notations meant to dictate exactly how the music is played beyond the intonation and rhythm. On top of that, you have a teacher who listens to your playing and tells you how they think it is supposed to sound as well.
If you think about it in those terms, playing music isn't very creative at all. It's simply trying to do exactly what someone else has already done and wants you to mimic.
This is an over-simplification, but even in its over-simplified state, this description is telling. The chamber music program at Meadowmount (the summer camp Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma went to in their youth) was very lackluster. The kids were put into groups, given a song to play, told to rehearse at least twice a week on their own, and then they met with their coaches once a week for a coaching.
Mary was stunned to find that the kids in her two groups—truly some amazingly gifted kids that are at the top of the game in their respective locations—had no desire to rehearse. Mary almost always had to set rehearsals up, and as often as they were set up, they would be canceled by someone in the group who felt like they had more important things to do (like ping-pong).
This was a mystery she and I tried to solve. These kids had no parents at the camp to force them to rehearse. That had to be a part of it. Also, very few people at Meadowmount actually get to perform at the concerts, and other than a Masterclass here and there, the kids would never be performing these pieces for any sizable audience, so that had to be a part of it too. But their lack of motivation also had to come from something missing inside of them. They were not motivated. Mary truly wanted to rehearse. She wanted to get together with these kids and play some amazing Beethoven and Mendelssohn, but they did not share that same desire.
Kids need autonomy. They need to believe that they can be creative and do more than just play notes. They need to be free to interpret the music, and their interpretations, even if they are different than their much more experienced teachers, can be good.
The key is to actually believe that the kids are taking the time to interpret the music. It reminds me of what my mom said when I told her the only way for the teachers at her school to improve their students' writing was to give them written critiques of their work. She said, "But kids don't read written critiques. They won't even look at them."
Is this the kind of faith we have in children? That they will not try on their own if we give them some freedom—some space to be creative. That their efforts will be lackluster and therefore we have to do the work for them. How many times do our kids go to an activity where they are told they get to make a craft, only to receive step-by-step instructions for how to perform said craft. The only creativity that occurs is the decorating. Where you put a sticker or what color to paint something doesn't give kids much room to be creative.
Why don't more music teachers work on inspiring their students to be creative within the boundaries the music gives them? Why don't more music teachers step back from themselves and recognize that their way of playing something may not be the only way and their students won't learn much if they are told exactly what to do and are given good marks only if that way is followed.
My goal right now is to empower my kids in their music along with everything else. It doesn't matter so much what our kids do with the the music they play. It matters a whole lot more that they are actively, energetically doing something with it.