Musical Creativity

Three chapters in PME – by Martin, Barrett, and Burnard – focus primarily on the nature and teaching of musical creativity. These authors provide exceedingly valuable insights and perspectives, both theoretical and practical. Although I disagree with them on some points, we share a great deal in common, and I’ve learned from studying their views.

To begin with, we all answer the following questions affirmatively: Is it possible to teach musical creativity? Yes! We can, and we must do so. Can children be creative? Yes, by all means!

The big question, of course, is how do we develop our students’ creativity? The praxial view proposes that teaching musical creativity overlaps with and extends the strategies we use to develop our students’ musicianship-and-listenership in all situations – performing, improvising, arranging, composing, conducting – all of which involve and depend on listening. As Barrett says, “For Elliott, the key to creativity lies in developing musicianship and creative strategies concurrently (not consecutively), beginning at the earliest stages of instruction” (PME, p. 181). In addition, however, we help our students learn strategies that will enable them to apply and extend their musicianship-and-listenership toward producing creative outcomes, by which I mean original and significant performances, improvisations, compositions, and so forth. These strategies include what I and others call generating-and-selecting, instilling a creative disposition, planning, producing multiple drafts, risk-taking, opportunity finding, and so forth (see MM, pp. 225-227; 228-230; 234; PME, p. 181).

So, a basic tenet of the praxial approach to musical creativity is that “creativity” is not something we restrict to teaching composing and improvising. Everything we do as music teachers should integrate the development of students’ musical understanding and students’ creative know-how. For example, if we are teaching our students to sing a simple song by Schubert, or Ella Fitzgerald, then we should simultaneously teach them to sing expressively in relation to the way music is sung in these styles and, also, develop their “creative mindsets” by inviting them to make suggestions (reflect) about and experiment with different interpretations of these songs, answer questions and give reasons for their choices, and so forth. In these ways, students learn that music making is not a simple matter of sound-producing; rather, musical music making involves reflecting on, generating, and selecting musical options toward creative outcomes.

For example, if we are teaching our students to improvise the blues, we develop all ten forms of their thinking-and-knowing that make up their musicianship-and-listenership (see MM, chapters 3, 4 and 9-11), and we do this in the context of the blues-jazz practice being taught. Taking a contextual approach to developing creativity is a basic tenet of the praxial philosophy. Why? If a person is a creative blues improviser, this doesn’t mean that s/he will automatically be a creative rap improviser, or Broadway musical theater composer. Clearly, different criteria and histories of achievement apply in each musical style domain. Put another way, composers don’t “just compose,” improvisers don’t “just improvise,” and so forth. Composers (improvisers, performers, arrangers) work within specific musical style contexts which, in turn, favor different kinds of musical forms, expectations, and values. Of course, musical style characteristics can always be modified, appropriated, or combined. Indeed, “fusions” or ‘cross-overs” among and between styles are exceedingly common.

What I’m saying, then, is that the musical style-practice we are working in provides us (teachers and students) with the guidance we need to teach and learn how to be musically creative in each musical practice. By “guidance” I do not mean “strict rules.” I mean that “placing” and planning the development of students’ creativity in particular musical-style contexts informs us (teachers and students) about many things we need to know to be creative in that style. For example, each style-practice will “point us” to everything from compositional techniques, to model works, to evaluative criteria, to recordings that students need to listen to for the stylistic features they need to learn, adapt, and/or surpass in creating their own music.

Martin offers his perspective on these views:

“This praxial perspective enables all music students to engage profitably in composing and improvising. It should also encourage teachers to become composers and improvisers and learn how to teach their students to do the same in some selected musical styles.”

Also, Elliott’s premise that composing and improvising are “situated,” meaning that they should be taught in context, underscores the need for effective alternatives to abstract (acontextual, aesthetic) notions of “creativity,” which many teachers accept uncritically. Today, “creativity” is more often considered to be the outcome of doing, learning, and making in particular contexts of effort (e.g., musical styles), as Margaret Barrett also explains in the next chapter of this book (see PME, chapter 10). Thus, there is no substitute for engaging in style-related projects of composing and improvising. (PME, p. 174).

These points bring us to a larger question: What is musical “creativity”? I spend a long time answering this question in MM (chapter 9). Here I’ll simply say that teachers hold a wide variety of views and, therefore, musical creativity is taught in a variety of ways. At one end of the continuum, many teachers believe that anything anyone does is “creative” and any kind of “doing” is automatically an instance of “creating.” In other words, judgments of creative achievement are purely subjective and personal. At the other end of the spectrum, some teachers believe that creativity is something that only geniuses can accomplish.

