Sunday, December 13, 2009

Week 9: Improvisation and Composition - Skills for the 21st Century

Many of the Abreu Fellows were apprehensive about this week’s focus on composition and improvisation, including me.  Why so much fear surrounding this pure expression of creativity, even among accomplished musicians?

Sir Ken Robinson, leading expert on creativity, has an answer to this question.  He addresses the innate capacity that children have for innovation in his TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?  In this inspiring presentation he begins:
All kids have tremendous talents and we squander them ruthlessly… My contention is that creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status…We are now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make and the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities… I believe this passionately that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it or rather we get educated out of it.
I have to agree. When I was in 1st grade I remember creating my own melodies to passages in my basal reader to help make the text more interesting. Miss Hogarth, overheard me singing and suggested to the class that we transform this story into a musical and perform it.  I can still remember that day – the thrill of performing and the possibilities of language that music opened for me.  I saw what words could become; but more importantly, what learning could become: not just frustrating lines on a page, but tools for personal expression; new ideas and creations that can be shared and celebrated with an audience.

Unfortunately, as Ken Robinson relates, school for me gradually became less-open ended and more focused on getting the right answer.  Even my classical piano training moved me in this direction.  Read what is on the page and don’t deviate.  I hear similar stories from other musicians. No wonder we have so much fear trusting our own intuition or reveling in musical improvisation. 

Luckily for the Abreu Fellows, we had Matti Kovler as our seminar facilitator for the week.  We already knew about his talents in composition, improvisation and teaching, but we had no idea he was a gifted counselor, as well! He helped us move from a fear-based approach to improvisation to one of trust by providing tools and a safe environment in which to practice them.  He also organized a stellar line-up of presenters whose different approaches demonstrated that there is “no right answer” or one right way of teaching composition and improvisation to students.

In fact, the structure of the week beautifully framed the creative skills that businesses and schools believe students need in order to be prepared for a 21st-century workforce.  Interestingly, the rankings of these skills differ between educators and executives, which are discussed in the report Ready to Innovate. I've listed the eleven creative skills below with a related experience from the week.  

  • Problem identification articulationElisabeth Babcock, President and CEO of the Crittenton Women's Union, shared how her nonprofit acts as laboratory of invention to identify causes of poverty and provide new solutions for low-income women and their families.
  • Ability to identify new patterns of behavior or new combination of actionsHubie Jones, Dean Emeritus of the Boston University School of Social Work, shared his model of social integration and attributed music as a powerful force in developing and instilling new patterns of behavior between students of different backgrounds (geographically, ethnically and economically).   His work through the Boston Children’s Chorus is an example of how music levels the playing field, unifies and brings students together .
  • Integration of knowledge across different disciplines:  Composer, Larry Bell, who teaches composition and music theory at NEC, credits his Juillard teacher, Vincent Persichetti, for broadening his view of musical content.  By focusing on Larry’s interest in poetry, Persichetti helped Larry see the benefit of drawing from all kinds of material as inspiration for his compositions.
  • Ability to originate new ideas:  Matti invited one of his composition students, Rachel Kuznetsov to share the musical themes of her new opera, "Nadya and B-jumpers." Before playing each theme, Rachel described her characters and major plot lines.  When she played them on the piano, we could immediately match the theme to the character.

Watching Matti Kovler work on improvisation skills with his student, Rachel Kuznetsov,  reminded me of my 1st grade memory.
  • Comfort with notion of "no right answer":  Matti’s diverse line-up of presenters demonstrated that there is no one way of teaching improvisation and composition to students.
  • Fundamental curiosity:  Throughout the week, Matti continually modeled his curiosity about the decisions that presenters and students make about their compositional and improvisational choices by asking questions. They generated rich conversation.
  • Originality and inventiveness in work:  Kati Agoc, composer and faculty at NEC, shared some of the techniques she uses to cultivate a classroom of inventiveness by providing specific constraints, including writing a theme that could be a subject of variations. 
  • Problem solving:  when faced with an injury that prevented Igor Tkachenko from performing on the stage, he applied his musical interests to producing a multiple award-winning Interactive Classics series of children’s software music games.

From the smiles on the Abreu Fellows' faces, Igor Tkachenko's software is not just for kids!

    • Ability to take risks: many of the Abreu Fellows faced their fears by taking risks throughout the week improving on their instrument with Matti accompanying on the piano.  I also accepted an invitation by Ben Zander to conduct O Come, All Ye Faithful in his Music Interpretation class.  We have all grown in confidence in just one short week!
    • Tolerance of ambiguity:  Gabriela Montero, a master classical pianist in improvisation, performs in the realm of the unknown.  By disengaging the mind, her inspiration for improvisation “comes from somewhere higher, flexible and changeable.”  She never knows what will come from her fingers when she sits down at the piano, but I can assure you from having the opportunity to hear her play, her compositions are incredible.
    • Ability to communicate new ideas to others: I had the chance to observe Matti’s Improvisation class at the NEC Preparatory School this Saturday. There I watched his students communicate their ideas toward the creation of a collaborative musical composition.  I was so impressed by their ability to work together, suggest new ideas for improvement and engage in the process.

      The Abreu Fellows with Gabriela Montero and Mark Churchill

      Matti shared a concern that improvisation skills are often viewed as "fluff" rather than a tool for developing musical skill, ear training and pitch discrimination.  I hope this view will change as more schools see the benefit of nurturing their students' creative thinking skills.  Certainly all of our presenters demonstrated how important creativity is to the success of their work.  Thank you, Matti, for crafting such an exceptional week!

      I leave you with Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity

      Note: I learned of TED through this video and started subscribing to receive alerts on new talks. Little did I know that three years later, I’d learn about the Abreu Fellowship through one of TED's subscriber e-mails. Thank you, TED, for creating this global network of Ideas Worth Spreading.

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