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Letter to a young composer (New York Times)

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Letters from children

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Articles on Music Education and Creativity

Composers and Children - A Future Creative Force?
The Secret to Creativity: Think Like a Kid
Taming The Demons Of Creativity

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Composers and Children - A Future Creative Force?

I recently had one of the most enlightening--and somewhat embarrassing-- experiences of my professional career as a composer, which gave me a new understanding of the relationship between the composer and the middle school music teacher. I was commissioned, along with 14 other composers by the American Composers Forum BandQuest project to write a short piece for eighth grade band. As part of the commission, we were asked to pay a couple of visits to a nearby school to work with the children on the piece of music. My school was the Winona Drive Senior School in Toronto. When I had some early sketches for my piece I visited the school. The band director, Louis Papachristos, introduced me to the students and I handed out the parts for them to read through.

I talked about the piece for a few minutes and then started conducting. There was no sound, or perhaps I should say no sound that I recognized as any I'd written. I heard wheezes, sputterings and honks that I didn't know instruments could make. I stopped and gave a few instructions on how to play what I had written. As I started to resume conducting, a sweet girl playing oboe looked up innocently and asked, "May I look at my fingering chart?"

Feeling helpless I looked at Mr. Papachristos who smiled sheepishly and shrugged. We struggled for a while more through my sketches, the students very respectful and doing their best. Afterward, in a state of shock, I talked with the band director. He pointed out that some of the things I had written were simply outside the children's experience and showed me how I might make my ideas work. He told me that, for example, solos are risky because 11-12 year-olds are very self-conscious about playing alone in front of others. Also, that a range of approximately an octave was an advisable limit; that step-wise scale patterns are technically the easiest to play; and that children feel most confident when passages are strongly doubled.

I was stymied. I wanted to write a piece that was better than most of the children's band music I had heard. But here I found that most of the technical means normally available to me were being cut off. I was used to writing music that requires a variety of instrumental techniques. In fact, my experience had been mostly with professionals who could play virtually anything I wrote. How could I now write a piece that would satisfy me as a composer and still meet the needs of these young beginning musicians?

My first reaction was to rationalize: After all, they're children. What can you expect when they can hardly even play in tune? But I knew that was an excuse. The truth was, I could write complex, highly demanding pieces, but I simply didn't know how to write interestingly for amateur musicians, let alone 12 year-olds. I was the one out of tune-I didn't know how to meet the requirements of this project.

My thoughts went to composers like Monteverdi and Bach and Vivaldi, who made a living writing for inexperienced musicians, amateurs in fact. And it sounded beautiful. How did they do that? Could I write music for eighth-graders who had been playing their instruments for perhaps 1-2 years and make it sound good? And if I couldn't, what did that say about me as a composer?

That's when I jumped out of the pan into the fire.

I got the idea of composing a piece with graphic notation. Instead of conventional notation, which requires specific rhythms and pitches, I could write abstract shapes, like wavy lines and dots that expressed musical sounds and shapes, and have the students perform them. I had done this before with children, because music written in graphic notation is easy to create and easy to sing. You don't have to know all the scales and intervals and rhythms because you are, in effect, making up your own sounds inspired by the images.

Armed with what I thought was a sure-fire solution to my problem, I asked the players in the band to create a graphic piece together on the blackboard and sing it. They did this with ease and enjoyed it. Then I asked them all to write a piece of their own and bring it in for our next workshop. Three days later we went through the pieces they brought in, singing our way through each one as the writer of each piece directed the performance. They were getting a feel for the creative process, seeing that they too could compose, however basic and primitive their beginning soundscapes might be. As we made more graphic pieces in the following days they got better and better at the process. This was getting exciting. Maybe my band piece could be a graphic piece we would all write together!

Soon we formed the Composition Team, made up of eight band members who were particularly talented at creating these abstract musical landscapes. We learned which graphics sounded best when we sung them and which were easiest to teach someone else to sing--the basic job of being a composer. The children were tackling the same basic shapes and structures that professional composers do, creating little pieces with a beginning, middle and end. We worked this way for a few weeks, always singing what we wrote.

Now I ran into the big snag.

We had been singing these pieces with success. But when it was time for the band for them to play them on their instruments we ran into trouble. Children have considerable control over their voices. They can whoop, hiss, whisper, call out, swoop from the bottom of their voice to the top (just listen to the operatic cacophony on any playground at recess), but playing those sounds with the same freedom and control on their instruments was a completely different story. They simply had never had the experience of playing random pitches and rhythms freely on their instruments.