Praxialism takes a contextual view:  all people can develop their musical creativity because “creativity” is something that employs and extends musicianship and listenership, and because many kinds of “daily thinking-and-feeling” are always involved. This does not mean that everyone can become a Mozart. It means that people of all ages can learn to generate creative musical results: compositions, improvisations, performances-interpretations, and so forth. As Martin says: “Elliott’s praxial view of composition and improvisation as reflective practices is consistent with the demonstrated reports of practitioners and with the views of psychologists like Perkins (1981) and Weisberg (1986) for whom creative processes comprise ordinary procedures, not special talents” (PME, p. 174).

A key tenet of the praxial view is that, because creativity occurs in particular musical style contexts, teaching and assessing the development of people’s creativity depends centrally on teachers who understand the style in question. Indeed, ask yourself this: would it be reasonable for a teacher with no knowledge or ability in the language and literature of French culture to assess the creative writing of a French secondary-school student? No. Similarly, would it be reasonable, musical, and educationally appropriate for a teacher with no experience or ability as a jazz-blues improviser to tell a student that his blues improvisation was good, bad, “creative” or “not creative”? I do not think so. Teachers must know how to listen to and compose (arrange, or whatever) in a given style if they’re going to teach and assess their students’ composing (performing, improvising, or whatever) in that style.

Viewed from this perspective, students who are beginning to learn how to compose, arrange, improvise (and so forth) in a particular style-practice can be described as being “on their path” as creative music makers. They are learning what to listen for in the music of a specific style (or styles) and developing the musicianship needed to produce music in that particular style (or styles). They are not “creative” just because they are taking their first steps as composers; they are “novice or beginning composers.” However, as they gain some competency and proficiency with the materials and means of composing (improvising, etc.,) in a style, they are likely to generate a work that is more than ordinary, or routine: they will construct something original and significant – something creative – in the context of that style. So, a person (child or adult) does not need to be a genius or possess expert musicianship to produce creative musical results, but s/he does need a reasonable level of style-related musicianship-listenership in order to produce creative results. The reason is that a “creative product” is something that goes beyond normal, everyday doing.

It follows from this that students need informed guidance about how to (for example) compose melodies in a “Cool” jazz style, or how to compose “soundscape” pieces in the style of R. Murray Schafer, or how to compose a 12-tone piece. Learning to do these things begins with explorations of sounds, yes, but the learning process must progress through various levels of knowing-how and knowing-why composers do what they do in particular musical style-practice communities. I strongly suggest (based on my own teaching and learning experiences as a composer), too, that throughout the processes of teaching musical creativity, students must be given opportunities to produce multiple versions of their compositions, improvisations, and so forth. Suppose, for example, that I want my middle school students to learn and appreciate the qualities of different modes (e.g., dorian, phrygian) in Cool jazz (as in Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool). To do so, I guide them to compose three (or five, or eight) modal melodies (8 bars long). I do not limit them to one melody. This way, I’ll have lots of latitude in giving them constructive-formative assessments of their melodies. Also, my students won’t be “holding tightly” to their one-and-only melody, which could easily cause them to feel badly if I offer them constructive criticism, which is difficult for most people to hear at the best of times.

Burnard’s essay (PME, chapter 14) offers excellent examples of what I mean by praxial music education and the teaching of creativity. Notice, first, that her student composers are engaged in listening, improvising, composing, performing, and reflecting – in combination. These actions are not separated or compartmentalized. Notice, also, that the compositional processes and products of these students draw upon musical materials and experiences they first encountered as performers-listeners. As Burnard puts it: “This music making illuminates Elliott’s notion (MM,  p. 102) of ‘listenership and its component knowings’ as procedural knowledge that feels and sounds in bodily actions learned from inside the musical practice of one player who transfers it to the other” (PME, p. 273).

Martin’s experiences as a composition teacher include a concern for reflecting-in-and-on-action, problem solving, generating and selecting musical ideas, “conversations” with musical materials, and so on. I discuss several of these same strategies (MM, chapter 9). Like the children in Burnard’s “Music Creators Club,” Martin’s students embody their performance abilities in their composing (PME, p. 167). In short, Burnard and Martin agree with me that “performing experience [I would add improvising, too] is arguably a more basic and practical starting point for composting . . . because performing gives students a first-hand, practical experience of the materials and the procedures of musical discourse in specific musical-cultural practices (PME, p. 167).

