Scheduling the Creativity Out of Life

Scheduling the Creativity Out of Life

I hate this time of year. I feel the summer running out and all of my good intentions to catch up on things going with it. The worst thing, though, is scheduling my students’ lessons for the fall semester. It seems that each year it gets tougher to accommodate their ever-increasing academic and extracurricular loads. I am amazed as I hear each of them list the dozen or so obligations they have, from after school tutoring to sports to dance to school functions.

And these are just the students in elementary school. Go to high school and you see juniors doing more college level classes in a semester than I did while actually in college! Between their parents, the school officials, and the general über-competitive mentality of our society today, they all feel that they must outdo everyone else or they will wind up working in fast food. A mother myself, I feel pressured to put my three year old not only into the top preschool but also into a plethora of enrichment classes—or else, I am told, my daughter’s little brain will never develop.

I remember when I was a kid. Yes, I had piano lessons, violin lessons, Girl Scouts, church. But these were activities I chose. I never had anything forced on me (well, church was). I also had a lot of free time. Time to play outside and bike and catch tadpoles. Time to go to movies, hang at the mall (yes, I did the mall). And because I had time to breathe, I had time to create. I had time to noodle on the piano and make up stuff. I had time to write stories. I had time to be imaginative and explore my interests without outside forces deciding what it was best to teach me to do. I had time to develop an inquisitive mind and other traits that helped me become a composer.

It seems so different with students today. Time and again I encounter students who, upon embarking on formal compositional studies, find themselves frozen, unable to write music. Somehow, in becoming the perfect student, they lost their ability to tap into their creativity, the very thing that brought them to composition. Thus, much of our first lessons are spent trying to foster in them the self-confidence to take chances, to think outside of the box, to explore in all areas of their lives, not just music.

No wonder they cannot write, for composing takes time. Not just the pragmatic aspect of scheduling time, but time in the sense of allowing one’s mind to settle down and open itself to contemplation with no set agenda. One cannot squash that type of time in between volleyball and AP history. Indeed, I doubt if one can schedule that type of time at all. For, rather than quantity, it is a quality of time, a quality that encourages and allows a child’s mind to explore and flourish and think independently in all ways.

So, in our desire to give our students every opportunity to master every skill, are we starving them of the ability to be creative? Are we unknowingly raising a generation that cannot lead unless told what to lead, cannot do unless told what is to be done? How will they react when confronted with new art, new music? Will they be as excited as a child with new crayons, or will they shut down because nobody told them how to respond?

Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

11 thoughts on “Scheduling the Creativity Out of Life

  1. Colin Holter

    I recently read a piece in the Washington Post that addressed the issue of whether high school students are being overworked – tangential, perhaps, to the question of “time quality,” but not completely unrelated. The gist of the editorial is that for every over-scheduled child there are a dozen children for whom our expectations are too low. Frankly, I wasted most of the free time I had when I was a kid, and I probably would have turned out better if the rentals had forced me to take piano lessons.

    As a parent, however, I guess it’s your responsibility to look out for you and yours (as opposed to those other dozen), which in this case means figuring out an optimal balance of activities. Best of luck!

  2. Chris Becker

    I wonder about the freaks, the outsiders, the kids that “don’t fit in”…the ones who do poorly in school, cause trouble…who reject their schooling, their parents and certain value systems…

    …and yet they are creative. They write in journals, they draw pictures, they “waste time” doing things that won’t make them any money…they play guitar feedback for hours or create strange films or tape pieces…sometimes they are the most passionate actors in school plays or the most talented artist in an afternoon are class…sometimes they scare other students…

    …Does this describe any of the students you are observing? If yes, can those students teach us grown ups something? Can they offer a way to “unblock” a blocked budding composer?

  3. marknowakowski

    I think it goes even deeper… report cards, progress reports, GPA’s, all these things can pressure a young student into adopting the notion that in order to be succesful, one must be “good at everything.” In high school, during semesters where I received straight A’s (all except for my D- in math), I still felt like I was underachieving. Teachers and counselors alike, rather than congratulate me on a good semester, always mused that they couldn’t figure on my lack of mathematical ability. There I was, excelling in 7 out of 8 subjects, taking courses on the side and doing very well in our music and computer programs, and yet I was labeled a “math problem.” Do you see my point?

    In addition, it doesn’t help us that despite the fact that most people like (or love) music, few are willing to let their children take the “financial risk” of majoring in music. Most of the high school students I taught were pressured out of pursuing their artistic talent through such (il)logic.

    Considering this, its a wonder so many music majors still enter the university…


  4. ichypatia

    A particularly talented student of mine recently told me that he was interested pursuing music as a major at either Yale or Harvard.

    “Great,” I replied, “I can help with that. As soon as you quit the 30 extracurricular activities you’re involved in, we can get started.”

    I haven’t heard from him since.

