Cutting Edge in Nova Scotia

[This is a slightly edited re-post from Horn Insights]

Let’s get this out of the way up front: I’m in love. I don’t know how else to describe my wonderful time last week in Nova Scotia, my first visit to this splendid province.

I was asked by the music educators of NS to give the keynote address at their annual music educator’s conference in Antigonish at the end of October, as well as to do some presentations. The reason they asked me was because they started working on a new curriculum for band Gr. 7-12 about four years ago. Ardith Haley, Arts Educational consultant in the NS Dept. of Education and one of the central figures involved in writing the new curriculum, was at the Midwest Band Clinic at that time and happened to stop by the booth of GIA Music. GIA had just published my book Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians. Ardith examined a copy and decided that this was just what they needed for the new curriculum. They wanted to include improvisation and composition in the new curriculum, but they hadn’t found any material out there that addressed their needs until the moment that Ardith picked up my book.

The curriculum is laid out in 9 modules, each containing instructions and materials that take 26 hours to achieve. Printed out (I have a draft), it makes a stack of paper more than two inches high. A lot of thought and work went into this effort, and it shows. And the part that deals with creative activities is built around my book. So they asked me to come and talk about it at the conference.

It was a hoot. I met nothing but bright, friendly, helpful people. Andrew Beazley of the music store(s) Long and McQuade was great in organizing the logistics of my trip, and I rode from Halifax to Antigonish with him and fellow L&M mates Chris and Jason. It took almost as long to drive to Antigonish (I love NS place names; I made something of a collection of them before leaving) as to fly from the midwest to Halifax, but the drive was gorgeous – through scenic gorges and up on not-quite-mountain mesas for a beautiful view of the fall foliage, a delightful variegated crazy quilt of conifer and deciduous trees in full fall glory.

I had prepared a one-hour talk, but had to abbreviate it after all the introductions were made and welcome music was performed. It was a joy to preach to this particular choir. I asked at one point how many had or knew about my book (holding up a copy) and most of the hands in the room went up. That was a nice feeling (although if it’s in the curriculum, I guess they don’t really have a choice….).

During the speech I was a little surprised to see a number of Asian faces in the audience – I thought people were mostly of Scottish heritage in NS. Ardith told me later that it was a delegation from Singapore who had heard about the new curriculum and were here to learn about it first hand. I thought I saw them smile in the part where I said (approximately) “The US is racing in the wrong direction educationally – doubling down on standardized testing, cutting education budgets in the name of deficits (which is like cutting your head off to lose weight – very effective for a very short time, disaster in the longer run), and especially cutting arts education. The narrow teach-to-the-test curriculum that’s left is both no fun and doesn’t work – test scores are getting lower and lower. Arts education brings with it a plethora of skills, habits, and aptitudes that transfer easily to a broad range of other subjects (ever notice that a lot of the smart kids are in band or choir?). Support for it should be dramatically increased in this era that Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) calls the Conceptual Age, where the most important and highly paid jobs will be those that call on the right side of the brain (in contrast to the left brain oriented Information Age, just past) with its creativity, empathy, synthesis, and ability to see the whole picture. China [I said], for instance, must be holding its sides laughing watching the US hurry to go back to useless standardized testing, while China has recognized the need for arts education to develop the creative side of the brain and is moving swiftly forward on it.”

I met many wonderful people at this conference. I attended a session by Paul Hutten on working aurally and creatively with junior high band players. This guy is a genius. His band (or part of it – about 16 players) was there, and they worked together before our very eyes and ears for over an hour without ink – listening, trying things, singing solfege lines, evaluating their own playing, and having a good time doing it. I borrowed this band later for one of my sessions and it was terrific working with them. They were great sports, ready to try anything, something I usually associate only with elementary age kids – by junior high they are too frightened to move by the thought of being embarrassed.

It was a pleasant surprise to find out that Nova Scotia is on the cutting edge of music education, simply by building a complete musical education that includes creative activities. I commended the Nova Scotians for their vision and energy to act on that vision. Music study has been one-sided for so long that folks have forgotten that it was any other way. There are two sides to a comprehensive musical education, analogous to to learning language. Since the first caveman danced and chanted about the mastodon hunt, music and music education (“Could you show me that mastodon song you did last night around the fire?”) have been an aural art. When, 50,000 years later, someone had the bright idea to try to represent the sounds on paper, it remained an aural art with the addition of the new skill of deciphering symbols and turning them into sound. The rise of conservatories and giant orchestras in the 19th century doomed the skill of improvisation – thinking in music – and players lost that ability as the only valid exercise of musicianship became re-creation of what distant experts (composers) wrote down. Ink became all. Now half of the house was shuttered: the aural half, the source and origin of music itself. Since then we have lived in only the Literate half. Nothing wrong with the Literate side – but it’s only half of what’s possible, leaving us incomplete as musicians.

