Monday, June 24, 2013

Music, Creativity, and Problem Solving: Part II

For years I've joked that if there were a thing such as reincarnation I would love to come back as a jazz and blues singer - but the reality is - I don't believe in reincarnation and I have a vocal range of about four notes - even if I did have an impressive vocal range I'm too inhibited to "belt out" those fabulous songs. What I think I crave is to be able to express myself musically without fear. Those jazz and blues musicians seem to play without inhibition and to me that is an incredible and beautiful expression of self. For years I've felt a love of musical expression welling up inside me but I continually trap it down and hush it; it's been safer to keep it there - but not so comfortable.

What does this have to do with my research project about problem solving?  When I walked into the music class in Espoo and experienced the exercises the teacher had her students perform, I felt my brain doing calisthenics I hadn't experienced in any other class - my whole brain seemed to be activated as well as all the parts of my body.  In all the schools I visited in Finland, I found elements of the music class to be the most engaging in overall problem solving and it made me wonder - what is the connection between the Orff methods and problem solving, and how can these techniques be used to inspire creative, innovative thinking in our students and adults?

A very good question - so let's proceed....

If living a "normal" life has the tendency to close down one's openness to new ideas and creative, innovative thought, and music through the Orff method seems to open up those barriers (at least that is my experience), is there a place to combine the two in our educational processes to help children grow toward creative and innovative thinkers by combining music and the sciences?

I think so.

If I am this reserved in playing music, are there other aspects of my creativity that are being stifled because I'm afraid to express myself? What about other people?  With so many people telling me they are amazed I moved to Finland for six months and how they don't think they could have done it themselves, I have to think that restraining oneself - even in the face of a embracing a wonderful experience - may be a common occurrence.

There have been days in the past few years when the house is quiet and I sit alone at my piano - and I surprise myself at the emotions that come out of me when I play the keyboard - it's pretty intense, actually, as it comes from such a deep and reserved place.  I have to wonder - why am I so protective of this musicality and why don't I let these emotions out through music? or in other ways?

These are the questions that drove me to the JaSeSoi ry Orff Level Courses at the Orividen Opisto in early June. I took the 6-7 hour train ride from Joensuu to Orivesi and stepped out onto the platform of a wooden and historic rural train depot on a sunny, spring afternoon.  A woman with a rolling suitcase (and what turned out to be a drum) was also walking across the parking lot, looking around as if she, too, needed to find her way. I said to her, first in Finnish, and then in English:  "Excuse me, do you speak English?  Are you going to the music class?"  We ended up sharing a taxi and we were both glad we did - the road to the school would have been longer and more uncomfortable with our luggage than either of us wanted to experience.

The Orividen Opisto is a small campus in the countryside of Orivesi with a few large-sized buildings, a few medium-sized buildings, a gym/performance area, dorms, a restaurant, and a pond with a fountain and gazebo; it's a lovely spot for an arts and music school.  Throughout the afternoon the 80+ music teachers from around Finland converged on this spot to learn how to be better teachers for their students.

My journey in Finland began about five months earlier, which included two months during the deepest parts of winter where I visited schools but most afternoons and weekends were of significant isolation, and another three months of traveling to schools around Finland by bus, by train, by bike and by foot - and as the temperatures warmed, so did the people - they came out to interact and play!  In retrospect, I spent a significant amount of time by myself over the past five months and I was well adept at opening myself to new experiences, new people, a new language and culture, and I was used to being open and receptive to all that Finland had to offer;  I had trust for her people and their actions;  I felt at ease.

Our first activity in the morning was so simple - yet so difficult...for me.  All 80+ of us were standing on the floor of the gym, most people wearing clothes comfortable for movement; music played over the sound system.  Our task was simple - take a scarf and create four dance moves with the scarf and repeat them in sequence.  We did this separately, but together on the gym floor, and I assure you, no one was looking at me - but it felt as though I was completely exposed.  Every move had to be forced as I had to push past my inhibitions to move freely in this open space.  In contrast, my new friend, Sanna, was completely joyful with the exercise and went through cycles of throwing the scarf up in the air and trying to catch it with her head, diving across the floor, laughing and exclaiming how much fun she was having.  I wanted to be Sanna, or at least, to find the freedom of creativity that Sanna knew how to embrace and love. As I watched Sanna and the joy she experienced, and compared it to the tension I was feeling, I realized how closed off I had become to undefined musical experiences - because every movement felt so uncomfortable I had to force myself - FORCE myself - to do it.

We proceeded to another dance where all of us held hands and went through group dances usually performed at Finnish wedding ceremonies; I was surprised to see the Finns looking directly at each other - and me. I was shocked, actually.  In the five months I spent in Finland I didn't have this many people in total connecting and retaining eye contact with me - or so it seemed.  Their looks were deep and deliberate and I found myself getting teary because I had missed having prolonged eye contact. It was such a gift.

We proceeded with other Orff methods which included percussion games through claps, stomps, snaps and other sounds, as well as chants and the playing of Orff instruments that made it easy for even the beginning musician to participate.  Sometimes we did repetitive rhythms in rounds while other times we played drums or xylophones or simple dance steps - always as a group, or groups within groups so that the entire "piece" could be played together.  I think the artistry in teaching these methods comes from understanding how to scaffold a lesson so that students feel as comfortable as possible within each step but still challenged to perform and experience something new.  For me, I felt comfortable with the instrumentation - it was the improvisation that was difficult, but I found that the scaffolding and the repetition within the exercises tended to make all the steps much easier, and at the same time, more of a natural progression.

It was still exhausting to let myself go and try something new and I had to deliberately force my actions past my restraints toward creativity.  The progress was happening, but it was definitely a work in progress.

By the time lunch ended, I was so exhausted I went to lie down and I contemplated staying in my room and not participating  - who would notice my absence?  During the morning we had danced, we had sung, we had played drums, we played the xylophones - and slowly, these activities were becoming more and more enjoyable - and I kept envisioning Sanna and her joy at creating her own art - without reservation and without fear of judgement. Without conscious intent, I found myself getting back up and going back to class; I would not improve by staying in my room.

By the next morning I was starting to see that the most successful musicians were those who were unafraid to make mistakes, that mistakes were normal, and that the people who were trying without great concern were those who had the most fun.  I wanted to have fun;  I started to let go.

It was that evening that Sanna put together a ukulele jam session, complete with grilled Finnish sausages.  One of the women played her accordion so in total our group had fifteen ukuleles, one accordion, and about twenty-five singing voices.  We played together for several hours and by the time we finished we were marked by mosquito stings, the sun had dimmed slightly past midnight, and everyone headed off to bed.

It was then that I started to feel the music come from me, rather than to me.

It was a beginning.

(To be continued.)

For more information about Orff methods:

In the United States:
In Finland:


  1. Hi Janet,

    I found your blog after researching the Finn Ed system a bit as a result of attending FinnFestUSA this past weekend.

    A quick Google search led me to you school email address - please check you inbox for a message.


  2. I remember using basic Orff Instruments in elementary school (a decade or so before prop 13 was passed)!