Creativity, Craftmanship, and Copying

Michael Rushton’s recent post says some wonderful things about the problem of focusing on either Creativity or Quantification.

Creativity is a wonderful thing, but successful songwriters, playwrights, poets, video game designers and chefs, know technique – they have to. It is great to encourage children to experiment and explore, to instill a love of creativity. But they won’t turn into adults that make genuinely interesting creative works until they have learned technique. “The Daily Show” sketches cannot be written by someone who only understands how to analyze data, Egan is correct. But neither can they be written by somebody with no experience or sense of how television comedy works.

In my post, to create or to copy, I explored the misguided dichotomy of creativity versus copying by giving an example of a comment by Japanese Bunraku musicians:

[This] reminds me of interviews I had with the chief puppeteer in the major bunraku troupe, the chief chanter, and the chief shamisen player. I asked them how they trained, how they learned as children. As we all know, the standard system in Japan is to copy your master. [But] those artists said, “We do not copy our masters. Of course we watch our master and we learn. But no two human beings are alike, so it is impossible for me to copy my master. I have to internalize my art, make it my own. Then I can become a great artist.” This is a wonderful illustration of the solution to what might seem to be impossibly opposite goals: to “replicate” and to “create” anew.

And what they are describing is the process of learning Craftsmanship.

Sure, there are plenty of artists who “copy,” and probably as many who are “creative” without any sense of craftsmanship. But as I said in that post,

In the end, the greatest artists are those that can make ANY work, whether their own or someone else’s, speak powerfully. On the flipside the weakest artists have to hide behind the rubric and hubris of citing originality and creativity, or, dedication to the re-creation of a previous work to hide the fact that he or she has nothing really to say.

So again, I wonder, going back to Rushton’s final paragraph:

The need to teach “creativity” has achieved a lot of buzz lately, as Egan notes. But is it misplaced? Should the emphasis rather be placed on technique, know-how, rather than some generally vague notion of creativity? Misleading to characterize the issue as one between creativity and the quants.

and my questions about the Music Conservatory and Music Education industries and Arts funding politics I still have to wonder how much of the entrepreneurial and business shift in some conservatories are more for the sake of legitimizing the status quo in the pre-professional world of music making.


  1. I often think that we need not much worry about people “copying” others too closely. To make of oneself a copy of another being requires a constant, unrelenting, exhausting effort far in excess of the effort needed to merely master technique. It is HARD WORK, and unintuitive, ugly, repressive work, to make of oneself a copy of another. If you do any work at all for even a barely significant period of time, your own personality WILL come out eventually, and that blooming process can’t be made to go backwards. Work for long enough, and you WILL become yourself.


    • You know, one of the most interesting debates that local band musicians get into is the covers vs originals debate–and what you said is exactly what I and many musicians who spend a significant time doing covers will say. Learning to reproduce any other artists work is a great way to learn a craft and teach you something you might not know. I think the idea is that doing something like this transforms you while focusing solely on ‘originality’ and ‘creativity’ simply allows you to do what you’d normally do idiosyncratically.

      There’s little learning or growth involved–or, the learning and growth comes at the expense of making the same mistakes (which you learn from) that countless others have already done and learned from. Better to make new mistakes that both you and others can learn from than the same ones others have made that only you can learn from.


      • That’s a great way to see it — mistakes are costly, and sometimes the price is very high. Best to get one’s time-and-money’s worth out of them.

        And of course this is all quite different from the “tribute band” idea, where the letter-perfect copy is sort of the point of the art, and one isn’t making a secret of it.


      • Right–there’s this continuum from “original” works up to the tribute bands, and cover bands fall more towards that tribute band side.

        I think the push to use pop entertainment initiatives in classical music is just revisiting the the lessons learned from old mistakes which don’t work work anymore. It’s not as if the Crisis pundits are really wanting to try anything new to learn from new mistakes so much as aping what are now just old “best practices” — especially as now so many of pop entertainment industries are starting to flounder in similar ways.

        Oh–I watched the video you sent, btw–it was fantastic and I imagine I’ll be blogging about it in the very near future!! Thanks so much! 😀


      • aping what are now just old “best practices”

        But that were new, shiny, and wonderful when they were in their 20s and new, shiny, and wonderful themselves …


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