Openness by Design

I was recently invited to present a session at the Northern California Orff Chapter in the Bay Area and asked to contribute a blog post that would foreshadow some of the ideas presented in the session. Here is that post:

Any curriculum guided by the philosophical principles of Orff Schul1010963_283951575081896_1045654926_nwerk will include a number of creative music projects for students. These projects will likely have guidelines that provide focus and structure to students’ creative efforts. Depending on the nature of the project and number of restrictions, the project will be more or less “open” (i.e., free).

On one extreme, we have the most open projects.

Example 1: compose a piece of music.

On the other end of the continuum are more closed projects:

Example 2: compose an 8-beat piece in 4/4, using B on your recorder, using quarter and eighth notes only.

Both of these creative tasks are bound by time, space, and equipment, as well as student skill, knowledge, and cultural perspective; yet, they differ drastically in their degree of openness. Just about any creative project we design for the music classroom can be placed somewhere on a continuum of openness. This continuum focuses on the number of limitations of a given task; it does not imply a value. In other words, one end is not inherently better than the other. The more open a task, the more choices students have, which could lead to greater motivation to work, originality, and divergence. Yet tasks that are too open can overwhelm even a musical genius. Take Igor Stravinsky, who, in his Poetics of Music, wrote:

“I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me. If everything is permissible…if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile” – Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, p. 63

Abril Classroom 12

If this is the case for a creative genius imagine what it is like for the rest of us mere mortals! Structure, limitations, boundaries, and guidelines, all of which make a task more closed, can be very helpful to children. The more closed a creative task, the safer students might feel because there are fewer choices to make and a greater chance of meeting the expectations. Furthermore, students may feel greater comfort in knowing what to do or how to earn a high mark. Yet creative tasks that are too closed may do little to develop creativity. They may serve to build skills on a recorder fingering or to reinforce rhythmic notation (example 2 above). I only provided two extreme examples to make a point. In reality, creative music projects are often somewhere in between these two ends.

Mindfully crafting a plan for creativity in a multi-year curriculum is imperative to developing students’ creativity in music. How would the nature of the creative projects we design change if the ultimate aim in our curriculum were musical creativity and self-expression? What if we are driven by the lofty goal articulated by Carl Orff, to “let the children be their own composers”? My hope is that the workshop will invite participants to think  about the ways they can vary projects to further students’ creativity.