Creativity Is Getting Us Through

Version 3As the restrictions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic have stayed with us for over a year now, it is strikingly apparent how important those things I can still do are, now that many things I used to do are no longer available. Large group rehearsals, community theater, even dining out with friends who are not comfortable returning to restaurants just yet all needed to be replaced with other things. Being retired, I did not have work, in-person or remote, to fill my days, and I can only play so many rounds of golf (though I am so thankful I had that still available through it all). Though there were times when I lost the bounce in my step, what was it that kept me grounded? What was it that still provided meaningful occupation each day? It was engaging in creative activity. For me that meant turning to composing music.

I have composed occasionally in the past, but not to the extent I began to do so lately. I began writing a string quartet about a year ago, an ensemble I had never written for in spite of having several friends who are string players. I fell into a daily routine of writing almost every morning. As the days of doing this increased, I found myself looking forward to it every morning. I found that I was eager to get through breakfast and on to composing. This fit nicely with our morning routine, because my wife is a contributing writer for crosswalk.com, and spends her mornings working on articles. In this conducive environment, I finished what I initially thought would be a short piece, and decided to continue on, so that my little piece became a four movement opus. (See the “My Compositions” page of this site, and use the contact page to order your copy).

In the course of writing, I realized that having this outlet for my creative expression was releasing satisfaction and joy that had been tucked away for years. I remembered writing a band piece some twenty-five years ago that was a release of troubling emotions born of a difficult time in my life, and how writing that piece had been a sort of therapy for me. Now, with more time on my hands, how much more could I benefit from composing. It turned into a wonderful discovery, or rediscovery of a part of me that had been neglected for too long.

With that in mind, about a month ago, I thought I would revisit that band piece. Surely after twenty-five years, I could improve upon what I had written. So I determined to revise it and see where that would lead. I was pleasantly surprised to find how good much of what I had written still was, and somewhat amused to find in other places curious decisions that led me to say to myself, “what were you thinking when you wrote that?” Soon, the project took on the feel less of a revision and more of a new composition project. Whole sections were replaced by new ones, similar in expressive intent, but much more to the point I meant to convey, which because it was so personal, was still easily called to memory. I am now nearing the completion of revising “In The Wake of Memories,” first premiered in its original form in 1997 by Capital Winds at The Hartt School. It will certainly be ready for publication in time for its 25th anniversary year.

One of the things others have commented on in both of these pieces, the string quartet, and the band piece, is that there is a sort of dramatic arc in them both. They slowly build in intensity and tension, build to a climax, and then dissipate into a peaceful resolution. I was glad to hear others heard that in my music, because I think that is very important. It’s something I’ve taught my students to listen for in classical music. The sonata form, modulating as it does away from the tonic, and then eventually returning to it, captures this effect of a rise and settling of tension. It is what makes music expressive and emotionally engaging. The greatest musical works I can think of do this very thing; they create a buildup, and exciting high point, and then a restoring of calm, and peace. Other works which I tend to prefer less, get mired in a sort of flat dramatic line that meanders but loses dramatic direction, or else traverses small rises and falls, but never really works up to the payoff–those glorious moments that send chills up your back as, for example, when we reach the final minutes of Mahler’s first symphony or of Shostakovich’s fifth.

How does one enter into this world of musically creative enjoyment? Much of our students’ music education is built around either becoming more educated music consumers, or more proficient music performers, but in a way that stops short of originality in interpretation or creating. The advent of technology has both increased composing opportunities and stifled creative musical thought. With composition and sequencing technology, students can easily compose music, but often in a trial and error fashion. They can try out this sound or that sound, or this or that combination of keystrokes, and eventually find something they like. But true musical thinking, audiating a musical idea and then expressing it through performance or notation, is not necessary to completing many composition projects, and the results, while satisfying to a point, fall short of composed works to which a student or teacher might compare their work.

The Orff approach of valuing improvisation, and encouraging students to play with sounds on instruments is extremely valuable, but this type of instruction tends to fall off beyond the elementary school years, when technology takes its place. I saw a phrase the other day that caught my attention. It went something like this: “Children are less apt to do what we say than to imitate what they see us doing.” Children who are around adults who value creative activity, and who see those adults engaged in and enjoying creative activity are apt to take it up themselves and enjoy it as they have seen others do so.

As music educators, we need to let our students see us creating music, and enjoying creating music. When I have taught classes on composing, I like to show them my process. “I want to write a beginning that is quiet but also that will get people to sit on the edge of their seats anticipating what will come next. Let’s see, let me try this.” I then play an idea that comes into my head. I haven’t planned anything in advance, I am truly composing in front of them. “No, I don’t like this note; it doesn’t seem to fit in well with the others. Let me try something else there…”

I’ll go on like this for maybe 5 minutes. I’ll start asking the students for help. “What do you think should go there. Here’s what I have so far.” I’ll write it on the board so they can read it, and call volunteers to the piano to play what’s on the board up to my problem, and then have them play what they think will sound good. I’m drawing them into the composing process. We’re in it together, and we’re all having fun doing it. Some will begin composing on their own, and excitedly bring their work, even in progress, in for me to hear. This is wonderful.

And so we return to technology. A wonderful thing about technology is that allows all of this to occur on line. A zoom class can do all I have just described with you, and can share their work with you and the other students live online. Students can also work on compositions, record them and submit them to you as assignments as sound files attached to e-mails or through a cloud-based service such as dropbox. This is what we need more of. This is truly what the enjoyment of music is all about.

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