Sunday, August 21, 2011

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.

*                 *                 *

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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  1. True creativity requires technical proficiency.

    Technical proficiency can enable greater creativity.
    But that is not a given. That's why there are as many or more technically proficient artists that are not at all creative (e.g. many '80s guitar virtuosos) as there are technically proficient artists that are creative.

    Additionally, there are truly creative musicians and artists that may be considered "competent at what they do" yet not at all technically proficient. The Ramones, X (the LA punk band), the Sex Pistols, early rappers like the Sugar Hill Gang - you might not like these musicians, but generally, they are acknowledged as creative. In the field of literature, HP Lovecraft is often considered a terrible writer, but his ideas were so compelling that his stories resonated.

    So, it doesn't hurt to hone your craft. And whether or not you are technically proficient, you are going to have to do hard work to be creative. However, creativity doesn't require technical proficiency.

  2. "This is a stupid argument, because it does not recognize the crucial fact that technical excellence is a necessary condition for innovation."

    That's because Innovation is a word almost always associated with doing something 'first' (eg. getting patents'..something nearly impossible for a novice to 'stumble upon'.

    "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."

    You seem to be suggesting that Asian (and Western) parents want their kids to be innovative, thus they force them to endure thousands of hours of piano lessons or ballet lessons.

    Of course not. They're trying to build discipline, not innovation. One could argue that no parents care about innovation. Innovation is only something you yourself can enjoy.

    You think it's 'ironic' that doing something boring for thousands of hours will ultimately lead to innovation? Only if you ignore motivation. If your parents force you to play piano for thousands of hours, you'll never do anything innovative. If you force yourself to do something for thousands of hours (like Bill Gates sneaking into the computer labs at the age of 14), you will do something innovative. See the difference? Bill Gates didn't think Computers were boring.

  3. I have to agree with the first two commenters here. While I believe one should hone the technical skills of one's chosen field, creativity does not necessarily come with nor require technical skill. Take a look at the street artists - I'd say there are more who have not had technical/formal training in their craft than those who have, but there are some amazing artists out there. I believe creativity comes more with talent than technical proficiency.

  4. I think that creativity does require technical skill as a base, which is fueled by passion, interest and some sort of technical understanding of the medium which you are using as a form of expression.

  5. Jim,

    Compare what I said with what you said -- your conclusion is missing the word "true." The OP is talking about Mozart, Dr. J and Bill Gates. You are talking about The Sugar Hill Gang and Lovecraft. SHG and Lovecraft might be minor stars in the creative universes, but ultimately they are forgettable.


    You seem to be suggesting that Asian (and Western) parents want their kids to be innovative, thus they force them to endure thousands of hours of piano lessons or ballet lessons.

    Instead of speculating what I meant to say, you could focus on what I actually wrote.


    Take a look at the street artists - I'd say there are more who have not had technical/formal training in their craft than those who have, but there are some amazing artists out there.

    Technical training does not have to be formal training. It just has to be technical.

  6. I'm on board with Jim, SHG and Lovecraft might not be DJ Kool Herc or Shakespeare, in terms the loftiness with which people speak their names, but I would certainly count Lovecraft at least as a tremendously creative and influential writer. Also, the early punk bands that Jim mentioned are hardly unmemorable since they pretty much created a sub-genre of rock and their work continuous to have serious impact in rock music today.

    Likewise, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, was known for playing any of the instruments in his band, however, he was the one that came up with the music, sometimes in collaboration with his band, but sometimes he would just direct them in what he wants them to play. He *was* a very technically proficient singer, but would I say that he was a technically proficient composer? I would question that. He had the ideas, but it was up to his bandmates to turn those ideas into actual music. And yet, James Brown, is undeniably an impressively creative musical visionary and many of his biggest songs were clearly his own.

    I do think there is a correlation and technical proficiency creates means to better express creativity, but I think it's more of a correlation than a requisite and certainly not a causation.

