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Fostering Creativity by Aileen Miracle

We are delighted to tell you that we have a guest blogger!  According to her website, Aileen Miracle teaches general music and band in the Olentangy Local School District near Columbus, Ohio.

This summer, in my teaching at DePaul University’s Kodály program, I had many conversations about creativity with my fellow colleagues, and reconsidered how we as music educators can truly foster creativity. For many years, when the subject of creativity came up at meetings, workshops, and conferences, I thought to myself, “Of course I foster creativity. I’m a music teacher!” This past year, though, and especially this summer, I began to realize that performing and learning about music does not automatically translate to creativity.

Recently, I posted a blog entry about improvisation and composition; you can see the blog entry at aileenmusic.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/exploration-to-improvisation-to-composition. I was very excited about the word patterns my students created with this project, and how they were able to transfer their spoken patterns to melodies, and then to the staff. I also enjoyed the sequential aspect to the project, how they began with a word pattern, then chose note letters, then wrote note heads on the staff, and then added rhythm. The students also followed rules for the project, so their compositions had to exist within a framework.

This summer, though, as I explored my ideas of creativity, read more about creativity, and discussed philosophies with colleagues (a special thank you to Donna Gallo for all of her wonderful insights!) I realized that although it is important for students to create within a framework, sometimes they need to create without a framework.

When Donna first mentioned this idea, I admit, I had a knee jerk reaction of “No framework? But HOW?” How do we get students to communicate their creative work without any kind of guidelines? Donna shared a chapter from “Can I Play You My Song?: The Compositions and Invented Notations of Children” by Rena Upitis; the chapter fascinated and inspired me. The reading focused mostly on the development of the child’s mind to musical notation, as well as our shortcomings as music educators to foster an open environment to composition (and although I only read one chapter, I just bought the entire book, as it seems well worth the read!) Upitis suggested a composition activity in this chapter, in which the teacher has students pair up, has them both choose an instrument, and then asks them to create a piece of music and write it down in a way in which someone else could understand.

My first question when reading about this project was, “But what if students don’t know the rhythms which they’ve created? How would they write them down?” The answer is actually quite simple—they write down those rhythms, timbres, and pitches however they want. Maybe they will use some notation from music class—but maybe they won’t. Isn’t it a beautiful thing for students to create their own way to notate a piece of music they’ve composed?

The goal is not necessarily for students to use their own notation forever and abandon traditional notation, but to create something without a strict framework, and without rules. In time, students might realize that standard notation is an easier and more uniform way to share their compositions, which is a very valuable lesson for them to learn. In my district, we have focused quite a bit on the “big ideas” of education, and this to me, is a “big idea”: that in order for music to be shared, we need a somewhat uniform way of notating that music. Through this project, we are not forcing that idea down our students’ throats—rather, we are letting them arrive at that idea themselves. It also allows students to create a sort of shorthand notation for when they want to write down something they don’t know a name for yet.

I still view providing a framework for students to create as being valuable. Through giving students a structure with rules, they can practice musical concepts, and for those students who prefer a framework, we are fostering their needs. As I was thinking about both ways of approaching composition, though, I began to think about the definition of creativity, and found this one:  “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.” If we use this definition, than perhaps providing that framework with rules doesn’t truly foster creativity—at least not in the same way that the project without rules does.

All of this made me think about my own musical development and creativity. As a teenager, I first picked up the clarinet and then switched to trumpet, but also taught myself how to play piano. I would sit for hours at a time and create my own musical works, having no idea what the chord structure of each piece was, or whether the pieces followed the traditional musical rules. I just created, and played, and found great joy in this. In high school, I composed a symphony with three movements, and a trumpet duet I performed with a friend at Solo and Ensemble. Then I began my first year as a music education student in college, and started taking Music Theory. I was actually quite good at analyzing chord structures and labeling rules, but at the same time, it gave me “analysis paralysis.” I looked back on these compositions at that point, and realized how many parallel fifths there were, how immature the chord structures were, and it became increasingly more difficult for me to compose without criticizing my work. One of my favorite pieces I composed in college was a twelve-tone row for voice and muted trombone. I was able to choose the instrumentation and the text (a poem by Jane Yolen). I still love this piece, but I now find it interesting that the piece I find the most pride in had a very strict framework, in that the melody was chosen for me by the strict mathematics. Since college, I have abandoned composition (even though at one point during high school, I thought I might compose for a living.) My husband is a singer-songwriter, and I envy that he can create without needing to worry about any rules.

Looking at my eight-year-old daughter’s creative development, I’ve heard her create her own songs dozens of times—in the car, in the shower, in her room. She’s also created ostinati and layered them on top of each other. However, I’ve already seen her be too critical of her compositions. I’ve talked to her about how creative I think she is, and that we are our own worst critic. But I wonder, as her mother and her music teacher, how I can help quiet that voice inside her head telling her that her creations are “not good enough.” How can I do that for all of my students? Is that fear born out of a need to follow the rules, and to compare our compositions to that of others?

These questions might take years to answer. Creativity is certainly a huge topic with lots of underlying factors. But through these conversations, I have been looking at the upcoming school year, wondering how I can best foster creativity and composition. I plan on trying the sample composition project with my 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students. There are other ways, though, that I believe will help foster originality and creativity from my students:

  • As suggested by Upitis, offering students more opportunity to experiment with instruments without giving them a prescribed way to play them (perhaps through learning centers)
  • “Finish my song”: One of my Level I students at DePaul shared this idea, in which students get into small groups. One of them begins singing a melody on a neutral syllable. Then the next child continues the song, followed by the third and fourth child. The student who suggested this activity said if students close their eyes and/or put their heads down, they are not nearly as self-conscious.
  • With my Kindergarteners, I often do vocal exploration through pictures. For example, we do “ghost melodies” in which students might write something like this:

I plan on having students come up to the SMART board and write their own ghost melodies, but in the next lesson, they will get their own dry erase boards and markers, and write ghost melodies. Perhaps we can explore different ways to write these melodies, instead of just hills and valleys, and then they can share these creations with partners.

  • With the students I do the composition project with, I plan on using art to explore how artistic creations can be connected to something concrete, like a drawing or a composition.

As I delve deeper into Upitis’ book, I am certain I will come up with other ideas, and am excited about the possibilities! As stated before, I will still have students compose and improvise within a framework—as sometimes this is the best way to begin creative work, so students feel that there are no “wrong answers.” For example, I have students play a specified rhythm in C pentatonic, or create a 4-beat rhythm pattern and speak it by themselves using rhythms they know, to a steady beat. But alongside this work, I’d like the students to create without rules, to truly foster the ability to transcend traditional ideas, patterns, and rules.

Feel free to email me at aileen.miracle@yahoo.com if you have any questions, if you try any of these projects and want to discuss them, or if you have any further ideas about how to foster creativity. A special thank you to Grace Music Studio for inviting me to be a guest blogger!

To read more of Aileen’s Blogs log onto: http://aileenmusic.wordpress.com/

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