“Still,” says Martin, “there are unique aspects of compositional thinking that need attention during instruction” (p. 167). Yes, I agree. Moreover, we don’t have to limit the starting point of students’ composing to performing alone, which brings us to one of Martin’s main concerns. Martin states that he cannot agree with my decision “to include composing, alongside performing and improvising, ‘only as time permits’” (PME, p. 168). Actually, I do not say “only as time permits.” Nevertheless. I should have been clearer. As I’ve been emphasizing, I believe we must teach all forms of musicing in a balanced program. In reality, however, I’m also aware that most teachers do not have the time they need to teach all forms of musicing all the time. So, we need to decide some priorities (at the same time, I understand why many colleagues may want to put composing at the center of the curriculum. More on this in a moment). Still, I’m persuaded about the importance of performing and improvising (and listening, of course) as foundations for composing, and the need to link performing to composing so students can hear what they compose. This is why I say that, in addition to performing and improvising (note that improvising is a form of composing), “composing, arranging, and conducting ought to be taken up [i.e., taught] with reasonable frequency” (MM, p. 274). So, I see a difference between how Martin interprets my words and what I say. In fact, Burnard interprets my view another way: “the praxial view of general music education affirms the complexity of children as reflective music makers and validates listening, performing, improvising, composing, arranging, and conducting as interdependent forms of creative doing” (PME, p. 267).

That said, I want to confirm that I understand why and how some teachers (especially many colleagues in the UK) hold that student composing should be “first among equals” in music education. For example, if a teacher knows how to compose reasonably well in a reasonable range of styles, and if her students can learn to sing and play to some extent, and if students have ways of hearing their compositions performed expressively and regularly (e.g., by performing themselves, or in their class ensembles, and/or by other student performers in their school or community), then I agree that (a) a composing is an excellent “emphasis” in music education and (b) that a composing emphasis fits perfectly well with what I mean by “praxial music education.” And since composers frequently improvise in the processes of composing their works, improvising is an important process/strategy to learn in connection with learning to compose.

Here is a case in point. When I was a secondary school music teacher in Toronto in the 1970s (our school had 2200 students), my responsibilities included teaching composing and improvising in several general music classes. (I also taught instrumental music classes: wind ensembles, brass and woodwind chamber groups, and large and small jazz groups). In collaboration with my two colleagues (a sting orchestra teacher and a choral specialist), I continuously linked our student composers to our vocal and instrumental students. These composer-performer collaborations allowed our student composers to hear (and conduct) their works on a regular basis in class, at school concerts, and at evening chamber music concerts, which my colleagues and I organized every few weeks to showcase our students’ compositions. In short, I am not a performance-only teacher, and the praxial philosophy is not limited to performing. It emphasizes the basic importance of performing and improvising (MM, p. 172), both of which involve listening, but it also advocates that students’ compositions and arrangements be given the time and consideration they deserve towards musical performances of these works.

Martin makes two additional comments about my thoughts on improvisation (PME, pp. 168-170). On the topic of teaching improvising and composing, Martin makes a fair point in favor of teaching improvising in a “pure way,” without getting involved in composing: “I cannot see why student improvisers necessarily require ‘the more deliberate and forgiving tempo of compositional-notational time, as Elliott suggests’” (PME, p. 170). However, I do not say composing is “required” in the teaching of improvising. I only say that “student improvisers would benefit from opportunities” to engage in compositional processes and projects because composing and improvising are so similar in fundamental ways. Besides, from a pedagogical perspective, different students learn in different and/or multiple ways; so, linking composing to the teaching-learning of improvising would most likely assist some student improvisers in important ways.

A second criticism (p. 171) is that I focus exclusively on the solo improviser. Martin gives excellent examples of how and why it’s necessary to examine and teach improvising as a group activity. Martin is right. I should have said much more about the collective nature of improvising as it occurs in different musical practices. I believe my emphasis on the collective and collaborative nature of the praxial curriculum-as-practicum implies that improvising must be taught with attention to the interactive nature of improvising, but I must make this point more explicit in future discussions.

Barrett supports the praxial view for several reasons (PME, chapter 10). First, she observes that praxialism “moves our profession beyond the excesses of the progressive child-centered movement where an ‘anything goes’ kind of ‘self-expression’ was the guiding principle for teaching the arts (Abbs, 1987, pp. 38-46). For Elliott, creative musical achievements can only arise in a context in which issues of domain and field (e.g., knowledge in a field) are considered in conjunction with individual makers” (PME, p. 177). She adds that the praxial concept of creativity “goes far beyond traditional notions of creativity-as-composing to include all forms of music making: arranging, composing, conducting, improvising, and performing” (p. 177).

