When asked to advocate for music education, one of the frequently given pieces of evidence is that music education develops creativity or creative thinking. While this sounds reasonable, at times it can be difficult to find much creative activity in the things that students are asked to do in both general music and music performance classes. In order to know what classroom activities really teach students to be creative, we first need to define what creativity and creative thought is. Merriam-Webster defines creativity as the ability to create, and creating as bringing into existence, or to produce through imaginative skill. In essence, a creative person engaged in musical activity causes new artistic work to be made and work that is set apart from other work in the same genre or style by original, fresh, new elements not known to or utilized by others who have also caused new artistic work to be made.
At the root of creating a musical work then, is the imagining of musical ideas that can be the materials with which music is constituted, and which can be shaped, transformed, and otherwise formed and expanded so that they come together with artistic integrity, forming a work which effectively realizes the creator’s intent. So at the very least, music education which claims to be developing creativity needs to be training students in imagining musical ideas, and in selecting from many generated ideas those that are most preferred, and then organizing them into an original form that is to some degree both unique and personal that sole creator of music.
For those of us who are products of music conservatories wherein our musical prowess was demonstrated almost exclusively through playing or singing scales, arpeggios, etudes and classical solo repertoire all written by others, this territory into which I have just ventured of creating rather than recreating music may well feel intimidating. Nevertheless, I fully believe that we can make no legitimate claim to developing creativity or creative thinkers in music if we are not engaging our students in musical thinking and creating. So let me know offer some suggestions on how we might proceed in doing this. It will, to be sure take some of us out of our comfort zones, but that is fair, because having not asked our students to do this sort of thing much or at all before, we will be asking them to go out of their comfort zone, so why not us too.
When it comes to generating musical ideas, I first run to jazz. Here I find ample opportunities for myself and my students to generate improvised musical ideas without feeling inhibited by judgment. It starts out simply, using Gordon tonal and rhythm pattern as a basis. First, students echo tonal and rhythm patterns so that they establish familiarity with them. These become the basis for the “riffs” they will improvise at a later stage in the process. For now, it is simply a matter of “repeat after me.” All of the patterns are the same number of beats, and I keep them all in common time. This is important because improvisors need to be comfortable with generating ideas of uniform length so that they fit into harmonic rhythms or “trading” formats. I start this activity with my 4-year-old Pre-kindergarten students, and continue it on through upper elementary.
After students have gained proficiency singing and chanting patterns by rote, the rules of the activity can be changed. Now, I sing those same patterns again, but students must sing a pattern that is different from the one I sang. The students can sing any of the other patterns they have learned (selecting) or can make up one of their own (generating). Students can repeat a pattern they heard another student sing or chant, as long as it is different from the one I sang or chanted.
For the 4-year-olds, that is as far as I go, but with the older students, I next introduce them to “trading fours” as jazz musicians do. This involves improvising a four-measure melody in common time, and then waiting for a partner to improvise a different four-measure melody that is a logical continuance of the first one. Students can do this activity with singing voices, or with pitched (for melody) or non-pitched (for rhythm only) musical instruments. By this stage, the older students are really enjoying this, because they are creating something their own, and they are playing their own creation on instruments, which is something they naturally enjoy. It is great hearing my music room full of student’s original musical ideas flying back and forth. Students are “thinking in music” much like a world language student thinks in the language he or she is learning. Most importantly, students are actively engaged in being creative.
Co posing or improvising original work is not the only creative musical activity. Arranging the musical work of others also brings into play a good deal of creativity. It is worthwhile asking questions like, “If Beyonce had written this music instead of Ravel, what do you think it would have sounded like?” or, “this music was written for a piano solo, but all we know how to play are xylophones. How could we re-arrange the left and right hand parts so that we could play it on xylophones?” This develops a different kind of creativity; not the kind that brings something into existence that wasn’t there before, but the kind that takes something that already exists, and introducing new approaches, perspectives and ideas into it. This is the kind of creative thinking that employers value, and, knowing that musicians do these things, why they will seek out musicians to fill non-musical positions.
When students are engaged in creative activities, they are doing something that requires them to imagine. They must form some kind of image in their minds of something that does not yet exist, but which they have within their ability to bring into existence. Rote learning fills the memory with the raw materials that will be utilized in the act of creating, but it is not in itself a creative task; therefore, copying a director’s interpretation, or improvising only pentatonic melodies is of limited creative value because a requirement to bring into existence or to imagine a new form is not needed to copy. I have found truly creative classroom activities to be artistically rewarding, even while they are also challenging. The lifelong enjoyment of music is so much more than pure consumerism. It needs to engage the imagination in creative activity, and this is what we must train our music students up to do.