Why Teaching Creativity Matters

Here’s a repost of a piece I recently wrote for the blog hosted by Clavier Companion–The Piano Magazine, found at http://www.claviercompanion.com

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KjosBoothIn 2006, I was asked by my publisher to attend a national music education conference to help market my new jazz piano method. Lacking sales experience, I somewhat nervously asked anyone who happened to pass by the exhibit booth, “Are you interested in teaching improvisation to your students?”  Since most piano teachers are inherently friendly, I was relieved when most of them agreed to take a polite first look at my books.  A few, however, surprised me by reacting indignantly with the likes of, “Why, certainly not!” before proceeding down the aisle (and inevitable extinction) to peruse the latest editions of Fur Elise.

A Balanced Teaching Philosophy

There’s nothing wrong with teaching what we’ve come to call classical music. It develops great technique, increases music appreciation, and develops an awareness of our musical roots.

teetertotter3A lot of it is deep, genius music that will continue to be played 500 years from now, which is why I insist that even my most jazz-oriented students learn at least some of the standard classical repertoire. It’s just that a curriculum that focuses solely on the written page thereby excluding the ear skills necessary to play popular music styles is inherently unbalanced. Worse, it sends a message to our students that their creative impulses and contemporary musical tastes are just not relevant to their piano studies.  When that hits home, a lot of them around the age of middle school (including me for a while) simply quit. Those who hang on often develop their reading skills and taste for fine art music to a very high level. Competitions and accolades may ensue followed by music school.  Eventually they open up a teaching studio to continue the cycle of read-only teachers teaching read-only students who become read-only teachers… All very well but what happens to their ear skills and creativity?  Like a blind person compensating for the lack of sight by heightening the other senses, a read-only music curriculum works in reverse.  When the eye is emphasized exclusively, the ears wither and musicians become entirely dependant on the written page.

Moving Forward

Fortunately, many of today’s teachers are trying to break this cycle with the help of updated piano methods that include creative prompts and the newer sounds being written by today’s best educational composers. Some are going further by closing the books altogether now and then, though they often feel unsupported.  After lecturing on musical creativity, it’s not uncommon for teachers to tell me – under their breath, almost secretively as if it’s something to feel guilty about – that they enjoy teaching chords and popular styles but don’t really feel confident about how they go about it.  Lacking a well-planned curriculum, they resort to just making it up as they go along (which by the way is a great definition of improvisation). For example, I received these two emails from teachers just this week:

I am trying to improvise, but I really don’t do very well at it. I am just learning to find the left hand chords with the happy birthday song and turn it into a jazzy feel. I am strictly classical trained. I am working on it.

…I’m trying to synthesize an approach to teaching technique, chords, theory, and improvisation in a creative way.  My aim is to develop a system/approach, which introduces these concepts gradually, at a very young age, so that by the time kids enter middle/high school, improvisation and chord knowledge is not a foreign concept.  It’s challenging, that’s for sure, and I feel like I’m constantly swimming upstream, against the current, if you know what I mean.

I get it.  It’s difficult to suddenly begin teaching “off page” when you’ve been taught to read written music exclusively, but it is so worth it.  That’s why I urge my colleagues to take advantage of professional development opportunities that illuminate “off page” teaching strategies.  Here’s why it matters:

“Pop” 10 Benefits of Creative Music Instruction

Students get to:

  1. StudentFeel more engaged with learning music.
  2. “Own” their music because they are encouraged to personalize it.
  3. Appreciate playing music as a means for self-expression rather than only as a domain for “right or wrong” notes.
  4. Enjoy playing a wider variety of contemporary styles that appeal to their peer group.
  5. Perform with friends in non-traditional settings outside of the concert hall such as coffee houses, talent shows, church, or jazz groups.
  6. Get paid (maybe) for their first “society” gigs like weddings and parties.
  7. Become better interpreters of written music. That’s because rather than merely reproducing the notes on the page, creative students can better understand how they came to be there in the first place.
  8. Utilize both sides of their brains by reading and improvising.
  9. Listen more deeply since creative music making sensitizes the ears.
  10. Understand that great music wasn’t always “just there.”  Composers and improvisers had to make it up using the same techniques “back then” that creative musicians use today.

Teachers get to:

  1. Student2Enjoy teaching more engaged students.
  2. Replace the antiquated “teacher knows all” philosophy with a new paradigm of shared exploration with their students.
  3. Discover that there are “riches in niches” as word gets out that there’s an improv teacher in town.
  4. Retain students through the quitting years since students who make their own music have more staying power and ownership of their music skills.
  5. Demonstrate that music theory is not really “theory” but actually a set of “practical” tools for making music.
  6. Keep current by helping students play contemporary tunes they request.
  7. Teach with motivating software, apps, videos, and backing tracks.
  8. Enhance group lessons through jam session conventions i.e. “you play the bass line, and you play the harmony, and you play the melody on top.”
  9. Watch students make connections between their improvisations and composed music.
  10. Learn from their students whose creative explorations stimulate all kinds of questions and discoveries.

Our profession is moving toward a more widespread and balanced curriculum with equal emphasis on reading and playing off the page. The eye/ear revolution has begun. Are you on board?

Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey,

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Bradley Sowash

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Related Reading: Opportunities to Learn about Improvisation

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7 thoughts on “Why Teaching Creativity Matters

  1. This was a fantastic read. I agree completely that Music Education specifically and education in general is stuck in a self perpetuating cycle that should be broken to allow for expansion. It will help bring more people into the fold of music and make all music more accessible to everyone. I’m a young teacher (26 y.o. in my second year) but I want my students to leave my room with appreciation and understanding. The lists of benefits for students and teachers alike is exactly what I’ve been thinking. Thanks again for posting this and letting me know I’m not wrong!

  2. Great article, and agree with Ed that as music educators we should be open to new creative possibilities and yes, maybe break a few traditional rules along the way. Mostly, a lack of teaching creativity is born of a lack of knowledge and a little fear, so breeding a ‘how to’ culture is I believe, terribly important and indeed essential if students are to benefit longterm from a teachers new found skill. I would fully endorse Bradley’s philosophy in this respect.

    JB. Melodies Music & Media. [London]

  3. Great article. I never felt competent to improvise much, but have greatly enjoyed the That’s Jazz series. It has been a pupil saver and helped me transition kids from purely method books on only classical to more popular and add improvisation. thanks. I think I have gained confidence improvising myself Your music literature has made my job much easier and more fun in lots of ways. I remember using brushes on a box at a piano pedagogy conference so have added drums to help students. Thanks for great ideas.

  4. Bradley,

    I’ve just read your article, “Why Teaching Creativity Matters.” You said it well. If you never improvise, you’ll go to your grave with a part of you that has never been expressed. What you create doesn’t have to be worthy of publication or even public performance. As I entered the teaching field, a friend who was an experienced educator said, “A good teacher cares more about what the horn [or ball] does for the person, than what the person does with the ball [horn]. Process is important.
    I also appreciate your positive words about classical training. We need two legs and two feet to move in a balanced manner. One can hop on foot, but we do better with two. Playing by note and by ear are two legs of effective music making. Of course, I’m preaching to the choir.

    Have a great day.

    Ron Sprunger

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