To meet the unprecedented challenges of our increasingly globalized world,
we need more people who are creatively confident as well as flexible, mentally agile, globally aware and culturally sensitive to serve as the thought leaders of tomorrow. Of course, there are many different ways to cultivate these skills. But one simple, economical, and fun way to address them all simultaneously is to combine music appreciation with Jazz improvisational techniques and begin applying them from birth. There is promising evidence emerging in the field of early childhood development and education that suggests that exposure to music and improvisational techniques can affect the development of creative thinking significantly (Koutsoupidou and Hargreaves, 2009), as well as have other enduring beneficial effects (Skoe and Kraus, 2012).
How Jazz Can Foster Creative Confidence
Jazz music is renowned for being innovative. From Big Band to Swing, from Gospel and Folk to Ragtime and Bebop, Jazz has morphed in its cadences and styles, absorbing a variety of regional and cultural influences along the way. While many musical forms have improvisation as an element, the improvisational skill exhibited in Jazz music is a high art in that it is both disciplined and free: there are structures and techniques that must be respected, but also ample space in which free expression can thrive. The Jazz artist must know what has transpired before, listen to what is currently being played or said, and act in the moment in a way that is fearless and true. The improvisation of Jazz requires courage, quickness of thought, imagination, and flexibility. What’s more, as with any skill, the more it is practiced, the stronger it becomes.
The use of Jazz as a way of teaching the innovative process to adults-- namely national governments and corporations-- is not new. John Kao, Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Council on Innovation talks about this extensively in his books, videos, and speeches. Renowned Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis also frequently talks about the lessons and benefits of Jazz for society. For instance, he likens a well-balanced Jazz band with the democratic form of government (Wynton Marsalis and Judith Rodin: “Leveraging the Power of Innovation” at the 2013 Independent Sector). Marsalis also makes it a point to educate school children about Jazz and works with young aspiring Jazz musicians to improve their craft. The idea of teaching babies and toddlers actual Jazz techniques, however, is not as well developed. This is where I think more attention should be focused.
Begin at the Beginning
While this Challenge centers on “teenagers and young adults” (Challenge Brief), I believe that the task of preserving and strengthening natural creative confidence should begin as early as possible so that when children reach their teens they are already well equipped with the skills and mindsets that they need to flourish. In their book, Creative Confidence , Tom & David Kelley discuss the work of author and researcher Brené Brown, who interviewed people about their experiences with shame. She found that a third of them “could recall a ‘creativity scar,’ a specific incident when they were told that they weren’t talented as artists, musicians, writers, singers.” (pp. 54-55) The Kelleys go on to note that “when a child loses confidence in his or her creativity, the impact can be profound.” (p. 55) This can occur at any time during childhood. In fact, Sir Ken Robinson, a well-known educational reform advocate, asserts that the very design of our educational system, “educat[es] people out of their creative capacities.” (Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk: How Schools Kill Creativity) We should not waste any time, therefore, before starting to bolster the creative confidence of our children. So why not begin at birth?
Bebop 4 Babies . . . And So Much More
While my idea is to teach babies and toddlers the improvisational techniques that make Jazz so distinctive, I think that they should be applied not just to Jazz music per se, but to as wide a range of musical genres and regional styles as possible. This is beneficial because it broadens the realm of what is possible by providing diverse examples of musical interpretation and cultural expression. Not only is this useful to inspire creativity, it also serves to foster global awareness and cultural sensitivity, which is necessary for tomorrow’s global leaders. So how does this work?
Part I: Music Appreciation (Listen & Learn)
Have the child listen to a variety of musical offerings from around the world, in all sorts of musical styles and genres. The core idea is to play for infants and toddlers as much music as possible, as frequently as possible, from as diverse a variety of sources as possible. For instance, one could create a broad compilation of lyrically clean and content-appropriate “adult” music from such diverse genres as Classical, Reggae, Calypso, Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Rock, Soul, Traditional, Folk, Instrumental, Modern & New Age, as well as Broadway Tunes and Movie Sound Tracks with regional representation from Asia, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, North America, South America and Europe. To remain age appropriate, it would be best to intersperse this music generously with traditional children’s nursery rhymes and fun songs. This could play on random shuffle in the background for most of the day, but especially during play periods. One simple way to teach the value of diversity in interpretative expression is to include several instances where songs are repeated by different artists in different styles. For instance, the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” has been sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Connick, Jr., Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, and Jewel, to name just a few. After a while, the child will begin to recognize the songs and be able to hum them or sing them “offline.” When this skill develops, it is time to move to the next step.
Part II: Jazz Improvisation (Experiment & Do)
Once the child is familiar with the various songs, it is time to begin to experiment with playing them. The parent or teacher can either encourage the child to sing the songs or accompany the music with another type of instrument, such as a drum, tambourine, xylophone, etc. Older kids and kids with preexisting musical backgrounds can even read the music and play it, or sound it out by ear. However, instead of using the traditional method of musical training where specific and exact reproduction is emphasized, the parent or teacher should encourage the child to use Jazz improvisation to “riff” and embellish the music. A great example of how this might sound is Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”
During these acts of improvisation, it is critical not to express any judgment about the quality of the improvisation or whether it is “right” or “wrong.” Ideally, the adult should join in so that it becomes a game of give and take. As Benjamin Zander, renowned conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, encourages, the teacher should give the child or student an “A” and help him or her to embrace Possibility. (Zander’s book, The Art of Possibility, provides a more thorough discussion of the transformative power of setting high expectations, i.e., giving an “A.”) In this way, the child can learn to experiment in a safe space. Any “failures” encountered will be self-defined by the child regarding what he or she believes sounds good or not, and he or she will learn quickly to correct and compensate for that. Thus, failure is seen as non-threatening and even fun.
Creating spontaneous musical improvisation requires courage, quickness of thought, imagination, and flexibility. This is the essence of creative confidence. What’s more, if done with multiple children, it will also teach the advanced creative confidence skills of listening, collaboration, supporting, and building upon another’s ideas.
The benefits of this method are many. In a world of rules, especially for toddlers who are precocious and always being told “no,” this is a safe space in which to experiment freely and break the rules. It teaches flexibility and mental agility. It also, critically makes failure fun, non-threatening, and teaches rapid recovery from “mistakes.” Depending upon the age of the child, it also teaches teamwork and collaboration skills. This is the essence of creative confidence. In addition, by using a wide variety of music from several genres and regions, the children will gain global awareness and cultural sensitivity. All of these are characteristics that a future global leader should have.