Inside and outside ‘The Square’

A number of interesting scenarios have come up in discussions recently:

In one undergraduate class at Melbourne University, a group was asked to create a piece in response to an abstract painting by Russian artist Stepanova. It consisted of very free, dynamic spirals of paint, and words in Russian scattered across the canvas. Their piece included some dramatic and evocative ‘spirals’ of different percussion colour, underpinned by piano playing very straight, arpeggio-driven, tonal piano chords (essentially a I-IV-V-I pattern). When I questioned the choice and musical role of the piano, one of the group turned to me in mock exasperation. “Let’s face it G,” she said, “She’s the only one of us with any musical skills!” The rest of the group all nodded in agreement, and I was dismayed.

In a postgraduate class, a group was composing a piece depicting sea people having a wild, joyous party under the light of a full moon, on a beach. One of the group, while trying out some ideas on the xylophone, found she could play part of a theme of music from a party scene in the Disney film ‘The Little Mermaid’. She played this one phrase as her part in a group composition with many layers, and it had a lot of energy and infectious drive.

In a professional development session for music teachers, designed to build their confidence in using creative and compostional approaches in music with their students (rather than only note-learning, and pre-existing ensemble charts), one group of secondary teachers was asked to create music depicting ‘an island’. The project brief required them to imagine this island and its characteristics, and create music to depict this. The group’s first decision was that, if it were to be ‘island music’ then it would ‘obviously need to have a Calypso rhythm’. They never created an image of the island itself, but put together a piece of Calypso-style music with the percussion instruments they had.

In a composition project for young musicians working alongside professional musicians, we are focusing on the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Themes from the Leningrad Symphony have been written out and given to the young players to learn. Others are being taught aurally. At the same time, the young players are exploring some of the compositional techniques used by Shostakovich, and applying them to their own compositions. In the final outcome, the Shostakovich quotes will be embedded within the children’s original composition work.

For me, each of the above raised questions about when and why we use pre-existing musical material (or, extending from this, music frameworks with which we are comfortable and familiar) in creative music contexts. It suggests insights about individuals’ comfort zones and their willingness to think outside the square (or conversely, to stay firmly within it).

In the first scenario, part of my dismay was the incongruous inclusion of the piano. It simply (to me) didn’t make sense in the piece. It stuck out like a sore thumb. As I challenged the group, they began to justify it vehemently, with an underlying narrative that they had developed in their interpretation of the image. As they defended their choice, their performance work also changed… it was refined as they began to articulate the reasons for their choices. At the end of the session, their use of piano jarred less than it had at the beginning.

However, I was also dismayed by the group’s suggestion that the pianist, in having the knowledge of nice tonal chords and how to play them, was considered by the rest of the group as possessing more valid, useful, authentic musical skills, which implicitly placed the rest of their contributions in the ‘unskilled’ or ‘unmusical’ basket. I was alarmed to think their musical choices and layers were being undermined (by the performers, not by the pianist herself). I found these more abstract contributions more musically appropriate and sensitive, and a more authentic response to the painting, which they had been asked to ‘read’ as a graphic score.

I spoke with a colleague about this situation. “Oh, I ban the piano!” she told me. “Or at least, I tell them that they can only use the piano if they do something that is highly innovative and original with it. And I suggest that someone who doesn’t ‘know’ how to play it, be the one who plays it. Because otherwise yes, there is always a danger of Alberti basses and chord progressions straight out of Keyboard Harmony 101.”

In the second scenario, I challenged the group and their choice of this familiar music. Was it, I suggested, an attempt to get smiles of recognition, or even amusement, from the audience, at the cultural reference? Was its use slightly ironic, and did this detract from the dramatic atmosphere they were trying to create? Was there perhaps a way to ‘disguise’ this familiar tune, perhaps by changing some of the notes, or its melodic contour, so that it becomes orignal material? The group resisted me. They felt that the fact that the girl playing it hadn’t known that she knew how to play this melody prior to the project (it had emerged while she was generally experimenting on the instrument). They liked the feel of the tune – it suited the vibe of the party atmosphere they were trying to create. It was only one small fragment of a much longer tune. Its cultural familiarity positioned the music as being to do with the sea. I, their teacher, hadn’t known the tune anyway. It was someone else who had pointed out that it wasn’t original material. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known. And at the end of the class, when the group performed, the piece they had composed was a very strong evocative response to the section of the story they were telling. I felt I needed to adjust my rules about use of pre-existing material.

In the third scenario, even though the group of teachers created an original piece of music, it was highly derivative, in a style that was familiar and comfortable to them, and I felt it defeated the purpose of the task which was to create something new. Implicit within this professional development day was the encouragement to step out of comfort zones, to be a creative risk-taker, in order to expand horizons and explore new vocabulary.

A colleague said to me today, “Cognitive learning and development only takes place when the activity is outside of a comfort zone, ie. outside of what a person can already do comfortably.” She was quoting from somewhere, and is going to send me the reference, however, it is similar to Vygotsky’s theories of socialcultural development and learning, in which learning that takes place within the zone of things a child can already on his/her own is of limited value. Learning which takes place within the child’s Zone of Proximal Development, in which challenges and tasks are completed with the guidance of a More Knowledgable Other (not necessarily an adult or teacher – can be a peer) is where actual learning, development and progression takes place.

Therefore, as teachers, we need to constantly be asking students to step out of their comfort zones, if we are to be doing our jobs effectively. This in turn means that we too need to constantly push ourselves.

The fourth scenario describes a typical project that I might lead with the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble children. These projects always take a particular composers’ work as a compositional starting point. The intention with the use of direct quotes is to give the children possible listening pathways and signposts within the music, to assist them when they hear the work in performance, as the works we take as starting points are usually large and complex in scale. Here, the use of quotes and other pre-existing material has a strong educational basis and intention. The music is nearly always well outside the familiar and comfortable zones for the children – it always stretches them in some way.

The first two scenarios both came up in classes I taught just last week, and they got me thinking about how I view the use of pre-existing material in creative work. I do think there is a place- an important place – for pre-existing music to be learned and performed in music education, of course there is. But in the context of a creative music project, the desire to imitate, or play only that which is already familiar, needs to be managed carefully. As was implied in the first scenario, there is a real risk of other contributions being indirectly undermined or rendered invalid, by the dominance of known material. And even when the actual notes being played have been invented by the group, comfort zones can still dominate (as a way of controlling outcomes and keeping things safe and predictable) as we see in the third scenario.

However, there is a place for quotes and pre-existing chunks of material in creative music-making. Its inclusion can be highly effective; however, I do think it is worth challenging students to think about why they have made this choice, and in the process of building the argument, their performance may indeed begin to subtly change.

What are your thoughts? What rules do you have (either implicit or explicit) about the use of pre-existing material in your classes? Who or what controls its use? How does it help or hinder your teaching work? I am still nutting this one out, so I’d love your feedback.


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