It was now very clear to me that we needed to train the band members in playing these graphic symbols on their instruments--not just singing them--with private coaching, home practice and, as the band director emphasized, individual testing. This coaching wouldn't take long, but it would have to be concentrated. [Two or three weeks] One month would probably be enough. But we had run out of time. Christmas was around the corner and the band had to prepare for its holiday concert.

Now the members of the Comp Team suggested that, in order to get some music the band could play and that would sound good, we use conventional notation in our pieces, at least part of the time. But this would mean learning how to write out a score. I anguished over the technical knowledge of orchestration they would need to do that, but finally decided to take them through the longer, but more specific, process of scoring music with normal notation. Three of the students were particularly eager, so under my close guidance and with a lot of overtime, we created three short notated scores.

But now project time was over, and my initial plan to create and perform a graphic piece had not been accomplished. And there was no time left to practice the notated pieces. I had spent five months at the school, going in two and three times a week! Was it too late to coach the band members on playing graphics on their instruments? As it turned out, it would require re-learning, because the children were already set on a "right and wrong" way of playing an instrument. This new idea of just playing freely was foreign to their whole idea of music-making and they felt awkward and self-conscious about it.

In terms of time, this was an expensive lesson. When I finally understood how we could have created and successfully performed a sophisticated graphic piece within a relatively short time-probably three or four weeks--it was too late. My naivete and inexperience with middle school bands had made me ineffective as a composer. The five months at the Winona Drive Senior School was probably more of an education for me than for the band members.

And learn I did. The knowledge I had gained about how children approach playing instruments made it possible for me to write a piece that met my standards as a professional and theirs as beginners. My idea was to write a piece based on Gregorian Chant, because those melodic lines are simple and elegant and are by tradition doubled. Group unison would sound stylistically appropriate and the students could feel secure playing them. I could even incorporate some graphic notation. For example, I used one technique I called the "murmuring effect," where they play any notes they want as fast as possible and very softly in the low register of their instruments, which suggests monks praying. And I used a collage effect without bar lines, with a number of instruments playing the same melody separately, freely overlapping each other, creating a montage of sound. So the piece combined both traditional and modern techniques that the children could easily play. I called the piece Old Churches.

When this project was over, The American Composers forum videotaped a day of interviews and rehearsals, replicating the whole process we had gone through. What had the students learned? One of the kids from the Comp Team made the point-and the others agreed--that graphic notation should be the first training a child receives on an instrument, because it is "goof-proof." With this method of exploring an instrument freely, a child learns to have fun with music and not become overly preoccupied with playing the right notes and rhythms. This free exploration of a musical instrument tends to give children much needed confidence and also opens the door to the idea of improvising. Later, when conventional notation is introduced, it is less intimidating. An analogy would be letting children play in a pool for a while before giving them swimming lessons.

What did I learn as a composer? Overall, I would say it was a lesson in humility.

I was reminded that music can have intellectual interest and convey emotion without being complicated. Stripping my music down to the bare essentials-highly limited range, few if any solos, no virtuoso flourishes or grand effects-challenged my imagination and sense of fantasy. As an extra bonus, I found the contact with children stimulating and fun, a healthy counterbalance to the solitary existence we composers sometimes lead.

My experience here was with young band, but this project opened my eyes to the larger subject of professional composers writing for children in general--band, orchestra, chorus, any and all musical groups. When I reflect on the whole experience, I ask myself: Since writing for young musicians is such a valuable experience for composers, why don't more top professional composers do it? One obvious answer is that having a new piece of music played at your local elementary school is not as glamorous as a premiere with a symphony orchestra or professional chamber ensemble. But there are other reasons. Our conservatories and university composition programs simply don't ask the composition major to write for children. Nor do they train composers in the art of writing for amateurs in general. Composers learn highly sophisticated techniques playable only by virtuoso musicians and often performed for highly specialized audiences.

So what can be done to improve this situation? I think the answer lies in cooperation from both sides of the fence-from the composition professors and composers and from the primary and secondary school teachers and music directors. Let's take one at a time.

To those who run the conservatory and university composition programs, I would recommend that you require each student composer to write at least one piece for a young chorus, orchestra or band as part of his/her creative musical education. First, the student composers should carefully research the needs and requirements involved in writing a good piece for that level. Every composer knows that writing music within strict limitations is stimulating to creativity. We study Beethoven symphonies and admire the way he based a whole movement on a single motif. Haydn and Beethoven both wrote comparatively easy music for their patrons to play-that's how the piano trio came into existence, as a medium initially created for amateurs. And Bach's weekly job was writing for church singers.

