Facilitating Creativity for New Musicians
Classmates described Emma’s performance piece as sounding like “a rain storm, with a little bit of hail.” She led her ensemble in an intricate texture of “body percussion” clicks, whistles, claps, stamps, snaps, thumps, and chanted lyrics. The whole thing had a magical flow that was so smooth, no one could tell it was written in a 5/8 time signature.
Dave’s piece featured two basses and an oddly-constructed drum kit: two upside down metal classroom desks, a piano bench, an open hard shell bass case, and a tic-tac box. The traditional drum kit lay abandoned in the corner, where Dave had left it after deciding that the sound of his mismatched homemade kit fit better with the storyline of his composition.
Peter insisted that his audience be seated in the middle of the room, with the six keyboard players in different corners. Each player’s part contained a whirl of repeated eighth notes, sometimes consonant with one another and sometimes dissonant, while a lone guitar part played sustained pedal tones above it all. No one was surprised when Peter revealed that he wanted listeners to have the feeling of being lost in the middle of a noisy crowd.
Reading the vignettes above, you would probably think these were advanced, maybe even “gifted” students of music. In fact, the people described above were actually community college students in a beginning theory class, and they had almost no prior musical training or experience.
Emma had never seen sheet music before, and her fully notated 5/8 “rain” piece was her compositional debut. Peter customized his own part to have simply one pitch because that was all he was comfortable playing on the keyboard. Dave, a “garage band” drummer during his teenage years, had never dreamed of leading an ensemble or making big decisions about the nature of a piece. In a room filled with students, not one of these three would stand out as being particularly gifted or talented, so how is it that they were able to step out of their roles as beginning music students and create such dynamic creative moments?
During this and many subsequent activities, my community college students are experiencing first hand the intensely emotional, “bigger than life” power of music-making. We begin with a mere spark of an idea and gradually bring it to life by revising, rehearsing, and performing in front of an actively-engaged audience of fellow classmates. The nurturing of this creative awakening in beginning students goes way beyond what is commonly done in traditional music theory teaching. My goal in this type of interactive class is to help students turn their musical exercises into real artistic experiences, reaching further than mere creativity for creativity’s sake (Nachmanovitch, 1990).
To accomplish this, I find myself relying on three important pedagogical strategies: Teaching according to the Artist Model (Black, 2010), where students are expected to perform with professional-level conviction and polish, even at the earliest skill levels; helping students understand the principles of music theory as a set of musical options rather than a set of hard-set rules (Langer, 1997); and encouraging students to use their original compositions to tell stories that really mean something to them (Black, 2010). Although these may sound like simple ideas, I find that every time I weave them into a class or workshop, my students are consistently able to produce dynamic, artistic performances with only minimal supervisory guidance and input. I have come to realize that I cannot actually teach them how to be creative; I merely provide an environment in which their innate creativity can evolve into true performance artistry (Jorgenson, 2008, Goodkin, 2001). I am simply the facilitator; they are the creative artists.
Experiencing Music through the Artist Model
You may be wondering why I am talking about composition and performance to describe a music theory class. Early in my teaching, I decided that no matter what my music classes were entitled, I was going to teach them through actual performance activities (Jorgensen, 2008; Goodkin, 2001; Shamrock, 1997). As a performer myself, I understand that the reason people generally want to learn music in the first place is to make music come alive (Werner, 1996). That’s what I need to help them do. To me, it shouldn’t matter if a student has no prior musical experience. Regardless of their age or experience level, students arrive excited and ready to discover how they can express themselves through sound. It is my job and privilege to guide them in that journey.
My assignments are always composition-based and take students through the complete artistic process: initial improvisation and creation, notating ideas in formal composition, rehearsing with an ensemble to bring the piece to life, then finally performing the completed work in front of the class. This is not the type of assignment typically given to beginning music students. However, my goal is to guide students toward becoming artists in their own right, and I don’t believe I can accomplish that by assigning beginner tasks. According to the Artist Model, even beginning musicians with limited technical means can learn to communicate to an audience with depth, emotion, and expression (Black, 2010).
