Saturday, June 22, 2013

Music, Creativity, and Problem Solving: Part I

It's been almost four days since I've returned to California and after two full days of work, a lovely graduation ceremony for my high school students, and a deeply needed day of rest to help me recover from jet lag, I'm starting to feel my strength return - my creativity reawakening and looking to express itself - and today I will direct my creativity toward keeping my promise - my promise to share what happened in one very special Finnish classroom.

I'm listening to, "Credo," a song based upon a poem by Onerva, a feisty 20th century Finnish feminist poet and put to music by Maria Ylip√§√§. (CLICK to play).  My friend translated this song and I remember it meaning something to the effect of, "No painful experiences are in vain," and "We can all grow from that which hurts us." I'm not sure I agree with this sentiment but for those who can get past painful experiences, perhaps this is true.  We all have painful experiences that close us down to new ideas, new experiences, new relationships, and maybe it's the struggle that makes us more insightful, more willing to forgive, and more apt to understand the pain of others.

In art as in life, it depends on the person and their interpretation of their experiences that creates beauty or disaster...and perhaps there is reason why children look at us with open eyes while many adults close themselves off to the unknown; we've had painful experiences that make us less open and less vulnerable.  Time and time again, we are taught that life's new and unpredictable circumstances can hurt and we start to close the doors to potential pain.  Unfortunately, it also hinders one's ability to move forward with fresh ideas and an open mind - not a good way to solve global problems or fix an education system, for sure. Are there ways to unlock our creativity once it's been blocked?  When I walked into this one Finnish classroom, little did I know that this teacher would guide us through musical activities that would ultimately make me more open, more creative, and more innovative in my thinking - and start to shed the barriers that keep me from expressing my own musicality.

This winter I visited a school in Espoo, Finland because Howard Sklar, a childhood friend who was now married, living and working in Espoo, had invited me to his school. He arranged for me to meet and observe science teachers, which I did, but it was also suggested I try to visit Terhi Oksanen's music class.  In a kind twist of fate, Terhi walked by and invited me to join her class at 1:00.  Without reservation, I said, "Sure!"  I had learned that problem solving was occurring in all areas of Finnish curriculum and I was looking forward to seeing what Terhi did with her students.

In my childhood I was given music instruction that included  reading music, practicing scales, and playing someone else's compositions - I also marched around in the field band with about three hundred other enthusiastic young people.  We had an inspiring and all-involving music program at our high school and our directors were fabulous, but our view was limited - we followed the musical direction of our directors and composers and we kept in line.  In Terhi's class, she taught the basics, as well, but this is where her lessons changed: she allowed and encouraged students to experience music as it comes from one's own creativity - and I learned that this method can twist and changes one's relationship with music - literally and figuratively.

Terhi used body motion, body percussion, and simple instruments to allow her students to explore the essence and the implementation of music, not just the creation of other people's music. What I later realized is that as a student in Terhi's class I was able to start releasing the constraints of years of musical instruction, and it allowed me to see that those constraints were keeping me from exploring music for myself.  In other words, my own desire to explore rhythm and patterns of my own creation had been halted by the rules I had been taught as a child - an unintentional result of very good and well-intentioned musical instruction.

For decades, however, I've been frustrated because I wanted to shed this overcoat of rigidity and had not known how, or been able, to do so.

After I left Espoo I took the 25-minute bus and 5-hour train ride back to Joensuu, and Terhi and I kept in touch; I returned to Espoo the next month to interview her about how she teaches music and how she incorporates problem solving into her lessons.  I was fascinated with the Orff-Schulwerk methods she used and she told me she had learned these methods from Doug Goodkin from San Francisco.  Once again, here was a Finnish teacher telling me about how she was using an American teacher or American educational research for her work with students - and time and time again I was shown that American education used to be on the right track with our educational research and teaching until the focus went away from learning ... and toward achieving high test scores.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to further this musical exploration by attending the JaSeSoi ry Orff Teacher Training in Orivesi, Finland, with 80+ Finnish music teachers.  I knew I could only stay 2.5 days of the 5-day workshop but at least I could experience a part of it.  This class turned out to be extremely difficult for me but in the end it was far more inspirational and fulfilling than uncomfortable.

But it wasn't easy....

(To be continued.)


  1. I am holding my breath for the next entry...

    Jeannie Hodge

  2. “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” ― Pablo Picasso

  3. "Saturday, June 22, 2013"
    "It's been almost four days since I've returned to California"

    So, no Tuska for you, then?
    I get it, though: The bands weren't that great. It's not like it was in 2008.

    1. Unfortunately I missed Tuska. I hope you enjoyed your celebration!