Looking for the Unexpected – Creativity and Innovation in Music Education

Looking for the Unexpected – Creativity and Innovation in Music Education – the 24th EAS (European Association of Music in Schools) conference 16-20 March 2016, Vilnius

Hugh Nankivell – BSO Associate

Four great days of debates, workshops, concerts, papers, dancing and much more. What have I come away with, and how do I respond to it?  Did any of us find the unexpected? I am not sure that I did, but did feel that I had some of my approaches confirmed and validated, and some of my prejudices amplified and ascertained at the same time as being confronted with new philosophies, different nationalities approaching the same dilemma in a different way and new ideas about how to think of the world. This balance of newness and comfort felt good to me.

There was quite an element of the conference on the importance of teaching as reciprocal. As music leaders we should both lead and follow and can learn from our students as we teach them. All three keynote speakers talked about the importance of music leaders as flexible and responsive beings. Pam Burnard spoke of the key to learning being a combination of enjoyment, autonomy and risk-taking, Gintautas Mazeikis quoted from Adorno on how ‘total organisation negates spontaneity’ and Magne Espeland related to us the importance of the teacher as an improvisor and not a bureaucrat. I was really glad in this context to be giving a BSO supported presentation about the value of an early years music class which moves from adult-led to child-led and then back again.

So did we listen to the voices of young people at the conference, or did we just hear them performing? There were many wonderful voices and groups of Lithuanian singers aged from about nine up to early twenties and they performed traditional, classical, jazz and original music at many concerts throughout the conference. While these performances were all gloriously tuneful, enjoyable and undeniably musical it was (mostly) hard to tell much about how or whether the young people had any creativity or control over decision-making.

There was also debate about what creativity (or creativities) now means. One Norwegian music educationalist explained to me how in the past creativity in music essentially meant composing, and while that was limited and exclusive, it was clear. If you composed you were being musically creative. Now it is claimed that creativity is be found in all musical activities and has therefore become meaningless.

However, we did have the opportunity to listen each morning to a short concert of original music by three teenage composers and, by both the old and the new definitions, we could say that we were witnessing creativity in music education. I was struck by something in all three concerts and my responses to these small moments, probably had most impact on me at the conference.

Each concert was at 8.40 in the morning and scheduled to last for ten minutes and then there were ten minutes for unpacking and questioning these nascent composers (and their fellow performers) about the music. The keynote speeches each day began at 9am, immmediately after the young people’s concerts.

Each day at 8.40 there were very few people in the concert hall – between ten and twenty, but by the keynote speech there were always well over a hundred in the room. So statistically it is clear that the young people’s voices were not being listened to compared to the adults. Also, this meant that as the students were taking questions on their work there was lots of noise as folks shuffled into the hall, often talking as they did so, apparently unaware that they were impinging on a concert and post-concert discussion, even though it was clearly stated in the programme. At each of the three events there were important moments and most of the adults present missed out on these potential revelations.

The first morning Simas Sakenis (aged 16) played one solo romantic piano piece and performed another more developed duet with a ‘cellist. Afterwards he was asked about what makes a good teacher. He gave a very revealing answer in perfect English. Simas explained that ‘the hardest part of being a teacher is to let the student do what he wants and at the same time to help to lead him. And if they can find that balance they will be doing their job.’ This felt a very mature response, and yet he said this in a hall that was not listening to him. We need to know when to follow and support when to lead and direct, and this was told to us from a young musician at the start of his career.

On the second morning Liucile Vilimaite played a solo harp piece and then a duet with a violinist. At the end she was asked about the first note in the duet piece, a long quiet bowed note on the violin. Her response was ‘yes I have been thinking about death recently’. The way in which she so confidently told us this was a useful reminder to me that all of us can respond to many different things in many different ways. As Magne Espeland told us (I think he expected us to already know about this acronym, and I certainly didn’t) about VUCA – the current climate that we live in and that we must (as teachers) be aware of. VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic and Ambiguous. He is right (and perhaps we have always lived in a VUCA world) and to attempt to wash away the difficulties is really damaging. We need to confront our problems and I thought that Liucile stating this so clearly was wonderfully assertive about her place in a society. Young people know what inspires and provokes them and must be supported in responding to those impulses, even when they are painful or difficult.

On the final morning there was another pianist, Beatrice Ganceviciute who played a solo piece and then had a quartet perform her composition based on a Lithuanian folk melody for violin, ‘cello, piano and voice. Their performance was really excellent, very together and beautifully played. After the concert and the brief Q and A, the Keynote speech was introduced with the words: ‘and so we begin the final morning with the keynote speech.’ No We Do Not! I wanted to shout – the final morning began with a concert twenty minutes ago at which very few people were listening to the voices of young people. How in a conference devoted to creativity and the unexpected could we so clearly put our hands over our ears and ignore  the creativity of young people.

Young people hold the secrets of the future of music (and indeed many other futures) and this is just one of many reasons why it is really important that we listen to them. There are many concerns that current education stifles creativity, and yet I think we can overcome this (and be optimistic – as we were encouraged to be on several occasions at the conference) if we retain our own curiosity in how things work, even if this means being subversive at times.

Thanks to Ruta Girdzijauskiene, the conference organiser for convening such a diverse event and, in particular, for praising all of us early birds at the 8.40 concerts as the ‘hardcore’ delegates. I don’t think we were – as what difference is there really in being in at 8.40am as opposed to 9am? I think we were the curious ones.

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One thought on “Looking for the Unexpected – Creativity and Innovation in Music Education

  1. Great report of the conference Hugh. I liked the emphasis on the concerts that started each day and I know that you will find a way to shout out that the day did not start with the Keynote speeches. It is incumbent on each of us to grow our own replacements and encourage them to develop. If not we sit back and watch our expertise disappear.
    🙂
    Jac

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