What place should creative activities have in lessons? Are they beneficial, perhaps even essential to music study, or just extra things to go along with playing the music of others? First of all, we should define what creativity in music is. There are really four categories of creativity in music, as I see it: 1) interpretation, 2) arranging, 3) improvisation, and 4) composition. Obviously, there is a certain amount of creativity involved when any music is played in any format. Whether or not a person conceives the musical ideas that he/she is executing, the act of simply making sounds on an instrument can technically be called a creative activity. The most common thing for people to do (at least in the Western world) in making music is to play the ideas of other musicians/composers. Whether such people learn the music by reading, by ear, or by rote, they are involved in a process of creatively interpreting aural and visual cues. Even when a person has the express purpose of replicating exactly the music demonstrated or laid out for her in print, that individual will naturally put her own unique “signature” on it when playing.
In the case of written music, there is always a certain degree of latitude with regard to the details of performance, just by the very nature of the process. Signs and symbols written on a page can only convey so much information. The actual production of sound, in all of its various details, is accomplished by the performer. This would fall into the category of “interpretation.” Although various types of compositions/songs involve different kinds and levels of interpretation, there are always decisions that are made, consciously or unconsciously, by the performer. Obviously, this a relatively low level of creativity, but an extremely important one, which should never be overlooked.
I would consider the next “level” of creative activity in music to be arranging. This is the process by which the performer takes the musical ideas of a composer/songwriter and adjusts them to suit her own preferences. This process can be very simple, with only small decisions being made about the music (for example, changing a few notes of a melody) or very complex, with nearly every aspect of the music being manipulated. Either way, the core of the music was not designed by the arranger; he/she is simply making changes to suit his/her own tastes or put a different spin on the music.
The next level of creativity would be improvisation. I consider this to have an overall lower level of creativity than composition because of the wide variety of approaches that can be taken to it, which can include a pre-structured compositional framework that greatly limits the creative input of the performer. However, improvisation can also take on a completely free approach, in which there are no pre-structured ideas, just like the normal process of composition. Obviously, in an educational environment, the creative possibilities for an activity can be controlled by the teacher. So, even in composition, which typically involves an uninhibited process of creativity, certain decisions about the music can be made ahead of time by the teacher (including those regarding key, time signature, tempo, style, chord progression, etc.).
So what is my approach to teaching (or not teaching) creativity in lessons? First of all, since a certain amount of creativity will be expressed by any musician regardless of intent or specific instruction, I believe teachers should recognize, respect and encourage musical individualism in their students. As previously mentioned, interpreting written music, which nearly all students do, is a creative endeavor. Naturally, I attempt to guide and coach students in their overall artistry when they play anything. In notated music, this often includes not only specific musical ideas as they relate to signs and symbols on the page, but also extra-musical concepts that can help spark the imagination. Another area of study that automatically involves a certain amount of creativity is the process of arranging, particularly when students are learning songs by ear. This is very much a teacher-guided “copy and paste” process in the beginning stages of learning, but also one that should ultimately lead to a great deal of creative freedom for students after some time.
In addition to the kinds of creativity that occur naturally in lessons, I try to regularly sneak in some other ideas for creativity with most of my students. These ideas usually fall into the categories of informal arranging and improvising, and are often based on concepts, or entire pieces of music, that are part of a student's regular study. For example, after having worked on a written piece of music with a student, I may suggest some ideas to change one or more of its elements to create a unique “variation,” which is essentially a way of arranging. To throw in some improvisation, I will sometimes have a student make up a melody using the notes of a scale she just learned, and accompany her with my own improvised part; or, for more advanced students, I will have them make up a short chord progression for the left hand while they improvise melodically with the right hand. These are just a few methods I use to expose students to creativity in music. Some enjoy those kinds of exercises and take them further either on their own or by my encouragement; others are clearly not as comfortable with the process and never continue with the exploration of ideas on their own, which is fine. I am a firm believer that creativity cannot, and should not, be forced upon an individual. However, I also believe that all music students should at least be exposed to the concept of musical creativity in various ways and given the tools and ideas to explore on their own.
Obviously, some improvisation, or basic skill with arranging, is required in learning certain styles of music, particularly jazz. Since traditional jazz (not “smooth jazz”) is almost entirely improvised, apart from its preplanned structures, any student that wants to truly learn this style must learn improvisation. Of course, anybody can play written music in the style of jazz; but that is certainly not the same thing as really learning to play jazz. When students participate in their middle school or high school jazz ensembles, there is normally a certain amount of improvisation that they are expected to do (depending on who is directing the ensemble). Pianists, in particular, are often expected to be able to improvise (or at least work out ahead of time) their own chord voicings, along with improvising melodically. Of course, participation in jazz ensembles is solely the choice of students. But I am always eager to help students go as far as they need to go, or would like to go, to learn jazz improv, both inside and outside of school ensembles. The same is true for whatever pop/rock bands they may be involved with on their own, or whatever worship bands they may be involved with in church. Anyone that plays in any kind of popular style of music really should have at least some improvisational skills!
Then there is composition... As someone who has composed a significant amount of music, I can tell you that this is an extremely fun musical endeavor that should be experienced, at least a little bit, by everyone who studies music. And, like improvisation, it can always be enjoyed at any skill level. In fact, I normally have young beginning students make up their own pieces at the very first lesson (unless they do not want to do so), which can be considered either composing or improvising, depending on the results. Of course, composition is really just a finalization of the improvisation process that is done “out of time.” The great thing about it is that it allows an individual to take as much time as desired to really craft and complete her ideas. Of course, there are individuals that can improvise and compose brilliantly all in one process, although this takes a great deal of natural talent and training. Again, I would never force any student to compose music if she were not at all interested. However, I firmly believe that composition, just like any other creative endeavor, is an activity that is not to be missed!