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Craft vs. Creativity

Is classical music more craft and jazz more creativity?

Key points

  • Does genre influence music as much as craft or creativity?
  • It may seem that jazz is more "creativity" and classical music more "craft," but it’s not that simple.
  • Ultimately, those who are most creative and most dedicated to the craft are the most successful. 

Classical musicians, more than any others (in my opinion), strive for perfection. They work long and hard on their craft. When you listen to a top-notch symphony orchestra perform the great works of the classical repertoire, it’s as close to perfection as you can get. Every note, every run, every dynamic, every silence—perfection. When I hear a solo line, during a symphonic performance, say, an oboe or trumpet, the player so exposed, I can almost feel my own stress level and blood pressure rising, wondering what they must be going through, and the pressure involved, to be… perfect. It’s kind of like Lebron James, at the free-throw line during the NBA finals, his team down by one point with one second left. Thousands of screaming fans. Millions more watching on TV… he cold-bloodily sinks both shots. Lakers win! Practice. Dedication. Mental toughness. (Athleticism.) Thousands of free-throws in the gym after practice. Hours and years of practicing and perfecting Bach note for note. Honing… craft. (And let me just say… I can’t do that.)

Is That Creativity?

Bach certainly used his imagination and had an original idea when he composed his infamous Cello Suites. That's creativity, right? Yo-Yo Ma can play them to near perfection. I imagine that he spent many, many hours practicing those pieces, let alone a lifetime of practicing and honing his skills on his instrument. Craft? Well, there’s certainly interpretation, passion, feeling, emotion, and expression in his performance of that work. You can feel it. And that is what separates him from all the others working to perfect that music. Is Yo-Yo Ma’s command of the Bach cello suites more craft than creativity? Equal parts? Some combination?

And then there’s Eric Alexander, a monster jazz saxophonist with mad improvisational skills. I saw him perform a while back at a small jazz club in NYC. And to watch, listen, and experience him create, and improvise organically, in the moment was mind-blowing. Creativity? For sure.

Is Jazz More Creativity and Classical Music More Craft?

So, is jazz more "creativity" and classical music more "craft"? Don’t come at me, classical musicians (or jazz musicians): I’m just throwing this question out there. Food for thought.

Obviously, it’s not that simple. And just like the nature vs. nurture debate, it’s really some combination of both. I’m certain that Alexander has spent hours and years practicing and perfecting the "craft" of his instrument. And I don’t think Yo-Yo Ma became who he is just because he practiced more than everyone else. But creating in the moment is certainly different than, say, playing Bach note for note, as written. There is no room for error in playing the Bach cello suites. Is there more room for error in jazz? Miles Davis famously once said, “If I play a wrong note, I’ll just play it again and then it’s not wrong anymore.” Well, I don’t think you can do that when performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor.

What I think is that you need both. The creativity fuels the craft. And the craft is needed to express the creativity at a high level. A professional level. There is always some of both involved. And ultimately, it’s those who are most creative and most dedicated to the craft that are the most successful.

I also believe that everyone is creative in some way. It’s just, how much do you allow yourself to tap into it? And really, how much do you believe it? And I also believe that you can be creative without the craft.

Creativity and Music Therapy

When we look at music therapy or any arts-based therapy, it’s all about the creative element. The work of the music therapist is to help one tap into their own creativity, regardless of skill or ability, to help promote change. To use music (or art) to help express feelings that words can’t describe. Or to communicate with others, through drumming or instrument play. In the right environment, you can certainly understand what a nonverbal, autistic person is feeling by how they are creatively improvising on a piano (or other instruments) with their music therapist. It’s the innate creativity in all of us that makes music therapy (and all the creative arts therapies) work. Part of the music therapist’s job is to bring the craft, and show that you are creative, as well as provide a safe space for expressing oneself creatively. And sometimes (more than not), the music is really good.

So, back to the question: How much is craft and how much is creativity? Does one art form or genre skew more one way than another? Did Miles Davis really play "wrong" notes? Can Eric Alexander play Bach and can Yo-Yo Ma improvise over jazz progressions? Who would win a one-on-one basketball game between Eric Alexander and Yo-Yo Ma? And where does screamo metal fit in?

So many questions to think about.

More from Raymond Leone MMT, MT-BC
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