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in Childhood Music Training


Techniques for Creative Music Making

                                                 By LaDonna Smith

As a person whose musical education from childhood made a tremendous impact on my life, and as one whom in adulthood has participated and noticed trends and techniques in musical education for children; I have come to gain an enormous interest in finding new directions, and new creative resources for the teaching of music to children.

Having been around day school programs, traditional music lessons, functioning for 15 years as teacher and Director of a Suzuki Violin Program, a church musician, and a pioneering improvisor in the current movement of free improvisation in America; I find that the next most pressing challenge for music educators, practitioners, and teachers, and for me personally, is to forge new directions in music education, particularly those which involve improvisation. Not that classical education is bad. In fact, I truly appreciate being brought up in the classical school, in the traditions that echoed traditions. But it forces me to look deep, when I observe music being taught as it always has been taught, both on the elementary and even the college level. New life must be breathed into our methods or the effectiveness of music education is in serious jeopardy of breaking down. It is time to change old concepts of music study, and instrumental instruction, if we are to survive with the changing of the times; for music education to survive as a viable force, accessible, and challenging the advances of the new millenium.

Cultural boundaries are being replaced with cultural  inter-relationships, and music, being a strong voice for the expression of culture and the times in which we live, is also changing. Therefore, the way that we teach music, and the emphasis that we place on traditions and techniques is radically changing as well. In a day and age when corporate interests and media arts are largely influencing the aesthetics of the population, the conservatory of the high arts must bring itself to face the call for a global musical theory, or else we face extinction. With the information age, the massive accessibility of synthesized instrumental sounds, pre-set rhythmic structures, as well as products and programs for computer generated music making, many of which are imitative of our own inventions, now-turned cliches of our own generation; threaten to endanger the organic expression of the human soul, through impulsive music making.

The voice, the most primal of all our humanly endowed musical instruments, must be restored as the fundamental connection to our inner life. It is the gift to every human being, as the vehicle for human expression, for sound, for words and meanings. Indeed, the poetry of the mind is expressed through the voice, and our inner range of emotion may be recaptured through it. It is one of the few things that we have left that connect us with our own organic nature, with our own bodies. And in the ever technologically changing world in which we live, we all possess our voice as the primal resource for our own expression. In toning, we can recapture our past, we can plug in to our own healing forces, through vibrations. In singing, we connect with our human emotions through the colorful expressions of the tones inherent in the voice, as well as the utterances of words and meanings, expressing our thoughts. The voice, with the mind, is still the most powerful communicating vessel that we possess as a human being, and our modern musical education should honor and reflect that fact.

In our changing world, we have already evolved beyond the exploration of tones, of creating melody, harmony, and rhythm, of ordering sound, of composition being an artistic amalgamation of these elements, of creating structural pieces from these. All this is a part of the wonderful western musical heritage, but through globalization and industrialization, we have come to accept many more sounds and cultural influences into our music. In fact, learning the acceptance of SOUND itself (any sound and all sound), is essential not only to our expression, but to our health and well-being, as the modern world has bombarded us with new environmental sounds, mechanical, electronic, and sonic. In the last score alone, we have synthesized and generated an enormous palette of sound colors, never before known to man, which are now common in our environment. Usages of environmental sound, sound in musique concrete, and the widespread proliferation of recordings of indigenous music, the collecting of sound bytes, the editing tools, the processing, all of these contribute to a new order and a new age in the musical creativity of mankind.

The influences of jazz practices and the study of indigenous world music practices have yielded new directions, placing a renewal of importance in the practice of improvisation. Indeed, there has existed for the last 30 years a movement of music, called free improvisation, which is based on the operation of psychic automatism and marks no necessary association with given musical styles, or either free-association with any and all musical styles… It is an act of creation from the point of no pre-conception, utilizing what instruments or tools are at hand. Indeed, it has lead to a proliferation of the invention of new musical instruments, ranging from technological advances to primitive instruments of homemade origin. It is a music that doesn’t necessarily require musical training! It is a music that can be primarily recreational. Or, the practice of improvisation, as well, may assume the form of a high art; performed in public places for an informed audience ready for a "music of the moment:" a music which is both composed and performed by the same being, a music which is the direct expression of the performer.

What then, IS important for teachers of music to convey these days? All conservatory standards have already been superceded by the demands of a public, barraged from every angle by modern resources, extended techniques, advancing theories and philosophies, which include a global culture.

With children, I think it is important to include from the very start, a conceptual training, which will facilitate channeling the natural talent into usable musical forms. The traditional western instrumental techniques must be preserved if we are to preserve our heritage, just as the practice of shenai playing must be preserved if there is to be a Chinese orchestra, but even the pedagogy of musical instruments must evolve to include new directions in musical instrument involvement.

Improvisation is clearly a key to unlock the doors of music making in the future. With change being the constant element of our existence (as it always has been), musical training should begin with the concept of creativity placed first and foremost above "how-to" methodology, tradition, or technique. Those would become the "special" studies.

