Cultivating Creativity in the Trumpet Studio

 

I can remember the first time that I saw Bobby McFerrin; in particular, I recall a feeling of complete wonder juxtaposed with total terror driven by the fear that he would call me out.  He was in town for a show and had agreed to come to my undergraduate institution to do a talk/ master class.  Little did I know that this “talk” would turn out to be a singing jam session on the magnitude of which only Bobby McFerrin could create.  I was convinced that the very act of singing or playing in front of this improvisatory dynamo would end in my complete and utter personal embarrassment. Today, when I look back on the experience, I kick myself for not actively participating in that really special experience – I was too scared, too hampered by self-doubt, and didn’t have the “language” to communicate on that level.  Instead of singing and cooing along to McFerrin’s ethereal sounds, I was stuck in “oh crap” mode.

How could I have been better prepared to approach this situation? 

How might our students be better prepared to approach any aspect of our incredibly spontaneous craft?

 

My project for the last year has been the exploration of this topic and how it can be applied to create more dynamic music making in the trumpet studio.  Through what has been very enjoyable trial and error, I have created some fun ways to get students participating in the creative conversation.

 

First identify an étude, solo, or other piece of music that you think would evoke a strong emotion.  “A sad, old, and widowed turtle that laments the loss of his long-time partner.” This was one of myold-turtle-18743202 favorite responses that were elicited by the first phrase of the first étude in Phil Snedecor’s Lyrical Études for Trumpet.  The book works very well for this exercise, as it is full of fantastic phrases that are just dripping with music.  Once you have decided on your muse, you will then need to assign your students to various creative tasks.  You can accomplish this in a number of ways, but I find it works best if you can divide them into small teams consisting of 3-5 students each.  Once you have created your teams, assign one or two students from each of the groups to be in charge of thinking of one of three different categories: character, setting, and action.  I like to have the students in each group keep their answers secret from one another until the end – the results are remarkable!

 

Using Mr. Snedecor’s first étude as our guide, let’s look at this game in action.  Now that the students have assigned roles, I begin the activity by playing the first phrase.

lyrical copy

[1]

Surprisingly, I often encounter underwater imagery in addition to thoughts on loss and pain in the student responses to this first phrase.  After I play, I give the students time to reflect on what they have heard.  Every time I do this exercise, there is a huge amount of energy, arguments, and laughter – let it happen – you are not only nurturing team building, but also letting the students freely express themselves.  Upon review of the literature around cultivation of creativity, there is a huge repetition of the idea about creating a safe environment for creative activities. [2]  Your students should feel as though they can express themselves without fear of failing.

 

Without tipping your hand at your interpretation, ask the groups to write down their conclusions and then move to the next phrase. Continue this process for the remainder of the étude then have the students reveal their answers.  You will find an infinite variety of stories among the students, from the most silly and abstract to some very heartfelt narratives.  At the point that everyone has laughed themselves silly, I like to begin a conversation that revolves around the language of music.  For instance, what about the first phrase makes us think of sorrow or pain?  The assumptions that we make about music and the inherent imagery associated with certain sounds or affective gestures always makes for lively debate, and helps to develop a deeper understanding of the language we use to describe music.

 

Another game that I enjoy is directly influenced by the improvisatory genius of Bobby McFerrin.  As I mentioned earlier, as a young musician I was terrified of messing up or making a fool of myself.  I didn’t feel like I could fail, and I wasn’t prepared to openly create.  I have found that this exercise is especially good at allowing the students to experiment and “mess up” in a safe environment.

 

Begin by asking the students to sit with their instruments in a circle.  The improvisation will center on the pentatonic scale – so if the students play notes in that scale they literally cannot play a wrong note.  It may be helpful to review the pentatonic scale… for a fantastic demonstration of the power of the ever-ubiquitous pentatonic scale watch Bobby McFerrin in a lecture from, “Notes & Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus.”[3]

 

To begin,I like to create 4-5 ostinato patterns in 4/4 time – at first you will likely have to make the patterns up for your students, but as the confidence levels increase you will find that they will jump at the chance to create!  Once the ostinato is set, ask for volunteers or choose your first player.  I like to give the solo player 8-16 bars of 4/4 time over which to improvise.  It is my experience that the first few players are generally timid and the ideas tend to be vague – continue to encourage them by playing along and shaping their concepts.  I can’t stress enough the importance of nurturing at this point – create that safe environment and let them fail in order to grow!  Once the students have the hang of it, try encouraging them to create phrases through their improvisations.  This can be an excellent way to explore cadences, phrase shape, and musical narratives – perhaps tie in the narratives that the students conceived in the previous exercise. After each of the players has had a shot at both creating an ostinato and taking a solo, you should encourage collaborative improvisation.  Put two or three players in the solo “hot-seat,” and ask them to trade phrases.  Additionally, ask them to trade try and trade ideas back and forth with one another.  This is a great time to jump in and throw the students some curveballs by playing something with challenging leaps and hard to follow phrases.  You can make this as easy or as difficult as you see fit – track the student’s progress by recording them 3-4 times over the course of the semester.  The amount of growth both in confidence and fluency will be quite evident.

 

The joy of cultivating a creative environment is something that takes time – you have to build trust and nurture self-confidence.  Theses are just a couple of games you can play with your students to try and foster that creative spark.  If you have ideas on how to promote creativity in your studio then try them, the process is enriching and fun!  I know that if I have the opportunity to collaborate with a world-class artist like Bobby McFerrin in the future, I will have the self-confidence and the faith that even if I fail I will grow and evolve as a performing artist.  It is my hope that I can give my students that same feeling of confidence and freedom in their musical lives.

 

Creativity empowers us – get out there and cultivate creative learners!

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Phil Snedecor, Lyrical Études for Trumpet

[2] R. Keith Sawyer, “Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation,” Educational Researcher, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Mar., 2004): 12-20.

[3] Bobby McFerrin, “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus,” World Science Festival: June 12, 2009.

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