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a u s t r a l i a n

s o c i e t y

f o r m u s i c

Creativity in instrumental learning e

e d u c a t i o n

i n c o r p o r a t e d

and teaching: Missing in action!

Ros McMillan

The University of Melbourne

Creative activities are an integral part of music education, their place firmly established in Australia with their inclusion
in the curriculum documents of all States and Territories. In much instrumental teaching, however, they are non-existent
because many teachers regard the learning of notation as paramount, requiring 100% of both the lesson time and
their students’ practice time. As a result, activities that engage students’ ears, particularly those that require a personal
contribution, are relegated to the bottom of the list of desirable musical skills, if they are considered desirable at all. This
article presents views on creativity in music education and its value in instrumental tuition.

Key words: Creative music making, improvisation, instrumental music.

Victorian Journal of Music Education 2009:1, 9-12

In the history of music education, creative activities importance to performing and listening did not
have been an aspect of school programs only occur until the 1994 publication of A statement on
relatively recently. In Australia, singing, percussion the arts for Australian schools and its companion The
bands and recorder formed the basis of most arts – a curriculum profile for Australian schools.
primary classroom programs well into the 1960s, Today, many school students compose,
with the addition of music appreciation at the improvise or arrange music in some form, although
secondary level. Graham Bartle, in his landmark this occurs almost always in classroom programs. By
survey of Australian schools in 1968, wrote that 44% contrast, far fewer instrumental students participate
of secondary schools were practising some form of in any type of creative activity. That this is so is
creative music, mostly rhythmic improvisation with contrary to the curriculum requirements of most
percussion instruments, although he noted that Australian States and Territories and, considering
only 19% of primary and infant schools attempted the number of students who learn an instrument,
creative work. In reality, it was not until the mid- should be regarded as scandalous. How this
1980s that there was a widespread commitment situation has developed will be discussed firstly,
to creative activity in school music. In a review followed by suggestions as to why creative activities
of teaching practice published in 1987 in the should be an aspect of instrumental studies and
Australian Journal of Music Education, writers from how this can occur.
every State and Territory stated that the creation
of music was seen as an important aspect of the
Where are the teachers?
curriculum. However, the first attempt to ensure
It can be argued that the main reason why
that all Australian students experienced a musical
there is so little creative work in instrumental
education where creativity was regarded of equal

Victorian Journal of Music Education 9


learning and teaching is due to the musical training courses, largely the domain of the former teachers’
of teachers. Australian tertiary music courses colleges, have virtually been annulled. Degree
where classical music is the basis allow for little courses such as those offered by the Melbourne
improvisation except for rare Early Music courses College of Advanced Education (MCAE) until its
where improvising on a figured bass reflects the amalgamation with The University of Melbourne in
importance with which this activity was regarded the late 1980s trained music, drama and visual arts
centuries ago. In tertiary courses where jazz or teachers, with music students undertaking teaching
popular music are major studies, improvisation practice at the same time as they studied subjects
will certainly occur although the extent of the such as improvisation workshop, second instrument
creativity will depend on the style of music studied. and group performance skills. Primary teacher
In many jazz courses, the authentic re-creation of trainees undertook teaching practice in schools
the sounds of long-dead American jazz artists is in all three years of their course while secondary
regarded as essential while the concept of unique trainees had school placements in each of Years 2,
sounds of creativity, in the form of developing a 3 and 4. Arts education students could study music
personal ‘voice’, is almost non-existent. A significant in any genre, a dozen different visual arts methods
exception is the Improvisation Studies course at and various styles of drama, often combining more
the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the VCA than one art form in their degree while concurrently
and Music with its emphasis on creating music that taking education subjects.
reflects Australian culture in the 21st century. The amalgamations of the teachers’ colleges
However, no matter which course of study with universities, widespread throughout Australia,
has been undertaken, two things are certain. were described as ‘reforms’ when instituted by the
Firstly, through their studies music graduates then federal education minister, John Dawkins.
will have learned that high technical skill on an Others regard them as nothing short of a calamity,
instrument is considered the ultimate goal of a with arts education suffering particularly. A
musician. Secondly, a large majority of graduates revered figure in drama education in Australia,
will become music teachers, whether they like it John Deverall (2005), described the closure of the
or not. The combination of these two certainties is MCAE as “the greatest setback for arts education
that high technical skills become the goal for most in Australia”. Thus, with no links between musical
instrumental teachers. When this is added to the knowledge, creativity and teaching practice, new
common belief that one cannot create before one music teachers can have little idea as to how to
has learned to play an instrument, improvisation encourage their students to be creative when their
is relegated to the bottom of the list of skills own training has occluded such activity.
considered important in learning.
The separation of musical from educational
Why be creative?
studies is another factor contributing to the
That teachers should embrace creativity
narrowness of much instrumental teaching. If music
is not a new concept. Ronald B. Thomas, who
graduates wish to teach, they are usually required
developed the Manhattanville Music Curriculum
to gain a teaching qualification, although there
Project where creativity is central, has described
are still an extraordinary number of instrumental
the value of improvisation as one that taxes
teachers without any such qualification. But
an array of important cognitive skills including
even here there is a problem. With most teacher
deductive, inductive and intuitive musical thought
pathways consisting of a three or four year music
(1991, p. 28). Patricia Shehan Campbell, a leading
degree followed by a one or two year teaching
American educator, has written that the ability to
qualification, the great strengths of concurrent
improvise signifies the mastery of performance