The analogy may be like this. "I want, I desire, I visualize the creation, say, of a quilt that tells the story of my life. It will look like this…

It will have these squares. Then, the question becomes, "How can I do it?" First the desire, then the idea, and then comes the technique. First you get the picture, then you cut the material into shapes, or create figures that tell a story, or combine colors that create a mood. You dye the material, you practice the sewing techniques, you stuff the quilt, you hem. The ideas may change as you go. You adapt, and continue to create as you proceed with the process. One day the masterpiece is complete, only to leave the possibility for starting the process all over, once again.

Practical Matters

Students should be given the tools for thinking.

Students should be given the permission for feeling.

Students should be given the opportunity for invention.

Even at a very early age, questions should be asked. "What is SOUND?" "What Is Music"? "What makes Sound Different from Music." "IS Sound different from music?" "Think of all the possible sounds as potential material for making music, just as you would think of parts of the alphabet that are combined to be made into words, which in turn are made into sentences which express stories, ideas, concepts, great poetry or prose, or even lies."

In today’s classrooms, music is too often taught by rote, or by imitation of "traditional" songs, or nursery rhymes. While it’s beneficial to preserve some tradition, and necessary, if we are to orally pass music on, having some historical correlation or significance; but I find it horrifying to eavesdrop on a class of 5 year olds, and only hear the "Alphabet Song" repeated ad infinitum, to the point where you ask yourself, "Gee, I thought these kids knew the alphabet before they even came to school. What are we teaching? Is this is total regression?" Or to observe a piano lesson where all emphasis is begun with note recognition of middle C, and D…etc. and not with "lets find some music here…" Or with a violin lesson where we say, "Place finger… Set... Play... Stop! Swing… Place finger… Set… Play… Stop! While Suzuki is the advocate of listening and rote playing, the student develops, through a good deal of ear training and early development of motor skills. But, there is again, beyond the repetition of skills and graded progression of "selected" literature, little or no theory, and absolutely no creativity on the instrument even implied as part of the method. It is all about "listening", and "developing a fine heart," which is good. But what of the primal, innate, inner listening, that stimulates self-expression? Is that not what music stems from? Shall we not encourage this creative expression? Too often, we are blinded to this by trying to encourage a correct technique, a right sound, or an exact rendering of a repertory piece, as it was "interpreted" in its day. It is a totally different emphasis. "What, then is a good musician?" "What are we really training?" Are we still training our students to "do as we do, as our teachers taught, as it has always been done?"

Sadly, as I look into University curriculums, it is apparent that nothing much has changed in the past 30 years. What do four-part harmonizations of Bach’s musical style, and 17th century counterpoint have to do with the musical needs of the 21st century? There are many advances in the art of composition, in the technology of music, and in the return to improvisation as the direct route to self-expression. The need for music departments to change priorities and create curriculum to reflect the present tendencies is imminent. Even traditional church musicians are in need of new directions and influences in their education, new tools to create from, stimulating new expression, in order to breathe a new music into the spiritual life of their constituency. Without new tools, changing with the times, improvising a new direction, the life of Western Spirituality as we know it is dying.

Musical creativity should be the first and foremost priority in the teaching of music. In every music lesson, there should be a time for improvisation, for invention, and a time for technical training, and development of the tools, which would include improvisational skills based on free and theoretical styles. These could come from western or eastern classical music, specific indigenous cultural practices as chosen by the individual, based on their interest or heritage, from pop or jazz, or from free improvisation.

In early music training, this would include right-brained vocalization, and exploratory listening to sounding, harmonizing, verbalizing and even toning. It would include stimulating left-brained discussions of instrument families, sound-source "types," assignments to invent instruments, to find new "sound-makers", even for use in creating a community "sound-orchestra", or innovative architectural sound environments.

In specific applied instrumental training, improvisation should be a regular interactive, activity:

of finding sounds,

of utilizing scales, chords, and clusters,

of setting up rhythmic patterns,

of interacting with another instrument,

of experimenting with two’s threes, quartets, and voice combinations.

of probing what new sounds the instrument is capable of producing

of probing for sound qualities…

of categorizing sound colors…

of analyzing how sounds make you feel…

In Suzuki string classes….

Typically, music memorization is emphasized in order to free us from the page for better technical awareness and expression. I would like to see the addition of scale study, not just major-minor, but made-up scales and scale patterns…and not just practiced in three octaves, in memorization of the theory and fingering; but practiced in patterns with hip, modern accompaniments, applying them to creative excursions in improvisation, creating understanding of theory by practice rather than memorization. Also, the "forging of sound" is a new concept that could well be applied to the string student. Early creative and innovative introductions to instrumental sounds and extended bowing techniques….would apply a far greater development of awareness and creative sensitivity in these students than the constant attempted generation of the "big" sound. I am not worried. The fundamental will be found!


Improvisation practices naturally lead to the development of the art of composition. Invariably, mankind loves to preserve its inspirations. And there are many techniques for writing, developing, and realizing musical ideas. In order to prepare the student for his own self expression, then it follows that there should also be the inclusion of creative capturing. This includes designing events, recording by modern technology or even "old-fashioned" score writing. Composition should be a staple of musical education and study. Compositional games and practices could include specific assignments utilizing various and specific theoretical components, or loose structure conceptualizations such as graphic notation, or stories that bear theatrical imagery, sonic meditation on fixed parameters… lets think now!

