Today, as I attended the fifth biennial Symposium on Music in Schools at Yale University, I became occupied with a question that came to mind as I listened to Sebastian Ruth talk about helping students find their voice through music education. His talk and the discussion that followed included points on developing relationships with students as co-learners with their teachers, downplaying the traditional authoritative nature of the teacher. This is done by leaving the child to make more decisions about his or her own learning, and giving the student the freedom to operate within his or her own cultural perspective and personal experience with music. Creativity plays a critical role in all of this, and certainly in arts courses, including music, it is reasonable to expect that students will have more opportunity and encouragement to be creative and act on creative ideas than they perhaps will have in other disciplines.
The discussion began to get bumpy, at least for me, when it turned to the relationship between teaching the craft of music making and the personal relationship with a musical experience, summarized in the term aesthetics. Doesn’t a student need the wares of music performance, the musical vocabulary of training and experience on a musical instrument to act upon creative ideas successfully? In other words, is it not necessary for a person to be proficient on an instrument before they can be creative with it? On the road to gaining proficiency, the student cannot be left to creativity alone, but must learn to discriminate between what is right and what is an error as he or she plays a composed piece of music, or even as he or she improvises over chord changes. The ability to detect and correct errors is in itself a skill necessary for developing proficiency.
So craft must precede aesthetic performance experience. Once that is achieved, is it then possible that a creative idea, once expressed with performance on a musical instrument, can be errant? Is there such a thing as a wrong creative idea, and even if there is, should music teachers tell students that a creative idea they have played is wrong, or just encourage them to continue being creative by accepting equally every idea that comes along? At what point, if ever, does the music student need to learn that some ideas are better than others, some ideas should be forgotten while others should be remembered and referred to often? Is it a legitimate part of developing creativity to also be developing the intellectual and emotional capacity to evaluate creative ideas, and to be selective in which ones to retain and develop into larger musical works?
In the context of the symposium, the answers to these questions will depend on how they affect the development of the student’s voice, which is to say his or her personal identification with a specific musical experience. In my own teaching experience, if a child is asked to improvise and yet does nothing more than repeat exactly what they have just heard from me or another child, then that is not the same as when a child, hearing one musical idea, responds with a related but different musical idea. The latter is a better response because it shows original musical thinking, which is beyond the ability to recall and reproduce exactly what one has heard. Pushing the student to go beyond mere repetition is indeed a step toward developing independence, which is how one finds their own voice.
A moment ago I used the word “related” to qualify the musical response. That is another indicator of quality in this case. An improvised response that is different but entirely unrelated to the preceding phrase is inferior to the response that is related. Unrelated is dangerously close to random, though it may also be highly creative and original. The need for making these discriminations does not inhibit or discourage a child from finding their voice, but makes it possible for them to do so. The trick is to make risk-taking safe while at the same time teaching children that they will not be right, or achieve their best result overtime they take a risk. If this were so, then there would not be any risk, because success would be assured. The very fact that there is a risk being taken means the possibility of failure is present. But the consequence of failure, if that is a fair word to use to describe it, must be minimally negative and viewed as much as possible as informative and helpful in reassembling resources into another effort informed by what was learned the last time. The process of repeated risk taking, enabled by a safe learning environment, results in high-level learning and introspective analysis, and improved responses. Yes, creative ideas can be right, wrong, and every degree in between. Artists are creative because they see things and think things that others cannot see and think on their own. It is the virtue of the artist to bring these things to light, and to challenge people to see the world in fresh, challenging and yes creative ways. That takes a great deal of experience, honing of skills and creativity, but it is well worth the effort.