Piano lessons at the Portland Piano Lab strongly emphasize the importance of musical creativity. Why is this important? To be sure, creativity is fun. But even more important, creativity develops superior musicians.

The Old, Not-Very-Creative Approach

It’s wonderful that music teachers are still churning out highly-accomplished players who will bring the repertoire of the classical canon to future generations. Yet it is also true that the enormous repertoire of the piano, consisting of some of the most astonishingly beautiful music ever written, is also somewhat of a fossil. Like a T-Rex skeleton at a museum, it is wondrous, amazing to experience, and … thoroughly dead.

What would we think about an art studio that taught would-be painters and sculptors to make exact replicas of Renoir and Rodin? Such a studio would be an absurdity.

Even worse, what if the music teachers of Beethoven’s or Mozart’s time insisted that all the great music was already composed, and there was no reason for them to be creative:  “Just play your Bach, little Wolfgang, and forget your silly little opera.”

Now, granted, unlike painting or sculpture, music is not only a creative art but a performing art. Still, perhaps that’s one of the perils it faces. A performing art with so much great material to draw upon can survive by simply reproducing the past.

Fortunately, the original creative urge of classical music was reinvigorated by later musical styles, most notably jazz. (Though I would argue that even jazz faces its own type of fossilization – though that’s a topic for another day.)

For any art to survive as a living tradition, the creativity that brings it into being must be kept alive. This would be a good enough reason for piano students to learn traditional musical crafts such as composition and improvisation. But – getting back to the point – creativity also leads to better musicianship.

A Good Pianist Should Be a Good Musician

Amongst all musicians, keyboard players are typically expected to be the most musically versatile and adept. The advantages to possessing solid musicianship skills include:

  • Confidence in different types of musical situations
  • Successful collaborations with singers and other instrumentalists in duets, bands or ensembles, or large musical groups
  • Avoiding the excruciating embarrassment of being that well-trained pianist who can’t play a simple song like Happy Birthday by ear because you need the music
  • Having a solid command of musical skills that are relevant to other instruments – making the learning of a second (or third) instrument easier
  • Being able to learn new music more quickly
  • Being able to learn new musical styles more quickly
  • The ability to hear a piece of music and immediately reproduce it without music (“playing by ear”)
  • Better hearing, understanding and appreciating the complexities of a piece of music
  • Having musical leadership skills and being the musician that others look to
  • Being more in demand (and respected) as a musician
  • Being able to play and work professionally in many different types of professional musical situations
  • Bringing your individual voice into your music-making
  • Helping to keep the piano vital as a musical instrument by being a creative force

How Creative Music-Making Makes Better Musicians

There is a myriad of ways that creative music lessons set the bar for good musicianship even higher. Creative activities like composing and improvising demand higher-level musical skills than the average piano student has. Among other things:

  • Composing requires the creative pianist to approach music-reading from the outside in, demanding a much higher level of reading skill than the average pianist enjoys
  • Composing in particular helps a performing pianist to better understand and interpret the musical form of a composed masterpiece
  • At intermediate and higher levels, composing requires a thorough understanding of musical theory and harmony that helps a performer better understand and interpret traditional masterpieces
  • Both improvising and composing demand multiple high-level ear skills, which are the hallmark of any truly proficient musician
  • Creative pianists have a greater capacity for creative problem-solving in different musical (and non-musical) contexts

Why Not Become a Creative Keyboardist?

BeethovenBeethoven could improvise – why shouldn’t every keyboard player know how to improvise?

A great pianist like Rachmaninoff could also compose – why shouldn’t every keyboard player compose?

A great pianist and composer like Gershwin could effortlessly create unique arrangements of others’ compositions – why shouldn’t every keyboard player be able to create unique arrangements?

Not every piano student is interested in becoming a good improviser, composer or arranger. Some will be content just learning how to play the infinite amount of brilliant music written for the instrument. But just like the average piano student learns to read music, tap out rhythms or learn music theory, a piano student can also learn the creative functions that have made the keyboard such a vital instrument in the past, and that will ensure it remains a vital instrument into the future.

Each student who does so will not only appreciate and enjoy their innate creativity, but they will become a better all-around musician, and enjoy a skill level with, and love for, music that few people are ever lucky enough to taste.

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