Those of you who are teachers have surely noticed that some students are creative learners, while others prefer to use a formulaic approach. Both ways of learning are, of course, valid, and both types present challenges and delights.

Generally speaking, the formulaic learner is often someone whom we might refer to as left-brained  –  someone who works best with a very specific method, detailed instruction, and does not want to have to infer or interpret. This type of student is likely to become adept technically, and may do very well in orchestral settings and ensembles. If they compose or arrange music, it’s likely they’ll write it on paper before they’ve played it, using their knowledge of music theory and construction to build a piece.

Generally speaking, the creative learner is often right-brained; they learn well by ear, they are intuitive, they prefer to make up their own music or their own arrangements rather than learning from a page. These students can sometimes be challenging to teach if they feel that they don’t need technique or guidance. But they can go quite far if they do accept instruction, and many become brilliant performers. When composing music, they usually do it by “hearing it in their heads” and playing it before writing it down, or by improvising freely until they hear something they like, and then saving it.

Being strictly one way or the other can be a handicap. The formulaic learners aren’t as likely to allow themselves the freedom to arrange or compose their own pieces, or to improvise or jam; while the creative learner may not realize that there is inspiration in what they don’t already know, and that learning more may increase their skills in ways they have not imagined. And each may think the other’s way of learning is inferior.

I’m one of the creative learners. I was dyslexic as a child  – still am to a significant degree  –  so although I wanted to be a classical violinist, I could not read notation. I understood notation but could not see it; the notes and the lines got all mixed up visually. So I composed and arranged using my knowledge of basic music theory as a guide, and my inherent musical sense as a muse. I was lucky that ethnic and traditional music were available to me, since historically they developed without the use of notation. I would like to go back to the piano teacher who kicked me out at age ten, and show him my Lifetime Achievement Award in harping. Being dyslexic did not mean I could not play. I’m saying this because I want all teachers to know that students can learn whether they are formulaic or creative learners, and it’s up to the teacher to figure out which are which, and to be flexible enough to work with both types.

Some students in both categories sprout wings and fly, and some who could have accomplished much just settle for mediocre. Some believe they are great when they have a long way yet to go, and there are others who are great don’t realize they are. Very few really buckle down and do the work required to achieve professional status.  I’m sure most teachers wish they would. But in reality many students just want to have fun playing whatever music they play, and that IS a valid reason to play. After all, music is for enjoying. But do nurture all your students. Some will go far indeed.

If, however, someone asks you to show them how you play creatively, how do you teach them that skill? After all, creativity is a natural talent, right? Not necessarily. Various influences can affect our beliefs about our abilities. What about the child who, because they are a creative learner, has had a teacher who told them they can’t ever play well? Or who, because they learn better aurally than visually, was at odds with some teacher’s method? Or whose parents force them to practice when they should be outside playing with their friends?

The first thing a teacher needs to do is help a student believe in him/her self. To know they have the right to be creative, and that there is no standard by which creativity is measured, so their own creations are valid. They need to be encouraged, praised, and nurtured.

I once had a brilliant student who learned best by ear, but for some reason was not creative. When I would encourage her to compose or arrange, she’d say, “But how?” – even though she knew the music theory she needed to do it. We tried a number of methods for inspiration, but she just wanted to play what I played, exactly the way I played it. It made me sad, because I knew she had what it takes to create her own music and do it well. But she didn’t know that. After I moved away and she grew up, I heard that she’d been playing in a band and that most of her music was improvisational. And that it was very, very good. So… she had been listening. It just took her a while to try it, and when she did, there was no stopping her.

Teaching at least basic music theory is essential to give students the skills to compose and arrange intelligently. It irks me that music theory is usually taught only on paper or a blackboard instead of directly relating it to the instrument. Music theory is not a description of how to read music notation. It is a description of how music is structured, and it therefore automatically explains why and how notation works, but it is so much more than notation! It is a portal to a world without limits, where music becomes a language. And when one knows that language well, they can use it creatively.

The creative learner who does not want to learn music theory may forever have a stunted musical “vocabulary”, and will fall into ruts in which all their music sounds pretty much the same. Conversely, the formulaic learner who will use only music written by others is like a speaker who can only read from a written page but can’t carry on a conversation. Either way, teaching every student both ways of making music will open the most doors. And for the student, being willing to learn what is outside of your own realm of experience will keep those doors open.