An Artist in the Classroom: Can We Teach Creativity?


My partner, Geoffrey, is a musician who is also a music teacher. He teaches band and chorus to students in grades 7 through 12 at a semi-private high school in Vermont. As his year comes to a close, I have been thinking about what he does in the classroom–how essential it is and how difficult to measure or quantify. 

Geoff is an artist. He enters every classroom, regardless of student ability or age, with one overarching goal in mind: to make music. He wants to facilitate a collective experience of that lift-off moment in which players are no longer playing or singing the music, but are played by it. Moved by it. Transformed by it. It is an experience of creating with which Geoff is very familiar, and one whose value he appreciates. For, as he knows, once students sample this flow, they want more—more skills, more theory, more history, and more musical understanding as a way to deepen and enhance their experience of music making. They are open to learning more of what Geoff has to teach.

Some may argue that creativity is innate and cannot be taught; they may be right. Even so creativity can be encouraged, nurtured, and celebrated. As I think about it, I realize how Geoff does so. He immerses his students in a creative process. He guides them in finding their voices, and he further supports them as they participate in the realization of something larger than they could create on their own. Music flows. Magic happens. The students connect with themselves and one another, and they know it. They grow—in all those ways we are told they should—as creative, resourceful, collaborating problem-solvers.

How does this happen?

1) Being immersed in a creative process

The only way to learn how to create is to do it. The first step towards doing it is to make room within and around yourself in which to do so. You must be willing not to know what is going to come next. You must be able to rest in this place of not knowing, and face the blank page, the silent span, and empty stage, without closing down. The process can be scary. The prospects daunting. It helps to have someone give you permission, coax you along, and most of all, model the way.

Geoff not only ensures that his classroom is a safe place, he models the creative process on a daily basis. This time and space, this room, these people are his materials. His task is to take what is given and draw it all into an experience of music making. While well-armed with specific repertoire, listening exercises, and lessons in theory and history, he holds these instruments lightly, waiting to see where the students are. What emotions, experiences, energy levels, or interests are they bringing with them into class? What does he have with which to work? Which approach will yield the best results? What can we create today?

Geoff is a master at improvisation. Sometimes a student comes in, picks up an instrument, and starts strumming a few bars. If the sequence is a good one, Geoff may decide to begin by analyzing its chord progression. He may develop several parts to go along with it—suited to students’ varying abilities—and soon have the entire class playing along in an extended jam. Lift-off.

A student may come in asking that the class play a favorite song from a contemporary pop band. Geoff may decide to load the Youtube. Together the class will listen to the song, analyzing its instrumentation, parts, and structure. Geoff will draw from his musical library to compare it with works by Bach, a gospel choir, or medieval chant, and then the students may learn the piece. Lift-off.

Other times students will come in and ask for a theory lesson. No instruments get played as Geoff deconstructs western music, connecting the interests of those students to the deeper history and technique of music making. Then they play. Lift-off.

Over the course of a year, students not only build an array of skills in listening, analysis, and musical understanding whose relevance they appreciate; they not only compile a diverse repertoire of songs they can sing or play, they also experience day to day an immersion in the creative process. They are part of that process. Each class is a journey, a project of discovery, and students learn to look forward to the wonder of its unfolding. They learn to trust in the rhythms of the creative process—those potentially stressful moments of not knowing what is going to happen; the coming into form of a plan, a piece, a song, and the joyful realization of an experience in which they know themselves as music makers, making music. How will we get there today?

2) Finding a voice

While immersing the students in this creative process, Geoff supports each one in finding the unique contribution each has to make—his or her own “voice.”

Finding your voice has little to do with so-called “self-expression.” It is not about figuring out what you believe, or what personal philosophy you want to expound. Your voice is what happens when you allow your breath—the breathing of the universe—to resonate through you and make a sound. A unique sound. It is about allowing yourself to be present, in the moment, to what moves you, to what is moving through you.

While there is no formula for finding one’s voice, you can invite it to happen. The process includes listening—that is, opening to sense viscerally the possibilities for resonance that have been sounded out by other people and their instruments in other times and places.

