Teaching for Creativity and Innovation: an educational conundrum

Probably my favourite method of relaxation is to pick up my guitar in the privacy of my own home and pick away at a few chords. I occasionally even produce the odd self-penned song. I have a reasonable collection of pieces completed over the years, but I also have dozens of ‘bits’ of songs, many with just a couple of verses, the odd chorus, an occasional middle-8, and not much more. Some have been left unfinished for decades, even though I go back to them time and time again!

Given this interest, I often watch and listen to those who do the same as I do but who do it for a living and who are immeasurably better at it than I am or ever will be. One such is Ralph McTell. A song of his I listened to years ago and then taught to myself is a lovely little piece in waltz-time called ‘Let Me Down Easy’. Way back, I listened and tried to replicate his chords as best I could. I ended up with a version that pleased me at least.

Recently, however, I looked up the chords of the song online (on a ‘good’ website, not one of those innumerable ‘chords & tabs’ websites that take ‘amateur’ uploads of the chords of tens of thousands of songs, too many of them decoded by people with cloth ears – they get many of them wrong and their mistakes are then replicated like a virus across all similar sites). I discovered that my version was only an approximation to the original set of chords strung together by McTell (precisely why all those sites need to be treated so carefully). But I also noticed that McTell’s chords were, in places, a little weird. Not a very technical term, I agree, but his chords certainly play fast and loose with the underlying key that the song is in. But! It all hangs together beautifully.

This interested me even more when I came across the snippet above in a telegraph.co.uk interview with the songwriter and found out why that was the case. McTell has never been able to read music. Now that isn’t an unusual situation – many great musicians don’t read music. Like most beginner guitarists, I have no doubt that McTell learned or was taught a few basic chords. He would also have learned roughly how chords could be grouped into keys. But given his innate skill with the instrument (his name is actually Ralph May but someone gave him the nickname McTell early in his career because his incredible fingerpicking skills recalled those of the great Blind Willie McTell), he simply ‘invented’ chords (most of them in the ‘first four frets’, he says, very few at the ‘dusty end’ of the fretboard), then built structures with a mix of known chords and ‘invented’ chords, and developed his melodies and wrote his songs around those structures.

Now, imagine that a young Ralph ‘McTell’ May, instead of finding his own way with the guitar, had been placed in the hands of a ‘real’ musician, a guitar teacher, who taught him keys and chords and scales. Would he ever have created these wonderful ‘invented’ chords, and would he ever have strung chords together that an early formal education in music might have persuaded him was just plain wrong?

Possibly. Perhaps it is domain dependent. That level of creativity, that innovative feel, in any sphere, seems to be able to come only with either complete formal mastery or with no teaching at all. Only someone with a complete command of music, or someone with none at all, I believe, is able to play with the formal structures in the way that Ralph McTell is able to with his guitar chords and melodies.

It’s an interesting educational conundrum.