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Creative Learning and Collaborative Composition

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA – Nikola Tošic is an improvisational jazz musician who facilitates creative music making workshops to students of varying ages and musical experience and teaches music in a free afterschool program for children in an underserved community.

His initial connection with the JW Foundation was as a contributor to our Learning Journal with his piece entitled Loving the Game of Making Music.

After exploring his personal relationship to The Art of Learning principles, Tošic began to think about how he could further incorporate these concepts into his teaching. “The Art of Learning has had a major role in reshaping my approach to obstacles and adversities, unlearning, maintaining presence, and cultivating quality in life. It feels natural to share this information and these experiences with my students,” he explains.

Within his creative music making workshops, Tošic is using learning principles such as Value Process Before Results, Investment in Loss, Beginner’s Mind, Breaking Down Walls, Internal Solution, and Downward Spiral to help his students embrace the process of working collaboratively to create something new.

“I try to have open discussions on ‘what just happened’ in the workshops which allows the participants to share what they noticed during a creative exercise (like a social dynamic, a problem-solution, coincidences etc). The nature of collaborative composition is that there are always obstacles, which usually need to be overcome in a novel way. ”

Loving the Game of Making Music


There is a powerful memory, which always resurfaces when I am helping people make music. It is of my brother, my sister and myself, ages 7, 6 and 5, digging through a crate of Legos, working on whatever it is our minds were determined to build. In that serene setting we found ourselves making something a little less touchable.. It would be a wonderful, completely spontaneous and improvised song, comprised of tongue clicks, whoops, tiki-tikis, nhya-nhye-nhyes and a whole array of sounds from our imaginary languages. It was a sort of trance-like ritual of our little tribe and I can never tell how long this composition lasted. It was so enchanting that we had a hard time bringing it to an end. We laughed so hard as each tried to put a silly punctuation to it.

I’ve seen this exhilarating creativity many times, not only in children, but in grown-ups as well. And I mean solemn grown-ups, dealing with adversities, all of which seem to crumble away while making music, as if they stepped through a portal to their childhood curiosity and excitement. As a musician and a workshop facilitator, the principle Loving the Game resonates with me in a powerful way.

In my experiences with music education, I’ve had difficulty reconciling with the dryness of the learning process. Through all of it, I’ve come to believe that learners relate best to the great composers and their work if they themselves are encouraged to be artists.

What I do is guide groups to make their own music. The groups vary in age and musical experiences. My task is to guide them out of their sphere of knowledge, into an open place where it’s safe to “not know”. Here there is room for abstract thought, for silliness, for darkness, for music they are not required to analyze, label or explain.

A crucial aspect of the process is the absence of written music. The workshop is an aural experience, which creates a powerful connection to the artwork and to the other artists.

One approach is by starting off the process with abstract content that is within their grasp, like rhythms using assigned numbers per some visual parameters, introducing color coded groups of notes, discussing topics from other areas etc.

After the introduction of the abstract, the participants split up into smaller groups and are left with a somewhat open task. Their minds can now tinker with the material they’ve been introduced to. They are then discovering other building blocks of music and seeing how they work alone or together, then inverted, reversed, stretched out, squeezed, mangled etc.

While they are working on their pieces, my role is to ask questions, offer different points of view and carefully nudge them if needed. This is often the time to encourage them to follow through with some ‘crazy’ impulse, if they were having second thoughts. As they swing between the open, explorative realm and everyday social habits and fears, validation can give them a much needed boost to take their composition further than they might have thought possible.

It’s important to emphasize the uniqueness of each artist and help them understand there aren’t any bad ideas, though some work better with others. Much like my, siblings each of us contributing a layer to the chant, it can be magical when these unique voices/ideas find their way to fit together.

As the music makers enter this open space, a natural process has been activated. Now there is a sense of camaraderie among the group, people are supporting each other, teaching each other little bits of music, combining, trying out, changing and improving. Honestly, sometimes it’s mind-blowing how fast things can move in the open space.

It’s easy (and valuable) to get lost for a while in the endless ocean of musical possibilities. There might be a moment a group needs someone to “translate” their open ideas into clear tasks. I find short time constraints to be a wonderful challenge, especially now that the group is working together against the clock.
One of the most beautiful results of the creative process is the focus on quality and intention. Most of the time, it comes completely naturally, as the artists assume ‘ownership’ of their compositions. It’s a powerful thing to observe and the intensity of a performance is hard to describe. It can even be too intense, as I’ve gotten into serious trouble with some fourth graders when my phone went off during a recording of their piece.

There is a tremendous source of energy to be found in Loving the Game. I believe this to be a sustainable energy, which can keep the creative mind returning to the timeless realm, where presence and selflessness bring beautiful art into existence. Moreover, when the music making is a shared experience, it opens up a whole world of connections between the artists.