Using Restrictions to Develop Creativity Three ways to encourage both creative and accurate playing

Creativity can be an elusive quality to develop. There are many kids and people who seem inclined to do their own things and do them their own way. As teachers, we often categorize these students as creative and do one of three things:

  1. We spend time letting them explore their ideas. Often enamored with their ability to create , we try and not to push them too hard in directions that are not inline with what they want to do so we don’t squash their joy and passion for creativity.
  2. We try to snap them into our program, curriculum or methodology. We don’t encourage creativity until they get certain things on our agenda as teachers within their grasp – if ever.
  3. We do some combination of numbers 1 and 2 above. We dedicate time to both exploration and method.

Parameters Creativity

The shortcoming for approach number one is that students plateau at some point only working on their own ideas. They tend to get to a certain point where they develop a bag of tricks and they use those over and over. This can go on for years. When they get frustrated because they can’t do anything else, they often get really depressed and sometimes even quit. Or they project their insecurities on teachers or people they collaborate with and have a hard time sustaining momentum in their music. I have many adult students who are professional musicians who come to me for help who have had this experience from a very young age – psychologically and emotionally, it’s brutal for them.

The second approach above often doesn’t work long-term because they aren’t made aware of the creative concepts and decisions it took to compose the songs they play on a daily basis – even beginning level pieces. So they develop a disconnect and feel they have to shut off their creative side to play something “correctly”.

The combination in the third approach starts to fragment the lessons. They don’t get enough time to really master playing well or creatively so they start to spin their wheels or only do one part of the assignment.

For the students we don’t think of as “creative”, we often are relieved that they can go along with our program and gradually improve without much resistance. They do the assignments (even the composing ones) and follow rules well and are generally enjoyable to work with. They can even feel relieved when they don’t get asked to “create”. But there is something missing in their performances – they feel it and we can feel it as teachers.

One of the best ways to encourage creativity for people we deem to be both creative and not creative is to develop their abilities to play within tight parameters. Here are some of my favorite approaches that can work at any level:

  • Note Restriction: Ask a student to play their piece only using one note in each hand (on piano). For example, Bach Invention #4 in Dmin – have them play the piece using only an F in the right and and a D in the left hand. They should play all the dynamics and phrasing they have worked on with the original.
  • Bitonal Playing: Let’s stay with the Bach Invention… Play the right hand as written and play the left hand in the relative major – F Major. It doesn’t matter it the notes are perfect. But the time has to stay steady and they can’t drop beats (or parts of beats) to go back and “fix” notes. Once they get good at this, have them expand into harder combinations… Left hand can be the written part and the right hand is up a tri-tone or fifth.
  • Free Play with Parameters: This one is so helpful for both the creative types and the “by-the-book types”. They can play whatever they want as long as they make up their own notes. They use the rhythms that Bach wrote as well as the dynamics and phasing that you have been working on, but the notes should come from them 100%. They should be encouraged to play the wildest melodies and note combinations they possibly can. Break them away from the original so they have to play something completely unrelated while keeping all other aspects of the piece intact.

They will become very creative over time and learn to play precisely what’s on the page better than ever if they keep working like this. There is no need to separate creative concepts from performing something accurately and precisely. Creativity and restriction serve each other beautifully.