Kirchhoff, Benson, and our national music standards

Thank you to whomever recorded this fantastic lecture by Craig Kirchhoff that every ensemble educator should review. He cuts right to the heart of the matter regarding our ultimate charge, which is decidedly NOT to teach students to love an ensemble or activity, but to transcend that and love music. This should be our core value as ensemble educators. We have heard this expressed in various ways time and again from Battisti, Reynolds, Kirchhoff, Green, and others who are deeply concerned with our profession's priorities.

During the lecture I was particularly struck by this quote from composer Warren Benson about performing compositions:

"What infuses life to cold print is imagination, creativity, and beauty."

That is the finest summation I've heard regarding the meaningful endeavor of bringing composed music to musical fruition. Additionally, in an obvious-yet-insightful statement, Benson says that what a composer does makes no sound (nor what a conductor does, we could add). He says it is in the musical performance where "my understanding, and your understanding, meet." This is simply brilliant. The music's true meaning is incomplete until that intersection occurs between the composer's understanding and the performer's. 

Performers and composers are all in the creative process together. Merely playing the printed music "correctly" yet devoid of personal creative decision-making is insufficient for bringing compositions fully to life. Learning and performing music intertwines technical requirements and knowledge with a uniquely creative interpretive, interdependent process that, when done well, results in a meaningful experience for the performer, listener, and composer. As ensemble teachers, we empower our students to realize their vital role in this association. It is their creative musicianship, after all, that should be primary....not our own.

I wish the NCCAS music standards writing team had understood this before creating a framework that forcefully divides composition (and improvisation) into the creating role and performing as merely serving "intent." Really? It's as if the performer is the waiter who carries the food to the table, or a FedEx delivery person bringing the pre-packaged goods to your door. Benson understands that the performer is doing far more than that, and so should the NCCAS.

What performer's do is learn, create, then reveal their own understanding of the composition. Not the composer's intent, but the music itself as understood. That is what interpretation is. To do this requires imagination, creativity, and beauty. When we teach students to do this, they learn to love music, and that's the goal. And that is how our national standards for performing should be designed... around a recognition of what is really happening within the musical learning and performing cycle.

Thank you Craig, and thank you Warren.

Afterword: I continue to hear the commentary that somehow we "need to" segment the standards as Creating/Performing/Responding/Connecting so that composition will have its due, or because the format is easily understood and managed, or because "otherwise ensemble teachers will just rehearse." None of these justify manipulating the realities of music making. It makes no sense to ignore the creative capacities required in performance in order to bolster another form of music education, or to make a framework that is convenient to process. 

The bottom line is the existing framework may look nice on paper but it does not reflect the realities/complexities of making music. We are coming up short at the exact moment we need to be embracing the creative process in every form of music making. We need to do away with the false divisions. Musicians are interdependent because bringing music into the world is almost always an interdependent process. Think about that....then look at the way the standards are structured.

There is probably a more delicate way to say this, but the framework and standards being developed for ensembles are not consistent with the philosophy and approaches of educators who have taught students to experience deep, meaningful musicianship over many years. The standards read as though developed by those with cursory knowledge of ensemble education before moving on to "bigger and better" endeavors. If that was your experience I am sorry, but the truth is that there are many of us out here who are empowering students to be creative, expressive musicians who think deeply and critically about their music making.

NCCAS Music Standards Draft--Taking Pages From Ken Robinson And Our Other Arts Colleagues

Yo-Yo Ma - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008

I have been very concerned ever since the release of the K-8 draft for music, mainly due to the narrow definition of "creating" as composing or improvisation. As essential as those musical endeavors are (and they are essential), they are not the only ways of being musically creative. For example, making music through performance is absolutely a creative endeavor. We need a much more encompassing model of musical creativity. Much more. To quote the report from Ken Robinson's National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (emphasis mine):

"We therefore define creativity as imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value."

And this:

"Creativity can be expressed in collaborative and collective as well as individual activities, in teamwork and in organisations, in communities and in governments." 

