Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Finding A Creative State of Mind

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Last month I wrapped up my first year of chairing the inaugural Creative Pianist Track at NCKP 2015, the National Conference of Keyboard Pedagogy under the auspices of The Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

It was an honor to work alongside master improvisation teachers Bradley Sowash and Forrest Kinney and the patriarch of piano pedagogy, Dr. Samuel Holland. Their wisdom and insight continually influence my philosophy and approach to teaching.

The session that I presented on Friday afternoon was entitled “Finding Time to be Creative.”  My presentation offered ideas on how to find TIME to BE CREATIVE, but ultimately it morphed into the importance of FINDING a CREATIVE STATE of MIND.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’m wondering if you are like me and are enjoying a renewed sense of purpose beyond the page? Do you find yourself encouraging students to play by ear, read lead sheets, improvise arrangements and compose their own pieces? If not, are you at least wondering if you should include more of these activities in your lessons? Personally, I’ve never felt so strongly as I have right now about equating eye skills and ear skills. I believe this combination will encourage the development of well-balanced and lifelong musicians. Many of my new friends made at NCKP seem to feel the same way.

How does one dive into or at least consider this mind shift away from the traditional, classics-only, read-only method? I believe:

  • It begins with how you teach quarter notes and any other concept.
  • It continues with your willingness to offer a mix of styles and a range of activities on and off the bench to stimulate the eyes and the ears.
  • It flourishes when you discover your own abilities to play traditional repertoire as well as arrange today’s pop hits, yesterday’s jazz standards or write your own compositions.
  • It culminates when your students graduate from your studio as confident musicians who can play expressively from the grand staff as well as improvise from a lead sheet.

Extra time does not have to be set aside for creative activities, with a creative state of mind, every minute of a lesson is tinged with creativity. Although there are not scientific studies to back my theory, I believe that a teacher’s immersion into a creative approach on and off the page will rub off on students’ musical imaginations. Their excitement for and competency in improvisation, composition, and personal interpretation will be a natural by product.

If my personal opinion doesn’t hold enough weight, read on. Listen to the wisdom of three highly respected and wise perspectives that firmly support a shift off the page and embrace a creative state of mind or boost the one you’re already in.

#1 Sir Ken Robinson


Even if you’ve listened to his tremendously popular TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson called “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” listen again and substitute “studio” and “music lessons” and  “music education” when Robinson uses words like “schools” and “classrooms” and “education.”

Note: Interested in listening, collecting and downloading your favorite TED talks? Follow this link to learn how you can access TED talks and listen any time.

#2 Dr. Edwin Gordon


Dr. Scott Price read the speech as the screen held a picture of Dr. Gordon.

Sadly, Dr. Gordon was too ill to deliver his NCKP 2015 keynote address in person. Follow this link to read his powerful speech entitled “Beyond the Keyboard” focusing on the five music skill vocabularies: listening, singing, audiating/improvising, reading and writing.

Some favorite quotes:

“Unfortunately, in typical instruction, listening is disregarded. Detrimental results are similar in music as in language when importance of listening is overlooked.”

“It is ironic that improvisation is called faking by some uninformed persons. Actually, it is the reader who cannot audiate or improvise who is the real faker.”

#3 Gerald Klickstein


In his book, “The Musician’s Way,” Gerald Klickstein makes a list of  how NOT to be creative on page 112.

“To achieve your musical potential, you have to commit to the creative process, take risks, and follow your heart. To gain a deeper understanding of something, it often helps to consider its opposite. So, in the interest of helping you boost your creativity, here’s a list of ways to squash it. Enjoy!

  • Quit when things don’t immediately work out.
    It takes persistent work to flesh out ideas and solve creative problems. If you throw up your hands at the first hint of difficulty, you can kiss your creative promise goodbye.
  • Avoid feedback.
    Feedback offsets your blind spots. By not seeking it out, especially during your developmental years, you ensure mediocrity.
  • Shun doing research.
    Assume that you possess sweeping knowledge, never study the work of others, and don’t ever question your thought processes.
  • Expect all of your ideas to be brilliant.
    To generate good ideas, you have to churn out lots of not-so-good ones too. By insisting on nothing but brilliance from yourself, you dial your self-critic up to 10 and stick a cork in the first stage of the creative process.
  • Evaluate your work from a single perspective.
    Writing a song? Only consider the rhythmic groove and don’t get all concerned about the words, melody, or harmony. Better yet, don’t evaluate or revise it at all – accept that your initial outpouring is a true expression of your genius.
  • Ignore experts.
    Given that expert coaching fuels creative excellence, steer clear of taking lessons or otherwise tapping the wisdom of leaders in your field.
  • Never collaborate.
    Two or more minds are far more powerful than one. And as collaborators’ ideas cross-pollenate, they multiply in creative power. By isolating yourself, you help keep your thinking on a narrow track.
  • Take criticism personally.
    When you hear criticism, treat it as a personal attack. Promptly dismiss it, and then hurl some invective in response.
  • Procrastinate.
    Creative people work. If you feel a creative urge bubbling up, instead of acting on it, veg in front of the TV or give in to Twitter addiction.
  • Don’t look after yourself.
    On the occasions when you actually do sit down to create, pound away relentlessly, ignore your health, and run yourself into the ground. That way, if you managed to produce anything meaningful, it won’t be happening again anytime soon.”

Feeling like you need a support group to get you up an running with creativity? Consider The Colorado Composers Project. It’s for teachers and their students and not just for those that live in Colorado. Follow this link to learn more.


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