But how many of our best composers write for amateurs today? Generally, the only works composers write for children are solo piano pieces for training purposes. While some very good works have been written for children's bands, choruses and orchestras, the goal of too many composers who write for children is primarily pragmatic, placing function ahead of aesthetics. The great masters of the past were able to do both-write pieces that worked and were also great music. How often can we say that about music being written for children today? Today's composers need to develop the skills to shape a musical idea with emotional content in a simple way that a young musician can play or sing. As a supposedly well-trained and experienced composer, I found writing music for middle school band was virtually outside my capability.

The directors of middle and high school band, string and symphony orchestra, and choruses could help greatly to expand the repertory by contacting the local university music school or conservatory and talking to the composition teachers. Tell them you are interested in new compositions for children and would be happy to work with the student composers, educating them on the needs of young musicians. Encourage them to create special projects for student composers that would acquaint them with the technical requirements of writing for children. We're talking here about taking perhaps four to six weeks out of a four-year program for such a project. I think many composers and their teachers may feel that elementary and secondary school music is something that just "takes care if itself," and that music teachers are not particularly interested in new music by symphonic composers.

In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth, but I had to be connected to that world by the BandQuest project to find out that music educators are delighted at the idea of meeting composers and trying out new works. Mr. Papachristos welcomed me on this project and gave me all the time I asked for. And he said he learned some techniques in the process that he would like to use in training youngsters. Composers and teachers need to connect and create a link, and the initial thrust for this alliance can come from either side.

What prevents teachers from commissioning professional composers directly? Dan Albert, band director at the Williams Middle School in Longmeadow Massachusetts, recently drummed up grant money from an organization called the Longmeadow Educational Excellence Foundation, who commissioned me to write a work for the middle school bands in their area. Albert's enthusiasm inspired me and I set to work using my newfound skills. I ended up writing three pieces, one each for their two middle school bands and one for high school.

And we did a graphic notation music creativity project as well, but this time I did it right. I took all the teachers of the Longmeadow schools through the graphic notation idea, this time also including the admonition that the student instrumentalists be trained in playing graphic notation markings. Michael Mucci, band and orchestra director at Longmeadow High School, carried this idea the furthest and had his students come up with student compositions for band and orchestra that they not only composed but also conducted on the concert along with my commissioned pieces.

Imaginative works for children will be published and performed widely, even by college and professional bands. Publishers would be happy to know that our best composers are interested in writing for young musicians. As it stands, publishers provide stock fare to the schools, music that is easy to execute but often emotionally superficial. If our top composers became interested, publishers would be happy to provide them with helpful guidelines for the different levels of children's music

By working with music educators, composers might also become more involved in defending our music education system. Sweeping cutbacks to music in schools threaten the very heart of the music profession. Collectively, composers could be a force for better music education, which is where the audiences of the future are created.

The aim of the BandQuest project is to raise the standards of children's experience with music by creating first-rate music for young students and thereby adding a new dimension to their education. Most of these children will not become professional musicians, but as music lovers and taxpayers they will one day be asked whether the arts are worth paying for. Their taste for music could well be swayed by early personal experience with a composer or composition student. What a wonderful notion.

Suggestions for Teachers

Apply for grants to fund professional composers to write for your band, chorus or orchestra. Listen to their music and tell them what about their music appeals to you. This lets them know you're serious.

Contact the composition departments of nearby universities or colleges and invite the composition students and teachers to attend your school concerts.

Talk to prominent high school, university and conservatory ensemble conductors who have successfully commissioned works and ask for their guidance.

Encourage music schools to teach music education majors to write music and perform it as a required part of their education.

Suggestions for Composers

Tell your composition teacher you want to learn something about writing music for children, and do a project for credit.

Listen to the highest-quality pieces for middle school ensembles and use them as models. If you don't know what to listen to, ask your university wind ensemble or band director for help.

Contact a middle school band, chorus or orchestra director and ask for technical guidelines on writing for their ensembles-ranges, rhythm and interval limitations, etc.

Visit the school and meet the ensemble you want to write for. Bring a sketch and try it out. Be sure to invite feedback from the teacher.

Suggestions for Music Education Programs

Allow more time for music education majors to practice teaching children.

Require music education majors to write music, and to perform and conduct the music of their colleagues.

Require music education majors to play in wind ensemble and orchestra and sing in the chorus.

For more information on the American Composers Forum and their BandQuest program contact: Krystal Banfield, Program Director for Education, American Composers Forum,
332 Minnesota St., Suite 145, St. Paul, MN, 55101-1300

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The Secret to Creativity: Think Like a Kid

As a professional composer I have recently been visiting schools and working with children on music projects. We composers rarely go into the schools, leaving music education to the teachers. But I have been noticing with concern that schools have fewer and fewer music teachers these days. Music programs are being cut as budget-minded towns are saving money by gradually eliminating the "frills" in education. Math, science, language, civics and history are state-mandated courses-they can't be cut because they are considered vital to a child's education. But many education committees see music as entertainment-it's a nice activity but not basic to educating a child.

