One of my sister’s kids started playing guitar and writing songs recently. My brother-in-law told her she should take some lessons with me while I was in town. But the response was something to the effect of “But all the really good musicians never took lessons, and that is how they were able to be so creative.” I have actually heard many variations of this concept throughout the years, such as “I don’t want to be good, ‘cause then I will sound too technical, and I won’t have enough emotion.” I’d like to address this issue here. Will music lessons stifle your creativity and strip you of emotion?
Let’s look at an example of what I call The Myth of the Prodigy. I once heard Eddie Van Halen say that he never took guitar lessons, and that was why he was able be so creative. This reference to some innate inner genius works wonders at creating a god like persona, and marketing departments highly encourage it, when not outright manufacturing it out of thin air. However, what Eddie fails to mention is that he took years of classical piano training as a child, and performed in many talent competitions. Additionally, his father, Jan Van Halen, was a successful sax and clarinet player, who no doubt encouraged his son, and taught him much about music during early childhood.
By the time that Eddie switched to guitar as a teen, he already had a thorough understanding of chords, scales, keys, rhythm, reading music, and many other aspects of music theory. I would definitely agree that Eddie Van Halen has developed his own unique guitar style to a very high degree, and in that sense he is an innovative genius, but his distinctive creativity emerged AFTER years of lessons and music education. Furthermore, if you trace back the marketing myth of many successful popular artists, you will often find a similar Hidden Biography.
Some musicians can go quite far without lessons, and sometimes be very creative, but sooner or later they always hit a ceiling. I know this to be true very intimately; people who have been playing and singing in bands for years seek me out on a regular basis for music lessons or songwriting coaching often saying something like “I finally realized that I have no idea what I am doing, and I have not gotten any better in the last 15 years, I need help!” The reality is that without a solid background in the fundamentals of how music or songwriting works, what often occurs as you try to be emotional and creative is that you end up stumbling over your own inabilities, and the passion cannot get out.
Creative inspiration utilizes a different part of the brain than the actual skills that are required to write and perform music well. Inspiration is something we all have, or we wouldn’t be musicians at all. Skill and technique are things we need to learn and develop. And it is the balancing between the two that will make an artist or songwriter truly great. There is even a saying among many world class music producers: “Inspiration is for amateurs.”
I remember once during music college that I forced myself to completely quit thinking and analyzing songs for two months, because I had learned so much, so fast, concerning the fundamentals of how our system of music works, that it actually started blocking my creative flow. I had too much attention on one area of the brain. So I spent a couple months being totally creative, without any analyzing or editing what so ever, and it snapped me out of it. But after that, when I applied the knowledge I had learned in school to the editing process of my songs, I was able to improve them dramatically, and take them to a much, much higher level.
So if you continually attempt to discover which side of the equation is coming up short, you can then either seek more training and education, or spend more time nurturing your creative passions. Over time you can bring these two together in a beautiful musical balance at the highest level. Then, if you choose to create a myth about yourself as the prodigal genius, that is fine. I just recommend that you do it AFTER you have reached a high level of musical development, for it to be an effective marketing angle, not BEFORE.
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