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Teaching Creative Thinking in Music: 10 Tips for Fostering Creativity

By Vince Gassi | May 6, 2020

Teaching Creative Thinking in Music: 10 Tips for Fostering Creativity

“I think upon sitting down the first day of a new score, it’s quite intimidating. I think the great part of creativity is overcoming fear. Fear is a given. Don’t be afraid to be filled with fear because it goes with the turf. I mean, the idea of coming away empty handed is paralyzing but you’ve got to move on in spite of that… and it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it ain’t so easy.”—Jerry Goldsmith

Fear—we are all familiar with it. Even composers like Jerry Goldsmith, one of Hollywood’s greatest, fell prey to it. The good news is there are ways to get past fear and into that “flow state”[1]; that place where we lose track of time because we are in the zone, great ideas seem to flow easily, and our mental and physical performance is at its peak. Alpha waves, theta waves, gamma spikes, brainstorms, call them what you will, but in this state we are unstoppable.

The question is, how can we access this state more easily, and further, as music educators, how can we help foster an environment rich in opportunities for kids to achieve this optimal creative state? This article offers ten very doable strategies which address these questions. Now that’s a bargain!

Ok, let’s get at it.

Says Andy Puddicome of Headspace, “We don’t have to try to be creative. Creativity is an innate aspect of mind. It’s always with us. It’s just that sometimes it’s obscured.” If this is true, if creativity is innate, then it follows that it cannot be taught. That’s it, end of article. Thanks for reading.

Wait… 

Well, maybe it can’t be taught, but what if it can be nurtured? Is it possible to create an environment where creativity can flourish? You know it is! More on this in a bit. For now, the major obstacle to being creative is stress. Stress (caused by fear, distractions, and anxiety) is enemy number one preventing us from tapping into our flow state.

Tip #1: Relax, take a few deep breaths of fresh air. Mindfulness is key to being creative. Be present for the task at hand, whatever that is. An undistracted mind will get in the zone much faster.

“Creativity is the process of resolving vision.” This brilliant statement by Dr. Kourosh Dini is so simple, yet so powerful, it really doesn’t need any more explanation. When was the last time you asked your students what their vision was? This works for solo performance preparation and yes, even in an ensemble rehearsal. The composer has a vision but is it necessarily the same vision you or your students have? I am not saying we should ignore the composer’s intent, but music is multivalent, it can have different meanings for each of us. Even asking about the composer’s vision is a great question. If your students don’t know, ask what they think it could have been. In any case, asking this question frequently can kick start a process where your students habitually think in these terms.

Tip #2: Talk to your students about vision. There is a much greater chance of resolving a vision that is clear.

I’ve mentioned the creative process and just so we’re all on the same page, let me give you a really brief overview. Every creative project starts with a concept or idea. The stages we move through are concept, experimentation, reflection, revision, developing ideas, rinse and repeat. At least this is how I see it. Reflection is an integral component of creativity. That’s why music (read “the creative process”) is so crucial to life on this planet; it fosters reflection which leads to creative problem solving.

Tip #3: Encourage kids to be good brainstormers and reflective people.

Once, while guest conducting one of my own pieces, a question popped into my head. Why didn’t I use a different slurring pattern on the woodwind passage we were woodshedding? I asked the winds what they thought. “Would it be better to have slurred this passage another way?” Blank stares abounded. Had no one ever asked their opinion? I had them try the passage again and asked the rest of the band to listen and be prepared to give an opinion. Afterward a few hands went up, simply, I believe, because there was an expectation that they were “supposed” to answer. We tried it again and even more hands went up. Now they really had something to say. Their opinion muscles were coming to life after a long period of dormancy.

Initially, they thought I was looking for “the correct answer” but as more students began to respond, it became clear that there wasn’t one. The lesson here is that kids have opinions too, and if we never give them the opportunity to express them, they will never get better at thinking in more creative ways.

I read about one band director who had a “10 second rule.” Every time he stopped his band, he gave himself only 10 seconds to explain something. He actually used a stopwatch! After 10 seconds, no matter what he was saying, he picked up the baton and started conducting. While I agree that too much director-chat can make for an inefficient and boring rehearsal, I wondered where the opportunity was in a rehearsal where kids don’t get to reflect and express their opinion on the music they are playing. We all have opinions and they are formed by hundreds and hundreds of past musical experiences. Kids need to learn in an environment where they are encouraged to have opinions. Reflection is an integral part of the creative process.

Tip #4: Stop every now and then to ask your students what they think. The question can be specific (what other ways could this passage have been slurred) or open ended (what images or ideas does this music evoke). This will get kids in the habit of thinking outside the box.

Ok, where is this box we’ve heard so much about and what does it really mean to get outside of it? 

Quite simply, it’s the ability to engage in divergent thinking; to go beyond the obvious. How do we do this? To be able to get outside the box, you have to first figure out what’s inside the box. Professor Gerard Puccio, Professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University, tells us that “It’s only after we exhaust that which is familiar to us, do we start to really generate novel and unusual options.” Makes sense! The more options we have, the better our choices will be.

Tip #5: Don’t always go outside first. Often it really helps to figure out what’s inside the box before you are able to generate ideas that are outside of it.

Regular exercise! Just like pro athletes, artists need to exercise their creative muscles daily. So, give your students opportunities each day to enter into the creative process. This isn’t as daunting as it may seem (tons of theory not required). It could be as simple as “describe in words, what a piece called ‘Sunrise’ would sound like.” Easy, peasy! And anyway, thinking in sound is fun.