And especially this:

"The creative processes of the arts centre on the shaping and refining of a work in which its aesthetic qualities are central to its meaning. The look, sound and feel of work in the arts is inseparable not only from what it means, but from how it means."

You can't listen to Yo-Yo Ma play a Bach cello suite and tell me he is not being creative, that he isn't creating something original and of value, or that he is not demonstrating how it means. The same is true for ensembles that undergo the learning, refining, and creation of a shared interpretation of a work...and its collaborative/interdependent nature adds another rich dimension. As we undergo the revision of our national standards for music, we must include the reality that performing (making!) music, alone and with others, is not simply an action, but an essential endeavor that requires and develops creativity.

Our colleagues on the theater side have an excellent grasp on this matter. The following are excerpts from their K-8 "Creating" draft (emphasis mine):

"Experiment with, research, and challenge collaboratively and independently, various perspectives and multiple solutions to problems through created roles, design elements, and improvised and/or scripted stories in drama- and theatre- based work."

"Communicate and differentiate artistic choices in new work, ideas, and perspectives made by self and others through problem- solving, taking risks, and experimenting with peers in devised, improvised and/or scripted drama- and theatre- based work."

Teaching young actors to experiment, make artistic choices, and work collaboratively in order to create a shared interpretation of existing ("scripted") works is clearly a creative process to the theater writers, and I would highly suggest we take a page from our colleagues in this regard. Their approach is actually much more reflective of what is going on in thousands of music rooms across the country than what is currently presented in our own K-8 draft. Clearly we need to teach a multitude of musical avenues in our education system (such as composition), but that does not mean we should downplay or ignore the creative process of bringing composers' works into the world for all to enjoy. Perhaps Roger Sessions said it best (emphasis mine):

"Here it is important only to envisage clearly that the differentiation of composer and performer represents already a second stage in the development of musical sophistication. The high degree of differentiation reached in the course of the development of music should not obscure the fact that in the last analysis composer and performer are not only collaborators in common experience but participants in an essentially single experience." 

Now consider this excerpt from the NCCAS Visual Arts draft:

Enduring Understanding: Creativity and innovative thinking are essential life skills that can be developed.

Essential Question(s): Can all people be artists? What conditions, attitudes and behaviors support creativity and innovative thinking? Does collaboration expand the creative process?

Do you notice how, rather than thinking about creating "something" (like say, a composition), they are thinking more broadly about creative thinking, the way creativity works in artistic collaboration, and ultimately how it is developed? That is what we need to be talking about in all forms of music making.

In short, the current draft of the music standards should give pause to anyone who teaches music-making in collaborative groups (which is just about every music teacher in the country, in one form or another). Performing, whether that be in rehearsal or public presentation, brings written music to life, and it does so uniquely for each performer, ensemble, and audience member. It becomes something new each time, something that completes the experience with the composer and the audience. How we can say that one act (composing or improvisation) is creative but not another (performing) is beyond comprehension. Performers are not merely worker bees carrying pollen from the flower, they are partners in the creation process, shaping and refining the work. Orchestras, wind ensembles, choirs, jazz ensembles, chamber groups...all of these require creativity in order to bring music to fruition (see the Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice). If we wish to address the age-old criticism that students need to be more involved in (and ultimately be the owners of) the music making process in these settings, then this is not the time to reduce performing to merely obeying the composer or teacher. Every meaningful musical endeavor involves creativity, so let's broaden our thinking on this important process.

Finally, a word about public dialogue. While I was encouraged by some of the answers provided by Scott Shuler in his letter to Tim Purdum, I was discouraged by some of his language that gives the impression that disagreeing with aspects of the draft is a matter of "misunderstandings, based on incomplete information, that tend to inflame the blogosphere." The K-8 draft clearly reveals the philosophy and overall approach of the writing team, and that approach defines creating in a way that is too narrow and confined. Questioning that approach will result in an overall stronger set of standards, if the writers are willing to embrace the public dialogue that is currently underway. Being open to new ideas and refining existing ones is an essential component of being creative, so let's hold true to that as we hone our standards.