5 Guaranteed Ways To Make Students Less Creative

You want your students to experience the buzz that comes of being a creator of their own music at the piano. You wish you’d had that kind of experience in your piano lessons. You seek out advice wherever you can find it – it’s both ubiquitous AND hard to find; lots of people selling you ‘the answer’, and yet here you are, still seeking solutions.

Here’s my checklist of ways guaranteed to have students experiencing less enthusiasm for being creative keyboardists/pianists and resigning themselves, instead, to playing music already imagined by musicians who have come before.

  1. Give zero guidance.
    A zero guidance teaching strategy might seem an obvious fail, but it is truly remarkable how very many methods and teachers in the English-speaking world recommend that students commence a creative quest without any real preparation or training.It happens, sometimes, because teachers see “creativity” as a reward; do the boring stuff and then you can play around, seems to be the essence of this mindset. This, of course, sets up both the “boring stuff” and the “playing around” to be deeply unsatisfying. But since creative engagement is how learning happens, saving it up for after the learning is done is a spectacular own goal.

    Sometimes students are set loose on a creative task without guidance because the teacher believes that preparation and training will sully the innocent genius of the child and will tether the child’s abilities to horribly limited horizons. This belief is more widely held than we might credit. It’s an idea connected to the belief that innocence is the opposite of experience, and to the belief that knowledge is downfall. Lots of narratives in our culture support this concept that knowing less makes you a better person, but it does seem somewhat counterintuitive for a teacher to buy into such a perspective!

    Maybe, most often, students are given precious little preparation for their creative adventures because the teacher doesn’t really know quite what to do. We don’t have what might be called (if it existed) “a pedagogy of creativity” in the western world, so teachers mostly have to make it up as they go along. Making it up as you go along is a wonderfully creative enterprise for the teacher, but because it’s also an enormous enterprise, and, because the demands on teachers are immense, it’s easy for teachers to fall into overwhelm, while ruefully recognising that one’s best, in the circumstances, isn’t anywhere near enough.

  2. Give the student a set rhythm to which they will ‘create’ a melody.
    This is, maybe, the most common “composition” exercise that students under the age of 15 are given around the world in formal music education.And it’s super boring.

    Try it for yourself!
    rhythm for composing

    Now – did that feel creative to you? Did you feel as if you communicating something of emotional import? As if you were exploring fantastical realms of possibility? Or did you feel as if this was a whole lot more like a joining-the-dots exercise?

    There are plenty of reasons why this particular exercise is just so terribly dull, and at the heart of it is the secret that rhythm is the life of the music, the personality of it.

    Don’t believe me? Try creating your own melody to this rhythm, instead:

    Rhythm Sample 2

    Same number of notes the student needs to select. Completely different personality.

    Don’t get me wrong – this is a really useful exercise, but it’s not a creative one. It’s an exercise of compliance – fit in, or else.

  3. Show the student chords I, IV and V as the first creative starting point for comping.I feel bad about mentioning this one, because I know so many wonderful teachers who promote the I, IV, V chord set as being The Answer to the question of “what do I do with my students who want to improvise at the piano?”. I wish they didn’t do that, because then I wouldn’t feel so bad saying that I, IV and V aren’t all that.

    I, IV and V as a chord set are AN answer, but not The Answer that people make them out to be. Yes, a whole lot of rock and roll was built off the back of the primary triads, but in 2016 that means this chord combo has the propensity to sound a bit, oooh, I don’t know, not very ‘now’?

    Yes, Axis of Awesome, and all that jazz, but:
    a. they’re using 4 chords, not 3, and if you did the same your students wouldn’t feel quite so creatively thwarted, and
    b. the whole point of the Axis of Awesome 4 Chord business is that these chords are not very particularly, um, ground-breaking.

    I’m not going to argue the case – this is one you can make your own mind up about, just by giving it a go yourself.

    Sit at the piano and play the C Major chord. Now play  F Major chord. Back to C Major, over to G Major and back to C Major again.

    It might sound something like this:

    chord changes I IV V

    On a scale of 1 to 10, how much did those sounds inspire you to create something?

    OK, now let’s try this:

    chord changes

    Same format – we’re going from C Major to A minor back to C major over to A flat Major and back to C Major.

    How does that feel? Are you more intrigued? More interested in exploring possibility?

    Just saying.

  4. Assign a composition title for which the student must create a composition.
    You know how I said that asking a student to write a melody to a rhythm might be the most common composition task being assigned to young and young-ish students?I was wrong.

    THIS is the most common composition assignment.

    And you all know the drill:
    ⊕ write a piece called “Thunder”
    ⊕ write a piece called “Birds in a Tree”
    ⊕ write a piece called “The Hungry Dinosaur”
    ⊕ write a piece called “Waltz of the Dizzy Princess”
    and so forth.

    It islittle bit creative, but it’s an assignment that gets how music works completely backwards. Put it this way: title-first assignments are the creative equivalent of asking your students to order takeaway – the focus is on what’s going to get delivered instead of what might be discovered. Creative engagement isn’t about looking forward to eating a pizza – it’s about wondering what you might be able to cook with the ingredients already in your fridge.

  5. Don’t bother to spend time in the lesson listening to the creative work the student has done.
    This one’s the big one, and it trumps all the rest.Nothing sparks creativity so much as believing that the things we want (and need) to say will resonate with others, too; seeing that the things we are driven to make (and do) turn world a better, richer, more interesting place; knowing that there are people whose lives will be enriched by the unique contribution.

    The flip-side of this is, of course, that nothing dampens the enthusiasm of a creative more than the knowledge that the work they create will be ignored.

    When you’ve asked a student to create something and then you run out of time in the lesson to explore what they’ve done, you’re sending a loud and clear message that creative work is extraneous, unvalued, uninteresting.

    Sounds like doom and gloom?!  (sorry about that!)
    Next week: some antidotes to these creative turn-offs…

3 thoughts on “5 Guaranteed Ways To Make Students Less Creative

  1. Your posts always give me so much to think about! I’ll look forward to reading the follow up antidotes post.

    I’m an adult lover of music, with piano, flute, and voice as my instruments. I find in my beginner efforts at improvising or creating that I’m seeking something different than what instructions for beginner improvisers usually seem to be pushing. I suppose in essence: I’m looking for what different note combinations sound like — rather than trying to learn how to make note combinations that sound like what people have grown to expect (whether that be in jazz, common practice period, or whatever).

    The exception for me seems to be blues: I adore the sound of the blues, so I’m happy to find and follow any guidelines to help me produce that sound.

    I have a music theory background though, so that gives me a certain framework that I can tell I’m either working within or pushing against, and which gave me my first improvisation ideas (improvising on chord tones, with non-chord tones as passing tones.) That is probably different from most beginning piano students.

    Looking forward to reading more!

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