An Arts Education Symposium

FRANK J. OTERI: When I was a high school teacher in the city for four years, I was teaching students how to write sonnets, and the chairman of my department said: “But, you can’t teach them how to write sonnets; they can’t write sentences!” So I marched into the class, I said: “My chairman says you can’t write sonnets.” So they wrote sonnets. And it was his challenge; it was coming at them with this challenge of something someone thought that they couldn’t do. We expect high school students to read sonnets, but to be able to write their own is so much more valuable. So what can you teach? You can teach structures, but can you teach creativity? Can you teach the ability to come up with something original?

POLLY KAHN: Oh, I absolutely think so. Part of it is giving kids the license to think freely, and the rudimentary tools that allow them to play with something that’s in their own minds. Part of the challenge for our work in the schools is that we operate in a domain which is not limited by right or wrong answers. We operate in a world of limitless possibility, but schools are often the antithesis of it. So part of it is developing the relationship with the school and with the teacher – you talked about trust before – that will allow, at least in the area of the arts, that moment to happen, which doesn’t have that clean closure to it. And that often takes years to achieve, because it is so at odds with the experience of teachers and kids in a school. But once there is room for that, and once you have given them some of the tools, and not only the tools of doodling at the keyboard, or making an invented instrument, but the tools of thinking analytically about what they want. What am I interested in saying? I might not have that right away. How can I begin to get the kernel of that idea, and polish it, and think about it, and get it right in some way, you know, can I, do I create some kind of invented notation that makes a map of what I feel… Can I teach it to somebody? Can I share it? You know, all of those things become, I think, a journey to creativity that is almost unstoppable. But it’s a slow trajectory, and I think it’s not achieved quickly. You can’t go in for a two-session visit and have all that happen. It has to do with a lot of time spent together developing a common language.

FRANK J. OTERI: To extend on what you were just saying, I think it’s interesting, getting to this idea of notation and experimental music. Here’s a real wonderful proof that people learn how to do things better when they’re able to teach someone else. It really shows that they’ve mastered something. If students are taught to pay attention to the sounds around them and to notate sounds… Maybe they don’t know music notation. Maybe they don’t know conventional Western classical music notation. Then they come up with a language. Are they able then, with that language, with that system they create, to share it with the other students in the class? Can they learn to play it? And if they’ve done that, if they’ve followed that step through, then you’ve made a successful connection, and they can understand the process of composer and performer.

POLLY KAHN: Absolutely.

FRANK J. OTERI: And it becomes real for them in ways that I think that just passively listening, you know, to the masterpieces, doesn’t.

HOLLIS HEADRICK: Right. I think the idea of bringing creativity out and providing the context, the opportunities, the kind of habits of mind, and the environment that’s conducive to creativity, is the most important thing first. I don’t think that you can teach the kind of artistic expression that we think of, and that our society thinks about when you think of what creativity is. Usually, your mind goes to those group of artists, depending on who you’re interested in, who to you epitomizes some kind of artistic expression, whether that’s a modern painter, whether that’s a dancer, whether that’s a musician or whoever, and then usually you associate with that both the personality, the cult of personality, and that this person is somehow blessed in the same way that Michael Jordan is incredible. He’s an anomaly in the same way that a Picasso is, or a Bernstein is, or a Charlie Parker is, or a Mozart or a Beethoven or a whoever. You may not like my choices, but the point is that what exists in their personalities is as strong as the actual product, you know, what the actual manifestation of that creativity is. I think it’s important to provide an environment, and then to provide as many tools as possible, in whatever ways, whether those are simple ways, whether those are organic ways, or whether they’re traditional ways. Richard, addressing your question about the new music community… If we assume that most composers have gone through some traditional training, then you have to ask them or they should ask themselves: “Where does the creativity that I believe I have reside? Where does it come from? If I’ve just been taught typical kinds of rote learning about relationships of harmony and melody, of studying music history, of looking at the way instrumentation works, the overtone series, all of the kinds of things you learn in music.” Well, those people have to look at themselves and say, well: “Well, I’m creative, and how was that taught to me? How does that manifest itself?” But, you know, Charlie Parker always said you have to learn everything about your art form. And then as soon as you walk on the bandstand, you have to forget it. Because then it becomes your expression, however that happens. That is what you cannot teach. But you can teach everything that prepares that person to reach that point, and then it’s up to she or he to try to do that.

MAXINE GREENE: And part of it is an awareness of, not just the cultural, but the aural context, you know, that you’re enmeshed in a world, and I think a lot of the great composers drew from what they heard, or what they saw, and what they made their own. It’s the same with Charlie Parker. He’s emerged from a tradition, from his parents. I always think it’s so important for kids to learn that, that nobody is an individual unless he’s a part of something.

RICHARD KESSLER: But Maxine, the question had been, interestingly enough, can you teach creativity, I think, in its basic form. I’d love to hear what you think about that. Can you teach creativity?

MAXINE GREENE: You can make it possible but you can’t teach it. It’s just like you can’t teach learning. You can only create situations. Creativity is putting things together in novel ways, having your own stamp and your own voice, finding your own voice. And it’s not making something ex nihilo, you know, it’s not something that never was before in this world. I don’t think we really appreciate the dimensions of creativity and how people are creative in such fascinating ways. And that’s what’s so scary about media. It stifles people. I was thinking about Pokemon. Your child is too old for Pokemon. My grandchild isn’t. Tonight they had a whole long discussion of it on Public Radio, all about Pokemon. But it stops people in their tracks, that’s what worries me. It, you know, gives you a false, stops you from paying attention to what’s really around you. How about Harry Potter? Is your son old enough?

HOLLIS HEADRICK: Yes. Yeah, he loves the Harry Potter books.

MAXINE GREENE: Him, too. Isn’t that funny?

RICHARD KESSLER: And there are many people, of course, who are afraid of the Harry Potter books.

MAXINE GREENE: I know. But it’s imagination. It’s about witches and demons. I’ve been speaking lately, partly because of Giuliani, I’ve been saying, you know, that Giuliani is making us live in a Dickens novel. So on the one level there’s the Dickens novel and on the other level there’s Harry Potter. The children know better. Have you read them?

POLLY KAHN: I haven’t read any of them.

MAXINE GREENE: You don’t have to.

HOLLIS HEADRICK: I’m taking a trip to San Francisco on Saturday evening for a few days and I’m going to take one with me. They’re really wonderful books.

MAXINE GREENE: I know. That’s what I’m told. Yeah, and my little grandson said “and you have to read the first one first.” Don’t make a mistake.

HOLLIS HEADRICK: Sorcerer’s Stone.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.

POLLY KAHN: Trilogies are very important!

FRANK J. OTERI: The canon!