10 2009, No. 1
Creativity in learning and teaching

skills, aural skills and an understanding of musical to improvise without needing an advanced
style (1991, p. 23). On a different personal level, the technique or even an ability to read music. Graphic
late Australian composer Don Banks wrote that notation, unconventional sounds and words
improvisation was his “salvation … a way back to in rhythmic sentences (I dare to use the word
music”, after finding little satisfaction in performing ‘rapping’!) provide a variety of ways for students
other composers’ piano works (1975, p. 5). to invent their own sounds and develop musical
Even when teachers have a desire to include technique at the same time.
creative activities in their students’ learning, there As important as any musical element is that of
is remarkably little in the way of teaching material expression. Beginning instrumentalists need to be
to help them achieve this. An obvious way is to aware of this as much as advanced performers, in
begin with the elements of music, something that fact, a brilliant technique is wasted if the playing
most instrumental tutors appear to avoid. If one lacks expression. The notion of ‘feeling’ is one that
examines the most popular tutors for clarinet, young instrumentalists will understand. Asking
for example, it is immediately apparent that an students to play with an angry, sad or happy
understanding of notation dominates the learning sound requires them to consider many musical
of beginning clarinettists. Each page reveals new elements, such as tone, dynamics and variations in
notes to learn and how to read their time values. tempo such as rubato. Percy Grainger, the iconic
Photographs are used to show students how the Australian composer, was insistent on his works
clarinet should be held but any use of terms such as being played with maximum expression and some
tone, timbre or texture are almost non-existent. This of the descriptions he used provide a delightful
is curious as musical elements are the foundation alternative to conventional Italian terms. Rather
of music and to ignore them at the outset of than ‘accelerando’ Grainger wrote “quicken bit by
instrumental learning seems incomprehensible. The bit” on his scores, while at other times performers
insistence that reading notation forms the basis of are instructed to play “bumpingly”, “easy-goingly”
musical learning is at odds with the concept that and “fiercely”. In one of his best-known songs, The
music is an on-going language, one that needs Lost Lady Found, Grainger instructs the singer to
renewal if it is not to become part of a ‘museum “begin primly and neatly and bit by bit rouse up to a
culture’ of artistic expression. great and rowdy to-do”. Asking students to perform
A simple way of helping students to explore in some of these ways should make them realise the
the world of sound is by letting them choose one importance of expression not only in their creative
or two notes and playing them loudly or softly work but in the notated works they play.
or in-between (dynamics), as long or short notes Any musical activity that requires performers
(duration) or fast, slow and variations of these to use their ears can only enhance musical
(tempo). As an understanding of creating sound understanding. In a 1993 study of Australian
becomes the norm, the elements of pitch, rhythm, adults, Gary McPherson found a link between
tone, articulation and phrasing can be gradually participation in and enjoyment of music-making
introduced. A simple way to introduce the concept at adulthood with playing ‘by ear’ and improvising
of form is to ask students to play a set of notes (a as school students. The subjects of his research
phrase), play these again but louder, slower or more were 728 adults between the ages of 20 and 30
brightly (employing dynamics, tempo and tone) who had learned an instrument for at least three
then repeat the first phrase in a similar way. Ternary years while at school. Of the proportion who had
form was never experienced more simply yet it is learned to play ‘by ear’ only 32% had not continued
something that students are likely to remember. playing, whereas, within the group of those who
There are dozens of ideas that will help performers had not learned to play aurally, the percentage

Victorian Journal of Music Education 11


who had discontinued was 68%. In investigating References

the retention rates of those who had learned to Banks, D. (1975). The musician at work. In W. R. Lett (Ed.) The
improvise it was found that only 22% of these had Creative Artist. Sydney: McGraw Hill.
stopped playing, whereas 74% of the group who Bartle, G. (1968). Music in Australian Schools. Hawthorn,
had not learned to improvise had discontinued. As Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research.
a result of his research McPherson suggested that Brown, B. in McMillan, R. (1996). A Terrible Honesty:
there may be an important connection between the Development of a Personal Voice in Musical
the learning of visual, aural and creative skills and Improvisation, unpublished PhD dissertation, The
a continued participation in music after leaving University of Melbourne.

school. Campbell, P. S. (1991). Unveiling the mysteries of musical

spontaneity, Music Educator’s Journal, 77, (4), 21-24.
Learning to improvise is likely to enhance
Curriculum Corporation. (1994). A statement on the arts
students’ technique but also provide exciting
for Australian schools. Carlton, Victoria: Curriculum
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Brian Brown, has described improvisation as
Curriculum Corporation. (1994). The arts – a curriculum
“frightening and exhilarating at the same time profile for Australian schools. Carlton, Victoria: Curriculum
because every performance involves you in Corporation.
the unknown” (1996, p. 6). Another Australian Deverall, J. (2005). Personal communication.
improvising musician, the late Jeff Pressing, McPherson, G. E. (1993). Factors and abilities influencing
believed that the importance of improvisation is the development of visual, aural and creative
found in its “magical and self-liberating qualities” performance skills in music and their educational
(1984, p. 345), qualities that all instrumental implications, unpublished PhD dissertation, University
teachers would surely wish their students to of Sydney.
experience. For all these reasons, it is to be hoped Pressing, J. (1984). Cognitive processes in improvisation. In
that teachers can appreciate that improvisation W. R. Crozier & A. J. Chapman (Eds) Cognitive Processes in
the Perception of Art. North Holland, Amsterdam: Elsevier
should be an aspect of every student’s musical
Science Publishers.
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Dr Ros McMillan has been teaching and researching music education for almost 50 years, including 20
years at The University of Melbourne where she was a Senior Lecturer then Head of Music Education (now
Senior Fellow) and 13 years as Director of Music at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne. Over the
last decade she has written five music workbooks for teachers and students for use in the classroom.
Her latest book, to be published by Reed Music early in 2010, is an improvisation guide for instrumental
students. Ros is a keyboard player and member of the Brian Brown Trio.

12 2009, No. 1
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