Advocating Critical Thinking, Creativity, And Teaching Both In And Out Of The Classroom

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I’m into scales right now. - John Coltrane

Most of us groan when think about teaching them or learning them.

I think it’s most befitting to discuss the importance of fundamentals, with all their boredom, restriction, and requirements, in the context of the ultimate free form, unregulated, and expressive art: jazz. I’m choosing jazz in particular because it’s a form of composition that happens on the fly—it’s the product of real-time creativity. When the jazz musician’s mental network of fundamentals is robust, those fundamentals yield the kind of music the lasts through generations. However, when the jazz musician’s fundamentals are weak, he’s not equipped for the type of complex connection and creativity jazz requires, resulting in The Worst Thing On Earth: BAD JAZZ. (think of the last time you rode the elevator)

When a musician learns a Western diatonic scale, the ultimate fundamental, she’s doing two things: first, she’s learning the prescribed relationships between seven notes. These seven notes take dozens of forms and appear in multiple keys/transpositions (meaning higher and lower frequencies). Intellectually, she’s equipping herself to recognize a scale when she sees or hears it, whether in a chunk or in its entirety. Second, she’s physically internalizing the relationship between those notes so that she can call upon that reflexive physicality when she’s playing a particular piece of music.

John Coltrane, arguably one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, once remarked that he was “into scales.” It’s imperative that we consider the implication of Coltrane’s embrace of, literally, the A-B-C’s of music. Coltrane knew that the discipline of practicing scales, revisiting the most basic structure of any style of music, was vital to his extraordinary and inventive jazz.


(You may recognize this as a modified slide from a previous post about creativity.)

It’s pretty telling that we use the word discipline, the fuel for mastering fundamentals, in reference to both structured training and punishment; admittedly, it can be easy to get the experiences confused. After all, each of us comes out of the womb needing some taming, so to speak, and the process of being disciplined is rarely pleasurable.

Learning fundamentals is the ultimate exercise in discipline, a learned skill in and of itself. By definition, a fundamental is just that: a basic, nuclear benchmark. Either it’s attained or it isn’t. While fundamentals are often tasks that can be executed, they’re rarely the point, which is what makes them so painful. (e.g. Fundamentals are why we hate to run at soccer practice but we’re always excited to play in the game.) Sometimes it takes a great deal of time or mental energy to master one; often one competency has multiple facets, like a multiplication table—it’s actually 144 different math problems that need to be committed to memory.

In a culture as devoted to instant gratification as ours is, the discipline attained from approaching and mastering a core competency becomes an exceptional skill that can be applied thereafter to any undertaking.

Embracing discipline is a commitment to quality, to recognizing the relationship between practice and outcome, and to developing patience and insight. When we discover the beauty of discipline, the process of revisiting old fundamentals or exploring more advanced becomes a meditative exercise that enhances our ability to create and problem solve.

I firmly believe that Coltrane was still learning while he dug into those scales. He knew that, without them, he wouldn’t have been as good.

What fundamentals in your field can you revisit today?

Elizabeth King

Written by Elizabeth over 4 years ago

Fundamentals, Creativity

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over 4 years ago

Josephine Dorado

I feel the same way about ballet: dislike doing it, but recognize it as a fundamental. I much prefer modern dance and improv, but realize it's a jumping-off point from which one can then choose to throw it into the wind and reach for the stars, so to speak...

Reminds me of a quote too, from one of my fave media theorists - on the freedom of playing with constraints:
"You move forward by playing with the constraints, not avoiding them. There's an openness of movement, even though there's no escaping constraint." - Brian Massumi


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over 4 years ago

Colleen Newvine Tebeau

I'm starting beginner piano lessons so your post appeals to me on many levels -- specifically as it relates to music, but then also as a broader life lesson, as well.

If you're learning a new language, you have to know the words and the structure before you could ever hope to write poetry or win a debate.

So if you're new to social media, or Excel, or online metrics (to name a few examples from my job), why would you expect to jump right in as an expert? First you have to learn the basics.

I think a lot of adults are uncomfortable with things where they're beginners, but playing piano is a great reminder to me that with practice, it's possible to build up new skills.


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over 4 years ago


Really, well said, Elizabeth. Embracing discipline is very freeing in process and outcomes. There was a feud among university poetry departments a few years ago regarding the supposed superiority of free verse over that of the New Formalism. Academics were not wholeheartedly valuing rhyme, because of its limitations, and presumably, the sugary, low-brow connotation of it in most music lyrics. Whether rhyme is "good" or "bad" is somewhat unimportant when it's used to blend together with a tune, as opposed to standing on its own merit. Yet, rap, for instance, which almost completely depends on rhymed sound and meter to form its word -song, does so for many of the same reasons, as Shakespeare's works-- its simplist forms are somewhat rooted in nature,as are most fundamentals.The discipline of following a poetic form, allows a writer to accomplish important meaning within a given structure; the skills then acquired only benefit the creativity of the same writer in other styles. You can't really break the rules well, unless you know them first.
The catch is that discipline and learning take time, and usually much failure.


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over 4 years ago


I have these same thoughts watching "Top Chef" - those with sound knife skills and solid basic technique always seem to quickly separate themselves from the pack. I think that emphasis on fundamentals is losing ground - everyone wants to jump into souffles before they know how to boil an egg! The classic three R's of education pass a lot of students by, and they're "promoted" to the next grade before the basics sink in for a variety of stupid reasons (most related to self-esteem). How can a child's self-esteem possibly be helped when he is doomed to educational failure because he never learned basic reading, writing and math? Learning fundamentals isn't sexy, but it's necessary.


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over 4 years ago


Yep, but learning fundamentals lets your create sexy things.
Like Jazz.
Thanks for your thoughts, Jenn! ~e


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