Nevertheless, Barrett has some important concerns. First, she queries my view that that “composing is a ‘major’ but secondary means of developing musicianship” (PME, p. 178). I admit that this was not a good choice of words. I did not mean to say that composing is “secondary” in the sense of being lesser, unimportant, or inferior to performing and improvising. I meant to say that composing must be connected to performing and listening; otherwise, students will not learn to discern when their works are performed well or badly. I’ve already explained (in my discussion of Martin’s essay, above) that I support curricula where composing is central – as long as student composing is intimately connected with a serious concern for how well students’ works are interpreted, performed, and listened to by the student composers themselves and their peer (classroom) audiences.

In fact, Barrett seems to acknowledge what I’m saying in this statement: “when he discusses composition as musical creativity ([MM] pp. 161-163), he does not see it as a “stand-alone” activity. Rather, he sees each kind of composing (defined by its context of traditions, standards, and style elements) as embedded in a web of social-historical-musical thinking-in-action” (PME,  p. 177). Yes, and this is why I think Barrett’s use of the term “schism” (p. 178) might be too strong in comparing my view with educators like John Paynter. For example, I don’t think Professor Paynter would disagree with me that teachers need to be very concerned with how students’ compositions are “made audible” and how well students are learning to listen in the composing context. Surely “teaching and learning composing” means students do more than generate and “write down” their ideas (graphically and/or in standard notion)? Otherwise, there is no comprehensive music teaching-learning going on.

Again, then, a very serious question is this: Are students’ hearing their compositions performed (by themselves, their classmates, and/or others) accurately, sensitively, expressively – musically! – in our music composition classes? Unfortunately, some music teachers “teach composition” with no attention to this vital issue. For them, it’s enough to “sound out” or “reproduce” students’ compositions. (I’ve seen this kind of non-musical “composition teaching” in many parts of the world). I oppose such unmusical teaching practices that split composing and performing. This is why I emphasize the need to be concerned with performing, improvising, and listening in relation to teaching composition. And this is partly what I mean when I say that students need to be involved in performing and improvising before and during their efforts as composers.

Next, Barrett suggests that the praxial view of creativity is a significant departure from earlier views of creativity because of the following:

it (a) recognizes the influences of historical and socio-cultural dimensions of creativity, (b) it emphasizes the development of individual skills and understandings from novice-to-competent and proficient levels of music listening and making (MM, pp. 70-71; p. 227), and it (c) views the processes through which the individual works in contexts of real musical practices. (PME, p. 182)

However, Barrett is concerned that I do not draw from research that examines the creative processes of school-aged children. In relation to this issue, she asks the following questions:

“What constitutes the community of practitioners in the music classroom? Is it the larger community of practitioners to whom Elliott refers – that is, the musical community beyond the classroom and school setting where the ‘practitioners who originate, maintain, and refine established ways and means of musicing’ dwell?  Is it that micro-community of practitioners who operate in specific schools and classrooms encompassing all the social and cultural features of these settings?  Alternatively, is it the community of practitioners who originate, maintain, and refine established ways and means of musicing in the domain of music education?  In learning a musical practice, says Elliott, interactions with ‘significant others,’ including teachers and the wider community of practitioners, whether in person or on recordings (p. 161), is essential. However, should students’  ‘creative’ endeavors be judged against those of the wider musical community or (as Csikszentmihalyi and Rich now seem to suggest) in comparison to the micro-communities of the school and the domain of music education?” (pp. 182-183)

My answer is: all of the above. Guiding and assessing the musical-creative development of our students requires that we include all these factors. We nurture and assess creativity in relation to their efforts in the specific musical style-practices they are working in, and in relation to their peers and, therefore, in relation to both the larger community of musical practitioners and the micro-communities of the school, and the field of music education.

Accordingly, when Barrett suggests that we should make a distinction between children’s musical creativity and adult creativity, I wonder about this. If we follow this line of thinking, then do we also assess adolescents’ musical creativity on a separate scale; and, do we assess middle-aged persons’ musical creativity on a different scale? The danger in this kind of age-based view of creativity is that teachers will assess children’s creativity only “against other contributors of a similar nature made by their peers” (p. 182). If this happens, then teachers may avoid the education of musicianship-listenership in favor of unique “self-expression,” and judgments will become highly subjective. The educational consequence is that, without a musical context to “refer to,” we will have nothing to teach and students will have nothing to learn because whatever student peers think will be deemed “creative.”

