Creative Constraints

Dr Steven Berryman reflects on how we can enable creativity with the right challenge

Imagining something different is to be creative. It can offer alternate ways of seeing and being, opportunities to utilise an idea in an unfamiliar context or to challenge conventional ways of doing.

Obstructing creativity to release imagination

Experimenting with pre-existing material, reimagining in seemingly very different contexts and making the use of precise models seem the opposite of creativity. But these can be springboards for imagining something different which will surprise you as it is often something very new.

For teachers this means considering the right amount of constraint to enable purposeful creative responses. For example, rather than ask students to ‘write a melody’ you might increase the challenge by setting expectations around the pitches that should be used and particular rhythmic units to deploy.

Creative strides are achieved when there are boundaries to our invention, for example, re-working a pre-existing work or idea in a new context or making use of a limited colour palette. Whilst setting creative boundaries can feel at odds to imagination, they can be incredibly enabling for students. Rather than asking students to create a self-portrait, you could suggest that they recreate a pre-existing painting by altering certain elements such as swapping certain features for ones of their own invention.

Reimagining what we know

Many of my early experiences of teaching composition involved exploring the processes of other composers. How composers and musicians have reimagined the work of others has a lengthy history with many examples of work rewritten in a new form, such as the Vivaldi Four Seasons ‘recomposed’ by Max Richter. A former student of mine introduced me to the work of the pianist Christopher O’Riley, sharing an album of Radiohead songs O’Riley had reimagined. When we reimagine pre-existing works across all subjects we are making a comment on the work when we present it in a new form. We are imagining something different from the original.

Working with students in 2013 and 2014 at the Pro Corda summer schools, residential courses in Suffolk for young musicians to develop their ensemble skills, I devised a creative project with the boundary that all the musical ideas must come from the works the students were studying during the week. Our sessions investigated ways of combining different phrases, creating structure and creating a journey that had a relationship with the original music.

We would start with students selecting their favourite section of music and, after selecting one of these to start with, we would experiment with adding a different chunk of someone else’s part. I would invite students to keep repeating their extract, and we would listen to different extracts played simultaneously.

Through this experimentation we would make collective decisions; what do we like the sound of? What makes a good opening? Then from there, the workshops would gradually build a new composition. All the time we kept the challenge of only using this pre-existing music in mind but encouraged students to explore different ways of playing the extracts.

Creativity helps us imagine during times of trouble

Research in Tes has highlighted the therapeutic effects and improvement in well-being for those who engage in the arts during periods of difficulty. Jensen and Bonde (2018) found that ‘engagement in specially designed arts activities or arts therapies can reduce physical symptoms and improve mental health issues’. While we still need more research there is a strong suggestion that creative activities are well-suited to help us make meaning out of difficult situations. This feels particularly pertinent to remember as schools begin to return and lockdown begins to ease in the UK following the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

Making the most of structure

When we dig deeper into the creative work of others, we often make structural judgements about what we are seeing and/or hearing; we make observations about how the material is organised and in some circumstances how ideas might reveal themselves over time. When we can explain this structure of another work, such as the form of a piece of music, it becomes a useful template for our own creativity. Whilst all arts have some generic forms, it is the peculiarity of the less typical works that can provide an inspiring model (an obstruction if you will) for creating something new. Watch the first of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartets here to see what I mean.

There are four distinct layers in the composition: a folk-like melody, an ‘interruption’ from the second violin which is very different to the top layer, a drone from the viola (unusual with its distinctive playing technique) and an irregular repeated pattern in the cello.

Using this as a model, we can stimulate quite varied responses from students of all levels. We can ask students to recreate the same layers, building on the specific nature of the ‘roles’ in the Stravinsky work but students are free to make choices beyond that. Though this seems a very precise model for creative work, you will be surprised by how different the outcome can be. It works best with quirky, less conventional pre-existing works; select something that has a distinct structure and/or approach and ask students to recreate the structure, and if appropriate the characteristics of the components.

Dr Steven Berryman is Director: Arts, Culture and Community at Odyssey Trust for Education and a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and Guildhall School. King’s College London is currently looking at how local interventions using music to improve post-natal depression can be scaled up nationally.

Follow Steven on Twitter to keep up to date with his latest projects.

Further reading

  • Jensen, A. and Bonde, L. (2018) ‘The use of arts interventions for mental health and wellbeing in health settings’, Perspectives in Public Health, 138(4), pp. 209–214.
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