On the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, Garry Burnett used the composer as a model to question whether creative skills such as problem-solving and interpretation can be taught

There is a much-celebrated scene in the film version of Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus (reputedly based on historical events), when the young Mozart is about to be greeted by the Austrian Emperor and his musical entourage at the Viennese court. Feelings towards Mozart range from fawning admiration to outright jealous hostility. The latter never more so than in the person of Antonio Salieri, who has just written an unremarkable little ‘welcome’ March in Mozart’s honour. Emperor Joseph II offers to play the March upon the great composer’s arrival and his excruciating rendition heralds Mozart’s uncomfortable entry into the palace.

What is most memorable about the scene and what illustrates supremely the nature of Mozart’s creative prowess, is what he then does with Salieri’s somewhat mediocre composition. After refusing the paper manuscript, ‘I already have it here in my head,’ which he subsequently proves to the court by ‘echoing’ back the march perfectly, he then embellishes the simple chord structure with beautiful flourishes and variations.

To further add to Salieri’s humiliation (‘The rest is just the same isn’t it?’), he then proceeds to ‘improve’ it (‘That doesn’t quite work does it?’), turning Salieri’s rather ordinary little ‘sow’s ear’ into a gorgeous musical silk purse. In this dramatic instance the ‘silk purse’ develops into one of the major themes for ‘Figaro’, not so much plagiarised as re-fashioned beyond recognition as Mozart ‘plays’ with the material, exploring possibilities and experimenting with breathtaking, decorative musical variations.

Salieri’s angst is compounded because he believes, as he labours frustratingly at inferior compositions, that Mozart’s ability is somehow tuned to, and coincident with, the heartbeat of divine creativity. His art is not so much a ‘work’ as a breath of the ‘heavenly’, as God whispers sublimely beautiful melodies into his ears. For Mozart, who declares that he already has finished music ‘in his head’ (the rest ‘is just scribbling’), the ‘work’ in his ‘works of art’ is simply the formal secretarial act of marking paper with a quill.

Mozart’s skill was of course extraordinary, and he was possibly the greatest creative musical genius who ever lived, but his prodigious talent and technical ability did not by any means surface fully formed and complete. Mozart initially learned his craft by deconstructing the works of Bach and Haydn, the same kind of apprenticeship shared by other great masters in other artistic genres (the apprentice experience of the fine art ‘studio’ for example, studying composition by copying patterns and structures of the Old Masters).

Mozart had to assimilate the technical conventions of composition before he could venture into new and exciting musical territories. His father was highly regarded as a teacher and expert vice-kappelmeister and had already, before Mozart’s birth, published extensively on the fundamentals of violin playing. His Violinschule became a standard text for the study and teaching of the instrument.

The Pygmalion influence and expectations of the master-parent-teacher was crucial to his development and modelled to the young Mozart the discipline and technical conventions of his art. Early in his life he had developed an ‘echolaic’ memory and could assimilate, learn and store huge quantities of musical data to recall on demand (interestingly he also had a facility with languages, which might serve as evidence of the potency of the ‘transferable skill’ in auditory learning).

One of the skills some autistic savants display is obsessively faultless recall. Mozart, as a child, notoriously recalled the whole of the sacred choral work ‘Miserere’ by Gregorio Allegri and then wrote it out it, note-perfect, after only one hearing. He was also equally capable of detailed technical analysis and the evaluation of other composers’ work – writing variations on themes and derivative tribute-style pieces ‘in the manner of’ various renowned classical musicians.

But what was that extra ingredient, shared in effect by all creative people to different degrees, which distinguished him from the other very competent composers? Less revered in his lifetime (he died relatively poor and neglected), we might reflect that the masterpieces of one age and society are often not esteemed at all by another. Think of those many scorned visionary thinkers, poets and artists who, in their time, travelled so far ahead of the rest us that they had, until the world caught up, appeared small. Is it that true genius accesses universal qualities that somehow transcend time and location and have a universal application? Is it possible to teach the character and quality of thought, which gives rise to such creative and original ideas?

Can creativity be taught?

