Musical Creativity Is in the DNA of SEL
By NAfME Member Michael P. Fleischmann,
Christopher Schroeder, and NAfME Member Scott N. Edgar
Music educators across the world have navigated extreme challenges as they experienced the unforgiving waters of teaching during a global pandemic. In addition to meeting our students’ musical needs, we also have an obligation to answer the call to serve our students’ social and emotional growth as we rebuild and reorganize our programs to respond to the changed needs of our students. While many of us were teaching remotely, Social Emotional Learning (SEL) became an integral piece of our pedagogy as we tried to build community through computer screens. As we invite students back into classrooms, we have embraced the need to include SEL into our teaching practices. But what does that mean and look like? The answer lies in embracing creativity through the musical process.
As SEL was elevated to buzzword status, many misinterpretations emerged, from being overly focused on just talking about our feelings, to serving as another mechanism for control. Conversely, when done effectively, SEL provides a construct for teachers and students to come together to more deeply connect to the music and each other. While many philosophically agree with the basic tenets of SEL, some may be misinterpreting what SEL means in practice.
There is a difference between:
- SEL as behavior: How our students interact with us and one another through one-off activities and relegate SEL to “one more thing” to squeeze into our class time.
- SEL as culture: How we are trusting SEL as a part of our pedagogy, and embedding it into all elements of our classroom routines and experiences.
Our goal is SEL as culture. SEL operates best as a spiral structure which first addresses: IDENTITY (Who am I and how do my prior experiences influence my decisions and mindsets?), which then progresses to BELONGING (Who are we and how is our space conducive for vulnerability and trust?), which culminates into AGENCY (How do I/We make a difference?). [See Figure 1]. Each strand builds and complements each other, but always going back to “who am I,” “is there trusting belonging,” and “how can students affect meaningful change?”
The Power of Creativity
Engaging students in experiences that leverage socially creative acts such as improvising, composing, and/or arranging may be an effective way to weave SEL in practice (beyond forced activities at the beginning of a lesson). Creativity as a process invites students to wrestle with the messiness of unbounded thought where novel, spontaneous, and unpredictable solutions may present themselves as valuable, solving a challenge at hand. Creating has the potential to develop students’ individual sense of musical IDENTITY, while cultivating BELONGING through the process of creating, and empower a musical community with AGENCY as action.
Creative SEL in Action
When SEL practices are folded into creative music-making projects, students (and teachers) can become highly motivated to dive deeper into self-reflective and engaging music-making experiences. [See Figure 2] Giving priority for students to create music within our regular allotted time for rehearsal (rather than measuring success against how well they can perform the music from the standard canon) can create opportunities for students to explore their individual interests/sounds, foster new connections with peers, and explore topics through music that are important to them.
Take for example “Call to Action,” a composition created by 7th graders in Boston in response to the Stoneman Douglas school shooting and March for Our Lives. The musical inspiration came after a study of the form and structure of the music of Snarky Puppy, Ensemble Mik Nawooj, and Chance The Rapper & The Social Experiment. Students created form and analysis maps of their music and applied these concepts to “Call to Action.” After reading about Cara and Alex in this New York Times article, the students and I engaged in a conversation about their thoughts on the tragedy. They summarized their feelings with the phrase, “We need a call to action, we don’t need thoughts and prayers.” With this line of text, we began to compose a melody and groove based on the rhythm and inflection of this phrase. The melody is intoned by the clarinet as a brief introduction. Our conversations continued with specific examples of calls to action. This led to the inclusion of two spoken-word sections in the piece.
Creative SEL in Action
Creating as Self-Expression (Identity)
Creating original music provides an opportunity for students to express their ideas and emotions through music, while discovering their identity through the process. When students imagine an abstract concept and begin to tinker with representing that abstract concept with sound, they are actively making decisions about what that concept is or is not based on their individual lived experiences.
For example, the teacher may ask students, “What does excitement sound like to you?” The similarities and differences in responses may provide a fascinating discussion and reveal quite a bit about the students individually. Here are some other examples:
- Free improvisations on abstract concepts such as: fear, mud, rain, alone, oppression
- Students create a short musical representation of a photo (or piece of art) that is meaningful to them.
- Students develop musical representations for literary characters they are studying in other courses (applications across the school curriculum)
- Individually exploring musical concepts such as tension/release, dynamic contrast, meter, theme & variation, etc.
