Before I start this post, there is an immediate definition problem with the word “creativity”. Some people think it means someone inventing something new and original and some people think it is simply about creating something. It’s almost like the difference between painting by numbers and painting a picture without numbers. For this post, I will use Ken Robinson’s definition “the process of having original ideas that have value”. I don’t always agree with what Sir Ken says but I think his definition is a fair one and so we will go with that.
The controversial words in Ken Robinson’s definition are “process”, “original” and “value” and that is where we get the most conflict. I would agree with Sir Ken that creativity certainly is a process – I don’t want to go down the route that creativity is something you are born with or inherit genetically. Even if there is any truth to this, it won’t help us in schools to develop creativity if we are simply going to write off large proportions of children for not having the right genes. I really do believe it is something you can learn but I’m not sure it can be something that can be directly taught as a transferable skill. I am pretty good as a music composer and I’ve been told my poetry isn’t horrific but my creativity in Art is awful and I can barely create an edible meal. As far as original goes, I am unsure that anything really is strictly original. Everything created is in context of something else that has been either influenced or copied. I would argue that there really isn’t anything truly original, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Value is the hardest to define. I guess KR would say that value is determined by the person or people who have created the product or people who have benefited from it. And of course this definition is insufficient because creativity doesn’t always have to result in a concrete end product, although much of the time it will.
Most people I have encountered who talk about creativity don’t create much. Almost every music or instrumental teacher I have met doesn’t compose their own music. They don’t write poems, they don’t write stories, they don’t even write blogs. Some say they don’t have the time, that teaching is all encompassing but others say that without the notes they can’t perform anything. I have heard absolutely fantastic musicians say they cannot compose anything. But they all have an opinion that creativity is incredibly important, even if they don’t do it themselves. Whatever we think about creativity, there are definitely barriers that are very strong, even amongst the workforce that are actually entrusted to deliver a generation of creative individuals.
This might sound a bit depressing and unfairly critical. However, I have seen some notable exceptions. One music teacher I met a few years ago fell into the job by accident due to a maternity leave and she actually did create music but never said she was a musician. No matter how much encouragement, she had made a distinction in her mind that she was someone who taught music, wrote music, performed music in church but wasn’t a musician because she didn’t have a music degree or a PGCE in Music. She also wrote stories and poems but didn’t bang on about creativity whilst creating absolutely nothing like some people; she just enjoyed it and got on with it. The most creative person I think I have met was a guy I met at university who taught himself the guitar. He listened to more music than almost anyone else I knew even though he was studying science and not music. He went to charity shops and bought everything on vinyl for 10p including albums of random British Northerners from the old collieries playing Hammond Organ renditions of flamenco music. He was good because he had such an eclectic taste in music that he had so many influences to draw on with his own compositions. This resulted in his own music being (dare I say it) original. Finally, one teacher I knew created some wonderful compositions but then left after a year to do a Master’s degree in Composition. Something we need to learn in the education sector is that if you really want creative individuals, we need to give time so people can actually have time to think and time to create. If a teacher is composing music in their PPA time they are not messing around, or not doing the day job, they are actually improving their own skills and subsequently the skills of the children they teach. If a teacher feels the only way they can be creative is to actually stop teaching children, we have a serious problem.
What I find fascinating about people who don’t compose music is that many have this erroneous idea that the compositional process is something mystical, enigmatical and spiritual – yet at the same time they think that anyone can do it and everything has value because creativity is linked to personal expression. These ideas have more to do with romanticism than creativity. The truth is that creating music is not mystical, enigmatic and spiritual and really is a process of making choices based on knowledge of what you know has worked in the past and perhaps a hunch of something that might work, again based on what you know has worked in the past. And going back to Sir Ken’s definition, not everything that is deemed creative has value because it depends on the thought process going on in the individual’s mind. If you are cathartically banging a drum whilst your partner randomly hits a triangle, you aren’t being creative. You’re just messing around. You may have got children in groups, making up music about living in the jungle but if the sum of your thought is “we are going to bang this drum because they have drums in Africa and there are jungles in Africa” then you really are not being creative at all. Most composers in the past and present have commissions, you are asked to compose something that someone else has asked for. You can put your all into it, but whether it is you consciously or subconsciously making choices or those of a customer, you are doing the same thing. All require choices, thought and compromises. And whatever the final product, most creativity is about trying to create something even if you might not get something tangible at the very end of the process.
Often the reason children end up with something that really isn’t very good isn’t because they don’t have creative minds; it’s because they either can’t play anything well enough to use to accompany themselves or create upon, they don’t have the technical skills to create on a computer or they don’t have the theoretical knowledge to know what will work and why. They may be unable to write music down. If they haven’t listened to a lot of music they probably won’t know how music is structured. But most importantly, to compose you need time to think. And you don’t get much time to think in a music class. So what we need to do to make children better at creating music is to improve their performing skills, their aural skills, their general musical knowledge, their theoretical knowledge and their technical skills. And give them time to think.
Demystifying creativity is very important. I have very little time for Ken Robinson’s view that we educate children out of creativity. The idea that we are born with innate creativity that dissipates as you experience the education system is completely contrary to contemporary cognitive psychology. What is closer to the truth is that you learn what you think about and you learn the most when you think very hard about something. And creativity can only exist if you have something to think about. So how can you educate someone out of something you have barely experienced?
In music education we simply don’t give children enough time to think and that is because we are continuously having to return to the basic concepts of rhythm and pitch because these are not learned early enough in Primary School. When you have children who can barely play a melody entering secondary school you know there is a problem. And I am not overstating the issue – I would bet all my chips on the premise that every secondary music teacher has some children in their class who can’t find Middle C on a keyboard, let alone play a tune with more than one finger. When you are thinking about where the keys are, it is very difficult to think about how to be creative. If you are driving a car you need to be thinking about the road ahead, not looking down at the switches to find out where the indicators are whilst you are moving forward.
If we really want creative musicians the answer is obvious. Improve basic instrumental, vocal, technical and aural skills in the most interesting way possible that allows children to get better and as a result be able to think about other things whilst performing. The majority of our work in Primary Schools must be improving performing and aural skills with the theoretical knowledge that goes along with that. Our secondary colleagues will be delighted with children who can sing in tune, perform melodies on recorders and keyboards, keep in time and recognize the basics in how to write music down. And creativity will flourish.