Well, then, what is the best way to educate a child? This question has been debated for centuries, but one thing few would argue with: children are motivated to learn when they can be creative, because creativity is the most natural state of mind for a child. When Buckminster Fuller was asked at Harvard the secret to being creative he shocked his academic audience by jumping up and down three times, flapping his arms like a bird, and saying, "Think like a kid! Think like a kid! Think like a kid!"

I'd like to talk for a moment about helping children develop their creativity in music, and relate this to the idea of music as a school subject that might be basic to a child's education.

As a composer I have found that the best way to teach children to understand music is to have them create it themselves. When they see from firsthand experience how music is made, then they understand how to analyze it and perform it. They also learn something about the creative process, which they can then transfer to learning other subjects.

Isn't it interesting that creating music is the one thing we don't do with children in music classes? In art class children draw and paint, in language class they write, but in music class they sing or play other people's music.

Why? Is it because music is harder to create than a painting or a poem? Some people may think so, because musical notation looks strange and they assume those written notes and rhythms are music. They're not. Those markings are only a language for writing music down on paper. Music itself is a collection of sounds, and anybody can make up sounds. Some do it more imaginatively than others and we call them composers.

So how can you teach creativity in music? Children are most creative when they can make a game out of what they are learning. Let me tell you about my experience going into the schools and working with kids, what I have learned and what some of the long-range implications of this learning are.

I have a shorthand method I use to teach children to create music. I simply ask them to think up a sound and then go to the blackboard, one by one, and draw abstract marks on the board that represent the sound they are hearing. When their collective sound creation is finished, I ask them to sing it as a group.

For instance, let's say you hear a sound like "oooo-wahhHHH" that goes from the bottom to the top of your voice, and wanted to notate that sound in a logical way. You might represent that sound by drawing a thick line that arcs from the bottom to the top of the blackboard, just like it sounds. A group of dots might sound like "deet-deet-deet-deet" on random pitches. Wavy lines would be long tones that make wavy sounds, sliding higher and lower in pitch. A finished composition in graphic notation, which usually takes about 30 minutes to create, looks like a collection of lines and dots and shapes that make an interesting abstract design.

When the children agree their "soundscape" is finished I ask them to perform it. They look puzzled and ask," How do we do that?" Continuing the game, I tell them to just think up a way to get everybody to sing the piece as a group. After a few moments of thought one of them will usually have an idea and start to describe what s/he would do. I say, don't tell us what you would do, do it! After a self-conscious moment, and with much urging from me, the child will go to the blackboard and say something like, "Okay, I'm going to move my hand slowly across the board and I want each person who wrote a sound to sing their sound when my hand gets to it." And they perform it that way.

Then I ask if there might be a different way to perform it.

This suggestion opens yet another door as they begin to realize there is more than one way interpret their composition. Urging them on, another student will go to the board and divide the group by gender perhaps, asking the girls to sing the upper sounds and the boys to sing the lower sounds, and they perform it again, now hearing it differently. One by one I encourage others to stand before the group and guide it through yet another way of performing their piece. Meanwhile, I stay in the back not saying a word.

Once they've performed it I ask them to comment on the structure of the piece. Would they change anything? Should it be longer, shorter, have more activity or less? As they make suggestions some of them go to the board and erase or add ideas to improve it.

They have fun with all this, laughing, ribbing each other, having a good time. Their piece might sound like anything from the beautiful sounds of nature to cats crying on the back fence at midnight. Then I go to the board and say, "This is how I make my living," which draws more laughter. "The only difference between what you did here and what I do is that I specify exactly how high or low each of these sounds is, how loud and soft, how slow and how fast, etc. And for that I use musical notation, which is simply a set of measurements. Otherwise, the judgments you made just now are basically the same as those that I make when I'm composing at home. You start with a sound you like, then you write another sound, then another, etc. then you examine it and re-write it, until you're satisfied that it's finally finished. All that matters is that the overall result sounds interesting, or moving, or humorous, or mysterious to others. And the more soundscapes you write the better you get at it. That's what the art of composing music is all about."

Then I proceed to draw music staves and clefs over their graphics and write in pitches and rhythms over the shapes they had written. And suddenly it looks like music! This is the "Ah-ha" moment. Now they realize that their lines and dots and squiggles were actually music in raw form. With musical notation outlining the marks they had made, their soundscape suddenly looks like music they're used to seeing. But it was music before the musical notation appeared over it. Musical notation is simply a language for making the details of sound specific. As I tell the children, "Anybody can learn the language of music notation, but not everybody can put together a really interesting combination of sounds that people want to hear over and over again. Those who can are composers!"

