Creativity and the Artists’ Community

In a speech to incoming Academy students at the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year, Interlochen's director of music, Kedrik Merwin, encouraged students to look at their arts education in a new light.  

During my time at Interlochen, I have come to a somewhat surprising and counterintuitive conclusion: our primary job at Interlochen is not “art training.”  That idea might be shocking to some but let me explain.

Though my examples come from the music world, I believe the lessons can be easily and equally applied to any of the other disciplines we teach at Interlochen.

When I was in college and graduate school the main objective was to be able to play orchestral excerpts and a solo consistently and well enough to win an audition – either for an orchestra job or for more school – to learn to be even more consistent in the preparation of the same literature to win an audition – for an orchestra job or for even more school. In effect, I attended an increasingly focused and expensive music technical institute. In the end, I could play excerpts and I even won some auditions. I was a pretty good trombone technician. The strange thing is, there was very little market for, and even less artistic satisfaction in only being able to repeat orchestral excerpts.

I believe that Interlochen should not be, and must never become, merely a vocational school for obtaining an arts job, a set of physical skills, or conservatory admittance. Those skills are important and take dedication and hard work, but I believe that we must embrace an even broader, more important, and more exciting vision. I’d like for us to look at our shared Interlochen experience as Creativity Education.

The concept of thinking outside the box has become so mainstream that it is now thinking inside the box. How about eliminating the box, flattening the box, joining boxes, working with others to expand the box, or better yet forgetting the box all together?

Educator Sir Ken Robinson in his book, Out of our Minds, writes: “To realize our true creative potential – in our organizations, in our schools and in our communities – we need to think differently about ourselves towards each other.“

I would summarize this thought as, “We must relearn to be creative.”

Somewhere along the line we have come to believe that the study of arts techniques is the same as being artistic. I would suggest that we study creativity, and that applied creativity is what defines the arts. But we can take this idea a big step further: applied creativity is what defines true education.

We also must recognize that creativity is not exclusive to the arts. Math, science, banking, social science, politics, medicine; creativity is necessary in all of these disciplines. If we practice creative thought together we will enhance not only our own lives in any discipline we choose, but we will enhance and improve the world in which we live for everyone. Looking out to our own alumni community, we can see countless examples of Interlochen graduates who have thrived on the strength of their creativity.  

Many, such as futurist Richard Florida are claiming that we are entering a new “creative age” because the key factor propelling us forward is the rise of creativity as the primary driver of our economy and our society. It is therefore even more essential that we focus our education on developing our creative potential. This will require nurturing a culture of creativity that involves everyone, not just a few visionaries, or a class of creative elite.  We all have huge reserves of creative abilities.

So, what are some starting points for Creativity Education? I believe that we need to focus on developing the ability to look at artistic possibilities from different angles. We need to learn to tell a story with our art, have the courage to take a risk, we need to work to problem solve with other rich thinkers. I challenge our students to work with their colleagues at Interlochen to solve problems, develop ideas, identify options, to take an existing idea or technique and raise it to the next level.  In every case we must strive to be compelling, to be relevant to the world around us, and push the boundaries of our own sense of the possible.

Maybe you are wondering, “Can this be taught?  Can this be learned?”  Yes, absolutely.  That is why we are all here together.  Start by asking the good questions.  Work with other smart, highly motivated people. Persevere. Then try again.

It is our responsibility together to question, to challenge, to think, to create, and possibly to destroy old paradigms that are no longer relevant. Our students are at Interlochen because they have the potential to create their generation’s new ideas. And that is amazing.