This is the second part of a post addressing the question “what is music freedom?”. The answers I have proposed in the first part concerned mostly a musician’s public sphere. The following ones, instead, are progressively of a more private and intimate nature.
(4) Freedom relative to other musicians. How much is a musician’s style influenced by music tradition, academies and schools, or by certain specific musicians? How much is such influence a free, conscious, good choice and how much is it not? Of course, learning music is also a matter of imitation, as it happens in art in general. But, are we really free from our fellow musicians, our teachers, the great masters, or other musicians that we like? I think that this is a very important question. It is possible to imitate creatively but there is also a risk of becoming a clone (generally a bad one). Do we play to express what we like, to enjoy reproducing what others have already done, to show off our abilities? These are not necessarily alternatives or opposites. However, musicians are probably the most conservative species of artists, and many of them have absolutely no interest in exploring new, more personal approaches and directions. Also, think about issues like consonance vs dissonance, composition vs improvisation, playing by ear vs educated playing, technical dexterity vs expressiveness, serious music vs popular music. In fact, these are just notable examples of false oppositions, that nonetheless often have a tremendous influence on a musician’s style and on what he thinks he is entitled to do or not. Spending some time reflecting on all this can reveal new, unexpected, personal, freer ways to music.
(5) Freedom relative to one’s own musical abilities. Each musician develops a personal technique and has his own set of skills. Some people can barely play three chords on a guitar and some are great virtuoso players. But they are both musicians and both have their own abilities and limitations. Years of routine playing and practice produce a series of habits that help a musician to achieve certain results, but also keep him at a distance from certain other possibilities. Moreover, technique is not a synonym of bravura (even if that’s how the word is commonly used: just think about playing fast, as if it was the most important aspect of instrumental technique), but rather a neutral word indicating a practical knowledge. Expanding such knowledge widens a musician’s possibilities and therefore increases the musician’s freedom. In this respect, a common myth is that more music knowledge, either theoretical or practical, produces more mechanical and less inspired music. This is generally not true, provided that expanding or improving the abilities be accompanied by a constant focus on the goal of music. For instance, musicians should study scales and arpeggios, because they are useful tools; but how many musicians can also play beautiful phrases and not only scales and arpeggios? Similarly for music theory: the more you know it, the better it is, but don’t confuse music theory with actual music!
(6) Freedom relative to one’s own personal tastes. I said above that musicians are probably the most conservative species of artists. Musicians who like different genres are a rarity. That’s not wrong in itself, but it does not seem reasonable to expect much artistic freedom if the music tastes are also limited. The widespread practice of listening to one genre only, one style only, one specific type of instrumentation only (such as the classic rock set: drums, bass, guitar, voice, and perhaps keyboards), or even listening to no more than a few bands, is certainly comfortable and reassuring. Actually, sometimes music can be unsettling or even a bit scary, with all its variety of forms, timbres, sounds; we generally like music that resonates with our desires and positive feelings, not music that we perceive as either cold, boring or annoying. Nonetheless, I believe that, as they grow up and develop, serious musicians should work on opening up their horizon, not on closing it. As a test, try to seriously ask yourself questions like: why exactly I don’t like hip-hop (or folk, jazz, metal, classical, etc.)? You might find very interesting and inspiring answers about both music and yourself.
So, these are my reflections on music and freedom. I have tried to highlight certain core issues and I have also given, more or less explicitly, my personal point of view, along with some advice on how to maximize music freedom in different cases. But my goal is not much to convince anybody to adopt certain attitudes, which I consider as favourable to more artistic freedom. Rather, I mainly wanted to break down the concept of music freedom into different parts, because I think that there’s often some confusion around it. And confusion does not help when you have freedom problems. The important thing, I believe, is to be aware of the fact that music freedom is conditioned by a plurality of aspects that interact in a complex way. I thought that a clearer picture of such panorama might help to understand certain biases, prejudices, fears, desires, or any satisfaction or dissatisfaction that we might have as musicians (but also as pure listeners.)
I’d like to end this post with a personal testimony. I recently enrolled in an online course on jazz improvisation taught by Gary Burton, a notable master of the genre (https://www.coursera.org/course/improvisation ), and I took the decision to use the piano during such course. I am not really a pianist; rather, I play bass and guitar, but my background is in pop, rock, and some acid jazz, not in mainstream jazz. Therefore, I have some difficulty when I try to improvise in a jazz fashion on my instruments. Even if I am not too worried by that, because I love to play pop or rock, sometimes I feel my uneasiness with jazz as a kind of limitation, as a lack of freedom, and as a result of some conditioning that has characterized my musical growth. I therefore decided to enroll in that course and face such limitation. However, I have chosen an indirect way to do it: starting again on instrument that I know very superficially and approaching it specifically from a jazz point of view. I have done my first assignment, playing a solo over a set of changes for three choruses, and I am rather satisfied of the result. Since my technique on the piano is very poor, I could not rely on things like scale fingerings, patterns or licks and, instead, I was forced to sing internally as much as I could, hoping to hit the right notes at the right time. The result is nothing sensational, but I think that my simple single-note solo has a nice, honest feeling and I was also surprised by the good interaction between my playing and the band in the backing track. I realized that, while I played, I was really listening to the piano, bass and drums, because I had nothing else to think about, apart trying to play as best as I could what my ear suggested me.
So, it seems that I have found some freedom within a situation that is novel, challenging, purposefully limiting, potentially scary and apparently unreasonable! Perhaps, placing ourselves in uneasy situations is really what we need, to understand freedom better and acquire more of it.