A major aspect of musical curriculum, theory, and philosophy would include the enormous importance of LISTENING. Not just hearing, but "listening" with you full attention to what is occurring in the moment, to talk about it, noticing what is commanding our attention, and verbalizing on it, as in the "Deep Listening" conceptual innovations of Pauline Oliveros.

One outcome would be the re-definition of "musical literacy." Musical literacy would not only include being capable of interpreting the music of our traditions. It means being capable of using the tools of the 21st Century which include use of computers, new technology, new programs as well as new conceptions. But finally, musical literacy, defines the tools for embracing all self-expression. This would include the mental processes necessary to free the mind from the constrictions of training and form. It would provide the permission to delve into the deep recesses of creative process, to dig for the gold within our own beings, for every human being to find the music of his own soul. To re-instate the recognition and evolution of a new folk music through improvisation: "the returning of the musical creativity to the people, as it were…"  

Ideas for Improvisation Class


Students would have musical instruments. The following outline presents a comprehensive course of study through an improvisational perspective. Not all of these lessons could be performed in a single clinic. These are the areas which could be developed over a consistent course of time.

However, for a one hour Suzuki clinic, I would suggest working with the use of a single scale, fragmenting, and applying rhythmic variations, passing phrases, "imitating, and introducing", against a simple harmonic background. The background, of course, could be changed to create variety in the exercise. The second emphasis for the session would be the exploration of extended techniques on the instruments, the combination of tones and sounds, and some conducted free improvisation games or studies… The emphasis would be on the ability to "let go" of pre-conceived notions and enjoy exploring the limitations of the moment.



I. Use of improvisation and development of improvisational skills in the introduction of teaching linear and harmonic music theory.

                                 (applied music theory)

A.  Scale study

  1. use of scale fragments, and patterns
  2. rhythmic applications with scale patterns
  3. motifs, imitation, retrograde, inversion
  4. flow

B. Harmony (linear)

  1. spelling chords, arpeggios
  2. use of arpeggios and passing tones
  3. use of enharmonic tones for creative purposes
  4. following ear or imagination (abandon)

C.  Functional Harmony

  1. chord progressions (types and styles)
  2. building chords on the diatonic scale (i.ii,iii,IV,V,vi,vii)
  3. passing between chords, in and out of key
  4. floating sound masses
  5. sound effects

 II.    Developing SOUND, and Sound Abstractions

(through pitches, tambers, instruments, objects, voice, inventions)

  1. Listening – (awareness of environmental sounds)
  1. transparent sounds, wind sounds, white noises
  2. indeterminate pitched sounds
  3. textural sounds (paper blowing in the wind)
  4. layered sounds
  5. single pure tones
  1. Creating – (all of the above)

  III   Investigating rhythmic structures

  1. recognizable rhythmic structures, simple or complex
  2. combinations of indeterminate sound mass, determinate pitches and rhythms
  3. layering rhythmic structures


   IV   Automatism (improvisation)

  1. Moving from "awareness" (listening) to "action" (just do it)
  1. plug in to the subconcious, (dropping self-consciousness)
  2. reacting (utilizing self-consciousness)
  3. responding
  1. Be a human vehicle for the unseen forces to move you, let the sound not come from you, but "through" you (super-consciousness)

   V.   Automatic sound composition

  1. Experimental Mind games with stimuli such as:
  1. rules and parameters
  2. graphic notation
  3. listening to inner urges
  4. combining with others, dialog
  5. solo excursions

B. Critique without judgement. (Noticing what has been created):

  1. describe what happened
  2. how did it begin, progress, and end?
  3. How did it make you feel? (emotional content or impact)
  4. Was it interactive?
  5. Or evolving from a single source?
  6. Was it framed by silence?
  7. What was it’s shape?
  8. What was it’s texture?
  9.   Did a melody occur?
  10.   Was it spontaneous, reactive, or meditative?
  11.   How long was the event?
  12.   Could it be captured?
  13.   Was it idea oriented?
  14.   Was it primarily created by a compositional technique, or by            abandon and creative spark?

    15.  Which is more useful?


    VI.   Composition

  1. Capturing the inspiration
  2. (the spark, the motif, the "flow")

  3. Crafting the Captured inspiration into a piece
  1. working with the elements
  2. "fleshing out" (editing, and re-writing),
  3. harmony

  4. Realization (making final product)

File (cd, tape, or other medium)

VII  Observation and Analysis

A.  Discussion

    1. Did you enjoy the music?
    2. Did the music "move" you?
    3. Did you endure it? How did it affect you as a receiving receiver?
    4. Would you want to hear it again?
    5. Did you read any "meaning" into or from it?
    6. Does the practice of composing strengthen your creative skills of expression in verbal, philosophical, theoretical, or other areas?

B.  Written Analysis or Review (just think about it...)