Merging Creativity and Research: Professor Lori Custodero ☆

Lori Custodero, Program Coordinator and Associate Professor of Music and Music Education, is not only a gifted musician, but also an acclaimed scholar with a innovative focus: creativity.

For the past 18 years, Lori’s research has focused on improvisation, particularly on the topics of flow experience, spontaneous musicality in children, and the relationship between adult and child musicality.  On October 16th, she participated in the International Modern Improvisational Music Appreciation (MIMA) Conference as part of the MIMA Scholars’ Symposium at Princeton University, a visionary event that featured the Brazilian singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil, scholars and performers such as Pauline Oliveros, Stanley Katz, and Jill Sigman, and a host of expressive and experimental activities.

Lori’s presentation at the MIMA Scholars’ Symposium was derived from a chapter that she has written for a book entitled Musical Imaginations: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Creativity, Performance, and Perception, edited by David Hargreaves, Dorothy Miell, and Raymond MacDonald, and coming out in the spring. Lori has generously allowed The Gazette to publish a few excerpts from her chapter, The Call to Create: Flow Experience in Music Learning and Teaching:

Excerpt 1

I have learned much from systematically observing young children engaged in music making. Their keen sensitivity to the sonic environment suggests a convergence of self and music, witnessed in their spontaneous movement and vocalizations, often in imitation of sounds or people in their settings, as well as the transformation of their own and culturally familiar songs, chants, or articulated patterns. The compelling nature of musical materials — melodic contours, rhythmic vitality, phrase structures, and harmonic intensity – invites participation, and thereby offers opportunities for creative action. Such action might take the form of embodying the music performed by others or inventing one’s own music as a vehicle for expression, communication, or regulation. Called to create, children attend and are responsive to what the music asks of them: “Clap here!”; “Sing higher (or louder or slower); “Change your movement to match the musical change!” They also utilize the affordances of musical materials to comfort themselves (i.e., using familiar songs as transitional objects); to elaborate imaginative play scenes; to animate dialogue with peers; and to rhythmically structure a chaotic environment. Attuned to what the poet Tagore (1921) describes as the “joy of life,” young children teach us how music can function as both road and home, as it “leads us on yet gives us shelter” (p. 67).

In March, 2010, I participated in the “Educating the Creative Mind” conference at Keane University in New Jersey, USA. One of my duties was to participate in a concert featuring young performers, interviewing them after they had played. I asked a 7-year-old to tell me about the most fun he’s ever had with his violin, and without hesitation, he replied, “Playing at Carnegie Hall.” When asked what made it fun, his response was “because it was challenging.” Indeed, research into qualities of optimal experience has found that it occurs when people are engaged in activity for which they feel highly challenged and also feel highly capable (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 1990, 1997; Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). These experiences have been described as rewarding and enjoyable, with each step along the road informing the next so that the progression of ideas and their manifestations flow with ease. Inasmuch as participants used the word “flow” to describe their experience when involved in activity that often leads to invention and discovery, that term is used to represent a psychological state associated with creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 1996).

Excerpt 2

Valuing creativity means valuing alternative ways of doing, thinking, being – it is honoring the unexpected and suggests a commitment to an embodied depth of knowing within a social milieu. Being creative gives meaning to action; it is the ultimate act of agency and has been singled out as the attribute which makes us human by scholars such as Dissanayake (2000), who has written of the need to “make special,” by elaborating the everyday activities through the adornment of ritual and decoration.

In flow experience, individuals must sense personal control, that what they do matters. This feeling of consequential action requires sensitivity to the artistic materials and the social resources as well as the cultural memes which define the practice in which they are engaged. In order to heed the call to create, culturally relevant feedback must occur, so that the creative freedom of “listening to the materials” and being directed by these components of music to know what might follow.

Excerpt 3

In summary, the call to create in music teaching and learning is a call to reciprocal influence and mutual rewards. We are drawn to music because of its direct correspondences with body motion and vocal expression; its dynamism replicated in our experience of being moved by sound and being moved to create musical sounds ourselves. The reciprocal influences of our bodies as both why we know and how we know can support and/or inhibit perceptions of high skill and challenge as we engage in musical action. Likewise, our sense of belonging is shaped and is shaped by creative action, and individual agency is supported and resisted by the collective.