Creating a Method for Structured Freedom

Music is fundamentally non-linear, yet method books tend to set a straight and narrow path out. The skills that are required to actually function at a professional level, to compose, improvise, interpret, perform, record, and read music, involve a group of mental, physical and emotional processing abilities that happen in different sequences for different people. So where is this chaos, this creativity, this tension between structure and freedom, in method books themselves?

This is the central problem of music teaching: figuring out how to give each student what they need, when they need it, without turning them into a little music robot that knows how to press buttons and read dots, but not much else.

Everything I do, if done correctly, has to contradict itself on some level. I am teaching my students how to eventually not need me. I use notes to teach them how to not need notes. I use randomized card and dice games to create chaos which teaches them how to find order. I use structure to teach them freedom, and I use distraction to teach them focus.

I am finally starting, after 13 years of teaching, to settle comfortably into the contradictions, knowing full well that these contradictions are a baked-in part of my job. Without them, simple answers can mislead both students and teachers into creating assembly lines of repetitive box checkers that create nothing new. If you are stuck in this rut, there is hope! You, too, can be a Creative Piano Teacher.

Music is a living art form. It is dynamic. The great composers were all improvisers first. If we are going to imitate them by copying the note patterns they left behind, it’s mandatory that we at least try to understand the dynamic, spontaneous and non-linear side of their Art.

So how, then, can I create a curriculum around this Mystery of Art? How can I create a linear process for the non-linear? What I am looking for is a method for structured freedom.

Creativity is the embracing of contradiction. To teach it, one must use sequences, and, at times, linear processes, and then one must abandon the predictability of any process. This is because creativity is the act of bringing into being, that which previously did not exist. You can’t create something new by recombining the broken pieces of something old. This is why coroners don’t work as midwives.

Think of it like swimming. The deep end of the pool is 100% creative. There’s nothing under your feet. The shallow end is very logical, it’s where you are constantly supported by someone else’s ideas, someone else’s directions. There is a part of the pool where the bottom starts ramping down, and as you move toward the deep end, the water gets progressively deeper. My goal is to move my students down that ramp at a pace they can handle. I don’t just throw them in the deep end. The funny thing is, plenty of them choose to jump in themselves. But the ramp is still there for those who need structure to guide them into the formlessness.

People fear the deep water for the same reason that they fear their own creativity. It’s a deep fear of the loss of control. This is a central theme in music lessons; we worship as idols the great composers and songwriters who conquered this fear, and yet we stay safe, at a distance from our own creativity, when we simply imitate them without also participating in the creative process itself.

Over the years, I have always told my students that I am a book. They are reading from my pages, copying lessons into their book. We are all living books. Some of us enter the world with chapters already fully formed, others enter completely blank.

It’s complicated, of course. Imagine if Paul McCartney had been forced to only do the Thompson Method, he might have had his songwriting impulse smashed. But on the other hand, if a songwriter like Paul McCartney had been the ONLY teacher for someone like Martha Argerich, how would she have developed her incredible virtuoso skills? Some people need highly focused, specific sequences of skills to acquire one after the other.

The answer is simple: the same flexibility that already exists in the way private piano teachers approach each individual student needs to appear more prominently in the method books themselves. There is a growing tide of Creative Piano Teachers who are changing the conversation, and the advances that have already been made in the name of creativity in various methods to date should be pushed even further as those methods go through revisions and updates.

With this in mind, I am writing a new series of method books that take the student and the teacher into the deep end of creativity, but with a ramp, rather than just throwing them in and hoping they can swim. Writing my own method book for this non-linear approach seems, at times, like madness. After all, method books are linear! Doing this well is actually the most linear thing I could think of: a non-linear goal, reached by going through a linear sequence. Completely self-contradictory, and yet this is what all method books are doing, whether or not they choose to admit it.

The end result is a place of dynamic musical flexibility, where students as well as teachers are encouraged to think in the language of music in a non-linear fashion. This is how a person becomes a composer, an improviser, a songwriter. Often the linear process that got them to that point is hidden, or they are unaware of it. But the dirty little secret is very simple: They learned their skills somehow. It didn’t just come out of nowhere. It never does. 

If you are a teacher, how do you navigate this beautiful abyss?