By going through this creativity-and-performance process firsthand the children teach themselves what music is. Thereafter when they see others' music they can more easily understand the composer's intent and better interpret it. The great Italian educator, Maria Montessori, says children learn best when they feel ownership of the knowledge, as if they had invented it, and this feeling of ownership gives them confidence.

So why don't we educate children that way in music? First, we would have to educate teachers that way. I think teachers would prefer to teach music creatively instead of by rote, but they need an organized method by which to do it, not just a good idea. I recall one teacher's response after I demonstrated my graphic notation idea at a Music Educators National Conference in Chicago some time ago: "Your approach to teaching creativity to children is fine, when you're there to do it. But what do we do when you leave?"

That question gave me the idea to devise a way to teach teachers how to teach children to compose. Since the graphic approach to creating music is so simple, my approach is to have the teachers create a graphic piece to see how it feels to do it, then watch me teach children to do it. Then I leave them to work with the children for a period of time without me present. After repeated sessions with the children writing piece after piece, both teachers and students get very good at it.

I recently carried out this teacher-training idea at a high school in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and within 3 months a band and orchestra director there named Michael Mucci cultivated four student composers who not only wrote graphic pieces for string orchestra and wind ensemble, they conducted the pieces themselves in performance on a public concert.

The result astonished the audience who responded heartily with long applause for the young composers. Granted, those present were family and friends, but nevertheless they realized that the children had accomplished something very special and had learned something entirely new. The composing of music is thought of as a mystery that only a few can understand, yet here was a handful of teenagers who, within a few short months, had not only composed works for large groups but had taught the works to the ensembles and directed their own performances. As one audience member commented, "If they could learn to do this, imagine what else they could do that they never realized was possible."

Consider for a moment what this one teacher enabled these youngsters to pull off with this music creativity project. The children created their own music, performed that music publicly under pressure, helped performers coordinate their eye, ear and fingers to play with a group, reading the music, watching a conductor and balancing their sound with others. And they exhibited leadership and management skills by communicating their wishes to a group clearly within limited rehearsal time. They performed a highly technical skill under pressure and under public observation, and they expressed emotion, both on paper and in gesture, and coached others to express theirs.

Then came the shock. After this successful creative venture, I hear that the town of Longmeadow wants to cut down on its music classes and make orchestra an after school activity! And this problem of cutbacks in the arts is endemic to American primary and secondary schools today, in spite of the hundreds of studies and scientific findings published in the past 20 years affirming the value of music to a child's overall education.

Here is a mere smattering of these:

--In an analysis of U.S Department of Education data on more than 25,000 secondary school students, researchers found that students with consistently high levels of participation in instrumental music over the middle and high school years show significantly higher levels of mathematical proficiency by grade 12, regardless of socio-economic status. - Catterall, James. S., Richard Chapleau, and John Iwanaga. "Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: General Involvement and Intensive Involvement in Music and Theater Arts." Los Angeles, CA: The Imagination Project at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, 1999

--Statistics compiled by the U.S. National Data Resource Center, show that 12.14 % of students in the total school population can be classified as disruptive in the classroom (skipping classes, in-school suspensions, arrests, drop-outs). In contrast, only 8.08% of students involved in music classes meet the same criteria as "disruptive." - Based on data from the NELS:88 (National Education Longitudinal Study), second follow-up, 1992.

--Physician and biologist Lewis Thomas found that 66% of those with a music major as undergraduates were admitted to medical school, the highest percentage of any group. 44% of biochemistry majors were admitted. - As reported in "The Case for Music in the Schools," Phi Delta Kappan, February 1994.

--A Study of 811 high school minority students showed that 36% described music teachers as their role models, as opposed to 28% English teachers, 11% elementary teachers, 7% physical education teachers, 1% principals. - D.L. Hamann and L.M. Walker, "Music teachers as role Models for African-American Students." Journal of Research in Music Education, 41, 1993.

--Kindergarten students in the school district of Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin, given music instruction scored 48% higher in spatial-temporal skill tests than those who had received no music training. - Rauscher, F.H., and Zupan, M.A. (1999). Classroom keyboard instruction improves kindergarten children's spatial-temporal performance: A field study. Manuscript in press, Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

Even corporate CEOS and army generals agree to the value of music education. Quoting Business Week, October 1996, from an article titled, "The Changing Workplace is Changing our view of Education: "The nation's top business executives agree that arts education programs can help repair weaknesses in American education and better prepare workers for the 21st century." And retired U.S. Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf said: "During the Gulf War, the few opportunities I had for relaxation I have always listened to music, and it brought to me great peace of mind. I have shared my love of music with people throughout the world, while listening to the drums and special instruments of the Far East, Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean, and the far North-and all of this started with the music appreciation course that I was taught in the third-grade elementary class in Princeton, New Jersey. What a tragedy it would be if we lived in a world where music was not taught to children."

