Can You Teach Creativity?

Can You Teach Creativity?


Is it true that some people just weren't born to play an instrument? That, beyond just learning the techniques, they lack the creative spirit necessary to make good music? These are questions I constantly grappled with as a teacher. Like many instructors, I had my share of students who started off rough but were able to progress through continued practice. Every so often, though, I'd encounter a student who just couldn't seem to get it together. Were they not practicing enough, or could it have been that no amount of effort—on my part or theirs—would turn them into a competent musician?


Many of my colleagues believed the former. "Those students just aren't applying themselves," I'd often hear. Other teachers would tell me tales of similar "problem students," concluding that they were lazy and shrugging off the hard work needed to learn how to play well. At first, it made sense to me: apply yourself and you'll get better, fail to do so and you'll stagnate. 


The more I taught, though, I noticed I had a few students who would shamelessly admit to not practicing a lick, but could still ace every exercise I gave them and come up with new material on the spot. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I had my share of students who would swear up and down that they were putting in the time, but still couldn't comprehend what I was telling them past a few weeks of lessons. In between were those who could understand the material on a technical level, but just couldn't put it into practice or be creative while they were trying to play. Was the difference really a matter of practice, or was something else going on, I wondered.


I started reading about the nature of creativity, and, after stumbling across an article on Psychology Today, found an interesting tidbit that might point the way to the answer:


"We believe that the foundational tools for imaginative and creative thinking can be exercised in classroom teaching. We believe that certain habits, behaviors and strategies associated with the creative process can be modeled in classroom learning.  We believe that classroom curricula can promote and sustain nurturing environments for creativity. But we don't believe that creativity itself can be taught. Not directly."


I had never thought about it that way, but the words seemed to fit. Just because I could teach someone how to strum a bass or what the notes on a piano were didn't mean that suddenly my students would have the creative ability to show out during a jam session. Similarly, if I were to show them a few licks then ask them to come up with one of their own, the best that some students would be able to do is emulate—not innovate. 


Admittedly, it wasn't precisely the answer I expected, but it did provide me with new insight and allow me to adapt my approach. Instead of trying to teach creativity to my students, I found that challenging them to be creative—orchestrating scenarios where they could discover whether they had their own creative spark—yielded much better results.  Mind you, it wasn't successful 100% of the time. Every once in a while, as a music instructor, all you can do is give your students the tools they need and hope for the best.


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