‘Looking for the unexpected – Creativity and Innovation in Music Education’
On March 16th-19th a team of BCU music educators & researchers flew all the way to Lithuania to attend the European Association of Music in Schools (EAS). The title of the conference was ‘Looking for the Unexpected – Creativity and innovation in music education’, a hot topic for us in the UK with the uncertainty of creative subjects within schools due to the impending EBacc and forced acadamisation knocking at the door.
So Prof. Martin Fautley, Dr. Victoria Kinsella, fellow PhD student Samantha Clements, and I packed our warm winter clothes to prepare for snow and produced our presentations about our own research into creativity in music education. Director of learning and participation at Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Nancy Evans also joined us at the conference to present alongside Victoria and Martin on their action research project with ‘Music Maze’.
How is ‘creativity’ defined in other countries?
The conference kicked off with a keynote from Pamela Burnard talking about ‘diverse musical creativities’, an interesting terminology. In her keynote, Burnard discussed the links between ‘real world practice and industry’ and what is happening within schools and out of school. She also mentioned important aspects of being creative including risk taking, autonomy and enjoyment. Burnard explores musical creativity further in her book ‘Musical Creativities in Practice’ and talks about how some may view musical creativity as:
‘a particular type of practice, perhaps that of the Great Composers, rather than to multiple possibilities’ (p.7, 2012).
There were many incredibly polished vocal performances during the conference covering vast amounts of repertoire, including a lot of traditional Lithuanian folk music. Burnard asked if one of the performances that morning was ‘creative’. Many automatically nodded and said yes. It was a striking piece of musical theatre, they varied how they used the space on the stage and use of props, and the combination between traditional folk music with modern day themes was striking. The students were engaged throughout and the experience was immersive. However, had the students been creative? There is no way of telling just from the performance. Creativity is a process (Wallas, 1926) and we could not know if the students had co-created the piece, made decisions, rejected ideas, improvised, or if they had just followed a strict set of orders from the choreographer or music leader. How did the audience define creativity? What made a ‘creative performance’?
Wallas: 4 stages of the creative process
Whilst attending other presentations I was surprised by the diversity of practice happening in Europe, differences in what they valued in music education and how they defined ‘creativity’ in practice.
Is composing inherently creative?
My own research focuses on composing within schools and I have witnessed many music educators that believe composing is inherently creative because it is ‘creating something new’. However in practice composing can be a very uncreative activity, guided by stylistic rules, criteria driven direction. The assessment can lead to creating pieces of music with a set number of techniques thus creating very ‘unmusical’ works – a kind of ‘composing by numbers’. The three aspects Burnard spoke about in the keynote (risk taking, autonomy and enjoyment) are not always found when students are composing in the classroom or for exams. In other presentations focusing on composing there were interesting approaches to how people approached teaching composing. This made me consider the ‘skills vs creative’ debate:
Should you learn the ‘rules’ first before you can break them?
In one particular presentation the teacher had developed a step-by-step approach to teaching melody writing with young recorder players. The music was rooted in folk tradition but focused on limiting the students’ choice in pitch and using grids to develop a rhythmic pattern. It was also based in western classical notation. The presenter commented that it was a way for students to learn about specific folk music traditions and techniques as well as improving notation reading. His approach to introducing composing to young students was quite radically different to my own but there were some similarities in that we both were aiming to introduce stages and steps for students. For me, instead of choosing which of the two pitches to use I ask students to decide when there should be sound and when there should be silence, referring back to John Cage’s quote:
‘The material of music is sound and silence integrating these is composing’ (1949)
We would then move onto the next step asking them for either high and low, or loud or quiet sounds. For this teacher it would be the next pitch or rhythm. I would initially see my own approach as more ‘creative’ but on reflection we were both still asking our students to make a decision and go along a process, but it was framed very differently. This leads back to one of the fundamental questions of ‘how DO we teach composing?’ Both of our approaches in rooted in a cultural and musical background, and we are both limiting students decisions initially, however one was focused on melody and the other on timbre and texture.
