Embedded: Alyson Greenfield in the Creativity and Problem Solving Music Education Class
As a newcomer to Teachers College, I did not know what to expect when walking into Professor Randall Allsup’s Creativity and Problem Solving in Music Education class. When entering the light-filled room, I was greeted by a couple of grand pianos, an inviting, semi-circle of chairs, and an excited buzz among the students. Being a singer and instrumentalist who was mostly self-taught by ear, I have not had the experience of participating in a “traditional” music class, so I was excited for how this experience might enlighten me. I came to the class as an observer, but when Professor Allsup and George Nicholson (Professor Allsup’s T.A.) asked me if I wanted to participate, I was thrilled. While accepting the invitation, I felt it important to inform them of my extremely elementary music reading skills. Even though I perform and play professionally, I thought I might not be qualified to participate in the class. They let me know it wasn’t a problem and advised me to sit with the vocalists.
Right away the students in the vocal section were so welcoming, open, and positive. I thought they might react to me, questioning Who is this person? Why is she singing with us? But instead they shared their scores, made jokes, and even encouraged me to get out of my seat at one point and add some slightly choreographed dance moves to a particular singing part.
The assignment for the day’s class was for each student to choose a piece of music and create an alternative score (free of traditional musical notation) that would then be read and performed by the entire class. After a semester filled with free improvisation, devised notation, and ostinato work, this project was the capstone experience, which, according to Professor Allsup, was for students to “devise alternative notation in such a way that allows early stage learners to play real music as quickly as possible.”
Students had 15 minutes to explain their selected song and alternative score to the rest of the class and do a quick run through with all sections including strings, horns, percussion, vocals, and piano. In a matter of minutes all sections had to be ready to perform the piece as a recording would take place. Students chose songs including Sigur Rós’ “Hoppípolla,” the Israeli National Anthem “Hatikva,” Children’s songs such as “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” mashed up in an emoji score, a Sufi melody, “Adinu”, and K.T. Tunstall’s bluesy pop hit “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.”
I was a little shy at first, but then realizing it was okay to truly participate, I dove into the material and relished in the space of musical expression. Sometimes the material was clear, and sometimes it was confusing, as we experienced the students’ varying levels of proficiency to command the classroom and communicate their scores. It seemed like magic that in a matter of minutes the entire class was performing a piece of music through a new musical notation that oftentimes sounded quite beautiful. The class also reminded me how special it is to have the ability to make music with a group of people– especially a group of people you have just met. What was inspiring to me was that the common language was literally the music itself, and not the notation of sheet music, which allowed me as a “by ear” musician to participate.
The serendipity of the experience was pretty amazing. The class was made for people who do not read traditional music, and there I was, a “real live” source to demonstrate how the project might work in the classroom. At one point Professor Allsup came over to ask me a few questions about my experience. He noticed I was able to jump in easily and inquired if I would have been able to do that if students had handed out traditional sheet music. I told him I would have been overwhelmed by just seeing that type of music, so even though the songs technically would have been the same, I might have been too scared to participate.
The class was intensely fun. However, not only was it fun, it was also rigorous, challenging my musical acumen, and pushing me to readjust in a fast paced environment with each new piece. I found the class to be invigorating, and it happily reminded me of the transformative and connective powers of music that are at the core of why I deem music to be an essential part of life.
Alyson Greenfield is a writer and composer living in Brooklyn, NY. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama, is the Founder of the Tinderbox Music Festival, and is the Event Producer for the A&H in the City series at Teachers College.