A Composer's Adventures

Creative Deficiency Disorder

Colgrass Drums Sepia

My first drum set, in 7th grade.

Hyperactive kids are often diagnosed with ADHD, but I have my own diagnosis for the parents and school officials who allow disruptive children to be medicated: CDD, or Creative Deficiency Disorder.

As a child, I was constantly distracted and disruptive in elementary school, dying to create something without realizing it (see more in my autobiography). Hence the artful spitball designs I made on the ceiling over my seat in Miss Nieman’s 4th grade music class. And my sneakiness in stealing and snapping pencils in half from Geraldine, who sat beside me. Today, I’d be sent to the nurse’s office for a fix of Ritalin or Adderal. I can only wonder what that would have done to my creativity. Sadly, many teachers don’t understand that the best remedy for most children is creating. I got high on it every day with no negative side effects — except the mischief I created because I had no constructive ways to direct my energy.

Only after I saw a movie with a jazz drummer did I play drums, start my own band, write my own arrangements and find my drug: jazz. But would I have developed faster musically if my teachers hadn’t had CDD? They could have shown me a method for writing and performing my own music in elementary school. Oh, how I would have loved to direct my energy on that! My 6th grade music teacher wrote in my report card: “If Michael would stop fooling around and pay attention in music class he might learn something about music.”

My bumpy road through school got me interested in doing creative projects with middle school kids, helping them create their own musical notation and write their own compositions. I have done it in many schools and find that kids throw themselves into this free-wheeling creative process. They work through it with intense concentration and have fun performing the music at the end. Sometimes it gets played by school bands and occasionally by professional musicians.

A French teacher invited me to coax her teenage students to write a piece for symphony orchestra. They did it in three days, and the following week the very excited class came to a concert by the Esprit Orchestra in Toronto to hear their work. Here is a terrific sample.

Some educators understand that it is unnatural for children to sit still and learn about the theories of life. They want to live it and feel it on their bodies. The Waldorf education system teaches all subjects through activities. The children move about, create and learn without boredom. The school recognizes that not all children learn the same way. This method of teaching may require more ingenuity and skill than most teachers are able to muster, but it surely sounds better than prescribing drugs on a large scale. I sense that education is ready for a big change, partly with the help of technology – and that’s a good thing.

Michael Colgrass


  1. Of course I am with you there Michael. I think that if I had had the kind of training that you describe I would be a lot more creative being. I was taught to ‘play it safe’, do what I’m told and to ‘fit in’. It seems unlikely that the Waldorf style will come into widespread usage since industrial style education is so intrenched. One thing is interesting. Some employers are seeking out kids that are home-schooled. That can be risky of course but it is an alternative.

    I have just done my first week, including a quiz, of a course on ‘A Survey of Music Technology’ from http://www.coursera.org. Many great universities have signed up to offer courses for free via this site and I am really knocked out by how innovative and up to date the presentation is. I think that if you are reasonably well motivated you can get a big percentage of your education online. Mix that with mentoring and you’re well on your way in my opinion.

  2. Kids start out in Kindergarten full of beans and happy to create. By the end of School, it seems most have lost all confidence in their ability to create. It is a mystery to me.

    Secondly, to medicate docility in boys is a disaster. They learn that all that bent of energy is abnormal and needs to be tamped down. What good can come of that?

    Nice post the day before school.



    • David,

      I think the basic issue is with our teacher’s colleges. In music, universities design the system to teach performance (singing and playing instruments) instead of creativity. But I believe that the best way to understand music on all levels levels is to create it yourself, which also excites interest and a feeling of relevance for the subject of music. Our universities seem to think that you must be a composer before you can teach people to compose, but there are many short-cut methods of making music that are fun including simply improvising on found objects, like tin cans and waste baskets. My method is to show the kids how to create their own notation with abstract marks like curves, zig-zags and dots, etc, and use those graphics to create a “soundscape” that they can all sing. To augment the relevance I make the point that the best “soundscapes” made my composers of the past usually deal with one main subject that they develop instead of having many subjects which can confuse the ear, just like multiple subjects in a book or movie would obscure the plot. So the kids learn that having a strong central idea and developing that is the key to achieving any desired outcome, in art or in life. So I believe our schools at all levels, starting at the top, need to switch focus from performance to creativity to improve music teaching in the classroom.