To set the stage for a semester of musical immersion, I give the initial composition assignment at the first class, long before I have time to teach students how to play an instrument or notate complex musical figures. In order to make the assignment accessible and exciting for classmates of all skill levels, I draw on material from the Orff method (Perlmutter, 2009; Shamrock, 1997) and have students first compose a rhythmic piece for “body percussion.” Using this universal instrument, students are not limited by technical issues. They can create “through their technique, not with it” (Nachmoanovitch, 1990, p. 21), accessing the sounds they imagine without facing insurmountable technical limitations. Since students don’t need to struggle with overwhelming technical frustrations, they have room to focus on the musical aspects that make for a true artistic performance: for example, dynamics, phrasing, and accents.
We initially encounter these expressive elements as a group while practicing simple rhythmic examples in the first class. I add the expressive markings into the exercise not as advanced concepts, but as an exploration of how much they can contribute to the music. These are not “extra” markings; they are necessary components for expressive Artist Model musical communication (Black, 2010). In the same way, I immediately introduce multiple time signature possibilities such as 5/8 and 7/8, along with changing meters. These essential tools provide students with multiple options when searching for a variety in rhythmic feel and expression. There is simply no reason to put off such exploration until students are “more advanced.”
Before sending students off to compose their own pieces, I always like to model a few basic body percussion pieces in class. My examples are simple–maybe two or three percussion sounds and a few subtle dynamics. Once the students leave class to work on their own, they take these ideas and run with them. Amazingly, the compositions students bring back the following week are anything but simple. Their creative energies go wild as, like experienced artists, they take a basic technique and personalize it until they find something truly engaging (Nachmanovitch, 1990). One student composer even distinguished between stomps with the heel and stomps with the ball of the foot; indeed these did produce two very distinctive sounds. Many students write pieces that feature percussion kits with seven or eight sounds (I once heard a student apologizing to his ensemble: “Sorry guys, I meant to just write two parts, but I kept finding more interesting sounds and I didn’t know how to choose!”).
Nearly every piece features abundant marked dynamics and accents, including sforzandi and subito changes. The compositions that are turned in contain a myriad of time signatures, and almost always there are some with changing meters. In my first two years of teaching alone, I received dozens of first-day body percussion pieces, and each one was uniquely special. By the end of the first round of performances, every new composer has contributed something important to the class, and their personal artistic experience gets off to a successful start.
Reframing Rules as Creative Options
As I have worked to maximize creative opportunities for my students, I have found myself in a familiar but troublesome paradox: music theory is about learning rules, whereas composition is about breaking rules.
In order to balance these seemingly opposing ideas, I have begun to work with what I now term the “cause and effect” approach to music theory. There is no rule that says a piece must start on the tonic chord, but many pieces do because it has the effect of feeling stable and safe; it causes a feeling of being “home”. My students become aware that they can start a piece on whatever chord they desire, but if they want to create that stable feeling for their listeners, a tonic chord is probably the best choice. The result of this initial teaching is that students immediately begin making purposeful musical choices. Like real professional artists, they don’t construct their pieces according to pre-established rules, but make expressive choices that fit with their artistic vision. There is no “wrong” choice, but they have to be ready to explain why they did what they did. I have discovered that when students intentionally make a “wrong” choice and stand by it, they not only achieve artistic ownership of that musical concept, but they end up understanding the musical “rule” a lot better (Langer, 1997).