  7. I have to agree a bit with 21tiger.. There are lots of asian parents that force their kids to practice an instrument or art or sport that they simply have no passion for and no matter how technically good they become through the practice, will probably never become very creative or innovative in that endeavor.
    However, the training and discipline IS useful in that it teaches you the "WAY" to learn when you do find something you are passionate for, you know how much time you have to dedicate in order to become good.

    The trope about technical skill "crowding out" creativity probably sprung from the fact that because so many Asian kids were "forced" into learning a skill they had no passion for, they ended up being decent technicians and not creative at all, which in turn gave the unfair Asian stereotype of being robotic, uncreative but technically good.

  8. So along with your argument Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst are surely not true artists, albeit being the most successful and top selling temporary artists. Both of them can't draw, sculpt or paint, they hire people to do it for them. Well maybe time has yet to prove if their work will remain.. so how about a more classical example: Pierre Bonnard and Marc Chagall, both renowned artists in these days, have very, very poor draftmanship.. they were clearly not talented. Giorgio de Chirico is famous for his beautiful, naive and mysterious body of work that he created in his early twenties- only when he decided to go the strictly academical route in learning how to paint, his work became incredibly dull.. which is how everybody felt about it.. much to his frustration, as he thought he was getting better the harder he tried and practiced his craft. Unfortunately, this was just not the case.

    I can agree with your stance mostly when applied to classical music, but in the fine arts it isn't so clear to say. Perseverance, individualism and a few skills to market these outweigh talent on the large scale.

    (I hope I made my point understood, my English doesn't feel so good:)

  9. I'd like to add, the unique character of Chagall's work does come, to a great deal, from simply not being able to "do it better"- hence the bold off-colors instead of refined contrasts and the floating elements (because he isn't good at perspective, he found a way around it to compose an image).

    This was not a result of creativity through training.

  10. Well, can we just agree that being technically proficient leads to people being more likely to being creative and innovative than people who are not? I don't think it's an absolute pre-requisite but I think the point of this article is to illustrate that creativity is not stifled by technical proficiency, but rather enhanced by it. Certainly that much is evident.

  11. Creativity is about finding new ways that others have not. The higher the skills and knowledge, the more options are presented and therefore a requirement to new solutions.

    Creativity requires many hours of searching for new solutions, which most of those hours are to waste. It needs total focus and neglecting everything else.

    So I believe as the Korean that with only common skills and effort it's basically impossible to be truly creative, perhaps only reinventing something old in a new fasion.

    However, I am a software developer and sometimes people around me comes with some good ideas. Usually it's a reinvention of something, so I would not call it truly creative but its never the less something that I didn't think about and makes me start thinking fresh. So even if I do have the technichal skills, there are still many things I dont know which is required for a great idea.

  12. I find it funny that Jim includes the band X in his list of "competent but not proficient" musicians. Billy Zoom's father was a big band musician, and Billy was a multi-insturmentalist who could play the piano, accordion, most woodwinds and the violin, among others, in addition to the guitar. He had worked as a studio musician for almost a decade before he hooked up with X.

    The Sex Pistols also had musicians that were more competent than they let on in their records. Before McLaren got the Pistols together, most of the band did Faces covers and other early rock, and quite well, they say. They made their music sound trashy and "dumbed-down" as part of their gimmick.

    This, in a back-handed way, is the point the Korean was getting at. One of the key elements to success, especially continued success at a high level, is the ability to repeat your accomplishments. As an extension, one of the key elements to creativity is being able to modify what you're already doing. That requires technical proficiency.

    Another example of high-level technical training that was not formal would be Thelonious Monk, who never studied music formally but worked continuously with musicians who probably taught him a lot. He was an innovator because he heard things no one else could hear, but he had to have the technical skill to grasp what he was hearing and reproduce it on the piano.

    A simpler version of this argument can be found in Norton Juster's The Line and the Dot.

  13. The OP is talking about Mozart, Dr. J and Bill Gates. You are talking about The Sugar Hill Gang and Lovecraft. SHG and Lovecraft might be minor stars in the creative universes, but ultimately they are forgettable.

    I can dismiss those you consider truly creative just breezily. (Especially Bill Gates.) I'll leave it at that.


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