      • Well said.

        BTW: today I was giving a class to classical piano teachers on creativity and the teaching of improvisation in jazz. We had a short detour through the idea that Mozart and the boys improvised. I made the point that their music was meant to be “jazzed up, so to speak”. Our class today wasn’t able to explore that in depth, but next week I will plan a short detour. We will jam on some Mozart. That will be fun.



  3. Bruce,

    There’s much to be said for online learning, but ultimately I think nothing can match one-on-one live tutoring. Perhaps a combination of the two would be ideal. Certainly for learning to write music you need direct contact with good musicians for the interplay and feedback and this should be in close physical contact, not just by Skype or its equivalent.
    You’re right that the Waldorf model won’t become widespread—the training required for those teachers is so specialized and our teachers’ colleges won’t incorporate such techniques because they’re too subtle. However nothing prevents elements of that philosophy from being used in public schools, for those teachers who can figure out how to get around the system and teach new ideas in spite of the strictures of the normal curricula. And hold heart, there are a number of educators at the middle and high school level who are innovative and idealistic—I’ve met more than a few of them and worked with them and I find them inspiring. If there’s any hope for music education, it’s in those individuals who have somehow slipped through the cracks and teach imaginatively in spite of outdated methods and systems.

  4. Michael, I love the points that you make here. I think you’ll find that Sir Ken Robinson also supports your ideas… almost exactly, in fact. There’s a great animation/discussion on this. Here’s the link. It’s about 10 minutes long…. totally worth watching every second of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

    Best wishes always,

  5. Brian,

    Thanks for your note. I watched Robinson’s stimulating TED talk and also his talk called,”Do Schools Destroy Creativity.” Thanks for this link. I was as impressed with the audience as I was with Robinson, because they were with him on every line he spoke. My resulting thought was, How can we bridge the gap between the understanding of people like Robinson and the creative thinkers in this audience and the stultified bureaucracy of our education system? Because the knowledge of how to best educate our children does exist and is being clearly expressed by many, yet it hardly seems to dent the education system itself. One of the questions I ask educators is, What would have to happen before music could not be cut by the states and provinces in North America (and perhaps the world) when deficits threaten? Do enlightened people need to march on State and Federal capitals waving banners for creativity in learning? Further, you could ask, What would have to happen to keep those stuffy people off the committees that place creativity last on the criteria pole of educational values. How do we educate them? Perhaps the answer is that we need more people like Robinson to just keep talking and spread their ideas into the atmosphere until they just seep into the mentality of the people responsible for educating our children. His ideas and creative way of expressing them are an inspiration to me and give me hope.
    Thanks again for sending the link

  6. There is a great discussion going on here and I’m thrilled that Michael not only challenges us to think differently about creativity and teaching music, but also ‘walks the walk’ by doing this in schools. I’ve been fortunate to see his creative workshops in two of my schools with outstanding results.

    If we want schools, teachers and teacher’s colleges to start engaging in creativity, they’ll need to experience musical activities like Michael’s graphics more often and as part of their degree programs. How many creative music courses are offered at our Universities as electives or part of the core program? If teachers are not being trained (inspired) to offer / lead these creative activities, we need to ask ourselves why. Are the results harder to assess progress and give a grade? Is it lack of training and teachers are avoiding it because of lack of expertise? I believe teachers teach what they know and have experienced. The question now is have they experienced enough to know?

    Let’s keep this discussion going until we find some solutions. I’m willing to be part it.

    • Brian,

      I think you hit on something with your question about teachers grading creativity. Our education system is based on grading and testing. The only way to test or grade on a system of writing music using graphics is to assign a project with given limitations and then see who follows the idea as designated. For example, if you tell the kids to write a piece using only wavy lines and develop that single graphic marking imaginatively, there would be no absolute right and wrong answer involved, only whether the students kept their pieces limited to wavy lines. And how imaginatively they did that would be a matter of opinion. Many teachers would feel at a loss with that approach. When individual creativity becomes the subject for education all the parameters change, and new criteria for judgment need to be established.
      I think grading as a component of teaching comes under serious scrutiny here.
      Thanks for our comment.

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