This is an excerpt from my written comprehensive exams that I completed in the Spring of 2016.
Creativity in music education has been a hotly contested issue. Those who teach performance based classes such as band, choir, and orchestra often argue that within those ensembles, students are creating. They are creating music with their peers in a collaborative manner that produces a final product. Some educators and researchers may disagree and suggest that students and teachers in these ensembles are not creating, but rather, re-creating music. Musical decisions have been already been created by the original composer and it is the ensemble’s duty, often at the discretion of the ensemble director, to ‘realize’ those musical directions that are on the page. So, based on this generalized description, it is hard to argue that large ensembles are truly embodying the process of “creating”.
It might be wise to consider the words “creating” and “creativity” and if there is a difference between the two. “Creating” may be best defined as the act of doing, whereas “creativity” may be best understood as the thought process that initiates “creating.” So there may be “creativity” in place but perhaps the act of “creating” has not occurred. Within this debate comes in “composing”, another word that creates angst among music educators for a myriad of reasons. (Dr. Sandra Stauffer has greatly influenced my thinking on this term and rather than use "compose" in my own classrooms, I use "create" and will refer to this term versus composition.) With a push from the National Standards for educators to embrace "composing" in their ensemble classes to further students creative and creating potential, it is no wonder our profession is having the sometimes heated conversations that we are having. To some educators, playing in ensemble, as described above, is a perfectly acceptable form of creating. However, we must look deeper to the student’s individual needs to perhaps have a better understanding as to why encouraging students to compose, actively engaging the creativity process to participate in the act of creating, might be incredibly beneficial to the student as a musical being.
Research related to creating in the classroom is mostly regulated to experiences of elementary students. Something happens when students enter a large group experience and no longer have the opportunity to create. The little research on creating in secondary ensembles attempts to understand how students create in quantifiable terms (Menard, 2015). While this is useful, especially measuring comfort levels of students attitudes towards composing via a pre-test and post-test and their ability levels, I believe this potentially undermines the greater affect of the process.
Research suggests that secondary educators are resistant to creating for a variety of reason that include: time, attitude towards composing, fear of quality and lack of preparation to teach composition (Hickey 2010, Menard, 2015). Many educators fear that devoting time to creating in the performance-based classroom will take time away from performances. With this time element is an attitude that creating does not belong in the large group ensemble experience. In a past conversation with a previous colleague, I recall sharing a great experience that I had with my bands as we negotiated a creating project within the confines of the space that was afforded to us, and the colleague responded with “band should be band, if kids want to compose, they should take music theory or a composition class..” While anecdotal in nature, this opinion is not entirely uncommon and raises a whole host of issues regarding the ways in which we teach creating and who has access to those experiences. Because performance-based classes are grounded in the "traditional' expectation of high quality performances, there is a fear among educators that a lack of quality in the student compositions may be reflective in the teacher’s inability or lack of training in composition. This raises another issue in regards to teacher preparation and how colleges and universities are including creating in their studies (Stringham, 2016).
While these issues and challenges are very real and cause for concern, perhaps we can take a look at what our elementary counterparts are doing to include creating in their classrooms as a way to reinforce musical concepts. Hickey (2010) suggests that every new concept that is being taught can be reinforced through creating. This is where the word “composing” starts to raise fear in music educators. There is a mis-guided belief that in order to teach "composition" we must start with theory and our students should be creating four part chorales. In reality, creating a short rhythmic motif is a form of creation. Stringham (2016) suggests that for more advanced students, using the current repertoire in their folders as a basis for creating will foster additional understanding of musical ideas but also encourage student’s to create their own understanding of music.
The concern of time is a huge issue for music educators, especially in high school ensembles where it seems, especially in the band world, there are performances that occur monthly, if not weekly, depending on how the basketball team is doing. However, how might music educators incorporate students’ compositions into a performance? Taking the lead of colleagues at a local high school in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, I would encourage music educators to think about how they might create a unit on composition that reinforces a particular theme for the concert. For example, this particular music team (Nora Tycast and Brian Lukkasson) chooses a theme each spring; one year it was poetry, another year it was film music. Using this theme, students picked a silent film, or a piece of poetry and wrote music to accompany the film or represent the poetry. These were collaborative groups that students worked together in for two months. All of the creations were a part of the concert. The unit was embedded within the rehearsal structure so that ample time was given on music prep but also creating. When asked how this unit affected the overall performance of the ensemble, the directors both agreed that it only enhanced the experience because students became more aware of compositional decisions made by composers of the music they were playing, but it also encouraged the students to take musical risks. The directors prepared one or two fewer ensemble pieces so that the students would not feel overwhelmed by the whole process.
Allowing for these experiences encourages students to become more independent musicians. Through creating their own music, students think critically about musicial decisions and have specific reasons for the decisions they made rather than “that’s what’s on the paper”. Additionally for students who are in the large ensemble, but are more ‘section’ players versus ‘lead’ players, this allows opportunities for these students to perhaps develop a more personal musical identity. Finally, through creating music, rather than re-creating, students have the opportunity for a different musicking experience that may potentially carry with them when their large ensemble experience ends.
