Music Lessons: Blocking Your Creativity, or Leading You To Excellence?

[IMAGE] woman with electric guitarOne 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.

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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.

Kevin Thomas

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  • Ryan David Dwyer

    Well said Kevin:)

    Reply
  • Ray Christensen

    For years I thought I just didn’t have the talent to write music. I had learned 5 instruments, including piano, clarinet, saxophone, flute, and guitar and whenever I tried to write a song it seemed lame and embarrassingly simplistic. When I took music theory classes a door opened, a light began to shine, and my creativity finally had a free and endless outlet. Now I’ve written dozens of songs, an opera, a musical, and I have 2 more musicals in the planning, and I feel I have found my unique voice as a composer.

    Reply
  • Mike Crutcher

    The Eddie Van Halen example rings further when he cites that he didn’t learn to read music in those classical piano days, but that he just memorized the piece, to which I’ve often cried “foul.” No way that he was listening to classical piano and “just memorizing it.” I don’the understand why this feigning ignorance makes one more of a musical hero. I’ve heard of more citations from musicians who wish they’d learned to read, i.e. Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, etc., but even these musical geniuses learned music theory in their own way.

    I have the occasional student who wants to take lessons to wants to skip music theory to lea r not to play like Hendrix, Iommi, etc., to which I reply, “if you have the focus, drive, and concentration to learn like that, you wouldn’t need lessons.” I tell them that learning in such a way is like never being taught language skills. You can walk around every day listening to people talk and hope to pick up vocabulary and speaking skills, but you’ll never have all the vocabulary skills that you would like because you don’t know how to write it down for memorizing purposes. My high school Spanish teacher always said that to learn to speak fluently, one has to speak with other fluent speakers, but that was never to give validity to the idea of skipping classes and just apply yourself in the real world of speaking Spanish.

    Music is a man-made phenomenon. The guidelines that we use for hearing and enjoying the music must be learned in order to compone it.

    Reply
  • J. Stuart Smith

    I just had a conversation with one of the professors in the dance department at the University where I accompany classes. She was remembering that when she got there the students would ask all these specific questions that, and her training, we’re not relevant in the initial learning of a movement sequence. Her assessment was that the students were too caught up in codified movement analysis to be able to assimilate into their bodies what they saw in demonstration. For a couple semesters she had to put a ban on questions before they watched the combination and did it a few times.
    Curiously no she spends most of her time in class talking about very specific movement. Her agenda is to create clarity in every movement.
    She noted just yesterday that the Flamenco has a different teaching style then the modern dancers. The motto they have in Flamenco is ” there is no substitute for just doing it “.
    When can education, as a whole, be a bad thing? In elementary education the last quarter century has brought the realization that students learn differently. As mentioned in above comments the teacher is very important. And, either as an extension of the teacher or verse visa, the style and methodology of what is taught is very important.

    Reply
    • Kevin Thomas

      Stuart, you brought up a great point. Usually I like to explain everything to students to make sure they understand why they are doing something and how music works, but with some overly analytical students that just keep on asking questions that would answer themselves if they practiced the exercise first, I have to tell them to do it first and I’ll why explain later. Sometimes experience can be the best teacher.

      Reply
  • Mark Smulian

    Thanks on this post it is an interesting and never ending subject. I think there is a consensus that generally education is a ‘good’ thing, that said it often comes down to the teacher. I think, as in the example of Eddie Van Halen that we are all ‘taught’ or influenced at some time but that often societies attitudes and influence impact on us in all sorts of ways we don’t recognise. I am very dyslexic and was raised during years when this was not a recognised learning disability and not being able to read or write immediately relegated one to the ‘moron’ category at school-I once received an essay from a teacher who had drawn a great big redline thru my attempt at writing an essay and commented that I was clearly a moron…for real! didn’t matter as I couldn’t read the comment anyway, but my mom could…as she started to dig into this issue and manage to find a way to help she was advised to discontinue my piano lessons as in those days it was all about being able to read music. She later told me that she should have just found someone who would teach me ‘another’ way…an outside the box thinker’. I continued to do music by myself and went on to be a successful player and performer…even went to college and got myself a piece of paper that says all the right things. Point is that today I teach masses and have recognised that it is all about the teacher and the ability to redefine how and what you teach on an individual level. We are all wonderfully unique and we each respond in different ways. This has proved a great way to move forward with teaching music for me and seems to resonate well with students. In the end if we as teachers remember that we can learn masses from the student as they challenge our people skills then we will always be in a place to inspire young musicians to learn and avoid the idea that studying music is disconnected from ‘making’ music.

    Reply
    • Kevin Thomas

      Mark, your comment is really timely as I am dealing with a new piano student this month who has dyslexia. I think the viewpoint that we are teaching “students” not “subjects” fits well with what you said.

      Reply
  • James Hood

    I appreciate your thoughts. Having taken lessons for many years and actually earning a PhD in music, I do believe music lessons are important in order to grow as a musician. The hindrance that I have experienced as a trained musician seems to stem from the perfectionism that can accompany artistic education. By that I mean, learning what “good” music/art is and as a result, it can make you overly critical of yourself and unwilling to create something that you perceive as less than perfect. To me, this is a very real hindrance to creativity and can serve to block a musician or artist until they learn how and when to listen to the critical voice during the creative process.

    Reply
    • Kevin Thomas

      Great point Dr. Hood! I have felt the limitations of that type of perfectionism with music myself in the past, especially in grad school. It reminds me of a movie I saw recently about the life of James Brown. There was a scene in which he was asking his horn players to put two different parts in the same measure and one of them said that they are in different keys (I think he really meant they were outlining different chords) and that it was not musical. James Brown said that it is musical, just use your ears and listen. He was considered very innovative for doing things that he felt were creative, things that educated musicians sometimes prevent themselves from even trying. That being said, if he had music education as well he might have created even more interesting music.