The reason we do it that way is because it’s easy. Creativity is messy, hard to grade. If you can get past that part, you can access all the terrific personal and societal benefits that come with creative activities. Improv is a terrific teaching tool. Another thing is motivation. It’s daunting to create if you haven’t done or been allowed to do it. But it is both perfectly normal and great fun once you do it for a bit. Nova Scotia has discovered how to correct the imbalance of the music education system and do it right – let children have the run of the whole house, so to speak. Kids are naturally creative – they learn the world largely through their own invented play games. An intelligent curriculum is one that lets them continue what they already know and enjoy, instead of squelching it in the name of socialization and standardization. An important part of our humanity is making things. It’s natural and it feels good. We use our minds, our bodies, we work with others. We dream, we plan, we try, we fail, we learn, we keep at it, we finally succeed and we feel pretty darn good about ourselves. Contemporary culture works against this in many ways: we are encouraged to be passive consumers, listen to the music of others, denigrate our efforts because they can’t compare with those of the genius producers. Contemporary Culture says: Don’t Do It Yourself. Buy it, rent it. Outsource doing and creative efforts. We should be doing lots of things ourselves, because it’s our nature, it feels good, it makes us healthy as people and as a society. There’s nothing wrong with having groups like bands, orchestras, choirs, etc. – but they are only one half of music. People drop out of these groups in all-too-large numbers because there is no avenue for personal expression. If you want that, you have to buy a guitar and start a garage band. Institutional curricula (music and otherwise) are like ocean liners – very big with tremendous inertia, and when they are under way, it’s very hard to change course. It’s been doubly hard because even if someone with the power to change course actually realized that building creativity into the educational DNA of a music curriculum was a good idea, there are precious few models on how to do this. The Literate path is clear, established, and easy. It takes extraordinary vision, effort, and patience to make the change.

An almost absurd string of coincidences has led to the Nova Scotian transformation. How and why would/could a professional horn player who never improvised on his instrument come up with a book on how to create your own music as a classical musician? It was because of a job switch, terminal boredom with the old way, and experience in improv from guitar playing and theatrical improv. That wouldn’t have mattered if I hadn’t met improvising pianist Evan Mazunik, or that shortly thereafter I had the chance to put together a semester course in the subject. I put together the first five years of the course in the book, and it took another absurd amount of serendipity for the book to come out just when Ardith Haley was looking for something to base that part of a new curriculum on, and she happened by the GIA booth at Midwest.

Winning the lottery sounds easy compared with this string of coincidences. But it may be a lottery win in music for a new generation of young musicians if the Nova Scotian model catches on. Programs from outside the province are already taking notice. Inside NS, band directors and music teachers – even those who did little or no creative activities before – have reported wonderful, even amazing responses from their students. My course in classical improv at the university doesn’t mean that much by itself, except that the alums from the course now often go out and start their own improv workshops and courses and use it in their pedagogy. What really will make the difference is when very young children everywhere have a chance to do creative (as well as re-creative) music every day in school. They will grow up enjoying it, getting very good at it, expecting it when they get to high school and university. It’s a stretch right now for some band directors who have never done creative music to try to teach it to a room full of students who have also never done anything. But when, in a few years, the room is full of players who are all comfortable with creating music because they have grown up creating as part of doing music in school, the directors will find it easy. There is no work involved – the kids will produce music without effort, and they will be better and more motivated musicians when it comes to re-creating music as well.

To resume the travelogue: after the conference, I hitched a ride back to Halifax with Jason Caslor, a professor of conducting at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. By another remarkable coincidence, I got an email from him a week before that had his doctoral thesis (DMA recently completed at Arizona State University) as an attachment. The subject was “spontaneous improvisation” in concert bands. We had corresponded about it several years ago, and he found my book very useful in setting up his research. I told him that I was going to be at the NS music conference, and he said, “What a coincidence! I’ll be there too, manning the booth my university’s school of music.” Coincidence!

The next morning Ardith, ever the soul of helpfulness, offered to take me on a scenic tour of the area. I said that I wanted to see the ocean, but hadn’t had the chance as yet. So she took me to Peggy’s Cove, a charming little fishing village about 35 miles from Halifax. The view of the sea and the rugged shoreline and the famous lighthouse was spectacular. I bought some souvenirs in the gift shop and we continued our nonstop chat about the curriculum over seafood chowder. Before we headed back to Halifax, we also stopped at the site of the memorial for the crash of Swissair Flight 111 that happened nearby about eight years ago, a time for some reflection on the fragility and preciousness of life.

Ardith delivered me to my next port of call, the Art Centre at Dalhousie University, where I was scheduled to do a horn masterclass. I enjoyed meeting the horn professor there, David Parker, and working with the students. In another surprising coincidence, one of them – Shannon Lauriston – turned out to be the daughter of a Canadian horn player whom I had known in grad school.

Coincidences! I should definitely buy a lottery ticket. Make that a Nova Scotian lottery ticket.

That evening, my host Andrew Beazley graciously showed me around the Halifax waterfront with its fine vistas of bay and ships in one direction and great downtown architecture in the other direction.

A whirlwind trip to a great place. I enjoyed every minute of it and can’t wait to go back (Andrew tells me that the Tall Ships meeting is scheduled to be in Halifax Summer 2012!). I am in the process of catching up on things back home (after all, improv is just a hobby – my day job is playing and teaching horn) and processing all that I learned on the trip.

I don’t know if it was one more coincidence, but right after I got back there was more good news. I gave my publisher at GIA a summary of my trip and concluded the note with a query about moving forward on books I had submitted to GIA but which had not yet been given the editorial go ahead: Improv Duets, Improvised Chamber Music, and Creative Piano Pedagogy for Piano Teachers (with co-author Aura Strohschein). He said, let’s get going on those. Send updated versions!

Small coincidences like these enlivened my trip, but the most important thing that I took away from this trip is that vital change in music curricula is indeed possible if you have talented, energetic, and determined people in the right places, people like Ardith Haley who have the vision and gumption to make it happen. Nova Scotia is where great things are happening, and I hope that the rest of Canada (and even eventually that large bit of geography to the south of it) takes note of the tectonic changes in music curricula that are taking place.

I intend to stay in touch with Ardith, learn from her and from the experiences of Nova Scotian music teachers, and spread the word about it all from here. Readers of this blog will be the first to hear about the latest developments, so stay tuned!