On the role of trajectory in the teaching of creative skills
Having spent most of my adulthood as a teacher and much of my later adulthood as a student, specifically a student of jazz (alto sax and flute), I am acutely aware of what seems to be most effective in teaching and what most ineffective, even downright destructive. The context I’m most familiar with are group classes in jazz. These present particular challenges to both the teacher and student, but I believe the lessons I’ve learned are applicable to the teaching in the arts and perhaps more generally to all educational processes.
All teaching must begin where the student is currently at. This may seem — and should be — patently obvious, yet much teaching reverses the equation: It starts instead from what the teacher believes the student should attain. This “goal” may be an abstract ideal of what teacher views as “success”: “I want you to able to play like Charlie Parker but with your own personal style,” for example. Or the goal may come from the student: “I want to be able to play Mozart’s Violin Concerto #3.” Or the goal may be more limited: “I want you to be able to perform these pieces at the end of this set of classes in a way that will impress the audience with how much you’ve learned.”
I am not talking here about focusing on process rather than product. There are significant problems associated with being concerned only with a student “enjoying the process of learning” without regard for whether or not anything is actually being learned. Little children may be delighted when their teacher swoons about their wonderful finger paintings, but youths and adults are sensitive to whether they are being uniformly praised without serious appraisal of their progress. We’re not talking about “unconditional positive regard” here, about making students feel good regardless of the quality of their efforts.
An honest interaction between student and teacher, however, does not require as intense a focus on the endpoint as is common. The first problem is that the goal may not be reasonable, given the specific conditions of the learner. A music teacher once told me of a sixty-five year old woman who came to him for clarinet lessons. He asked her what her goal was and she told him that her aim was to be able to play a particular work by Mozart. After a few lessons, she asked him how he thought she was progressing toward her goal. How long did he think it would take her to reach it? He responded, given her age and level, that it was very unlikely she would ever achieve it. She immediately stopped taking lessons and ended her attempt to learn to play the clarinet. Was this the most desirable outcome? Of course not. I don’t necessarily fault the teacher. It may not have been the teacher’s frank appraisal that stopped her as much her fixation on her own idealized goal. The point being that setting a goal, without first understanding one’s starting point, can lead to abandoning a potential source of creative expression.
Sometimes the process of discouragement is more subtle: the teacher or the student’s goal may be nearly, but not quite, within their capability, again given the student’s particular circumstances. If, the teacher and student are aiming for something even slightly beyond what the student can accomplish, the student experiences failure, no matter how much progress has been made. In younger students, often the student’s parents are involved as well. If their attitude is one of either scorn and disparagement or of intense demand for brilliant success, their children are all the more likely to set unrealistic goals for themselves and to give up when they become frustrated or once they’re out of their parents’ control. With older youths and adults of any age, the more complex dynamics of internalized parental values often add fuel to the fire of setting aims beyond what is reasonable achievable.
Part of the problem with goal-setting is a misunderstanding of how initiative and incentive work. Many teachers think of the incentive to learn starting with themselves rather than the internal drive of the student. The creative urge is nearly universally underappreciated in our (North American / European) culture. As I have written elsewhere, the need to create artistically is largely reserved for precocious children and a finite set of recognized “geniuses.” For the rest of us, artistic creativity is seen as a pipe dream, a fantasy, a harmless “hobby,” perhaps, with no importance beyond pleasantly passing time.
As a psychologist, I see this as fundamentally incorrect. The need to find creative expression is as much a part of being human as breathing and sexuality. Dylan’s classic line “He not busy being born / Is busy dying” applies to our creative spirit. We are either adding something new and beautiful and intriguing to this world or we are missing a fundamental aspect of ourselves. Artistic creativity is not something only for those who will one day achieve fame and fortune. Finding a mode of creative expression — writing, painting, sculpting, playing music, composing, photography, quilting, theater, etc., etc. — is essential for psychological health. Without it, our world becomes constricted, our perspective limited.
Many see artistic creation only as something other people do. Sometimes, this is enough. There is something legitimately creative about serious appreciation of the artistry of others. Persons who devote their full attention to listening to a symphony or viewing a work of art are exercising their own creative spirit. This must be distinguished, however, from those who pass through an exhibit or attend a concert only in order to say that they did, without participating in the creative work as its audience.