Listening is a primary activity in Geoff’s classes. He listens to his students. He encourages them to listen to one another. Together they listen to music from human history, across cultures. As students discuss what they hear, they hear more. As they hear more, their visceral sense of their own possibilities for sounding out increases. Under Geoff’s guidance, they experiment with those possibilities. They engage in a drum circle. They switch instruments. They play together. They sing.

For Geoff, the singing is important—even to those students who would rather let the instrument speak for them. As he will often say, “If you want to learn to play an instrument, you have to know how to sing.” You have to know what it feels like to have music resonating through your own bodily self. Only then will you be able to discern how to move in relation to your instrument in ways that will allow sound to resonate through it as well. Only then will the instrument become an extension of your bodily self. Only then will your playing dance to the music you are able to hear. As Geoff says, “It is one thing to think about a ‘C’ and decide to play it. It is another to allow the ‘C’ to come through you. That is when the music happens.”

As the students play and sing together, Geoff supports them so that their playing becomes an occasion for each to contribute. When the rhythm or melody lines start to falter, he may jump in on piano to get the music back on track. When the level of a jam plateaus, he may step in again to boost it to a higher plane. Then when he calls upon people to solo over the group, in relation to the group, they rise to the challenge. They do so trusting that the music of the group—that they themselves are making—will carry them. They learn to trust one another.

In this context of music making, without even realizing what is happening, students find their voices. Sometimes it takes years. But slowly, hesitantly, over time, confidence builds; the music making of the more advanced students supports those who are less advanced, and all grow in their ability to make themselves available in the moment, for the pulse of the music to play. They feel the lift. They feel the love.

3) Participating in the realization of something larger

While many high school music programs focus on a formal concert as the culminating moment of the semester towards which all learning and instruction are headed, Geoff approaches these concerts as one more occasion to explore what he has been doing all year: educating his students in the creative process of making music.

Geoff does not spend the semester preparing material for the concert. He spends the semester enabling his students to make music. When the concert dates approach, the students’ anticipation and excitement become more material with which to work.

The students are primed, by their experiences of making music throughout the semester, to trust in the process of music making, to give themselves to it and through it to the people in the audience who are, in turn, giving them the opportunity to soar.

A concert represents that moment when the students learn to ride the heightened energy that an audience gives their playing to a deeper experience of the power of music that humans have sought out for millennia—a power to connect people to one another; a power to transform sadness into joy, effort into ease, and the frustrations of life into a celebration of the human spirit.

Watching Geoff’s spring concerts last week, I saw it. The best description I could come up with was that his students were spiritually aligned—heart, mind, and body. They were not deciding to play or sing the right notes at the right time. They were breathing the same breath, feeling the same pulse. At all levels, the music flowed.


Not all teachers can or should be artists. Not all artists can or should be teachers. But we do need both. Our educational systems need people who can teach us about what has been created and done in the past—in history, math, literature, science, and the arts, across eras and ethnicities. Our educational systems also need people who can teach us (or prime us) to create the art and actions that future centuries will want to remember—arts and actions that engage the challenges of our time, give voice to what is happening here and now, and point us forward to better futures.

We need cultural creators willing and able to dwell in the unknown as they wait for impulses to move in ways that will bring forth the worlds in which we all can and want to live.

And if we are serious about nurturing creative, problem-solvers for the twenty-first century, then we need artists in the classroom–and ways to value their presence there.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “An Artist in the Classroom: Can We Teach Creativity?

  1. jsherwin2013

    I was a member of an all-girl 105-piece symphony orchestra at a Catholic Academy for women in the 1960s. It was an empowering experience to be a part of the musical world with many of us playing instruments usually thought of as “male” instruments. I played the trombone, and at first my mother was not pleased. She soon changed her mind when I won a scholarship to college because of that instrument. Everything about the experience–the individual lessons, the group ensembles, and the weekly orchestra rehearsal when we all came together to blend what we had practiced–was something I would never exchange for anything else. Classical music has been such a big part of my enjoyment of life, and I am so grateful for it. Yes, whenever I listen to music, it flows through me and stirs my mindbodyspirit, just as it did all those many years ago. The students in Geoff’s classes are lucky to have him as their teacher. And if my experience is a predictor of the future, they will remember his class and their performances all their lives. Thanks for sharing your observations.


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