So, what am I doing?
We at the midpoint for the quarter and beginning band is well on our way into making musical decisions. Like I mentioned with the Hickey (2012), I use creating as a way to reinforce any sort of new concept. This entry from last year describes a bit more about what we do at the beginning of year. We are now into reading "traditional" notation. The students are doing really well and I think we are enjoying ourselves. Every couple of weeks we have "playchecks" that help inform the student and myself of how they have progressed and what they need to work on in the upcoming week. These are nice little check-ins that allow a little one on one time with the students, something that is often lost in a "large" group setting.
This upcoming week students are creating their own playchecks. Doing this allows for several observations: what is the student's understanding of what we are actually "learning". Do they really understand rhythm, or are they just using their ears? By creating their own melodies, they are demonstrating their understanding of rhythm and structure. By writing their own notes, they are demonstrating that they have an awareness of what notes their instrument can play. Then, they play their creation for me. Sometimes, not always, what they have written doesn't always translate to their instrument and that is OK! We talk, as a class, how sometimes the visual and the physical don't quite line up-that it might take our muscles (facial) to catch up to our visual. Again, it is OK! I try to not stress to much about their abilities to read music right away. I want them to have fun (what a concept, right) and encouraging them to write something that they can show off for me, encourages that. After all, isn't the whole point of participating in a communal activity such as music to have fun?
The last few weeks of the semester are approaching. My beginning band has dwindled down to a hearty ten musicians (eleven have moved over to concert band!) We have been focusing a lot on creating and arranging songs. Two weeks ago we started a pop cover tune, where small groups of students picked a pop tune, learned it by ear and then taught it to the rest of the class in a formal "teaching episode" (throw back to my TA days at ASU!!). That was a lot of fun-most of the groups just learned the hook or chorus of a tune, but they all learned it by ear and it was really fun watching them lead the group in the learning process!
This week we are focusing on arranging songs from our method book. We talked last week about melody, harmony, texture...you know, all the good things. We practiced some examples in the book and had some great discussions how to arrange. We didn't really talk about chordal theory or natural chord progressions-that isn't particularly useful at this point. But, what we did talk about is the excitement of creating and hearing it performed. So that is what we are working on this week! Each student has selected a song and is arranging it for our little band using NoteFlight. On Friday I did a little demo demonstrating the different ways in which we can arrange songs and how to manuevar the program. I was still learning at this point and had some technical difficulties (and of course, I was getting observed by my mentor...) but I think I figured it out enough to write out some concise instructions for the students. Today we went into the lab and I let the students loose! They really dug in and I am SO excited to see where these projects end up. On Friday we will be playing through the arrangements! I will share what the students come up with, but for now, here is the "worksheet" that the students are using to get them through the first couple of days.
Also, to assess where students are at each day, I am having them complete a quick exit ticket using Google Forms. I <heart> google forms. Here is an example of today's question:
Creating access points for music education is something that South HS is pretty good at. We have a beginner band and a beginner string orchestra that meet everyday for 55 minutes. That's amazing in the high school world! It makes sense....there are beginning language courses, arts courses, remedial math and language courses, and there is usually an entry point for choir, so why not our instrumental classes. Our beginning class meet the same time as the "youngest" concert band (Concert Band) so that when students are ready, they can just move to Concert Band. There is a great group of students in beginning band....25 to be precise. Twenty-five beginning band students in high school! The challenge is to keep them engage while dealing with the intricacies of individual instrumental needs.
I think I may have figured out how to do this....finally. Now, some folks may argue up and down about this, but until someone has figured out a better way to teach transposition to beginners, while reading standardized notation, rhythms, which end is up on an instrument...and all that goes along with something new, I think I will keep doing this. Not to mention, this is much easier for those students who are also learning how to speak English. This is part of the scaffolding process that will lead into reading standard notation, which will occur next week.
Last week the students started playing their instruments. Rather than teaching them notes and rhythms first (ie, theory) we started playing first. I taught the first three notes of each instruments B-flat major scale to each group, but I didn't assign note names, just 1, 2, 3. We played around with different melodies, the students even created their own melodies (no rhythms yet). Then we added in rhythms. The numbers underneath the rhythms represent the notes. Each student, regardless of their instrument, received this same paper because I taught them the transposed notes, but as numbers. For the most part, these melodies were recognizable to the students, so they were able to attach the rhythm with what they were playing. The best part about this is that the students were playing together and experiencing success as individuals and as a group-SO important in beginning band. I also have a "rhythm" deck, so students combined different rhythms and we played through them together. Lots of opportunity for students to create, thus reinforcing what we were learning in class.
Next week students will be delving into standard notation. I intend to discuss both clefs with the students, so that they understand how they both work. Then I will hand out sheets of music that have the first six notes of the B-flat scale (number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 to the students) and we will then connect the number with the actual note. I think it will work. I HOPE it will work!