Empowered Music Students

Creativity and Improvisation in Ensembles (Part 3 of 3)

Sarah Gulish is a high school music teacher outside of Philadelphia, PA. She teaches orchestra, guitar, and “Creativity and Collaboration,” which is a required course at her school. Sarah is a 2007 graduate of Temple University, where she later earned a PhD in Music Education. Sarah runs F-flat Books, a music education publishing company, and along with Marissa Guarriello and Matt Shaffer, co-wrote the book The Creative String Orchestra

Creativity and improvisation in ensembles

When Sarah began teaching at her school, there was no high school orchestra program. She was working with the middle school choirs and the high school bands, taking on various roles and supporting several other teachers. The orchestra curriculum at the time ended after eighth grade. 

After working on her PhD, Sarah found an interest in starting programs that didn’t exist, and high school orchestra was one of them! Not being a string player, Sarah didn’t feel equipped to run a high school orchestra, but there was also no precedent, since the program hadn’t existed before. The first year was open for exploration and experimentation. As a classically trained pianist with a rock band background, she could pull from those experiences to create something meaningful for her students. Her first cohort of students was also very creative. They were already playing by ear and performing their own gigs, so they helped shape what the ensemble would become. Sarah has found that when we teach outside our area of expertise, we have more room to be creative. We aren’t boxed in by our own former experiences. 

A Culture of Creativity

Developing a culture of creativity differs from incorporating a few creative projects. Within a culture of creativity, students feel comfortable and vulnerable enough to take risks, use divergent thinking, and produce new material. In Sarah’s classroom there is always some type of creativity, such as improvising during warm-ups, student choice, or students leading activities. She has set a goal that every class contains something creative and something student-driven. 

One project Sarah incorporates often is “on-the-spot composing.” The audience members will provide parameters, and the students (on stage, without the conductor) will develop a song based on whatever progression they are given, improvisations from the group, and a song structure they create. She’s teaching them to jam! The students are jamming like a band would, but they are doing it on stage in front of people. Not afraid to push boundaries, Sarah’s students even created an on-the-spot composition at a festival for judges. 

The Holistic Musician 

Sarah has found that in many music programs, students who are technically proficient and good readers tend to be at the top, getting the most opportunities, while students who have a different balance of musicianship skills get left behind. When we talk about students creating, playing by ear, arranging, and improvising, we can elevate other musical ways of being that allow us to see what each students’ strengths are. Students who would have never been the first chair players become pillars of the orchestra because of their ability to arrange, improvise, or create original music. And their confidence grows immensely as a result! Students are competent musicians in a variety of settings. Sarah believes that as teachers, we get to show students what it means to be in a group of music makers. When we present to students that being a musician means improvising, or creating, they won’t question it. Especially when they see other students taking on that role. 

“We get to teach kids from a young age what it means to be in a group of music makers.”

Sarah’s Advice

When asked what advice she would give other teachers, Sarah said “it starts with you.” As the teacher, you can’t be afraid to take risks, to play secondary instruments, and to make mistakes. She recommends telling students you are nervous! Students appreciate that. Consider working with other music teachers who also want to incorporate more creativity. And don’t be afraid to start small. Even changing one thing in a lesson plan is something to be proud of. 

Empowering Music Educators: F-flat Books 

Besides empowering her students, Sarah also empowers other educators! Sarah started F-flat Books several years ago, after being frustrated by the current publishing model. She wanted to create a space that provided flexibility for authors. After a few months, she saw the power of people’s work being put into the world, being consumed, and then getting feedback. Several of the authors she works with had been rejected by traditional publishers or were underrepresented voices. Now, F-flat Books works to fill the gaps in music education. Every author has a unique experience, and it’s resonating with people. 

To learn more about Sarah’s creative work, be sure to check out the book, The Creative String Orchestra, published by F-flat Books. In addition, be sure to check out the interviews featuring Sarah’s co-authors, Marissa Gaurriello and Matt Shaffer

Connect with Sarah:

Check out the full interview here: Creativity and Improvisation in Ensembles (Part 3)

Part 1: Creativity and Improvisation in Ensembles, with Marissa Guarriello

Part 2:Creativity and Improvisation in Ensembles with Matt Shaffer

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