Creative and imagination; teachers as musicians

Our fifth post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and next week focus on the tasks in John Finney’s chapter ‘The Place of Music in the Secondary School’.

In what situations do you consider yourself to be most musically creative? When is it that you feel most musically alive? To what extent have you gained knowledge in music from the inside through your performing, improvisation, listening and composing? Thanks to Liz for the banner and her contribution today taking the form of a video. 

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

My reflection today will be brief as I’m in the midst of a Lockdown 4th Birthday Party for my beautiful daughter, Frankie. I will centre my reflection around her, as today is her day, and since her arrival into this world, my views and experiences of creativity have been fundamentally changed. And, having spent last night trying to assemble a Wendy Hut, and a toy BBQ, my experience of others creativity (design), and the importance of an informed experience (instructions), are fresh in my fatigued mind. My experience of and engagement in creativity has been transformed and refreshed through the eyes of my daughter. To quote Picasso – “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up”. As a father of two young children, this is absolutely true. As a teacher of children at every stage of the education journey, this is absolutely true. My daughter seems to be most musically creative when she is happy, supported, and encouraged to be so. She appears to be most musically alive, and alive in general, when making any kind of music, or responding to any kind of music – singing, dancing, playing an instrument, improvising songs. As for – to what extent have I gained knowledge in music from the inside through performing, improvisation, listening and composing with her, the answer is immeasurably. She does all of these things without fear, without judgement, and without self-consciousness. She expresses, communicates, creates, and has fun all through an authentic and innate sense of creativity, and the benefits permeate every aspect of her wider life.

My time is up – I’m being summoned to another cup of creative and imaginary tea in the Wendy Hut, which I’m sure you’ll agree are the best kinds of tea. As for creativity, and my daughter, I’m going to continue to create an environment where she is happy, supported, and encouraged to be so. Hopefully, this will keep the creativity alive as she grows old. As for my own creativity, I’m going to try and hang on to whatever Frankie and all other young children have. If only I could bottle it, the world would be a better and more creative place. Happy birthday, Frankie. Keep creating.

David House @House_dg

In what situations do you consider yourself to be most musically creative? This would happen in the classroom when working with students on practical projects. No two lessons are the same, and the challenge and musical creative pleasure gained from playing and singing with students who are constantly needing fresh ways ‘into’ music is just fantastic. As an organist it also occurs when improvising: creating a particular mood and fashioning music to add to the sense of occasion. When is it that you feel most musically alive? When in a performing situation there is a feeling of connectivity with other performers, when conducting and there are expressions of pure enjoyment on all faces, or in solo playing when I feel completely absorbed into the music and any sense of time passing just disappears, the feeling of being “in the zone” or what Csíkszentmihályi articulates in his ‘flow’ theory.

To what extent have you gained knowledge in music from the inside through your performing, improvisation, listening and composition? This ‘inside’ knowledge for me is of the type that just re-appears in future performing occasions – when you can feel moments arriving and a knowledge of how to deal with them is there because of previous experience. It occurs in listening when a performance is heard and you realise that that was just ‘the right’ way to phrase the music, to approach the tempo, to articulate a group of notes – a previously well-known piece appears in a new light. From an improvising perspective the analogy for me is with speech, to have moved beyond the stage of thinking “how would I say this” to just uttering in the moment and trusting in the knowledge of experience that the sounds produced will be confident, structured and convincing.

Elizabeth Dunbar @HuntSchoolMusic

You can see Liz’s video in the tweet above until it uploads

Steve Jackman @sjeeves

When is it that you feel most musically alive? When I’m performing, because that was what I was trained to do. Anything else is still a bit out of my comfort zone. While I was at school I learnt to read and play music and did the ABRSM grades etc. I wrote some terrible compositions at GCSE and apart from having to harmonise some Bach Chorales at A-level that is pretty much it for any formal composition training. At Music College I pretty much just played the trumpet! So most of my musical knowledge (beyond being able to play the trumpet) has come about since becoming a teacher. Back in 2017 I had this exchange on Twitter with Steven Berryman…

Me: So I have a theory that generally composition isn’t just badly taught, but that it’s not taught at all. Because most teachers were never taught. So most teachers don’t know how to compose or teach composition. Is it covered at University? It wasn’t for me, and my limited teacher training focused on KS3. I haven’t done any research though, maybe it’s something for the future!

Steven B:I think if you were never taught composition at university it must be a challenge to help develop compositional skills in students. I feel at home with it because it was something I studied from 12 – and right through my degrees and PhD, so I was used to having a dialogue with an experienced composer about the process, and problems. I think it does depend who your composition teachers were/are: some say nothing while others can model very detailed questions about a musical work.

I’m still really interested to know generally about how music educators feel about composing, is it something they are really confident at or would we all, like me, benefit from further formal/ semi-formal composition tuition. Luckily in my current school I have a semi-professional composer as a colleague to rely on!