An aspect of composing that was present in this presentation, and one that I see regularly in the UK, was an obsession around pitch as a starting pointfor composing. Why is it that deciding on what key a piece of music should be, or what pitch to start with, the most important thing for music? Why not the title, the mood, the structure, the timbral quality of the instruments, the way it looks when performed, the rhythmic quality or the ‘feel’. I am not suggesting every young musician or teacher starts with pitch when composing but it seems more common than other areas of music. This focus on pitch may also impact on what a young person might think composing is about – I remember telling myself at the age of 16:
‘once I know how to do harmony, I will be able to compose’
For a start that phrase doesn’t even make sense, but I felt at that time there were inherent rules that I just needed to learn in order to be a composer. The more rules I learnt, the better I would be. But who dictates these rules – Society? Examination boards? Culture? The teacher? In music and composing there are rules we can learn, but the act of being creative is deciding how and when to use them, when to not use them, and when to change them, do something new and make them our own.
Reflections on my presentation:
On the 3rd day I gave my presentation titled: ‘Loosing Faith in the System: The implications of inconsistent marking, of AS and A level composing, on creativity.’ My talk used the results collected from my KS5 composing survey on teachers’ experiences of marking in A level. Results from 71 teachers found that over 90% of them had been surprised by an examination grade and many did not feel confident with predicting grades. The first aspect of my presentation involved delegates looking through the raw data from the survey and talking about what they felt the data told them. I enjoyed this aspect of my talk as it allowed them to ask questions and open up a dialogue with the audience early on in the presentation. It engaged them in the research from the start. I was also keen to see how other researchers in the audience would react to the data; one even commented saying how the research was ‘gold dust’ and examination boards would be very keen to see the full research.
In addition to the qualitative data, my research used the free text answers on the survey and 9 telephone interviews. In this section of the presentation I presented some emerging themes into what impact inconstant making has in the school:
1) Downward Spiral:
This is when, due to unexpected poor grades, teachers restrict what students can compose so that it is closer to the marking criteria. However as a result of trying to second-guess the exam board requirements the students do not enjoy the experience as much and therefore do less well in the exam.
2) Trail of interpretation:
As mentioned before, there is a danger of trying to second-guess what the exam board of examiner wants to see in the composition. As a result a trail of interpretation of what people think ‘good’ composing looks and sounds like is developed, leaving the student at the end of this line trying to compose what they think others want.
3) Ripple effect:
The final emerging theme is this idea of a ‘ripple effect’ – that inconsistent marking has an impact on the teacher’s confidence, which effects their teaching of composing (potentially limiting creativity), which in turn effects the students’ learning and experience of composing. The wider implications are that students decide not to take music as a subject at this level which endangers music as a subject in the school and therefore threatens jobs. At the end of this it could have a negative impact on the music industry in the UK as a whole.
I enjoyed presenting my early findings at EAS. It has given me confidence to present at future conferences including ISME and BERA, and practice into how to present to a wider audience from across Europe where there are diverse practices in music education.
BCU team presentations overviews:
The BCU team covered a wide range of topics at the conference. Martin Fautley focused on creativity within lower secondary schools. His results from a survey of over 100 secondary music teachers from Birmingham and London found that assessment was based on matching school expectations of predicted grades. It was also noted that that assessment was reducing creative opportunities in the classroom.
Samantha Clements presented her PhD research methodology involving gaming software as a tool for critical incident charting. This experimental way of collecting data was used in her pilot study with 4 trainee music teachers. She asked them to create ‘fantasy worlds’ which charted each of their ‘critical incidents’ in their life influencing their aptitude for different aspects of music education.
Victoria Kinsella has been working alongside ‘The National Foundations for Youth Music’ on their ‘Exchanging Notes’ projects across England. Victoria reported, from the first year findings, on the importance of multi-agency working for increased creative engagement and intrinsic motivation of young people.
On the final morning Nancy Evans from BCMG, Martin and Victoria presented research from an action research project with BCMG’s composing group ‘music maze’ from 8-11 year olds. The research focused on how the students responded to open-ended composing tasks. Some of the finding included that the children’s starting points were very diverse, and the way they composed and how much adult support and scaffolding was needed, varied.
We all enjoyed attending the conference as it helped stimulated discussions and debates with each other and with other delegates from outside the UK. Lithuania has a rich musical and cultural background and a country none of us had thought to visit before but would be excited to go back to.