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Bach Breaks Into His Brother's Bookshelf: Teaching Creativity

When Johann Sebastian Bach was a boy, he was caught sneaking into his older brother’s personal bookshelves.  His brother Christoph had a composition notebook full of works by great composers, but Christoph had denied Sebastian access to this book, and so it stayed shut in a locked cabinet behind grillwork doors.  Sebastian’s hands, however, were still small enough to fit through the grillwork, and since the notebook was soft-bound, Sebastian could roll it up and pull it out through the spaces in between the grillwork bars.  At night, then, when everyone was asleep, Sebastian would sneak into his brother’s shelves, remove the notebook, and, having no candles of his own, copy the book by moonlight.  It took six months of late-night sneaking to transfer all the contents, but by the end, Sebastian had carefully copied every note, learning the melodies, harmonies, and compositional forms of Pachelbel, Froberger, and more.

Bach had a thirst for musical examples, and his midnight adventures were his means of gathering and understanding the work of his predecessors. Even as a young adult, Bach continued to seek out and transcribe the works of the greats. At age 20, he took a leave from his job as a church organist to visit Dieterich Buxtehude, the preeminent composer of the day, and he returned with a notebook full of Buxtehude’s works. (Bach was scolded by his employer because he had been given a four week leave--but he stayed away for four months (nice vacation!), including the busy Christmas season.) Flush with new examples from his trip, Bach set to imitating and understanding Buxtehude's work and ultimately composing his own variations on them. He synthesized the musical literature of his time into something of his own.

This kind of work--the work of creativity--is a familiar process to artists. It begins with imitation, copying the very works of other artists. It follows with variation and combination, making changes to a work or mixing it with another source or influence.Transformation goes further, translating ideas across media or modes. And beyond transformation isoriginal creation--amalgamations, syntheses of other works and thoughts and ideas, into something apparently unique or utterly unfamiliar.  (See the Taxonomy of Creative Design)

This is the stuff that moves us forward. And: this is the stuff that builds not only artistic lives, but governments, medicines, businesses and virtually everything else.  The great experiment that is the United States of America is a combination of political models. Medical innovation comes from the mixture of technology and biological systems. The “Lean Startup” movement is the combination of the scientific method and the business world. These creative efforts are remixtures of products of their times. In this way, the whole of human history is marked by strings of creative endeavors, and the future is an unknowable braid of recombinations and amalgamations of today.


What does this mean for education?  Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives has been updated recently, and creativity rests atop several of the new lists. And now the lingo of “21st Century Skills” heralds creativity as one of the critical “4 C’s”. And so if creativity is the stuff that moves us forward, the stuff that opens up new opportunities and resolves complicated problems, then we must ask: can this kind of innovation--can creativity--be taught? Can we catalyze creative progress?

Bach and his peers suggest that we can. In their examples is what artists have done for millennia. Begin with imitation; Picasso painted realism before moving on to abstraction. Practice with variation; Mozart composed twelve variations on the melody later used for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. (It was originally a French folk tune.) Break ground through combination; George Martin and the Beatles memorably mixed the sounds of the orchestra with the new sounds of rock and roll.

But this process applies to any discipline. That this is most apparent in the arts may be why, when we talk about the mastery of any field, we often talk about the “art” of it: the art of baseball, the art of business, the art of teaching, the art of war. When we understand and can imitate model performance, when we can adjust and make variations on it to suit new settings, and when we can combine and transform what we know to innovate in our fields, then we are artists. We are creators. We are innovators. And so creativity--innovation--is as teachable as the alphabet, and it always has been. What is new, we have known for ages. If we but look around and learn broadly from today just as Bach looked around and learned broadly from his time, then we can not only make and remake, but also understand the world, our lives, our professions, and our students anew.

- This post first appeared in Moffly Media's Independent School Guide 2012 under the title: "Teaching Creativity".
* The image at the top of this post is a mashup of the Elias Gottlob Haussmann portrait of J. S. Bach and the prison bars from  I wonder how a mashup of their music would work...
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