Going back to today’s topic- Creativity is now a bit of a capitalist buzzword but one of my main aims as a Music teacher is that I want my students to feel that in the classroom they are creative musicians. For me that’s more to do with composing or making music, rather than performing what’s written on a bit of manuscript.

Jimmy Rotherham @MusicEdu4All

When am I at my most creative?

This is a very complex question to answer! Creativity takes many forms. There is the easy wild creativity of dancing and playing with ideas and concepts. There is the disciplined creativity of drawing on bodies of knowledge and understanding, or of creating within established aesthetic and stylistic boundaries. Sometimes it floats to us easily on a gentle breeze.. Sometimes it is hewn from granite.

Is music making always creative? I must confess to playing some Stevie Wonder songs so often at weddings that I have been on autopilot -thinking – my mind wandering to shopping or whether I was running  out of socks. Fairly mechanical? Well rehearsed? Either way, not particularly creative in the moment. When I improvise over a jazz tune with musicians I know really well, or that’s very simple, everything is instinctive – I have more control, more creative choices, more flow. When I’m deputising in a band and following an unfamiliar tune from a chart, I’m making safe, quick decisions based on theoretical knowledge  or muscle memory of the changes. This feels more like music by numbers, still creative but somehow less so.  To what extent should we frame experiences of creativity? Do we refine or confine a child’s creativity by plying them with theoretical knowledge? 

Does creativity mean originality? Everything’s been done a thousand times before.  Do something very odd, for example putting icing sugar on the heads of yourself and your cat and dancing a polka, with chips up your nose. There are probably hundreds of videos of people doing that on youtube, just this Wednesday. In Kent alone. Therefore  coming up with something completely original would make it so far removed from people’s lived experience and understanding that it would give little satisfaction to anybody. Is cutting and pasting creative? Is all composition simply cutting and pasting? Too many questions for Friday night!

I hope you will give this atheist humanist a little bit of room for some very un-academic and woolly talk of spirituality, for I can only describe my own creative musicianship in terms of transcendence. When I am at my most creative I am in a total state of “flow” – not thinking about anything, a mind cleared from all thought other than the “holy” task of creation. This is why Bach composed, why Sufis have whirling dervishes, why the Beatles were drawn to the spirituality of India. It may simply be the satisfaction of a mind cleared and becalmed of all worry. A connection to something greater? It feels like it – even if that greater thing we are connecting to is simply music and other humans, rather than dancing with the Gods in a higher spiritual plane of existence. Whatever it is, I love it, and that’s what keeps bringing me back to my own privatemusical world and out into the great universe of shared musical experiences.

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I consider myself most creative when either planning lessons, modelling composing tasks using my web cam/visualiser pointed at the piano/keyboard so that pupils can see the process that I go through when composing music. Also when arranging stuff for ensembles/school performances etc so that the music works best for the players that I have at school.

I still think that I feel most musically alive when either performing or attending a performance. Performing in that you have this dual role of being part of the music as a creator but also as an active listener to help with timing/tuning etc. Listen to music live is still always a thrill and nothing beats those moments when the hair on the back of your neck are raised or you have to suppress tears as the emotional experience of the music takes you over. I think that most of the knowledge I have gained about music is through experience of listening/playing/composing etc. It boils down to the thing of music being an artwork that is alive. I once had a argument in a previous job with a Deputy Head about marking. She wanted to see written evidence of pupils composing and performing work. Why I asked? What is a piece of music? Handing her a Beethoven score, I flippantly said’ Is it this? What does it sound like?’ She didn’t know. Exactly I said.

I had loads of video/ computer and other evidence of music making but all she wanted was some writing to satisfy a policy in school about written work. It is useful to know things about music and its composers to give us context about why they may have written the music they have but I would much rather listen to a piece than just look at the score and I definitely know that the pupils I teach would rather do that as well. I have seen lessons delivered where no music has been heard/played or created and pupils have just been taught about ‘facts’ of reggae or some other KS3 topic. I always seems a very perverse way of doing music lessons. A bit like doing a cooking lesson where you make something but then don’t bother tasting it at the end. I think that for pupils and teachers to grow musically, having an experience of playing music and then trying to compose music like you have just played and heard is vital to building up the creative side of the subject.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

In what situations do you consider yourself to be most musically creative? When I’m teaching music (most obviously composing) but when I’m talking about or working on music with anyone and in any situation. Those moments when you’re listening to a rehearsal and wondering how to fix that problem, or those moments when you’re accompanying a pupil and wondering how you’d help them bring out a musical idea, or those moments when you’re talking to a pupil about something you’ve played them and thinking of the ways to explain a particular moment. Teaching music is instinctively a creative act. I feel most musically creative when I’m working with sound; improvising at the piano writing a song for a musical, or singing through some Mahler and wondering how I’ll make it to the top notes… But composing is where I find my most musical joy. I love working out a problem through music (i.e. how will I convey this moment with the notes/gestures/textures that will allow the listener to hear what I feel?).

