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March 19, 2021

Reflecting on Learning and Creativity

By Linda Manwarren | ARTA Wellness Committee Member

During our teaching careers, our world was frequently directed through opportunities for learning. I know many retired teachers whose lives remain committed to the principle of lifelong learning. There is extensive research indicating the many positive benefits of learning as a regular aspect of our lives. A study recently published in the Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences, involved 58- to 86-year-olds who simultaneously took three to five classes for three months. The classes included drawing or painting, speaking Spanish, learning to use an iPad, photography, and music composition. The researchers at California University found learning new skills can improve brain power at the same time. A 2015 article in Psychology Today by Cathy Malchiode reviewed current research on the benefits of exploring and engaging in creative endeavours. She concluded that “your authentic expression through art making, music, song, movement, writing, and other forms of art-based imagination” is a valuable component in wellness practice. Creative endeavours such as movement, performing, creating art, writing, inventing recipes, or trying something new all aided the maintenance of mental flexibility.

So, I say thank you to COVID-19, for it led me on a personal journey of learning and creativity. The journey began shortly before the first shutdown, with a supposedly ten-week series of ukulele lessons for beginners. We had learned the national numbering system and how to use it to change keys, two chords, and to name the four strings on the ukulele. The group continued, during the first few weeks of the shutdown, to practice the chords we had learned and to build finger flexibility and strength as well as the mental flexibility of where to put the fingers. It quickly became evident, however, that the group needed each other as well as the instructor to make any real progress. We decided to postpone our further learning for a while. As you know, the “while” was steadily extended. But the weather was on our side and eventually, we concluded the series in a park, safely distant. Have You Seen the Rain, Happy Birthday, Hallelujah, and Let It Be were favourites. Being able to create the chords easily from memory and through several songs continues to be a challenge for me, but the sound of the ukulele is a happy one and always makes me smile.

For a few years, I have been a member of a recreational choir. Of course, those weekly rehearsals had to change, and change they did! Like so many organizations, meeting on Zoom became our modus operandi. Very strange it was, to be singing by myself in the basement while viewing the others, all muted except our director. But the steepest learning curve came just prior to Christmas when we were all charged to become recording artists! Each of us had to set up two devices: one would play a video of the director and play the music of the piece which we would hear through a headset or earbuds, the other device would record each of us singing. The actual set-up took a long time: we had to figure out where to put the devices, how to stabilize them, find a blank wall, set up lighting, put on makeup that had long been ignored, turn off the phone, and put a sign on the front door so no one would ring the bell. All that had to be sorted out before the actual singing occurred. Who knew I sounded so terrible? As a good choir member, I was very good at using the people around me to keep on key and in time. Listening to myself alone was definitely an ear-opening experience. Waiting silently, yet engaged, through the ninety-three seconds of the soloist at the beginning of the piece, and remember that the camera is recording everything, resulted in many takes being required. I have new appreciation for real recording artists who make their living in this way. I was only doing one song — it’s a lot of work! The director assured us that the magic of the production process would indeed create something we would be happy to share with family and friends (and fans?). It certainly was an interesting and challenging endeavour and stretched me both creatively and technically. In the end, it made me smile for having completed it.

I began this article by referencing studies that identified the positive effects of learning and creativity in our lives. Personally, these two experiences enriched my life, brought me joy, and, I believe, endorse the benefits of lifelong learning. I end with a quote from Sophia Loren that goes even further in celebrating the role of creativity. “There is a fountain of youth: it’s your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of the people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”

Linda Manwarren began teaching in Montreal in 1973 and continued her teaching career with the Calgary Catholic School District until 2007. Since then she has worked short-term contracts with Calgary Catholic, Abu Dhabi, and St. Mary’s University, Calgary. As of December 2019, Linda is now really retired.