There are plenty of opportunities in whatever we do; band, choir, orchestra, music history, theory, composition, improv, and MIDI classes.

One way to empower students to exercise their creative muscles is to get them to push beyond just one solution. For every musical problem there is more than one solution, so don’t stop short. Ask your students, “How else can you solve this musical problem?” Or, “How would your favorite composer solve it?” 

By the way, isn’t this a great skill for any problem (non-musical ones included)? You’re asking students to not only get outside the box, you’re challenging them to get outside their own brain.

Tip #6: Create opportunities daily for students to do a “creativity workout.” Hold them to a higher standard. Your motto could be, “We don’t allow one-solution problems in this town!”

Quoting composer John Cacavas on the idea that we all have an inner artistic sense, “Each day is different and your capacity for learning and expression will grow. Every time you browse through a score, hear a recording, see a movie, or attend a concert, your artistic self will absorb that which impresses you and will add to your experience.”[2]

The idea that we have an artistic self that we must nurture regularly is exciting and at the same time, humbling.

Tip #7: Keep growing through exposure to great music in whatever form: concerts, films, performance, score reading, and conducting. Also, provide lots of opportunities for your students to grow through exposure to all of these activities.

“Ideas are cheap. Making them into something awesome is super hard.

—Merlin Mann 

I believe what Merlin is really saying is that creative ideas come easily—not that they don’t have value—but developing them into a work of art takes a lot more time and effort. This gets into the realm of artistry and, though an extension of the creative process, it is a whole other conversation.

For now, I believe creative ideas do come easily. I’m often surprised by how many ideas I have when starting a new piece. The reason we may find this hard to believe is that we judge our ideas too soon; we second guess ourselves and this can lead to a belief that we are not creative which can lead to giving up.

There is a point in the creative process where we do need to evaluate but that point is not during the initial stages. We simply need to generate as many ideas as possible without judgement. Just get them all out on the table. Only then can we sit back and start to prioritize and evaluate.

Tip #8: Encourage kids to trust their instincts and have fun brainstorming. Ideas are plentiful if we suspend our judgment initially.

One way to get kids to start thinking creatively is to have them engage in directed listening which helps them focus on why good music is so cool. Here’s a quick activity that doesn’t require anything more than paper and pencil (and an audio source).

  • Step 1: Play one minute of your favorite piece of music. Don’t tell the students what it is or who wrote it. Simply have them write words which describe whatever images come to mind while listening. 
  • Step 2: Stop the music and ask for feedback. “What did you hear, what images were evoked?”
  • Step 3: Then play it again and this time ask them to write down what the composer did to     achieve this effect (e.g., brass, violins pizzicato, fast tempo, thick orchestration, etc.). This will help students to start thinking in sound. Film music works well because it is music written for a visual medium and often very easy to deconstruct.

Whenever I’ve done this, students will inevitably approach me the next week and say that they notice the music in films so much more. We all learn by observation and imitation. This is exactly how we learned to speak. At first we just imitate, but eventually with enough practice we begin to express our own ideas.

Tip #9: Provide kids with opportunities to direct their listening.

During an episode of MasterChef Canada, I heard Alvin Leung offer sage advice to a contestant whose dish was overly complex. Alvin remarked that, “complexity and innovation are not necessarily the same.” I was blown away by this simple, yet universal truth. Often, the best ideas are the simplest ones.

Tip #10: Keep it simple!

Well, that’s it for now. Ten simple tips that work right out of the box. Come on, you’re a musician and a music educator. You live and breathe creativity. You problem-solve daily and model it to your students. 

We should not waste the wonderful gift of creativity. John Philip Sousa once wrote that “The world has a soul, a spirit that is hungry for beauty and inspiration.” Steven Pressfield suggests that we should offer our creative gifts to the world. As he states in his book The War of Art, “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”[3] Inspiring!

One final thought. I remind you of Goldsmith’s statement which began this article and suggest it relates to teaching as well as composing, “Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it ain’t so easy.” Either way, you’ve got this.

 

Suggested Reading 

Colvin, Geoff. Talent is Overrated. 2008. Penguin Random House.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1997. Finding Flow. The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1996. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.

Mann, Merlin. http://www.43folders.com/about (“43 folders” addresses the issue of finding the time and attention to do your best creative work)

Pressfield, Steven. 2002. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. New York: Black Irish Entertainment.

Robinson, Ken. 2001. Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative. Capstone.

Robinson, Ken. 2009. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. New York: Viking Press.

Robinson, Ken. 2013. Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life. New York: Viking Press.

Robinson, Ken. 2015. Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. New York: Viking.

Puccio, Gerrard. Creative Thinker’s Toolkit. 

Sousa, John Philip. “Why the World Needs Bands.” Instrumentalist (April 1991): 32-36.

[1] “Flow state” is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Finding Flow.

[2] Cacavas, John. 1975. Music Arranging and Orchestration. Miami: Belwin-Mills.

[3] Pressfield, Steven. 2002. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. New York: Black Irish Entertainment.


Vince Gassi

Vince Gassi is a sought-after composer, conductor, and clinician. He has taught elementary and secondary school instrumental music for 25 years, and has over 100 published titles to his credit. Vince received his Bachelor of Music from the University of Western Ontario and has completed his Ph.D. at York University. 

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