When Schönberg was in America he had a teaching stint in Hollywood. Film composers, especially those of horror movies, flocked to him. He could teach them his twelve tone magic that would send their scores into stardom. What did he have them start with?
Some were perplexed. Why Mozart? That won’t help me make intriguing film scores. These students wanted to get to the good stuff, what made Schönberg Schönberg, right away. But Schönberg insisted. He studied Mozart as a student and saw the importance of analyzing those scores. Why stop now?
Marcel Duchamp emulated and studied the impressionists, fauvists, and cubists in his formative years. That allowed him to put a urinal in a gallery. Hunter S. Thompson was a student of letters. He had a lot of experience in journalism and sometimes rewrote books he loved, like The Great Gatsby, to get a sense of how it felt. That allowed him to create gonzo journalism.
These anecdotes bring to light the importance of studying craft. And what better way then looking to those who mastered the craft before? It’s often thought that greatness comes from toppling tradition. More often than not it actually builds on top of it.
Music works in this way. Look at any genre and there are artists you can look up to for guidance, who understand their craft in such a way that elicits study. No matter how great we get, there is always someone to look up to.
In a 1904 letter, a young Alban Berg describes his summer dwelling. Statues and portraits of his idols decorate his room: Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, and Isben. He can only describe the scene as follows: “There, that is my surrounding: a little child of man set amongst gods and heroes!”
Not a bad place to be…