When is it that you feel most musically alive? When I’m immersed in music. The last time I felt most musically alive was singing the tenor solo in Verdi’s Requiem in Southend on Sea. I’d spent months learning the work and typically the rehearsal was minimal (the English Choral tradition); I had one chance at Ingemisco but you feel musically alive when you’re performing as the cogs click into place, the voice in your head talks you through the process and you get out of the way of your voice (and try not to compete with all those bassoons). The visceral nature of singing has helped me uncover a musical life that composing didn’t quite provide. The weird moment is finishing on the top B-flat and expecting a moment of rapture though the conductor carries on and you sit nonchalantly back in your chair as if nothing happened.

Kate Wheeler @Katemariewheel2

I started performing music when I was 10 and it was in primary school you either got a choice of the flute or the clarinet and I chose the flute. I always felt and still feel the most musically alive when I perform in an orchestra or an ensemble. The feeling of anticipation before a performance combined with a feeling of unity whilst performing is a feeling like no other.

Being musically creative has always been more of a challenge, I am not a natural composer and I previously struggled grasping harmony whilst completing my A-Level Music. I have always thought more melodically and when I am being creative, I definitely think in lines of music rather than blocks.

When I began teaching in 2005, I started to gain more knowledge and understanding about music. Having to break down musical facts for teaching purposes improved me as a performer and a composer enabling a deeper understanding.

Alex Laing @KHSArtDirMusic

In what situations do you consider yourself to be most musically creative?

As a teacher and performer I am at my most creative, I think, not in performance but in lessons and in rehearsals – though of course I love spontaneous moments in concerts. When I am trying to problem solve for more than one person/musician at the same time, I often have to think of a solution which will guide or help more than just the person or group of people it is actually directed at. This can be clearly exemplified in an ensemble rehearsal when, for example, I need to get everyone to play or sing better together. The audible problem may seem to be that the first violins are rushing, but the solution might be to ask the double basses to help by playing with a little more immediacy of articulation. This means that the bass line becomes more active and alert when previously they might have been bored (the basses can often feel isolated and unimportant and need more love). The complementary result is that the first violins are now listening better too, which means they can now play in time. So, rather than the negative, “Don’t rush, violins”, one engenders better listening and team spirit for the improvement of the whole.

When is it that you feel most musically alive?

I love making music with people, especially when the ethos is right – i.e. we are really communicating something  – a story, something meaningful to us – for the pleasure of others. Working with like-minded people as a musical unit is really hard to beat.

As a teacher, it is when my students do something terrific. As a violin teacher, I have taken great pride when my pupils perform beyond (in some cases far beyond) what I, myself have been capable of. This is also true in the classroom, when I hear something really well thought through and mature (which the student has arrived at themselves through the process of learning), or I find a fabulous moment in a student composition. It is that wonderful feeling that the people you are working with have “got it”.

To what extent have you gained knowledge in music from the inside through your performing, improvisation, listening and composing?

The older I get the more I realise how much I am still learning from the lessons I had as a boy and as a student. I remember sitting in University lectures, listening to world experts coaching us through musical analysis and structure. I understood up to a certain point, but those lessons have only meant something real to me long afterwards, as I have immersed myself in the performing, rehearsing and teaching of the subject myself. I often hear myself think: “Oh, that’s what she meant”.

I am still quite frightened of improvising and composing myself. I have huge admiration for those that do it well. My own attempts have always been dreadful. My compositions always sounded like bad impressions of other composers and my schooling in classical violin technique and repertoire contributed to a blockage in the ability to let myself go enough to explore jazz. I have gained knowledge – or acceptance – relatively recently that this is ok. It is fine to be bad at things. It should not stop you having a go.  One needs to relax and release and just play; and as my friend, the jazz pianist Richard Michael, says to me a lot: “Remember Alex, mistakes are cool”.

2 responses to “Creative and imagination; teachers as musicians”

  1. Worrying that I seem to be one of the few commenting….?
    But anyway, what seems interesting to me is how respondents find validation in musical and pedagogic activity, and at the overlap of the two. It is clear that they really understand pedagogy, and this, for me, takes this work a notch higher.
    Anyway, I won’t bang on about this and other matters!
    Thanks all.

    • I do wonder as music teachers, I assume, probably have had the most intense taught experience; individual lessons across multiple e disciplines over many years. Whether we learn pedagogy or not, we’ve been exposed to it on a large scale for much of our lives (with music starting so young for many I expect). I’m an obsessive learner – and haven’t stopped having music lessons yet…

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