The cultural sectors are forced to adapt, develop and innovate. Not only because of the shrinking amount of institutions that eventually could act as employers for us artists. But also, because in a post corona society we just can’t go on with business as usual. We actually know that. Our institutions know that, and we as the KC know that, too. The curriculum gets changed regularly and we innovate with new courses and entrepreneurial classes to prepare our students for the future. But: by adding all these subjects, classes or courses the students’ curriculum gets more and more packed. Free space for practicing, artistic experiments, social contacts within our institution or just simply free time to get inspired seems to get less, if we might believe the reports from the student panels.
At the same time, the theory of student-centered learning got embraced. We know that a powerful innovative learning environment “is characterized by an effective balance between discovery and personal exploration, and systematic instruction and guidance, while being sensitive to learners’ individual differences in abilities, needs, and motivation.” (De Corte, 2012) And we know that one thing is very important for our student’s future: flexibility! Where, for example, jazz and more experimental musicians are already used to the fact that there are no orchestra’s waiting for them out there, actually already since decades, this (not totally new) reality touches also classically trained musicians more and more with every generation we educate in this building. Flexibility is needed for them in order to create a living, to create work, to adapt to the situation, to be able to add something to the already existing rich cultural landscape. And here we go: creativity is needed, too, more than ever, in order to build an artistic existence that might add something meaningful.
We also know that children in early childhood music classes, who only sing child songs by copying them, are stimulated less in a creative manner than ones who attend classes with the creative music making approach which had been developped at the Guildhall school of music and drama, a more free and creative approach that includes composing and improvising next to learning songs.
So, knowing this, what about our students who are too busy, caught in assignments and therefore are too much in ‘their own bubble’? That sounds like the opposite of space for creativity and building up the personal flexibility. In fact, researchers proved long time ago that working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance. (D. Rock, H. Grant, Harvard Business Review)
In the work that I presented last year, together with Susan Williams, it was pointed out already, how valuable small peer-learning groups (we called them PODS) can be to students’ learning, autonomy and motivation. We launched a creative POD where a free space for a recruited group of students from five different KC departments (and genres) was offered in order to create something together in a pressure cooker format. With a little guidance and instruction by us beforehand, a framework was offered, but the artistic autonomy of the participants has been preserved. Freedom formed the main ingredient. Feedback using the critical response style afterwards closed the sessions in a respectful and constructive way. The results have been very refreshing, the reactions were enthusiastic.
The analysis of all this pointed out: there seemed to be a tremendous need and big interest among students for these free creative spaces, where they can explore and develop their artistry and creativity, especially when it happens interdepartmental, but without being judged, without having an audience, without a teacher next to them in the room! These are playgrounds only! And sometimes, a one-time experience like that is already enough to push creativity and trigger an artistic mind by widening the horizons of what is possible.
In fact, last year’s students mentioned that something like this should be part of the curriculum, but not necessarily mandatory, and not necessarily as a regular class. What might be needed are regularly returning creative injections, open spaces for everybody.
And here we are. New questions appeared, and in the beginning of this lectorate term I was mainly wondering if the outcomes of last year’s work are representative for all students since we had been working with such a small and recruited group only.
And if free spaces to just play are so important to them, yes, we could ask why students don’t do that on their own, just meet up and play? And yes, we could say that in our institution there is already quite much offered in the form of courses, electives and activities that deal with exactly that.
And yet it seems that the majority of our students does not really find it, or benefit enough from that, maybe because they do not get the right introduction for a ‘first contact’ or entry into the field.
Maybe students are, especially after corona, too busy to just meet up and ‘play’. Here another question arises: what is ‘just playing’, do they actually know that? It’s in the essence of what we do: ‘playing music’, ‘playing an instrument’. But for many students all the mandatory classes, all the practicing, all homework and exams might stand in the way of the idea of ‘just playing’ and let them forget about it.
In my discussions with students during my many cross-genre activities this past year one reaction came more than once: that these playful moments, fresh experiences with ‘unknown’ peers from other departments, let them remember why they actually chose making music, why they chose being here in this institution.
Just playing, enjoying artistic freedom, being with others in a free space for collaboration, is often misinterpreted as being improvising, and improvising by certain groups of musicians is often misinterpreted as either making weird noises or having to play jazz improvisation on chord changes. These burdens still exist in many of the students’ minds. And they block creativity, and flexibility! I am not the appointed person to give the definition of improvisation in music since this term has been extended immensely during the last century, as a.o. colleague Richard Barrett writes in his 2020 report.
