Traditionally, creativity is mostly the job of the composer, with the conductor filling in the gaps. An orchestra is not fundamentally an improvisatory ensemble. It is too large for everyone to take turns soloing, and when twenty, thirty, or even sixty people start ornamenting and harmonizing at will, things quickly turn into mush. The problem is that in most of our large ensemble music classes, students are nearly always the performers and very seldom the composers or conductors. If the next generation of musicians sees themselves only as servants to the classical canon, and not as creators of music in their own right, I feel we are doing them and music a disservice.
Many teachers do take time for composition assignments, or introduce improvisation as a special event post-concert. For students who immediately latch on to this, there are often other opportunities, like independent studies, jazz ensemble, or the chance to write/conduct a piece for the ensemble. For the rest of the ensemble, however the message can be that creativity is only for the elite. How many talented and accomplished classical musicians do you know who believe that they can't improvise or compose?
My current hypothesis is that creativity is nurtured through choices. Certainly to be a great composer, one must practice and in some way study composing, and to be a great improvisor, one must improvise frequently and thoughtfully. But making choices, I believe, gets the creative juices flowing. One "what if?" leads to another, and soon you can't stop experimenting and creating. I have been trying out some different exercises in my large ensemble and technique classes that involve students making choices. I would love to hear about what you do in your classroom.
Attendance: If you take daily attendance, two minutes of class can be taken up by students saying, "here," or they could play a measure or two that tells you how they are feeling that day. Hearing each student play a few notes on their own can help you get to know them musically and personally, and it gives each student a sense of personally contributing to the group.
Warmups: Students can create warmups in the key you are practicing, either on the spot or written down before hand. If you do call and response warmups, could a student try leading it? Taking a student-composed pattern and moving it up the scale in sequence can be an excellent brain challenge for the rest of the class. Letting students conduct warmups can also be a great way to empower the ensemble and explore the relationship between conductor and ensemble.
Rehearsal: We can learn a lot about a piece by asking, "Why did the composer write it like this? How else could it have been written?" Asking a student to change one thing about a passage (tempo, dynamic, articulation, even accidentals or swapping one rhythmic motive with another) can shed light on the composer's intent while allowing the students to impose their own will. Playing things two contrasting ways also sometimes helps to put the "right" way into context.
Performance: Could a class compose a piece together for their performance? I have seen a composer work with a group of 8th graders to create a class piece based on themes written by each of them. I have seen elementary school Orff ensembles jigsaw a theme and variations together based on a folk song. This is a project I am excited to take on when I have a little more experience.
What have you done or seen in large ensemble classes to encourage and develop musical creativity? What would you do?