Audience and artist are inseparable. The creative process is only complete when this communication occurs. Artists, both great and small, often assert that audience response means nothing to them, that they create for their own reasons and couldn’t care less whether they are “appreciated” by an audience or not. There is certainly truth to the fact that serious artists must satisfy inner criteria that may or may not be grasped by those who experience their work; serious artistic creativity requires a degree of independence from an audience’s immediate reaction. But this does not negate the importance of audience; it only refines the relationship. Creativity is not — or at least should not be — a popularity contest. but it still matters that the artist’s work reaches someone sometime. Funny cat videos on YouTube will surely always top the number of people who listen to a Philip Glass symphony in its entirety, but Glass’ symphony must still be heard, even if only by a small number of aficionados, for its creative impact to mean anything.
Much amateur artistic creativity is essentially an extension of this concept of audience. My appreciation of the great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker becomes still more intense as I try to play his tunes. My relationship to his work deepens by my personal involvement in listening and trying to understand what he is playing. In a band or ensemble often it’s only the band-members who are audience for each other. It matters whether people are listening to each other in very much the same way as it matters as it matters whether people in a museum are looking or are just passing through. By listening intently, by striving to acquire artistic skills, by communicating with others, artists, at whatever level, unleash their creative energy.
The drive to create does not stem from the teacher, but from the student. Teachers only activate this impulse by striking the right chord at the right time in students growth processes. The teacher’s own creative need is to find that right chord, to find the piece of learning that will make the student more able to realize their own creative potential.
When the teachers fail to see, however, that the starting point of the drive is in the student, not the teacher, they will often overvalue their standard-setting and goal-reinforcement.
Several things go wrong when a teacher over-reaches in this way. The teacher’s own ego is now the primary focus, not the student’s learning process. This frequently leads to a teacher having expectations that are beyond their students’ current capacity to learn. I have been shocked by how common it is for teachers to feel compelled to show just how much more they know than their students. The vast majority of students do not have the slightest question that their teacher is competent in the areas they’re teaching.
Many teachers will often ramble on about topics that are far beyond their students’ ability to absorb usefully. Without realizing it, these teachers discourage their students, who may increasingly feel that they will never become even “adequate” at their art.
The teacher’s job is very simple, if quite difficult to accomplish in practice. It was laid out nearly a century ago by a Russian educational psychologist (Vygotsky) who gave it the fancy name of zone of proximal distance (ZPD), meaning only little more than this: teach the student what can be learned today with the teacher’s help and done by the student soon thereafter without the teacher’s help. In other words, the teacher’s responsibility is to find the logical next step in the student’s growth: the precise step forward that is small enough to be attainable and large enough to be significant.
In the teaching of the skills, the purpose of the work, the creative expression, often gets lost. This reminds me of a useful piece of advice about practicing an instrument I once heard: Always reserve at least a quarter of practice time to just playing, not trying to learn x, y, or z, just playing: time to let one’s creative juices flow using whatever skills one has at that moment in time to create something that satisfies oneself.
Teachers of artistic creativity are often forget that the students reason for working is not to acquire skills for their own sake, but to give themselves more tools, more degrees of freedom, to express themselves. It is all too easy to get lost in skill acquisition (including theory) that underlies the creative effort. This is particularly true in artistic arenas — jazz, for example — where skill level is readily apparent. I could work my whole life learning to play one Charlie Parker solo line without having a moment to find my own creative soul.
This is a tricky point. I’ve often heard it said that you have to learn all the basics before you can even consider being “creative.” “You want to express your inner angst? Learn your major, minor, modal scales and harmonies first.” There’s truth to this, of course. If you want to communicate to an audience — even if that audience is your fellow band members — you’ve got to at least be in tune and know where you are in the song you’re playing. But often we err in the opposite direction. We forget entirely about the fact that this is all about creative expression, about finding a way to put your soul into your music , painting, acting, dancing, and so on. They are both traps: “Expressing one’s soul” doesn’t justify bad work — and playing extremely well doesn’t justify uncreative work.
This brings me to the all-important and oft-ignored question of trajectory. To be effective, teaching must always take into account where each student is in that student’s learning trajectory. While this is particularly demanding in inter-generational teaching, it also applies to teaching age-matched and even ability-matched groups as well as to the teaching of individual students.