Immanuel Kant famously argued that creativity could not be taught (possibly because he saw creativity to a large extent applying to himself) and said that genius, ‘is the natural endowment which gives the rule to art’. In other words, it supplies new rules, leapfrogs preconceptions and explores brilliant new territory. The sparkle of insight and playfulness, which characterises ‘creative genius’, he claimed, cannot be learned, but can, to a large extent, be nurtured.

But of course this leaves teachers with more problems than it solves, not least in terms of how we might ‘teach’ creativity. Not all children appear to have the ‘natural endowment’, or predisposition towards original and imaginative thought.

Encouraging creativity – some tips 

  1. Ask questions, especially ‘What if?’ ‘What would the alternative be like? Is it like anything else I know about? What associations can I make with this? How about if we try it this way? Polaroid cameras were invented when Edward Land’s daughter asked him, ‘Why do we have to wait to see the photographs?’
  2. Serendipity – often chance solutions will present themselves – be vigilant – give your mind room to think. Leave something and come back to it – take a walk!
  3. Avoid functional fixity. Look for the potential alternative uses and applications of everyday objects. Picasso took a bicycle saddle and handlebars and created a bull sculpture. An emergency operation was recently performed in an aircraft with a paper clip. How might it be possible to solve a problem using existing resources?
  4. Develop structures, experiment with different tools, templates, and forms. Don’t be afraid to use scaffolds, writing frames and existing poetic structures. Many art forms feed upon each other for inspiration. Narrative and poetry can be turned into musicals, opera and films.
  5. Ask Mother Nature. Many problems have already been solved by natural solutions (medicine, physics, aerodynamics, etc). Study natural processes for stimulation and inspiration.
  6. Gather ideas, brainstorm, view no idea as useless, dictate to yourself, tell the story aloud, transcribe your own words and listen to playbacks of your own self-talk. Discuss with students how to fillet out the unnecessary, extraneous ideas in the editing process. Some associations might be fired unexpectedly – through chance conversations or phrases spoken.
  7. Play and experiment with associations and ideas. Philo Farnsworth had the idea for television while sitting on a hillside in Idaho looking at the neat rows of a nearby farm. It gave him the idea of creating a picture composed out of dots. He was 14 at the time and after presenting the idea as a science project, spent the next 7 years developing image projection through the cathode ray tube.
  8. Persist! Never, ever give up. Everything, yes everything, has a solution. Try to ignore the ‘ah buts…’ that can wreck innovation. Edward de Bono’s six hats thinking styles recommends ‘green hat’ thinking for creativity and innovation. All ideas are accepted without question in the innovatory stages and only really explored in terms of practicability at another stage.
  9. Fail! Don’t be afraid to fail – seek feedback, plan and draft work routinely. View failure as an opportunity to gain ‘feedback’ and merely a ‘setback’ to developing greater understanding and insight. Richard Feyman, a Nobel Laureate physicist said, ‘To develop working ideas efficiently, I try to fail as fast as I can’. Don’t be too proud to invite criticism – this in turn can spur exploration of further creative possibilities.
  10. Visualise! Use visual organisers and representations, re-order and solution-focus. Imagine the outcome before the work is complete. Einstein famously visualised his experiments eg riding on the end of a light beam to gain insight into time in relativity. Isaac Newton reputedly saw the full moon in the sky at the same time as a nearby apple dropped. This led to him speculating about the laws of universal gravitation and then in turn to developing the laws of mechanics. Eventually this led to him establishing mathematical analysis and modelling as the principal foundations of science and engineering.
  11. Sleep on it! Activate your creative subconscious, incubate ideas by writing them down and returning to them, daydream. Review your idea or problem just before you go to bed and keep a pad or sound recorder beside the bed and record ideas that ‘spontaneously’ surface.
  12. Stimulate your mind with multi-sensory information, have an eye for detail and note down incidents and phrases and keep a diary or notebook to record your research. Borrow ideas to spark your imagination. TEX

Garry Burnett is an Advanced Skills Teacher at the Malet Lambert School in Hull. He is involved in the National Campaign for Learning and regularly leads training sessions at local, national and international level.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, Issue 11 Spring 2006.