How to Train an Elephant (How Not to Train a Musician)

Elephant trainers in India tie a small rope around the leg of an adult elephant and then the elephant will not move more than a few feet in any direction, even though the other end of the rope is not tethered to anything. Why does the elephant behave in this strange way?

It’s because when the elephant was a baby, the trainer tied one end of a rope around its leg and tied the other end to a stake. In this way, the little elephant could only move a few feet in any direction no matter how hard he worked.

This gives us an insight into why many trained musicians fear improvisation. In most music study, the main objective in the beginning years is to learn to play the right notes at the right time. Since this valuable activity is not counterbalanced by experiences in free improvisation, an unchecked emphasis on correctness soon functions like the rope in the story, tethering musicians to the paralyzing notion that they need to do all musical activities correctly or they will look like fools. And so, these musicians quite naturally feel uncomfortable stepping outside the circle of “correct” into the wider spaces of creativity.

Musical training should set free invisible parts of ourselves, not tether us to our seemingly endless fears of incompetency, disapproval, and abandonment. As educators, our job is to help our students learn to be both correct and creative, or they become like these trained elephants, unable to take more than a few steps in any direction because of imaginary fears