Review: Colgrass Creativity Workshop

by Jeff King, Executive Director, Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching & Learning

Dr. Michael Colgrass, Pulitzer Prize-winning and Emmy Award-winning author and composer, conducted a workshop on creativity Tuesday morning, March 5, 2013, at the University of Central Oklahoma as part of his “creativity residency” during the week. Students and faculty attended and participated in the creativity workshop.

What did he do? How did participants react? Was creativity exhibited?

What did he do? In his own words about being a “teacher of creativity,” Colgrass said in the workshop that he asks himself this question when he wants to teach anything: “How can I put these people in a position to understand what they already know?”

To demonstrate this, Colgrass “taught” dance. It looked different from any dance class you may ever have experienced, but the end result was participants teaching themselves and each other because they responded to prompts from their “teacher” which called for each person to allow his or her body to speak in ways that called to action their own muscles, moving in manners which were part of their identity.

Getting out of one’s own comfort zone to be more creative? Simple. Lock eyes with one other person and mirror what they do. Switch partners. Take the lead on occasion so they mirror you.

Add some lovely sonata music or maybe a funky throw-back to old school get-down, and — voila! — you have people dancing.


How did participants react? Any observer would have noticed common reactions among participants, no matter the activities through which Colgrass led the group. (And we won’t even mention the activity with cards held above one person’s head to indicate a belief the partner was to adopt in talking with the person.) Here is only a partial list describing how participants reacted to being led through their own re-connection with creativity:

● smiles

● enthusiasm

● hubbub of activity

● natural, relaxed body language and facial expressions

● imagine a fun class in elementary school, and you get the picture

In short, participants acted like their facilitator, who himself paired and creatively danced with various students.

There was always an evocative, impactful observation shared about the purpose of any activity, however. Breaking out of ruts is a big part of creativity. The dancing exercise demonstrated one means of kicking the ends out of a rut: “Sometimes you get into a loop with your movement or your life,” Colgrass said, and you can connect with others as a way out. “You have to mirror someone to get inside her world,” he mentioned, explaining how to get beyond your own self-imposed, internal world.

On this topic, a participant asked if America has hindered itself in teaching creativity. Colgrass’ instant response was, “Since the industrial revolution, we’ve been thinking about industry and making money.”

The implication of what such an approach means for teaching creativity was unspoken, yet powerful.

Was creativity exhibited?

Undoubtedly. The belief-filter exercise forced people out of the confines of limiting beliefs, thereby living from a creatively different mindset. The “rubber body” dance exercise freed long-confined muscles and muscle memory so that moving in completely new ways was a natural consequence. The group composed a vocal piece on the spot, collaborating on a series of white boards to write, using self-designed visual representations of sounds. (What symbol would you devise for the sound you’d make if you hummed loudly while strumming your lips?)

The group performance of the piece was fun. Remember Colgrass’ mantra as a teacher: How do I get these folks to understand what they already know? To demonstrate that the group already knew how to be conductors, he asked the entire group to perform the piece. They had to figure out how to do it. On only the second attempt, one student jumped to the front, and using hand signals toward the markings on the white boards, led the group in a vocal rendition of their composition with gestures and by performing the piece with them.

Colgrass’ point? “Conductors do what you just did. Yes, you can keep a beat as a conductor, but is that all there is? A conductor is a collaborator with the group.”

The takeaway. Everyone is creative. It’s not a matter of doing something to become creative; no, it’s a matter of eliminating the constraints that prevent natural, joyful creativity.

“How you live your life is your greatest creative act.” — Michael Colgrass, March 5, 2013, Edmond, Oklahoma

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