      Reply
  • Tim Holstad

    This is a very thought-provoking article.

    I agree that only amateurs need to be inspired. Some of my best songs have come from an outside request and I had had the musical and songwriting training so I could write something and didn’t “get stuck”.

    I currently play in a band that that exclusively plays stuff I had never listened to before joining it, and that also asked me to change my primary instrument. It has been a great learning experience. The other guys are good, but they are mostly ear players. When they hit a sound I don’t recognize, I often tell then not to move their hands (really) so I can see what they’re playing, and then I can say, “oh, that’s an F7b5” or “that’s a D half-diminished 7” or whatever….

    I think you can avoid lessons only if you stay in your comfort zone of music – what you’ve always played or listened to. Once you get out of there, the training may be the only thing that saves you…

    All that being said, music is a “use it or lose it” activity. Just do it. Always keep learning and ditch any excuses… but bottom line: just do it.

    Reply
    • Kevin Thomas

      Tim, I have had similar band experiences. One of the biggest benefits of music education is sharing a common language with other players so that you can communicate and make corrections or experiment creatively more quickly in rehearsals. It circumvents a lot of frustration and wasted time.

      Reply
  • Siniko Vellem

    I personal I don’t think there’s something wrong on taking this music lessons because it add more in what you have .

    Reply
  • Tom

    Good stuff here. Lessons and, in particular musical knowledge, never gets in the way of creativity.

    My take is that there are two schools (my terms) FME – Formal Musical Education & PME – Practical Musical Experience. There is no “n’er the twain shall meet” and there’s plenty of room in between.

    In the last five years, for me, it was a physical condition with my hands – that cost me flexibility & strength – that made me look at the fretboard in an entirely different manner and (quite literally) re-map & re-imagine what I do, what I did, and how I play.

    I learned two things: One – needless to say – this “information”/approach was there all the time, I just had never recognized it; and Two – that having to do this led to an absolute explosion of creativity. I should also note that I got off my rear and put some real concentration into slide playing and open tunings, with similar results.

    My point about bringing this up is that my grounding in theory and music in general allowed me to do all of this relatively easily. I could have done it without all the knowledge (I’m sure – because I am nose to the grindstone guy on this kind of stuff) but it would have been much slower.

    BTW – Your Eddie VH comment rang true with me. I have a friend who’s mom taught him piano at a really young age. When he picked up guitar he was past me in 6 months. He knew all “the rules” so his only barrier was fretboard knowledge…just goes to show!

    Reply
    • Kevin Thomas

      Those are great examples Tom. I have heard of a famous classical guitarists who, after an injury that ruined his performing career, became an even more prolific and innovative composer instead. And sadly, a famous rock pianist recently killed himself when arthritis prevented him from doing music anymore. He could have taken all his his musical knowledge in a creative writing direction instead of performing. But people without any knowledge of what they are doing have far less options.

      Reply
  • JVJ Xperience

    I totally agree with Michael because of my own experience with writing music and lyrics. I started writing tons of songs a couple of years ago while my heart and soul were full of emotions and got a lot of praise from my friends. So I was pretty confident and proud about my work – until I finally presented it to a buddy who works in the music industry. He also said that my songs are pretty interesting and artistically good but totally unsuitable for the industry because the music misses any kind of structure or direction which would made them marketable songs. So I started to learn about music theory and implementing it to my old songs. And I have to say that they really got better and better step by step.
    Maybe I´ll never be successful with my music but I´m very thankful for my friends advice because I´m writing better songs now – and that´s what really important to me.
    Bottom line: Don´t believe in talent – good music is 90 % hard work!

    Reply
    • Kevin Thomas

      Yes, 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration! It’s the work you put in crafting your song after the initial inspiration for the song has come and gone that counts.

      Reply
  • Anthony

    Great thoughts, Kevin — thanks!

    Reply
  • Steve Pederson

    I have been on both sides of the spectrum. I can say, from both my personal experience and from observing many others, musicians only thrive even more after they receive formal training.

    Reply
  • Rob

    Awesome, well-written article and excellent comment from Michael. I’m very glad to have been referred to this site.

    Reply
  • Michael R. Box

    How classic is that statement ….. I have heard it a hundred times or more over the years of coming in contact with musicians who define themselves as being “” original creatives “” who never want to learn processes as they are formulaic & will destroy their creative edge…
    “” I never want to be commercial, man!!! That would be selling out “”
    The real truth will surely be ..
    a./ they will not be a working musician for long another calling will come along..
    b./ they will probably will not be selling out anywhere fast or soon.
    I was very lucky at 13 I discovered that quite by accident I had found 2 friends who were to give me valuable lessons & insights to their own world of songwriting which as the decades have come & gone have served me well in my own writing & of course the many other influences along the way & the constant writing & developing the craft of songwriting as both a lyric writer & a melody writer a full songwriting experience has been had..
    I have also lectured or more correctly tutored in songwriting in the past for a period of some 10 years within the adult education department at WEA in my home city..
    The point of all this is really only one thing..
    you must keep learning, testing trying out new things, methods , chord patterns , keys & you do this by learning from other people both around you & with as much as you can also by way of at least some formal education..
    The end result being a well developed & rounded , knowledgable approach to music in general & songwriting in particular.
    Before you can successfully break the rules of songwriting, it would be wise to know them & have used them extensively for many years, which by then, may have then given you the wisdom to know better..
    Thank you
    Regards to Broadstreet
    Michael R. Box
    the_australian_songwriter
    nb: I have written my own tutoring notes & taken all the things I have learnt from others over the years from every source I have managed to find & then made it mine by using it…I still do 49 years later.

    Reply

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