Feeling Safe to Create Together (Belonging)
The second part of the creative process is fostering a sense of belonging through creating together. When students have the opportunities to work in small groups, they are given space to make collaborative decisions and take creative risks. Through this experience, not only are they exercising their creative muscles, they can also experience a sense of vulnerability in a safe environment that helps to build strong human connections with their peers and teachers. Consider the following ideas:
- Try using small student groups of 4-5 students each
- While designing parameters, consider using “at least” language to expand on students’ creativity:
- “The length should be at least ___ seconds” (instead of a limited length of ___ seconds)
- “Use at least ___ pitches” (instead of a limit of ___ pitches only)
- Create opportunities for students to make decisions amongst themselves
- Allow students to struggle with the messiness of the process, this will build camaraderie
Creating as Amplifying Student Voice (Agency)
Once students have gone through the process of creating their own music, they now have an opportunity to connect and share their music with a larger audience—be it their classroom, community, or through a variety of digital streaming platforms. This, again, presents a multitude of opportunities for student agency. Teachers can play the role of the facilitator, posing questions to the students such as, “Why are we composing this music?”, “Who is your intended audience?”, and “How can we reach them?”.
Students in the Boston Music Project (BMP) had the opportunity to reflect on their year-and-a-half of pandemic life and learning and create original compositions that captured their perspectives and emotions through music. In the end, two albums emerged, “Caged Bird,” inspired by the poetry of Maya Angelou, and “Eleventh Moon,” inspired by original text by the students. Currently, both BMP students and faculty are working on their next project, collaborating with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to connect with students across the entire state of Massachusetts to embark on a similar project entitled Amplify Massachusetts. Here is a sneak peak of one of their latest tracks, entitled “Lullaby for the Lonely.”
In each of the above examples, the students’ creative products were a vehicle for amplifying their collective voices, as each composition took on a life of its own. In many ways, this singular point is why many teachers are hesitant to take time from their music rehearsals to explore the creative process—the creative process can feel uncertain, unpredictable, with a risk of “losing” rehearsal time to prepare for an upcoming concert. However, imagine if the upcoming concert had a balance of standard literature and student-composed pieces with students sharing their creative process with the audience. With this additional element, now the learning experience has multiple layers of youth development including performance, creative writing, and public speaking. Additionally, the audience may develop a deeper understanding, appreciation, and connection to the creative process.
Courage to Create
For students to experience agency through creativity their voice needs to emerge predominantly in the classroom. As music teachers, we often fall into the role of “fixer.” When students develop creative capacity to solve common challenges in the music classroom instead of simply following instructions, they develop into independent, creative musicians. This requires the shift from telling students “how it goes” to stepping aside and asking, “How do you think it should go?” Yes, this requires taking a step back and providing space for students to help direct their own learning. The key question is: Are our spaces designed for merely engagement or leveling up to empowerment? When creativity is in our pedagogical DNA, music, SEL, and student voice live in harmony.
About the authors:
NAfME member Dr. Michael P. Fleischmann is a conductor, performer, husband, and father of two. Michael graduated with a degree in Music Education from the University of Southern California Flora L. Thornton School of Music. He earned a Master of Music degree in wind conducting from California State University, Fullerton. Dr. Fleischmann continued his education at Teachers College, Columbia University where he earned a Doctor of Education degree in College Teaching. Michael was recently recognized as the Outstanding Music Educator for the California Music Educators Southeastern Section in 2021.
Michael has enjoyed giving back to the community of music as a performer, clinician, and conference presenter. His publication and research interests include French horn pedagogy and the applications of creativity in large ensemble band settings (specifically composition, improvisation, and arranging). He currently resides in Palm Desert, California, with his wife, Erica, and children, Cole and Kennedy.
Boston-based musician, educator, and arts advocate, Christopher Schroeder is a catalyst for social change through music and arts education. With over a decade of arts leadership and teaching experience, he has successfully established programs and influenced music ecosystems within the Boston community and throughout the United States. Schroeder currently serves as the Executive Director of the Boston Music Project, a guest conductor, and clinician with Conn Selmer, Inc. Most recently, he was recognized as a Boston Future Leader by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and a quarterfinalist for the 2019 GRAMMY Music Educator Award.
As an experienced conductor and trumpeter, Schroeder connects and inspires musicians of all ages to achieve their highest level of musicianship, while instilling character traits that transcend rehearsal and performance spaces. As a nationally recognized speaker and consultant, he works together with arts leaders and educators on organizational strategy, program development/implementation, interdisciplinary curriculum design, and community engagement. Visit Christopher Schroeder’s website here.
NAfME member Scott Edgar is author of Music Education and Social Emotional Learning: The Heart of Teaching Music and is an Associate Professor of Music, Music Education Chair, and Director of Bands at Lake Forest College. He received his Doctorate of Philosophy in Music Education from the University of Michigan, his Masters degree in Education from the University of Dayton, and his Bachelor of Music in Music Education degree from Bowling Green State University.
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October 5, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)