Technical Proficiency and Creativity

The Korean always enjoys reading Anthony Tommasini's take on classical music on the New York Times. His recent article regarding the increasing technical ability of classical musicians (specifically pianists) is quite interesting:
Ms. Wang’s virtuosity is stunning. But is that so unusual these days? Not really. That a young pianist has come along who can seemingly play anything, and easily, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago.

The overall level of technical proficiency in instrumental playing, especially on the piano, has increased steadily over time. Many piano teachers, critics and commentators have noted the phenomenon, which is not unlike what happens in sports. The four-minute mile seemed an impossibility until Roger Bannister made the breakthrough in 1954. Since then, runners have knocked nearly 17 seconds off Bannister’s time.

Something similar has long been occurring with pianists. And in the last decade or so the growth of technical proficiency has seemed exponential.
But will this focus on technical proficiency kill creativity and expression? No, Tommasini says -- just the opposite:
But more recently younger pianists have not been cookie-cutter virtuosos. Technical excellence is such a given that these artists can cultivate real personality, style and flair: artists like the Ukrainian pianist Alexander Romanovsky, whose 2009 recording of Rachmaninoff’s “√Čtudes-Tableaux” for Decca is wondrously beautiful, or the highly imaginative Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski, an exceptional Bach interpreter.


Martha Argerich can be a wild woman at the piano, but who cares? She has stupefying technique and arresting musical ideas. I would add Krystian Zimerman, Marc-André Hamelin and probably Jean-Yves Thibaudet to this roster. There are others, both older and younger pianists. Again, lovers of the piano can disagree about the musical approaches of these tremendous artists. But that they are all active right now suggests that a new level of conquering the piano has been reached.
Virtuosos Becoming a Dime a Dozen [New York Times]

This conforms with the Korean's long-standing belief about true creativity:  to be truly creative, one has to be really, really technically good at something first. Only after there is a foundation of ability to actualize one's vision can there be a materialization of creativity.

(More after the jump.)

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For another example, check out this beautiful reverse lay-up by NBA Hall of Fame player, Julius "Dr. J" Erving:

It should be obvious that Dr. J's reverse lay-up is an exhibition of supreme creativity. The challenge that Dr. J faced was the same challenge that every basketball player ever faced -- put the ball in the hoop, against the defenders who try to stop you. Dr. J found a new (and gorgeous!) way of addressing that challenge, the reverse layup that every aspiring basketball player would attempt to emulate. That is why people still talk about this particular shot 30 years after it happened. That's creativity.

(Aside: Here is Hall of Fame center Bill Walton making the same point in an interview -- "Basketball is ultimately a game of creativity, imagination, and expression, and you play it at the highest level and you become the best and it becomes an emotional outpouring of who you are.")

It should also be plain that Dr. J's creativity could be unleashed in the world because Dr. J was good at jumping. Dr. J's athleticism was a history-changing force for the NBA -- he was a Michael Jordan before there ever was Michael Jordan. Only with Dr. J's technical ability to leap, balance, twist and focus could Julius Erving achieve this monument of creativity.

Surveying across all areas in which creative minds shine, the conclusion is the same. Before becoming a composing genius, Mozart was an incredible pianist. Before being known a visionary of a new type of painting, Picasso attained a level of technical proficiency held by few others at the tender age of 14. Before ushering in the new era of computing, Bill Gates had expertise in computers that few others in the world did. For each creative mind that shaped the course of human knowledge, one can always identify his or her area of technical expertise in which he or she had few rivals.

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Creativity is important. It is, in fact, one of the most important qualities in human life. But in emphasizing creativity, many tend to discount the need for technical excellence, positing that technical excellence is something that gets in the way of creativity. "What good is being a good technician," the common argument would go, "if one cannot innovate? The technician can only follow; the innovators lead. And if you focus too much on the techniques, you lose the ability to innovate."

This is a stupid argument, because it does not recognize the crucial fact that technical excellence is a necessary condition for innovation. There is no innovator who is not a technician first. And ironically, to build the technical skill required for an exercise in creativity, one must engage in a decidedly droll series of repeated drills and practices.

This irony confuses people who, frankly, never attained a truly outstanding level of either creativity or technical proficiency. It becomes so easy for these people to buy into this misguided idea, because they never observed firsthand the process of how outstanding technical proficiency leads to magnificent creativity. As a result, instead of recognizing technical proficiency as a necessary condition for creativity, technical proficiency is frequently blamed as the cause for the lack of creativity.

Addressing the popular stereotype that young Asian American musicians may be technically superior but robotic in creativity, one reader of this blog gave the perfect rejoinder:
I used to be a violin teacher. In my experience, it wasn't that Asian kids were robotic; rather, their skill level was higher than their talent level relative to other kids. Highly talented Asian kids would of course play very well. But even moderately talented Asian kids would play fairly well -- well enough to sit at the back of the second violins in all-state orchestra, instead of first chair.

Meanwhile, moderately talented white kids wouldn't put in the work necessary to compete with Asian kids at their talent level. It's true that moderately talented Asian kids would tend to sound rather "drilled," but on the other hand, moderately talented white kids would play out of tune, suffer memory lapses and miss shifts. And they would do all that with phrasing and pacing just as boxy as those of the "drilled" Asian kids. Meanwhile, the truly talented Asian kids would eat everyone's lunches and outplay less hardworking kids on every metric: phrasing and musicianship, intonation, bow control, articulation, whatever you could name. That's what you get when you have both skill and talent. Drill alone isn't sufficient for playing like Cho-Liang Lin or Kyung-Wha Chung or Nobuko Imai. But it is necessary, and anyone saying otherwise is dreaming.
Please do not get distracted by the introduction of racial terms here, because the point here is not about those terms. (This should not matter, but if this matters to you, the reader who emailed this comment to the Korean was white. But again, that should not matter.) The point here is to dispel the stupid notion that technical skills somehow "crowd out" creativity. This is as dumb as the popular belief among the linguists of the 1960s that bilingualism is bad for brain development, because two languages were too much for a single brain to hold. (We now know how ludicrous that notion was.) Uncreative but technically proficient people are not so because their technical proficiency gets in the way of their creativity -- they are uncreative because they are untalented. Removing their technical proficiency will not somehow make them more creative. Can you seriously believe the claim that Mozart would have been a better composer if he was worse at piano? (Because, instead of practicing piano, he would have had more free time to focus on composing!) Yet that is precisely the kind of idiotic argument made by the people who think technical proficiency damages creativity.

Creativity is not the same as the ability to make an off-the-cuff observation or a witty remark -- the abilities which are far too often mistaken as indicators of creativity. True creativity requires technical proficiency. Without technical proficiency to actualize the creative vision, creativity amounts to nothing more than hot air and idle imagination. The lazy people may delude themselves about their supposed creativity all they want. But when Dr. J swoops by and drops one of the most beautiful shots in NBA history, all they can do is to gape and blink, dumbfounded by the magic of true creativity.

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