Believe it or not, both of these can stem from the same root problem. And it turns out the famous painter Leonardo da Vinci has the solution for you…
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Hi, I’m Christopher, the founder and Director of Musical U, and welcome to Musicality Now.
Recently I had cause to go back to the very first interview we did here on Musicality Now – or “The Musicality Podcast” as it was then. It was with Natalie Weber of the highly-popular Music Matters Blog, and she shared this wonderful analogy that has always stuck in my head since then.
It was a story from a book, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank in which a teacher was talking to their student. And I’m going to paraphrase Natalie’s telling of the story so it may not be true to that original book! But I think the point comes through clearly.
The student is asking the teacher why they have to bother with all these drills and exercises instead of doing the interesting, fun, creative work. And the teacher explains how Leonardo da Vinci didn’t just spend his life following inspiration and drawing whatever he was moved to draw. He became one of the greatest artists of all time through extensive practice of drawing the raw component pieces. Individual body parts – arms, legs, heads – from a variety of angles. Honing his ability to accurately capture those building blocks. So that when inspiration struck, his work on this “codex” of body parts meant he could directly express the creative vision with great artistry and skill.
The point being: the tedious legwork of honing your technical skills is what empowers you to feel free and creative and produce great art.
And this goes way beyond the simplification which may be springing into your mind, of “you need to work hard to achieve things”. It’s more subtle than that.
In our conversation Natalie was mentioning this in reference to how ear training exercises and drills can be the raw material that empowers you to play by ear or improvise. So even though we might shy away from those abstract drills in favour of more applied creative exercises, there’s great value in putting in that foundational skill work.
But what I wanted to share today is what we went on to discuss, which is that there’s a balance to be found… A “sweet spot” between technical proficiency on your instrument and the creative practices that may be what inspire you to play the instrument in the first place.
Here at Musical U we often talk about the “trifecta” of instrument skills, music theory, and ear training. How the three together are what create a competent and confident musician who feels empowered to do whatever they want to in music. And how traditional music education typically focuses almost exclusively on instrument skills, tries to persuade the student to study a bit of music theory “because they should” and often completely neglects the ear skills.
A large part of the purpose of musicality training is to rebalance that triangle and bring the ear skills and conceptual understanding of music up to par with the instrument skills, which lets you go from a note-playing robot to a free, creative and expressive player.
But here’s the thing: you can go too far in the other direction too! I’ve been guilty of this myself and I think that’s why this story in Natalie’s interview resonated with me and made me want to share it with you today.
Because when we talk about musicality training, we aren’t for a second saying that instrument technique doesn’t matter.
And there have certainly been times in my musical life when I’ve focused too much on the theory and felt like “Okay, I understand that, let’s move on” – without pausing to ask if I could actually do anything with that newfound understanding.
And there have been plenty of times, including at the moment when I’ve focused almost exclusively on musicality training – and my instrument chops have got pretty rusty, so that when I come to apply my shiny new ear skills in creative ways I find my fingers aren’t quite up to the task!
So I wanted to share (or perhaps remind you, if you’ve heard Natalie’s full interview) of this concept of “the codex and creativity”. And however that model applies in your own musical life, prompt you to ask yourself: do I have the right balance? Am I in the sweet spot between doing the nitty-gritty technical exercises to level up my core skills and doing the more free, creative, applied practices that put them all to use?
And one last thought – this isn’t black-and-white, either/or. Finding that sweet spot isn’t just about doing some of one and some of the other. It can also look like finding ways to develop those core skills in interesting, creative and musical ways. That’s what we do with the song-based learning in our Foundations course, it’s what we do with our Learn/Practice/Apply framework inside Musical U membership. And you’ll hear it coming through in past episodes of this show about improving and enjoying, about getting started improvising, and about bringing out your inner musicality.
So how can you know if you’re in the sweet spot?
Well, it’s pretty simple, and it comes back to that past podcast episode. Are you enjoying and improving? If you aren’t enjoying, chances are you’re weighing yourself down with too many dull, abstract exercises, doing your duty but inevitably losing motivation and momentum. If you aren’t improving, chances are you’re spending too much time applying your skills for fun music-making but without balancing it with the core skill work, or doing the creative practices in a way that develops those core skills effectively along the way.
So look out for those two warning signs, ask yourself “am I in the sweet spot?” and find your own balance between codex and creativity.