Cultivating Creativity

"If you're not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original."

What a great quote by Sir Ken Robinson.

Confession: Sometimes, I get caught up watching TED Talks.  They're just so engaging and each presenter has something unique to say.  Topics are often very different but the commonality is found in the discussion of innovation, education, technology, and creativity.  In this talk, Sir Ken Robinson talks about the creativity of young children and how our educational system counteracts it (i.e. kills it) in favor of more important subject matter (math and science).  He offers three useful points when describing intelligence:

1. Intelligence is diverse. We think visually, in sound, and kinesthetically; we think in abstract, we think through movement.

2. Intelligence is dynamic. The brain is interactive.  Creativity often comes about through different disciplinary ways of seeing things.

3. Intelligence is distinct. How did you discover your talent?

How can we cultivate creativity in our teaching?

A Day with Alice Parker

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a choral workshop in western Massachusetts with Alice Parker.  The soft-spoken, grey-haired woman dressed in bright colors had the room of 15 attendees mesmerized for two 3-hour sessions.  You’d never know she was in her mid-eighties.  In addition to reflecting on her experiences (her time at Juilliard and the opportunity to work with the great Robert Shaw), Alice spoke of the qualities that make music powerful and captivating.

We spent the morning singing and improvising folk songs with a focus on accents, melody, and text.  Never before have I paid such close attention to the melody!  In our Western culture, we place so much emphasis on harmony that the inherent value of the melody is often lost or obscured.  Alice states in her book (The Anatomy of Melody, p. xv):

Western music is the only society to list harmony right up there in the trinity of musical greats.  But I don’t think it belongs there.  If melody (tones) and rhythm (time) are intrinsic to human beings, then harmony is a subset of melody.  It is no more on the same level as melody than vertical combinations of rhythmic figures would be equal to rhythm itself.  Should we say melody, harmony, rhythm, and polyrhythms?

With this mindset in place, a room of music professionals enjoyed singing elementary-level music in unison.  There was freedom and flexibility in the music-making and almost no accompaniment.  What better way to teach choral music, especially for children?  In the afternoon, we observed a coaching session between Alice and a high school chorus from the area.  What incredible insight as to how to truly embody music and communicate its fullest potential.  Lastly, Alice focused on departure from the written score and greater reliance on the ear.  She also speaks about this in her book (The Anatomy of Melody, p. xxii):

I have come to realize over the years that a healthy mistrust of written music is the only proper starting point.  The page doesn’t mean what it seems.  It’s only a beginning (sight) not an ending (sound). . . .Does a song you know leap out at you with the immediacy of a remembered voice?  Or do the symbols lie obstinately flat on the page with the attendant words similarly meaningless?  To understand what I am attempting here, realize that I am trying to balance two antithetical worlds at once–those of eye and ear–and in this case, ear must always triumph not only in notes, but in the written text where a living voice must be sounding for you to begin to respond in kind.  And respond, aloud, you must!  Sing, argue, affirm, correct–the page does not live until you enter into its dialogue with your ear, voice, and mind.

Image Credit: personal

The Adjunct: Lessons Learned



Lesson #1: Never underestimate the power of networking.

Last spring, I applied for a part-time position at a small church in a small town another state away.  I knew no one and no one knew me.  I sent my resume, had a few conversations, and sent a recording of some of my recent performances.  A few days later, I received an email from a Humanities professor at a college in a town adjacent to where the church was located.  She, too was a musician (with three degrees in organ performance) and had received my resume from the search committee at the church.  “Want a job?” she said in one email.  “We have an opening for a part-time adjunct teaching class piano.  You’d be great.”

What a vote of confidence!  I haven’t even met the woman yet!  I went back and forth on whether this was something I really wanted to pursue.  In the end, my final semester of school caught up with me and I was soon fully immersed in the day-to-day once more.

A few months went by.  I got the job for which I had originally applied, performed a collaborative recital, graduated from Eastman, and began moving plans.  Around June 1st, I received another email from the music professor.  “Are you still interested in applying for the adjunct position?  We’re getting ready to make a decision.”  I scrambled to update my CV and resume, write a cover letter, and fill out the application.  Two days later, I was offered the position via email by the Humanities Chair.  “Is this real?” I asked Steve.  “They haven’t even met me!”

Lesson #2: Welcome to the world of guessing.

So I got the job.  Now what?  I was full of questions:

Do I pick the textbook? Do I have to write anything specific in my syllabus? Is there a standard grading policy for the college? How many students are registered for these classes? Do I have an email address? I need office hours? I have an office?! How much does this pay again?

August 1st rolled around.  I moved, I started my position at the church, I began plans for opening my piano studio.  The semester feels as if it’s looming around the corner (it is – September 1st!)  Finally, I received an email from Human Resources with an overwhelming number of attachments (14, to be exact).  Contract, health insurance, mandatory contributions, direct deposit, etc.  By the way, I had five days to submit everything.  I somehow managed to fill out every form correctly and turn it in on time.  This was also the first time I met anyone at the college face-to-face.  “So what do I need to do from here?” I asked.  “Just wait for us to contact you,” the woman replied.

Three weeks later, having not heard anything, I took it upon myself to email Human Resources.  Finally, I’m official!  Now the fun begins.  Before my first class, I need to get a college ID made (building A), pick up a parking pass (building B), pick up a key to my classroom (building C), access Blackboard, find my office (building D), make copies of my syllabus (building E), find my classroom (building D), and figure out how all the equipment in the music technology lab works.

Lesson #3: All freedom comes with a little responsibility.

I feel an enormous amount of freedom in this position.  My first class is in two weeks and I haven’t met any Humanities faculty members.  I haven’t had any type of new teacher orientation.  No one has told me about grading policies, measurement and evaluation standards, or final exams.  I have no idea how many students are in my two classes!  I have a great responsibility to the department and the school.  Despite the challenges of being left guessing, the unknowns give me the great opportunity for freedom in my teaching.  I set the pace, I choose the text, I choose the methods of evaluation.  I am confident in my education and preparation and therefore, I’m ready for the challenge.

Wish me luck!

The Eastman Era

A phrase commonly spoken by many Eastman alumni, my own “Eastman Era” is coming to an end.  Of course, a threshold like this brings moments of reflection and thoughts of “where did the time go?” mixed with anticipation of what is to come and excitement of beginning a new adventure. It was August of 2008 when I first arrived in Rochester following a long move from Georgia.  Everything was new and exciting… though, like most things, I had to get through a period of adjustment before I felt like I really fit into life in the city and life at Eastman.  From the very first semester, I had wonderful teachers who guided and encouraged me to be the best that I could be.  Settling was never an option.  Through classes, coachings, rehearsals, and performances, I met great colleagues and learned much about the art of music.

When overwhelmed by my first semester of work and expectations, time felt like it was standing still.  Now, it’s a blur.  Looking back always makes time feel shorter somehow.  I have grown much in my recognition of who I am as an artist and a musician and how I can contribute to the field.  I have learned how to ask questions, teach myself, work hard, and achieve my goals.  I credit this to the support of my professors – in particular, my primary teacher, Dr. Jean Barr – and those who have been a part of my Eastman experience.  This is a time of my life that I will never forget.