  5. JKG

    It is really a shame our society has grown so ridicukously trite. While it is wonderful that kids these days do have many opportunities, I personally can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some degree of entropic conditioning taking place, which will generally preclude much creativity at all unless they find a way around all those activities. The problem with modern educational expectations – a lot of educators just don’t get it. They don’t realize that to be bombarded with a gazillion things at once does absolutely nothing for one’s learning or health, and might even mar for life one’s tenous grasp of meaningfulness. Without a world of meaning, whatever would these kids express in the first place? This is precisely behind the genesis of punk rock and all its’ various permutations. It is the clueless authority structure in the educational system with its perfectly inane expectations, that is bringing about the poisoning of artistic expression in this country and in Europe.

  6. kacattac

    I was a performance major in college. I would always hear my friends panicking before their lessons: “I haven’t practiced at all this week.”

    One time I went to a master class with a guest composer. I walked in and there were all the comp majors: “Oh my god, my lesson is in 2 hours and I haven’t written anything this week.”

    A valid concern for performers; an utterly distasteful approach to composition.

  7. Colin Holter

    Here’s the thing: That has nothing to do with this discussion.

    But you’re right. We should really get our shit together. If you were to try composing for a while, though, you might find that it takes a lot out of you, requiring a stamina of the sort that practicing an instrument does not. Having done both, I’d say it’s an apples and oranges issue. Nonetheless, you’re right – I’m sure most of us would agree that we should spend more time composing than we do.

  8. Colin Holter

    Oh, wait. I think I completely misinterpreted your comment. You’re asserting that composers shouldn’t be held to a rigid timetable, right?


  9. Chris Becker

    “Without a world of meaning, whatever would these kids express in the first place? This is precisely behind the genesis of punk rock and all its’ various permutations.”

    I believe that looking around and not finding a world “meaning” begat a lot of music besides punk rock.

    Also, punk rock as I know it has so many positive attributes – self reliance, self promotion, emphasis on individual expression, political awareness, building a sense of community…this is just from my experience. I’m not sure I understand or follow the entire post I excerpted above…

    So much good creative work is born out of those who reject the sort of pressures that Belinda is describing. And to go back to what Colin said earlier, it may be she is in fact describing a minority – that there are plenty of children “left behind” that are going to be just fine because they’ll carve out their own niche in a “world without meaning.”

    Very dramatic. I’d also say that if a young composer finds that once they’re in formal studies they can’t compose…they should either quit their formal studies or try another avenue of expression.

  10. ian

    Yale and Harvard
    Actually, Yale and Harvard have what’s known as liberal arts music degrees at the undergraduate level, which means that you don’t have to display tremendous musical talent in order to be accepted into the program. At Yale, they don’t have a performance major per se; you can take lessons for credit through the school of music but you don’t have to. And in fact, they are very accepting and welcoming of musicians having other interests; I recall more of my music major classmates pursuing a second major in things like physics, sociology, electrical engineering, etc. than students in any other department.

    So to clarify, your student might have to drop the extracurriculars to spend more time studying, but not to practice.

    This is distinct from Yale’s School of Music, which is a conservatory and has all the usual conservatory requirements. But it’s also graduate-level only.

  11. John Kennedy

    Great topic, Belinda. You’ve noted how the overscheduling of kids is linked to a desire for talent acquisition. Since my two daughters are still young (8 and 5), I haven’t the direct experience to see how it evolves in adolescents, but in my after-school shuttles to dance and piano, what is most obvious is how parents want to start certain activities too soon, before kids are physically or intellectually ready. There is a culture of desperateness and guilt that we are depriving our children of their opportunity to exercise their talent if we don’t provide them the chance, and that the chance will disappear if we don’t jump on it early. What I see in ballet moms watching their daughters is a yearning for self-realization that is understandable in many respects because it acknowledges the primacy of the arts, the aliveness of the arts, amidst so many other soulless pursuits. Of course as artists, we have a less romanticized view of what this means in the big picture, as a life-choice!

    What has evolved parallel to this is too much homework too soon. Thankfully a cyclical backlash is underway with some leading educators renewing the call for kids having kid time. I had to argue to a teacher last year that my second grader needed her after-school hours to have the time to learn how to lose the training wheels on her bike, and that her math skills were just fine they way they were.

    The question of impact on creativity is complicated to me. I think like most behavior, creativity is something we learn through modeling, rather than something that springs up in idleness. I’m not sure psychic space is always the best thing for art…I’ve sometimes speculated whether artists with more time on their hands don’t make art that is perhaps a little more vain and self-referential. Creative moments come by accident sometimes, when dormant idea and active idea coagulate well. So in terms of the creative potential of kids today, perhaps if they are fortunate to have experienced some level of mastery in an array of skills, lighting the creative fire is a matter of finding the right spark for an overabundance of fuel.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.