What’s inside your box?

Recently we cleared out our storage shed. Boxes and boxes of boxes; some belonged in the past, some in the present, some in the future. When I was unpacking them I couldn’t help but think of those Russian Matryoshka dolls – where inside one doll is another, then another, then… you know the ones. It occurred to me that we all live in boxes within boxes.

It was amazing how much redundant junk I’d been storing for years. It was a pleasant surprise to discover terrific things that I’d forgotten I had, once I’d thrown out the junk. There was so much more space for fresh things and I found I could consolidate boxes.

The size of your box depends on what you’ve got shoved in it. The less junk you have in it the more usable space there is. It’s a bit like that with our musical creativity – every now and then we need to trash some of our old ways of thinking in order to make space for some fresh stuff.

In my last blog I spoke about how it would be great if we could be more creative with our music, both in our playing and in our listening by thinking ‘outside the box’, as the saying goes.

But is this actually misguided? I think confinement is a state of mind. Perhaps we should be utilising better the space that’s in our box.  Or maybe we should be exploring our box and finding the hidden corners, or how high the walls are. Can we come and go between our boxes? It might be simpler just to make some more space in the box we’re in rather than moving out: do some house cleaning; open those windows!

BOXWhich brings me to the whole point of this blog (Yes! I hear you). How do we as teachers nurture creativity in our students while the arts’ industries (particularly the music industry) reward conventionality?

The first step is to let students know that in Art, there is convention and there is unconvention / experimentation; both can exist in the same box. Simply being aware of the two and understanding which one your student is instinctively drawn to, may be a starting point.

Creativity can enhance convention, and convention can channel creativity. One can be the vehicle, the other the driver. The danger is in not knowing which one is which, while the joy is in being able to make the best of both and go places.

There are many engaging activities that can help exercise the creative muscles for students, teachers and professionals. Here’s some of my favourites (grab your instrument of choice):

  1. What does ‘happy’ sound like?  How about ‘sad’? Angry? Can you make ‘angry’ move to ‘happy’?
  2. Think of something interesting that happened in your day. Imagine that as a movie, then imagine what music soundtrack would best suit that experience. Play it.
  3. Count to 7. See the numbers in your mind, and give them colours and sounds. Can you now count with colours? Sounds?
  4. Think of your mobile phone number. Use the numbers as musical intervals. Can you compose a tune around your phone number?

For the more technically minded –

  1. Compose a simple melody using one key/scale – e.g. G Major. Now harmonise that melody using chords from a different key/scale, e.g. Bb Major. Use these chords for a new song.
  2. Convention is that the I VI IV V chord progression is the most common in Popular music. In the key of C Major, this is C Am F G. This is the formula I alluded to in my previous post. Have you experimented with the permutations of this formula? There are 28! Can you find them? Remember, there are 7 chords in a Major key – use them all.
  3. You have been given the job of composing a 1 minute film sound track: a cowboy rides off on his horse to shoot the bad dude who killed his wife. In the scene it is evening with storm clouds and lightning flashing over the desert. Would you write your piece around what the audience is seeing/hearing (galloping horse, storm, dramatic scenery)? Or about what the cowboy is feeling (grief, sadness, loss, revenge)? One piece would be clichéd and very 60s; one would be very now and ‘arty’. Which is which?

Notice that these exercises encourage you to look at something conventional in an unconventional way. I hope that they might help you better think inside your box more effectively. The distance and shape of your horizons is your choice; just as the size and shape of your confinement is your choice.







Published by clydeschipke

Professional guitarist and teacher based in Gympie, Queensland.

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