R – There is a disconnect that exists in music education between creativity and assessment. I have said for many years that not all that is important can be assessed, but all that is academic can be… and all that is academically essential must be. I say it because I believe it. But where does creativity fit in? I’ve wrestled with that for years. Professionally, I have control issues. I need to dot every “i”, cross every “t” and hold every student accountable. Creativity reaches into too subjective a realm for me. However, an MAAI colleague of mine, Samantha Davis, posted a TED video on facebook a few weeks ago. She tagged me and some others and said everyone should view it. The video is entitled: Teaching art or teaching to think like an artist? | Cindy Foley. I watched and she was right. I felt myself authentically challenged to incorporate authentic creativity into my classroom.
In thinking through how to try this, I immediately came across the quandary of the large group ensemble situation where the point is to be completely subservient to the needs and requirements of each song and composer. To quote Robert Shaw, “it is the performer’s business to get out of the way of music.” He’s not incorrect. If I have 50 kids being “creative” about the song they’re singing as a choir, the results will resemble a chance meeting of the Titanic and a rogue iceberg.
But if the performance of someone else’s music requires subservience, the composition of music screams for creativity. I decided to have my Music Theory II class (composition) watch the TED video. But before I did, I gave them their next assignment: tell me in advance a self determined mood, storyline or concept of their choosing. Then they are to compose original music that reflects or depicts what they chose. They would incorporate tangible elements of knowledge they have learned to this point, but there would be no pre-determined instructions or criteria of what to use or how to use it. No parameters. I got a mild case of hives just thinking about it. Then after watching the video, I asked them if they saw the connection between the video and their next assignment. They did. I told them that my biggest fear is that my scoring criteria for it may be far too subjective, and I’d need their help. They were okay with that.
It took them several classes to complete on Finale. Tuesday morning last week we listened to the compositions. For each student we first listened without any introduction. Then we went around the room and had the others guess what they thought the composition reflected/told. Everyone had to justify their response… factors of instrumentation, tempo, dissonance, consonance, rhythmic components, etc all played roles. Then the student who wrote the composition told the class their mood or storyline they were trying to portray. Their own justifications for choices they made initiated some amazing conversations. It was a rich dialogue. Imagery created by musical choices. Emotions created by using specific combinations of instruments. Instrument ranges. Moods created by certain tempo choices. Form and structure in music (one student in particular who brilliantly utilized simple rondo form to portray someone sleeping, being abducted by aliens, waking up and realizing it was just a dream and then falling peacefully back to sleep – think Sorcerer’s Apprentice in miniature).
Then we had the capstone conversation: did this assignment “work”; was this an effective assignment to foster creativity and was it valuable to them? Well, from the mouths of babes… they talked about how school rarely allows them to be creative. Trusting them to come up with their own parameters actually allowed them to be creative as opposed to looking at firmly placed learning targets. It was in many ways for them more difficult than one of their normal projects because they had to do all the thinking behind it(!). One of my students at the end stated that schools want students to be creative but they aren’t given the chance to be, and that this assignment required them to utilize accumulated knowledge and apply it in new, original ways (her words) that were completely unique, but which required them to make choices and decisions too. Wow.
Cindy Foley is on to something and it was a great eye opener for me. What I am morphing towards is maintaining my role as a teacher who will continue to hold students academically accountable in my music classes (sorry, “participation” is not an academically accountable indicator) and assess them formatively and summatively to inform both their learning and my teaching. However, I must also find ways to follow that up with opportunities that allow students to synthesize things; follow up in ways that promote and allow for creativity. Music Theory/Composition is an outstanding platform for this type of learning. The challenge will continue to be how to apply this to large group ensembles and to other general music courses. But if we are going to authentically be training “21st century learners and thinkers”, we’re going to have to continue to find ways to incorporate creativity into our regular curriculum. I believe it’s a challenge well worth taking on.