Of course, I know music is different from other school subjects, but (for the sake of argument), consider what would happen if we limited our judgments of students’ efforts in math, or English, or soccer to aged-based criteria. Do we ever do this in education? No. We know and bear in mind the nature and standards of good (excellent, creative) English writing, good (excellent, creative) science work, good (excellent, creative) soccer playing. In terms of musical creativity, the process is similar, but not the same, of course. Musical creativity requires musicianship and listenership, but it goes beyond these because the many dimensions of meaning that make up a “musical work” in (an improvisation, composition, arrangement, performance-interpretation), in each given style, are more fluid and elusive than a mathematical proof, an experiment, or a creative “play” in sports. Thus, it is more difficult to assess creativity in music than in most fields. So, what would happen if we compared one first-grader’s beginning-level improvisation to another first-grader’s beginning-level improvisation to determine the relative “creativity” of each. Without considering these students’ efforts in relation to the musical-style context in which they’re improvising, we have no way of knowing whether their novice efforts are musical, let alone creative. For example, if one of these students plays four different notes of a pentatonic scale, and the other student plays three random notes in serial music fashion), which one is “creative”? How could a teacher possibly determine this reasonably, fairly, and musically? So, even at the earliest stages, teaching musicianship and creativity needs to be situated in style contexts, including (of course) 20th and 21st century avante garde, “exploratory” styles.

At another point in her essay, Barrett worries that my concept of inducting children into musical practicums that approximate real musical practices “suggests that children are incapable of creative endeavor in music until they have attained sufficient levels of musicianship in real music cultures” (PME,  p. 185). I didn’t mean to suggest this. In fact, consider the students in Burnard’s “Music Creators Club” (PME, p. 273) who are engaged in creative endeavors. Notice that they are drawing many of their musical ideas from “real” music cultures (or so-called “adult music”). For another example, I offer a scenario in MM (pp. 225-226) wherein a student named Clara is composing a short jazz flute duet in bebop style. So, I affirm that children can and do achieve creative results in real musical practices.

Second, I see a possible contradiction in Barrett’s reasoning. On one hand, she suggests that there’s a problem with the praxial curriculum due to its focus on engaging students in “real music cultures” (my term) and “the communities of practice evidenced in the adult musical world” (PME, p. 185). She argues that by conceiving music education in relation to so-called “adult music,” we may “ignore (to our detriment) the musicianship that children bring to the music education enterprise, with a concomitant potential loss of musical richness and diversity in their, and our, lives” (p. 185). On the other hand, I note that most (if not all) of her examples of “children’s creativity” are linked to adult musics, as I’ll show in a moment. The same holds for the highly social aspects of improvising, composing, performing and moving that Barrett discusses as characteristic of children’s musical activities outside the school. I suggest that these characteristics are not unique to children; most real-world musics display the same characteristics, as we can see, and as ethnomusicologists commonly tell us.

I freely admit that children, and people of all ages, bring their own musical experiences and ways of thinking to their unique processes of composing, listening, and so forth. We should honor and build on these prior experiences, as I affirm in my discussion of multicultural music education (MM, p. 211). And I agree with Barrett when she states that “many children bring to school considerable musicianship within a particular community of practice” (p. 189).

However, I wonder if  so-called adult music is a different species or practice (or praxis) compared to music “of the child’s musical world”? Perhaps we might say that children are exploring, discovering, learning and expressing the musics of their cultures in a variety of ways, from novice to beginning levels of ability and beyond? I suggest this because the examples of “children’s creativity” Barrett names in her essay are intimately related to “adult” musical practices – they are either drawn from real music cultures, or they are variations on pre-existing music cultures of the “real world.” For example, Barrett cites research on (a) West African singing games (which are related to West African adult traditions of music making), (b) the song-writing processes of young rock musicians (“rock music” is also a cluster of adult musical practices), and (c) Harwood’s research on the improvisational practices of African American girls, which Harwood relates to the girls’ knowledge of rap and pop songs from adult media, including MTV.

Barrett concludes by suggesting that “when we speak about children’s creativity as it occurs in settings where children are the ‘controllers’ of the ‘musical community of practice, these elements of the domain and field must be defined as part of and within the parameters of that ‘community of practice’. Consequently, the ‘field’ is made up of experts in that domain, that is, other children” (PME,  p. 189). But if what I pointed out above is accurate – i.e., if children very often make music in relation to the musics of real world practices, as Barrett substantiates with her own examples – then I question whether children are the only “experts” involved; perhaps teachers and adult musicians are also “experts” by virtue of knowing the musics that children appropriate?