Improvisation can also be something very small, it is a matter of perspective. What I experienced in my own practice many times, by playing concerts with musicians from all kinds of genres within the artists-collective Splendor in Amsterdam, is that adding a little change in an existing classical piece can be a huge step (and burden) for an orchestra musician, while it’s something extremely negligible for an improviser. Once we work in a cross-genre setting, there is a big friction already on stage. The free space has to be wide enough in order to respect the fact that that little musical change might be quite a step for that particular person. This is how it starts, getting flexible. Maybe the next time the little step gets bigger, and so on.
And yes, these situations and processes not necessarily produce the greatest artistic outcomes right away, but maybe on a long term they do. And sometimes the power of the moment, the power of spontaneity, lets something unique happen. Great albums have been recorded in one day, pieces and books have been written in one flow. I personally know the power of the freshness of the ‘first take’ in the recording studio very well.
Working in interdepartmental settings creates, as we already found out last year, non-judgmental surroundings since peers from different departments and instruments most likely will not judge each other’s techniques or repertoire. Especially in groups of two a trustful, but open and engaged working atmosphere can be reached. This smallest subdivision might open the path for working with larger groups of any size, establishing a healthy group dynamic, a balance of involvement and a safe working environment. If we succeed in designing these open environments, we will get more out of our students than we might desire. Our students have many unseen creative skills and ideas. Right now, they do not get enough opportunities to use them in school, but within these spaces they could, and that eventually could turn out being tremendously enrichening for our institution’s community building, since we accommodate such a colorful group of students. With their backgrounds and cultures combined with their curiosity, each one of them brings something special to the table, but if we don’t ask for it, it eventually stays unknown to us and the community. What a miss.
Once we offer accessible entries, interdepartmental processes could be accessed by everyone, with no pressure, no judgement and no initial pretentiousness, just a playground to explore and learn from each other. That could be an easy access to a new world of multiple genres, meeting new people, widening horizons, extending the personal network, gaining inspiration, developing creativity and, in the end, getting flexibility.
A couple of aspects are important, and some have more influence than I had thought before I started working on this. Of course, the order of preparation, so the information we give to the participants. Too much talking already at the beginning is a killer for spontaneity and creative moments, and eventually encourages the participants to think too much, and to follow instructions instead of being artistically free. Not guiding at all leads to repetition and therefore less spontaneous moments. While doing a couple of these projects I found that starting with brief introductions, direct leading to creative pressure cooker sessions in groups of two, is an excellent working tool to break the ice and show the participants their own creative capacities. After that, guidance and more information about tools and strategies should be shared, but as mentioned earlier: that first experience is very important. Additionally, the external circumstances play a bigger role than one might think: smaller rooms or cozy settings create trust, which is important for the group dynamic and balance, but eventually might make the choice for ideas including movement or theatric play more unlikely. Also, groups that have known each other in a social way before entering a creative process together, seem to be much more open minded and therefore more creative and productive within those processes. That of course generally depends on the fact if students join out of free will or have been assigned to those activities. But even being assigned, some could had been persuaded to show motivation.
In the end, every cross-departmental project will be different and will come with several challenges, depending on external circumstances like length, rooms, group size and format, as well as on the personalities and their experiences, social connection and of course the variety of instruments and genres.
One of the big challenges might be knowing the group you are working with, finding the right balance between guidance and autonomy, and between artistic freedom, safe spaces, room for spontaneity, and the quality of the artistic result.
When entering this research trajectory, there were some simple initial questions:
- Is there artistic common ground among KC students of different departments and how does it look like??
- What is the experience of cross-genre music making within the student community generally?
- Is there a conceived need of interdepartmental music making activities amongst the KC student community?
- What contains the already offered content in that context within the KC, what are the formats, the strategies and approaches, and how do students respond to it?
During the process of my work, additional questions appeared:
- How do 1st year students (re)act in interdepartmental settings once they just entered the KC? Do they show motivation and interest for cross-genre activities? Do they enter the process unbiased and does this influence their behavior in the (collective) group?
- Is there a difference in motivation, balanced group behavior and commitment noticeable once we launch this projects in foreign education systems or for students who are assigned to an activity?
Another interest went out to experiences I made myself participating in creative cross-genre situations, and to the experiences of other professionals like colleagues and teachers in those contexts. In the next chapter I will give a brief overview of the conducted activities with short descriptions and preliminary findings. First answers will be formulated to the question: What happened during the processes and which aspects had been influential?
The subsequent chapter presents a detailed overview of the used and developpped tools, followed by a chapter with further documentation like complete reports including and detailed descriptions. In the final chapters I share my summarized findings and discuss the outcomes. Also, I share some additional thoughts for possible further work.