Some have questioned the idea that music actually makes people smarter, saying that maybe smart people are simply attracted to music. Then I would say that's all the more reason to make music a required course of study. If music appeals to intelligent people, there must a reason for it. Why not imitate the behavior of smart people? That's a basic tenet of education after all, to model our learning on what works. At the very least, experience with music broadens our scope as human beings helping us achieve success in life and work, not to mention increasing our enjoyment of living.

If we do value our children, and if music can in fact help build the whole human being, then I think perhaps it may be time to ask a larger question: Why is music not mandated at the state or provincial level as a required course immune from cutbacks, like math, science and language? Who decides what should and should not be required learning for our children? And what are their criteria? What would it take to communicate with these decision-making authorities and direct their minds to the tremendous multi-level benefits music can have on the development of the brain, the emotions and overall learning, as numerous scientists, doctors and researchers have been telling us for almost two decades.

It seems to me that basic training in the creation and performance of music would benefit anyone preparing for any profession. Music is not just an entertainment, though entertaining it is. It's not just a recreational activity, though it has all the benefits of recreation. It is a fundamental need for the full development of a human being, as we know from early Greeks' use of the arts as the basis of their education.

But since the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, education has been designed to train people primarily for jobs in industry, not for living and growing, and today's mega corporate world has amplified this pragmatism to the point where we are slowly but surely cutting music and the arts out of our childrens' general education, relegating them to extracurricular activities.

The age of industry, technology, and even information, is past. This is the age of the creative entrepreneur, and it requires new criteria for educating our children. As Richard Florida has told us in his ground-breaking book, The Rise of the Creative Class, we are in a new age where the most important element in our development is creativity, where ideas and original approaches to problems in all professions is the key to success. It's time for our education system to shake the dust off and play catch-up.

The arts play a central role in the education needed for this new age, because they are all about creativity. Being a performance art, music teaches children how to cooperate within a larger system, which orchestra, band and choral training require. The earlier we start children in music and the more we integrate music into the overall fabric of our schools, the better we will prepare our young for a successful and satisfying life. And we will all benefit, regardless of age, because we will be creating a richer, and safer, society.

Art is a metaphor for human creativity, and building a human being is the biggest creation of all. That's what our education system should be all about.

"The Key to Creativity: Think Like a Kid" first appeared in the October 2004 edition of the Italian magazine ADULTITA (No. 20).

For more information on the graphic notation process, contact the composer at His works for middle school and high school band are: Old Churches (Hal Leonard), Gotta Make Noise, Apache Lullaby and The Beethoven Machine (Carl Fischer).

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Taming The Demons Of Creativity

The magic of musical creativity has intrigued writers, critics and musicologists for centuries. How do composers write music? Are they endowed with a divine gift from the gods, or is creating a symphony a skill that certain people have been willing to put in the time and effort to acquire?

I have never heard a satisfactory answer to these questions, but, having composed symphonic music all my life adult, I do know there is much about the process of writing a piece of music that can be understood.

I recently had an interesting query from a listener who asked:

“What is the greatest obstacle you must overcome every time you start the composition of a new piece of music? Is it mental, physical, legal or perhaps political?”

I pondered this complex question for days. It took me down so many avenues of thought that are rarely discussed. I’d like to share my response with others, because I think these thoughts deal with a far-reaching aspect of creativity that may relate to people of many professions.

Let me take each aspect the listener asked about.

MENTAL: First, let me say I don’t see composing as an obstacle, but rather as an exciting opportunity to discover something. I only start a new piece when-having a commission in place from a specific performer or performing organization--I get an idea that excites and intrigues me. I might be inspired by a book or a photograph, or hearing another piece of music, but often I get my best ideas from the personality of the person or organization I am writing the piece of music for. I interview that person, or visit the organization if it is an orchestra, and get a certain feeling from the very nature of that person or organization.

I will ask a soloist many basic questions about how they relate to their instrument. For example, “What do you love most about your instrument?” “What music do you most love to play?” “What would you say is your strongest characteristic as a player, the one you feel most confident about?” “If you could write music, what kind of piece would you write for yourself?” I could ask this question of 100 different violinists and each of them would give me a different answer. Not only their replies, but a subtle change of voice tone, a facial expression, a gesture, will tell me something on a deeper level about a person’s individual nature as a musician. From this interchange I will often get a feeling which translates into a musical idea that seems to fit uniquely to that person. Sometimes I will even hear a melody or motif that seems to come from the very core of their psyche.

