“I don’t want this experience to end!” I uttered these words at least a half dozen times during the long car ride back from Baltimore to Boston following this year’s Creative Connections project. An intense week of rehearsals with the end goal of creating and performing a collective, newly-composed piece of music with workshop leaders, teachers and students, Creative Connections was one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life. Indeed, Creative Connections is a true collaboration between youth, educators, and community members, synergistically giving new life to the idea of music-making and the traditionally-held views of teacher, performer and student.
One of the most personally notable aspects of Creative Connections was how this work simultaneously allowed me to practice being an artist and a teacher, challenging me in new ways in both roles. As a classically-trained musician, I am accustomed to playing music already created, reading from the page and trying to interpret what often has long traditions of accepted aesthetical practices. However, all of the music performed in Creative Connections was newly created, forcing me to play by ear and to trust my own musical intuition, as there were no established standards to adhere to in this work. Without a score and much time to learn the material, I was challenged to keep up with the pace of the week, constantly learning new notes and striving to just be in the moment.
I also experienced an entirely new sense of leadership as an educator, as I was not only helping to direct the students throughout the learning process and performance (as one might do traditionally), but I was also representing music created by these youth. This added element brought an entirely new level of responsibility to the work, charging the leadership team and myself to manage the creation of a finished work authentic to the students’ voices and vision. Throughout the rehearsal process, I observed the leadership team facilitate conversations so that students’ ideas were equally heard and practice a new level of responsiveness to youth input. As no one had any idea what material would be generated, the teachers were forced to think on their feet in order to listen to and channel ideas, combine concepts, and provide enabling constraints in order to produce the best work possible. Indeed, this was no conventional musical environment in which the repertoire had been taught many times before and the pedagogical challenges were already thought out – this was the making of fresh music, new to both the teachers and students.
Creative Connections also served as a revolutionary learning climate for the students involved. One remarkable aspect of the process was that students of so many ages (grades K – 12) were able to work together harmoniously, regardless of their musical background or experience. Furthermore, the hands-on learning process appealed to all types of learners – visual, auditory, and kinesthetic – providing all youth an avenue to internalize and grasp the music created through visual diagrams, call and response activities, repetition, and the physical acts of singing, body percussion, and playing instruments. Because the project involved a constructivist approach to learning, students also had the opportunity to actively participate in developing meaning, connection to and a deep understanding of the final project creation. Through this pedagogical method, students who might not normally respond in a traditional classroom environment came alive, demonstrating both a renewed sense of curiosity and inner-confidence.
I witnessed one example of this type of student transformation in Katelan, a student from Booker T. Washington Middle School who at first appeared rather sullen, uninterested, and defensive – a bit of a social outcast in her school choir. Although Katelan did not participate much during the lyric-writing activities throughout the week, she was offered the opportunity on Thursday to write a rap at home that night to perform at the concert the following day. Katelan responded to the offer with skepticism, obviously not sure what she thought of the chance to solo in front of her peers. I will admit that I wasn’t sure if Katelan would actually write the rap, let alone have the courage to perform it at the concert. However, to my excitement, she stood up and rapped at the performance the next day, doing so without even having a real dress rehearsal. Although her performance was rather quiet, she exhibited fierce strength to perform in front of so many classmates. The most touching part was the loud cheer her peers gave her as she finished and the shy smile I saw on her face after – one of the only times I saw her do so that week.
I would be remiss if I did not discuss the amazing sense of collaboration that also permeated the week. A creative process that brought together people of diverse backgrounds, Creative Connections was punctuated by a truly palpable energy. It was amazing for myself to see so many of my own worlds collide in such a vibrant, collective way – friends from the fellowship, former students, old friends from Baltimore, and former BSO colleagues – as we all made music together. The dynamic between the adults and youth was also quite unique, as everyone functioned as both a learner and a leader. Instead of having a hierarchy of teacher versus student, participants worked together on an equal level, learning from each other in an environment free of egos and judgment. It quickly became clear that the ethos of Creative Connections was both openness to new ideas and receptiveness to constant reflection and reevaluation. Because the project provided participants a sense of ownership and had no predetermined standard of excellence (as the music had never before been performed), everyone worked together to make the end result their absolute best. It felt as if the bar was continually being raised higher and higher as participants demonstrated focus and passion in their singular mission to create a terrific piece of music.
In the end, I left Baltimore on one of the best post-concert highs I have ever experienced. I felt so fulfilled, so exhilarated, and I wanted to do it all over again. What’s particularly striking is that everyone I spoke with after the performance felt the same way, giving me the sense that this type of collaborative, creative work is a vital component missing from most musicians’ experiences. I know that I will seek out ways to provide such opportunities for my own students in the future, and I have even started a “Creative Connections”-type lab during my residency here at the JAMM program in Alaska. Indeed, this experience brought a new sense of awareness to my musical practice, galvanizing me to challenge myself and further expand my work as an artist and teacher.