A couple examples illustrate how students at different point in their lives and learning trajectories require dramatically different teaching approaches. Take a young prodigy. Here is a person already performing well beyond expectations for the person’s age. What does this person need to learn? In most areas of artistic endeavor, even the most advanced youths in their early teens will still have an enormous amount they need to learn about the history of their chosen area, about technique, and about the theory that surrounds the endeavor. They very likely will also need important life lessons as well: from handling money to handling the people who want to handle them! As one of my favorite teachers put it, “Many kids who are amazing on their instruments have had a smooth ride up to this point. Whether they become excellent musicians or fade to the point of giving up their instruments altogether will depend on how they handle adversity when it comes their way.” Their level of proficiency is already high; the teacher’s challenge is to set the bar still higher without forcing them to pretend they have attained an equivalent psychological maturity.
For the most advanced youthful prodigies, aiming at a goal that emulates true virtuosos may not be unrealistic. Because these young people have those who came before them to build on, it may be possible for them to excel in ways that even some of the true geniuses of the past never dreamed of. At the same time, they need to be encouraged to find their own mode of personal expression, to tap into their own life experiences to find a core worth communicating. By late teenage, most kids have already gone through quite a bit; their capacity for real emotional communication shouldn’t be underestimated.
But a word needs to be said here about youths who are “into” one or another form of artistic creativity, but who haven’t shown a particular knack for it and/or haven’t been willing to devote serious and consistent energy toward improving their artistic skills. To be honest, some simply don’t care enough. They want to pursue a particular artistic area more as the path of least resistance. It can be functional, a “resume enhancer” for applying to college or it may be seen as easier or more hip than more academic pursuits. But there are others, who, though not amazingly talented or so devoted that they spend every free moment working on their art. To them, learning artistic creativity may become a very important and enduring part of their lives if they are helped along by a supportive teacher. While most teachers respond excitedly to the prodigy, fewer do well with students whose talent and commitment are only moderate. These students often have to endure constant comparison with their more precocious and often more dedicated peers. They repeatedly hear phrases like “…if you ever want to be a real artist…” The end result is that a great many people who get something out of developing their artistic abilities as youths gradually lose interest, feeling their moderate interest “isn’t good enough” to justify their teachers’ energies. Because they cannot match the virtuosity of the prodigies, it is as though their efforts were meaningless, as though what they were trying to do had nothing whatsoever to do with the human need to create. Rarely will their artistic interest carry beyond occasional dabbling as they move into adulthood.
This loss of interest is unfortunate and avoidable. Had these young people’s interest been cultivated, stimulated, rather than being snubbed as less than great, artistic creation might have become an enduring part of their lives.
Sometimes interest in artistic creativity reemerges at later points in life. It may re-surface as a mode of relaxation in an otherwise overly demanding existence. It may become a focus as one’s career becomes more settled and less all-consuming or when, by choice or not, one has more time on one’s hands. But an adult student, from middle-age on, is not at all the same as a young person of equivalent ability. Young persons need to know all that will lie ahead if they decide they want to try to make a career of their chosen artistic penchant. Middle-aged and older adults, if they are not kidding themselves, know that “career” is not really an appropriate concept. Any realistic goal will of necessity have to be more modest. Perhaps they will be able to find enough paying gigs or sell enough paintings to cover some of the costs of their work, but it’s highly unlikely it’ll change their tax bracket or bring them public acclaim.
This fact should substantially alter a teacher’s approach working with such a student. Youthful players need to understand what they need to do if they want to become successful. if an artistic career is not their goal, then how they can make their creative endeavors continue to grow throughout their lifespan? The middle-aged and older adults usually know where music fits in their lives, knows how much time they can or want to devote to developing their skills, but need guidance on the most effective way they can continue to develop while fully expressing their creative spirit.
Having emphasized what’s different in terms of trajectory, I conclude with the two fundamental elements that are the same regardless of age: 1) Though skill development is crucial in any artistic creativity, skill development without creativity is empty. For the virtuoso, skill without creativity is pure egotism; for the run-of-the-mill player, skill without creativity is pure frustration. 2) Everybody has an ego. The young virtuoso who seems to have no self-doubt can still be torn to shreds by a few carelessly or sadistically choice words from a teacher; so can a mature adult who’s raised a family and had a successful career. Of course, the teacher also in exactly the same boat: Trying to figure out what’s the best way to reach this, that, and the other student. Not an easy job, to be sure, but a highly rewarding one when one’s students discover creative energies they didn’t know they had.