Once I have that feeling of the person’s nature-which will remain the creative fuel for the whole work-I usually begin to hear a melody or musical fragment or texture that was somehow stimulated by that person or organization. I will work and re-work that simple piece of musical material endlessly-it may be only a few bars long--varying it, turning it upside down, hammering at it until I think I have found in it the kernel from which the piece can grow. Then I put that piece of material, and the many pages of re-writes I have made, into a drawer and forget about it for a week or two. This is my way of letting my unconscious mind go to work on it, which I know it will do. When I stir my brain by hammering hard on a piece of core musical material for an extended period of time, I know my unconscious will take this material very seriously and consider it a project, realizing it is important to me--more important than anything else currently on my mind.

Then I go about my daily routine and wait for the returns to start coming in, which might begin at any time in the following weeks. I could be taking a walk, or conversing with friends, or playing with our cat, when the playback from my unconscious starts to surface

. I will begin to hear whole chunks of music and will start writing them down. I edit and re-write these phrases and sections of music, but I won’t force the material to go my way. Instead I try to feel what this musical material wants, what seems to be the most natural thing for it to do, almost as if it were a entity with a will of its own. If I try to force my will on this musical material I know the result will not be as rich.

When I work this way I don’t have any “writer’s block.” In fact, writer’s block is foreign to me. My problem, if you want to call it that, is the opposite. At the end of a work day I need to turn off my creative mind once it gets started on this track so I can get some rest. I find that light reading or going to a movie is the best way to divert my mind from creativity. If I read poetry or a novel of depth or see a stimulating play or art exhibition, my mind seems to say, “Oh, you want us to go there again. Okay. Here’s another idea!”

My listener also posed the terms physical, legal or political, so let me address these.

PHYSICAL: I do believe the body plays a part in my creative process, but I don’t know exactly how, except to say that I know the vestibular system is involved. The vestibular organ is in the inner ear and directs the function of the five senses. This organ accounts for our sense of balance, space and distance. When it is in good operating condition the other senses function at optimum. When the liquid in the inner ear is disturbed, caused perhaps by too much alcohol or spinning your body around, you may be unable to walk through a doorway without bumping into the doorframe. The vestibular coordinates your vision and your body’s movement through the door. So the vestibular has to be kept in top condition, because it integrates the five senses and gives you greater access to all the capabilities the senses can contribute to the creative process.

I think some form of physical exercise is the primary method of maintaining the vestibular in top working order. Music is all about balancing sound, hearing the relationhip between pitches, the degree of space between them, and the degree of space between performers. Yoga, Tai chi, dancing, distance swimming-any form of body movement that systematically stretches the muscles and increases the blood circulation while at the same time requiring exquisite concentration of physical balance-is excellent for helping develop and maintain the vestibular organ. Cardio-vascular exercise--aerobics, tennis, walking, etc.--is helpful for general health and should be part of any creative person’s life, but such exercise is more directly physical than psychological. Movement that enhances balance actually tunes the vestibular system and establishes an almost endless flow of energy, which stimulates creativity. Creativity requires more high energy than any other activity I have ever experienced. I believe that one reason for writer’s block is a poorly functioning vestibular system, with resulting tiredness of body and mind.

LEGAL: I have an agreement with myself that I only start a new composition when the “business manager” part of me has seen a completed contract with all the details in place. When my creative part is confident that the commissioning person or organization is serious about receiving the music, I will immediately get to work on it. In fact, the coordination between my creative self and my business self has become so successful that my creative part is almost unstoppable once the legal agreement is completed.

A contract also gives me a deadline, and my creative part loves deadlines, because it means someone cares enough to make demands on me. Some people often feel time limits are restrictive and will say that creativity can’t be rushed (which is why we tend to excuse an artist for being late on a project). But necessity is often the mother of creativity. On the day of the premiere of Rossini’s opera, The Barber of Seville, the overture was not finished yet. The exasperated producer locked the composer in a room and told him he couldn’t come out until he had written the music. As pages came out from under the door the producer handed spaghetti over the transom, and by evening he had his overture.

Personally, I find deadlines inspiring. When I see an announcement in the press that I will be writing a piece of music to be premiered on a certain date, a piece I haven’t even started to compose, my heart jumps and my brain starts whirling with energy. This is real! I can almost feel a two-way energy between myself and the performer-and consequently the listener-- as if the creation were now unstoppable.

