There is no question that creativity is a vital skill for the 21st century. But at the same time, thanks to the increasing obsession with standardized testing and other high levels of quantifiable achievement, creative subjects like art and music are taking a back seat in many schools. Fewer and fewer students have access to classes where they can develop their creativity and artistic thinking. So as music educators, there is a lot of weight on our shoulders to guide our students to find their inner artists.

Let’s have a look at three easy steps to develop creativity with our students.

Even if you love monochromatic art, you need to know about the variety of colors that you could choose from. Expose your students to the widest variety of musical styles, timbres, and creations possible. Play them Baroque, rap, gamelan, rondalla, madrigal, punk, and J-pop. Play bebop, kuduro, blues, reggae, Carnatic music, and metal. Unpack different kinds of experimental music. Give your students the opportunity to hear the many amazing ways people have made and manipulated sound so that your students can make the most informed choices about how they will do it.

Especially when the music is new to you, take the time to vet it. Listen to different examples, learn about them, and choose only the highest quality pieces to share with your students. Be as careful and critical with your choices as you are with the music you know and love.

You are going to spend a lot of your time here, helping your students develop skills. Start with fundamentals: beat and meter, audiation, pitch matching / pitch discrimination, singing in tune. Work on rhythm, ostinatos, playing instruments, finding their singing voices. As they get more advanced, you might work on notation and sight-singing, ear training, tonality, phrasing, harmony… Help your students to develop deep understandings of musical concepts. Again, work in different contexts, different meters, different modes, etc.

As students develop their skills, practice them by applying them in authentic contexts. Students who have been learning about steady beat can create body percussion. Students learning about how the elements of music create a mood can interpret music through art, movement or poetry. Or they can create music *from* art, movement, environmental sounds or poetry! Students who are working on phrase or structure can improvise musical “answers” to “questions” that you sing or play. Earlier in their learning process, you can give them clear parameters, and as they develop more skill, independence, and creativity, you can open things up more. Encourage students to use their unique perspectives and preferences. Challenge their thinking, and allow them to challenge your thinking.

Throughout all of this, we need to be sure we are creating an environment that is conducive to exploration–one where students can work together and make mistakes, where there are many possible outcomes. Give them time and space to reflect, to play, and to feed back to one another. Encourage them to ask questions and challenge one another. And of course, model creative thinking and reflection as regular parts of your daily practice.

As you help your students continually deepen their understanding of the languages of music, first through structured inquiry, you can move gradually to have less structure and less guidance.

Creativity isn’t making something that is completely new. We combine and manipulate existing ingredients using the skills, techniques, and understandings that we have gained throughout the learning processes. And while it’s not a clean, linear pathway, these steps give our students the tools and opportunities to develop their creativity. 

As you are developing your units, look for opportunities to expose students to a wide variety of musical examples. Think about projects that are open-ended, and questions that will really provoke deep thinking. What can you adapt in your plans this year, to further develop your students’ creativity?

Three simple steps to developing creativity
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