On Batman, Ancient Flutes, and Paint

Last Sunday Sonny ascended a stage at his first guitar recital and carefully plucked out the Batman theme song, an accomplishment weeks in the making. His serious expression transformed to one of obvious delight upon reaching the final note, confirming that the practice sessions had been worth it. “I felt kind of embarrassed,” he explained later, “but it was fun. I love to make music.”

So does nearly every child on the planet. Even those who do not beg for violin lessons at age 3 or sing with perfect pitch at age 4 or play concertos at age 5 love to make music. Sonny and Ace’s vocal repertoires are extensive and spirited, if slightly off-key and rife with mondegreens. They puff cheerfully on recorders and harmonicas and kazoos and train whistles, gifts from people who do not live in this house. And almost nothing is disqualified as a possible percussion instrument: oatmeal canisters, rubber bands, forks, books, tongues against teeth—you name it, and it can be an agent of whatever rhythm is currently occupying their imagination.

Paleolithic children, too, probably wandered the forests singing ancient versions of “Let It Go,” humming into auroch tusks, shaking pebbles in a seashell, tapping rhythms with a rock, whistling, crooning “Your toes are stinky, stinky, stinky” melodically into their brother’s ear. These children would get along well with today’s children. They’d squawk on a grass blade and become instant friends.

And then, perhaps inspired by blowing through a hollow stem, one of these children eventually fashioned a device solely for music-making purposes. Flutes made of vulture bone were discovered in Germany in 2009. The world’s oldest known instruments, they were made by an inventive music lover who lived 40,000 years ago.

Of course brilliant artistic minds existed in the Paleolithic age. Why wouldn’t they? But 40,000 years ago, surviving was a full-time endeavor. One might predict that this genius would remain latent in deference to gathering berries, chipping an axe blade out of stone, slaughtering the wild boar, fashioning crude clothing from animal skins. But it didn’t. Ancient musical instruments and cave drawings and even specially painted concert halls show that music prevailed despite life-threatening lifestyles. This probably would not have been the case were artistic expression not such a vital part of being human. It matters.

(I wonder what Paleolithic folk, who managed to create music and art even while evading the saber-tooth tiger, would think of their descendants, some of whom, despite their comparatively cushy lives, cannot rustle up the wherewithal to preserve music and art classes for schoolchildren. Not to digress here. Just wondering.)

Recognizing this essential nature of musical expression should help answer the lingering question, “Why can’t I go anywhere without hearing the nearest kid sing ‘Let It Go’?” It should help us better appreciate the enthusiastic strumming on the ukulele and the intrepid attempts to pick out “This Land Is Your Land” on the nearest piano and see beyond the challenges inherent in guitar practice with a six-year-old.

So play on, kids. Paint on. Sing on. Don’t ever let it go.

The World Needs More Artists

“Every child is an artist; the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

Kids love to be artists. For a kid, creating something is about the process, not the product, even though Pinterest, with its showcase of perfect products perfectly photographed, would have us think otherwise. And, in fact, the siren song of my “Crafts with Kids” Pinterest board has lured me more than once to transpose the process vs. progress hierarchy, and I park my kids at the kitchen table to fashion, for example, snowy owls out of pinecones and cotton balls.

“Here,” I say enthusiastically. “Start by pulling apart the cotton balls.”

No argument there. Pulling anything apart is fun.

“Now squirt some glue onto these paper plates.”

Squirting glue: also fun.

“Now dip the pieces into the glue—no, not that much; dip it, don’t drag it—and poke it into the spaces in the pinecone.”

Here’s where my plans for Perfect Snowy Owls Made of Pinecones begin to wobble.

“I want to pull apart more cotton balls.”

“I want to squirt more glue.”

“Let’s have a cotton ball snowball fight!”

“Can we put on the googly eyes now? My owl is going to have ten eyes. And I don’t want to glue cotton balls, so he won’t be white and fluffy. He’ll be brown and not fluffy.”

What was I thinking? Making snowy owls was my idea, not theirs; they want to create, not copy. I cobble together a somewhat rumpled snowy owl and let them do their own thing, which they entirely prefer anyway. They paint the cotton balls and glue them on paper. When they run out of cotton balls, they indulge in a few paintings.

Ace paints a volcano: “Here’s the lava flowing, and here are the rocks.”

Sonny: “Is that a tree growing out of the volcano?”

Ace: “Nooo . . . I changed my mind. It’s not a volcano; it’s a dinosaur. That’s its tail.”

And before he finishes, it’s back to being a volcano. Image

Volcano. Dinosaur. Whichever.

Do kids really make those perfect crafts on Pinterest anyway? Ever notice how some of the kids holding up the perfectly crafted item don’t even have paint or marker on their hand or clothing? I’m pretty sure that in some cases—not all, but some—the mom makes a few prototypes of the DYI Stepping Stone or the String Bowl or the Hula Hoop Weaving Loom and then bribes her kid with M&Ms to pose with the best one for a photo.

(Disclaimer: Following a list of instructions to complete a project and taking pride and satisfaction in the product is a good thing. But when kids want to create, they want to create.)

The Torrance Test is a system to test for creativity. For example, the subjects might be given a short amount of time to turn a series of incomplete line drawings into pictures.  Those who score the highest are not necessarily the best artists; they are the ones whose ideas are the most original and elaborate, the ones whose images tell a story, express emotion, present things from a different angle, and convey a sense of motion.

(Try it out at RaiseCreativeKidz. Find some kids and have them try, too. Make up your own incomplete figures for each other to complete. It’s fun!)

E. Paul Torrance, the creator of this test, wanted to prove that creativity was as important as intelligence—in every field, not just the arts. But researchers who have used this and similar tests have found that elementary school kids score better on the tests than high school kids do. Overall scores have been decreasing since 1990.

This is obviously a problem.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”—Maya Angelou

So go paint a picture, transform an incomplete doodle into a vibrant picture, write a song, make up a story, or invent a secret language.

And have your kids do the same.

The world needs more artists.