I will never forget the day when Navine performed his first pitched composition. Without a doubt, Navine was the least experienced student in the class. We had studied chords and harmonic function for weeks, but he still struggled to understand basic chord construction. Navine’s composition ended on a hanging dominant chord. At the end of the performance, audience members looked at each other uncomfortably. Trying to save the moment, I fished for feedback: “How did that make you feel?” “Weird,” came back immediately. “Unresolved.” “Like it stopped before it’s supposed to.” Navine suddenly started grinning. “Awesome!” he said. “I tried to write something that you wanted to keep going.” “How did you do that, Navine?” I asked. “I….well, the last chord….it’s the function that wants to go ‘home’, but I didn’t let it.” It was a true lightbulb moment. All of a sudden, Navine understood harmonic function. He didn’t understand it because he studied, but because he used it to create a specific feeling and it worked. That day was a turning point in his composition because he stopped looking for “the right answer” and started focusing on his right answer. Harmonic function wasn’t a mystery any more, and it wasn’t a rule to be followed; it was a tool he could use to tell his own musical stories.
Story Telling and the Artist Feedback Loop
Thinking about music with cause and effect approach lays the groundwork for what I think of as true artistic activity: musical storytelling. I have observed that students are always better able to focus their creative energies when they center their music-making around a storyline. As musical story-tellers, students are never being creative merely for the sake of being creative. Instead they chase wildly after specific moods and colors. Their creativity has real artistic direction and purpose.
Go back to the opening vignette about Peter and his surround-sound keyboard piece. Every musical choice he made was driven by his desire to create a specific storyline. Peter wanted his audience to feel what it’s like to be lost in a crowd, so he chose to literally surround them with a crowd of keyboards. After making this decision, the instruments were no longer simply instruments. Suddenly they were characters in a story, and Peter had them “chattering” away, using repetitive eighth notes, like they were real people. Of course, the story was not just about a bunch of talkative people; it was also about feeling lost in a crowd of strangers, so Peter added a mournful sustained guitar line into the texture. This is powerful composition.
Remember that Peter was not an experienced composer and was uncomfortable playing more than even one or two notes on the piano. He didn’t have a way to test the effectiveness of his piece while he was writing it at home. His writing was based almost entirely on cause-and-effect hypotheses, so at the end of the class performance, he could hardly wait through his classmates’ applause to start asking for audience feedback. In our class, asking the audience to describe what they felt in a composition is the primary way for composers and performers to check the effectiveness of their artistic work. It is almost like a game of Charades: if you can get an audience member to say one of your key words for a piece, you know you hit your artistic mark (Black, 2010).
As students become more experienced, this feedback loop evolves to include non-verbal communication, where performers try to feel what the audience is feeling and adjust their playing mid-performance to elicit different responses–the essence of the Artist Model (Black, 2010). With constant interactions between musicians and audience, my once-inexperienced community college students actually get more real-world artistic experience than many musicians I play with professionally. What is important here is that through their music, students learn how they can communicate real stories and real emotions to real people. Even if they don’t remember one bit of music theory they learned from me, I know this kind of artistic process will stay with them far beyond this particular music class.
A Final Note
One of my community college students once joked to me that he bet a classmate five dollars I couldn’t go one class without saying “Don’t just be creative; be artistic!” He won the bet. I certainly talk a lot about artistry, not just in my classes, but in life in general. That being said, I think I have learned more from my community college students than I have from any other experience. Every person who steps into the world of music comes to music deserves to have the feeling of being an artist: of creating a meaningful story in sound, conveying the story to an audience, and having the audience connect to that story. Perhaps very few of the students that pass through my classes will go on to be professional musicians, but each of them will remember what it feels like to do something meaningful and communicative with their unique brand of creativity.
Black, B. (2010, September 3). Personal interview.
Goodkin, D. (2001). Orff-Schulwerk in the new millennium. Music Educators Journal, 88(3), 17-23
Jorgensen, E. R. (2008). Art of teaching music. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Langer, E. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Reading, MA: Merloyd Lawrence.
Nachmanovitch, S. (1990). Free play: Improvisation in life and art. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, INC.
Perlmutter, A. (2009). Orff-Schulwerk with and without Orff instruments. Teaching music, 16(5), 48-52.
Shamrock, M. (1997). Orff-Schulwerk: An integrated foundation. Music Educators Journal, 83(6), 41-44.
Werner, K. (1996). Effortless mastery: Liberating the master musician within. New Albany, IN: Jamey Aebersold Jazz, INC.
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