free and creative from the beginning

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A teacher is always continuing to learn, and must always be open to new ideas and challenges. Learning is a lifelong process of continuous evolving and tweaking how we do things.

I once heard in a class that one of the more important sentences for a teacher is, “I used to think ___ but now I think___”

This post is about one such journey I have been on recently. For me, improvisation came relatively late in my musical development. I had already spent many years learning a mostly classical curriculum before I was ever made aware of the possibility of playing in another style or creating music for myself.

This is a pretty common way of doing it – because improvisation (being both composer and performer simultaneously) is so complex, it usually involves a lot hard preparation, a lot of foundation learning technique and music theory.

This is not to discount the hard work involved in being a truly great improviser, but I am now starting to question the position that the cultivation of your own creative voice is something that needs to be “earned” only after years of making music in a more “traditional” way.

I now feel, and am starting to explore, ways in which students can create their own music from the beginning. Developing your own voice can be something you can and should do now – even before you get a perfect bow hold or can confidently play a B-flat Phrygian scale. Music theory is important, and adjusting our technique to be appropriate to the subtle nuances of a genre of choice is important. However, the skill of playing creativity should be developed before and independently of the other elements of good, holistic musicianship.

Improvisation and creativity is a skill, and needs to be frequently practiced and developed over time. Furthermore, showing someone how to make a technique “their own” or approach it in a playful way can bring a more fun attitude to the practice room, and motivate someone to keep working at it.

Children especially are usually very free at exploring and creating music freely, without any judgments of right or wrong. Instead of trying to suppress this natural ability and get them to play “the right way,” wouldn’t it be better to expose them to techniques and songs as a way of channeling and strengthening the beauty they already have inside?

Here are a few ideas I’ve gotten lately that can help to make creativity a part of continuing musical development, rather then simply a reward for “perfecting” what’s already there (inspired by amazing educators I met at the American String Teacher’s Association conference last month)

1) Start (but don’t end) with random, rule-less noise making. Often, simply telling someone the most effective or comfortable way to hold the instrument or bow and expecting them to parrot me isn’t the most effective way of building good habits. Many of my students ask ‘Why’? – Why should I worry about where my fingers land on the string, or why can’t I just grab the bow in a fist? Often, it seems like the best response to these questions is, “Let’s try it and see.” Within limits set to avoid breaking the instrument, I encourage students to explore all the different ways they can try to make sound on a violin. Then, when I actually teach how to create music, they’ve likely already figured many things out for themselves.

2) Remember that any musical element can be used to create a song. A single tone can become a song with one rhythm. A student who can only play two notes can create an infinite number of two note songs.

In fact, voluntarily choosing to limit your options can wildly expand your creativity, as choosing only specific pitches, rhythms or techniques will force you to think deeper about creating something truly new out of those elements. Amy Marr, a string teacher for public schools in Tecumseh, Michigan, presents her budding improvisers with what she calls a “menu,” off of which a musician is free to “order” and choose in the moment. They provide a limited number of choices, but within those choices is freedom.

The purpose of improving our playing ability is to expand the “menu” as more competent playing opens up more and more possibilities.

For those of us who have been trained in un-creativity or scared into doing things “the right way,” or for whatever reason uncomfortable with playing freely – Christian Howes has developed “The Icebreaker” – a really helpful exercise to get you unstuck and unleashing your inner voice. It begins by sticking to a very limited menu – and then slowly taking rules away:

1) play a single, simple note – one tempo, continuous 8th notes. Be as creative as possible with a set note and a set rhythm. (You’d be surprised – how many different ways can you create a note on your instrument?)

2) Add different octaves to that note. So if you played a ‘A’ – now play with all the As.

3) Add just one other note.

4) Play with the notes from an entire scale.

5) Throw in chromatics – so any note becomes ok.

6) Add rests, but otherwise keep playing eighth notes

7) Change the rhythm at your pleasure – and now you’re improvising freely!

Again, freedom in music really means learning to make choices, so I can make it easy to pick choices by limiting what’s available, at first. Then slowly, those rules can be bent, and we can grow in creative development. And there’s no reason to wait another day to start developing your own creative voice.

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Interested in violin lessons in the Los Angeles area?  Contact me at foxieviolin@gmail.com for more information!

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