POLITICAL: If I think about politics in any form, or try to write a piece that might represent a political stance, my work is weakened. The unconscious is totally unconcerned about anything political. In fact, the unconscious has desires and motives of its own that we may rarely understand. When a piece of music is composed for a political purpose-like Beethoven’s awful 10th Symphony to commemorate Wellington’s victory-the aesthetic result will seldom match the political ardor. Political movitation is conscious, and the conscious mind is usually too limited by itself to create anything of lasting value. I know that if I think politically-try to write a rousing composition “to help align Palestine with Arab nations,” for example, the work would be filled with extraneous material, created largely by superficial reasoning and overstated emotion, and bypassing my unconscious intuitions that are the wellspring of creativity.

This point also applies to composers writing for their colleagues in prescribed musical styles. As in political composing, some composers write music to conform to beliefs and presuppositions about what music is supposed to be, depending on which “party” they want to join: The Tonalists, The Atonalists, The Ecleticists, The Neo-Romanticists, The Minimalists, etc. The chosen style of music can affect a composer’s position at a university, and most composers make their living as teachers. Under these circumstances, the creative motivation becomes more political, demonstrating where a composer chooses to stand in the musical political arena. But the resulting music may have little to do with the magic of genuine creativity.

When I showed a draft of this article to a friend she said, ”How about the spiritual?”

I was puzzled by her remark, because the spiritual I take for granted. The Balinese have no word for art, because art is created daily by everyone. To me, the spiritual is built into the very purpose of composing. I am writing music for musicians that I hope enables them to express their very being. As I create the music, I am responding deeply to someone else and feeling a deep relationship with them through some kind of unexplained connecting power. The process is almost a form of prayer, so the word spirituality becomes redundant.

Having said all this, there is one underlying potential obstacle for any composer undertaking to write music as a dedicated way of life. Human creative energy in its rawest form, which is the form of creative power that most dedicated artists cultivate, is extremely powerful. Like any fundamental power of nature it can be potentially dangerous. The deeper one goes into the creative self, the more energy of a very fundamental type is stirred. Over a period of time an almost separate creative self can begin to develop, which can begin to make demands on the body and mind it lives in. My wife put it well when once asked in an interview what it was like to live with a composer: “It’s like living with two people,” she said. “There’s Michael, whom I enjoy living with, then there’s this other being that you also learn to live with.”

I affectionately call that “other being” the Demon-not the evil definition of the word, but rather the Greek daemon, which is the word for divine power or life force. Cultivating this creative power in yourself is an exhilarating experience, but it can also be very taxing. The Demon is tireless, relentless, even ruthless, concerned with nothing but exercising its own energy. And this is wonderful, as long as you manage to harness this energy and incorporate it into your life in a balanced way. If you don’t, it can wipe the floor with you-burn you out, make you forget to eat or sleep, and generally affect your physical and mental health. History shows numerous examples of artists going off the deep end, drinking heavily, using drugs. Examples are painter Vincent van Gogh climbing a tree to shoot himself, and composer Robert Schumann ending his life in an insane asylum. As an artist, you need to access the deepest part of yourself, allowing the Demon to possess you fully, and then get back out again. This requires establishing a lifeline-like a rope tied to your waist when going into a cave-so you can find your way back to your normal everyday state of mind.

I’m talking here about the fully committed-to-creativity-for-a-lifetime composer and artist, not the people who enjoy creating in their spare time. The Demon requires commitment. If you create erratically and put other work before your creative work, the Demon will get restless, bored, and finally leave. That’s the infamous writer’s block. But when you make creativity the centerpiece of your life, then the Demon will work for you tirelessly night and day.

To make a home for my Demon, I have carefully taken the time to define all the basic activities and functions of my life-social, business, health, family, finances, etc.-and monitor how they all relate to and fit in with my creative work. This self-organization took a lot of experimenting in order to create a life where I could compose and also be an agreeable person to live with and enjoy life outside of composing. Maintaining this balance is ongoing work. But as I learned how these different parts of myself relate to and help each other, I learned also how to create a home for the Demon that everybody inside and outside of me can live with. My balanced life style allows me to harbor this awesome power and also enjoy a normal family life.

When I described this process of making a home inside myself for the Demon to a group of Neuro-Linguistic Programmers in California who were modeling me for creativity, I mentioned that I have an agreement with this all-encompassing force that, when I stop working at night for supper, the Demon goes back to wherever it goes at night and will not bother me again until morning. One of the people present asked, “When you put your demon in the cage at night…” and John Grinder, co-founder of NLP and the host of the workshop, interrupted him and said, “Whoa, make no mistake-this man’s demon has a penthouse!”

"Taming the Demons of Creativity" first appeared in the October 2004 edition of the online publication of the American Music Center, NewMusicBox.

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