Unity of the Creative and Tutoring Mind: A Pedagogical Analysis of Tutoring and Music

John Dalton


This work is an examination of how tutoring can intersect with other disciplines, viewed primarily through the prism of improvised music and composition. Through analysis of both personal experience and the research of scholars such as Edward Santos Garza, The New London Group, and Elizabeth Boquet, Dalton observes how principles involved in music can extend to tutoring. These values include preparedness, experience and communication. Dalton’s examination also offers insights into the role of style in tutoring, as well as an application of multiliteracy theory to the work of tutors. This piece argues that integrating other facets of tutors’ identities can benefit and enrich their tutoring.


Alto Saxophonist Charlie Parker, as quoted by scholar Robert Reisner (1994), once said that “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art” (as cited in Reisner, 1994, p. 7). Often, people have the tendency to compartmentalize themselves into neat little parts, by creating imaginary boundaries. Everything we do is interrelated and realizing this is especially important to tutoring. As tutors, there is often a temptation to be a blank slate, to try and remove ourselves from the equation, for the sake of objectivity. Not only is this task impossible, but it also closes the tutor off from the value of their identity and experiences, which are powerful tools they can bring to the session. When analyzing my own identity, particularly as an improvising musician and composer, I have noticed connections between my artistic process and my work process as a tutor. Both have informed each other in ways that would not have happened if I had set boundaries between them. The values and principles I have as a musician extend well beyond the bandstand. The connections between tutoring and music are especially compelling when considering the value of preparedness, experience, and communication. These connections can be observed by examining the process of improvisation and composition, and their relationship to tutoring and writing, as well as considering style and its importance in our work as tutors. These principles can even extend to some aspects of multiliteracy theory as well.

Several writing center scholars have similarly explored the relationship between work as tutors and creative ventures. One of the more extensive works dealing with this idea is the collection of essays, Creative Approaches to Writing Center Work, edited by Kevin Dvorak and Shanti Bruce (2009). In this collection, scholars draw from diverse mediums; for example, Sandee K. McGlaun uses her experiences in theatre in her piece, “Putting the ‘Play’ Back into Role Playing.” There is even a nod to improvised music, as Nicole Kraemer Munday (2009), reviewer of the collection, states “Boquet and Eodice’s chapter provides another lens for thinking about what it means to be collaborative administrators: instead of acting as conductors of bands or orchestras, we can think of ourselves as jazz musicians who look at errors as opportunities to learn” (p. 7). A fair amount of the essays in this book are pointed more towards training activities and designed for larger scale staff training, or what Munday (2009) calls “fun tips” (p. 8). This work aims to examine the relationships of creative expression and tutoring through the prism of improvised music, rather than just creative exercises and tips for tutors. The ethos and value systems of creative work can go far beyond novelty. Drawing from these value systems, as well as other parts of our identities, can have a transformative effect on the way we approach tutoring. This work attests to my direct experience of drawing from different parts of my identity to inform my tutoring.

Elizabeth Boquet’s (2002) Noise from the Writing Center is another valuable text that examines the writing center via novel and creative lenses. Boquet (2002) speaks to the uniqueness of writing centers in the space of academia, and how they can encourage a creative outlook in relation to other spaces in the university. She wholeheartedly embraces the concept of sound, often through the prism of “noise,” as a way of viewing the work of writing centers. In Boquet’s (2002) words, she examines “the relationship between noise and music in an attempt to hear . . . the institutional context of writing centers” (p. 4). Boquet (2002) also dedicates a large section of her book to relating Jimi Hendrix’s use of feedback and distortion to the work of writing centers, to help tutors recognize “there exists an element of distortion at play in every interchange” and to embrace that reality (p. 75). She also examines improvisation, encouraging tutors to take risks, as “the most interesting improvisations work because they are always on the verge of dissonance. They are always just about to fail. They are risky. But when they work well, they are also really, really fun. They leave you wide-eyed” (Boquet, 2002, p. 79). Boquet’s (2002) work deals primary with her role as an administrator and also looks at improvisation from the outside, rather than from within, as she is not a musician. This piece instead draws from my direct experiences as a tutor and improviser.

Preparedness and the Value of Experience

I think it is valuable to share an alleged anecdote about Pablo Picasso, which I first learned from a teacher of mine. One day, Picasso was sketching in the park when a woman approached him and asked him to sketch her. Picasso agreed and used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. She loved it and asked how much it cost, to which Picasso replied: “Five thousand dollars.” Shocked, the woman asked, “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!” Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”

This is a powerful lesson. Often, our perception of work is the direct actions we take, the tasks we perform at a job, be it the tutoring session, or the gig. Our job is what we “do,” from when we clock in, to when we leave, nothing more, nothing less. But what is important to realize is that there is a whole back end to what we do in working with students. When we sit down with a tutee, we bring with us all our experiences, from work training, to lessons learned on the job, and even personal experience. Every person is a multitude of seemingly contradictory parts that all coexist together, and are more closely related than they may seem at surface level. Realizing this allows us to use these different facets of ourselves while tutoring.

The interrelation of the various facets of our identities can even be considered in the political realm, as Harry Denny (2010) does in Facing the Center. Denny (2010) speaks to how identity politics influences our work as tutors, as “identity is ubiquitous to the everyday life of writing centers. For them, struggles with face involve a complicated juggling of identities in relation to perceived audiences” (p. 8). Our work in the writing center brings us in contact with people of all different backgrounds. In its ideal form, the writing center is a truly intersectional space where people of all races, classes, genders, ages and sexual orientations interact on a daily basis. For an environment like that to function, everyone needs to engage with what Denny (2010) calls “complicated juggling” (p. 8). Denny’s (2010) work reveals a fundamental truth: that our identity shapes how we both perceive and engage with the wider world. We can expand Denny’s (2010) politics of identity to include literacies, as this gives a wider picture of the whole person.

Multiliteracies, as stated by the New London Group (1996), is “a different kind of pedagogy, one in which language and other modes of meaning are dynamic representational resources, constantly being remade by their users as they work to achieve their various cultural purposes” (p.64). Multiple literacy theory, alongside new literacy theory, are very broad theories, but the point of most interest to us as tutors is that they are “other modes of meaning” (citation). Literacy is now not defined by merely the ability to read written language, but rather being fluent with “texts in a broad sense—i.e. music, art, physics, and mathematics” (Mansy & Cole, 2009, p. 6). Any skill can be seen as its own form of literacy and if we can learn to ‘read’ ourselves, it can help us uncover insights as tutors. Metaphors, anecdotes, and examples are all useful tools that we draw from our own literacies, and putting ideas into greater a context often makes the particulars of writing more relevant to students. This is a useful way to prepare yourself for the work we do.

Preparedness is an important skill to utilize in our work. As an improviser, I rely on various devices when I am playing that I have spent time to hone and craft. Take for example in one of my pieces, “Green Mountain Boys,” I utilize a rhythmic device during the sax solo. This device I use is what is called a polyrhythm or a cross-rhythm. The solo section of this piece is in 6/8, in which the beat is felt in groupings of three. Within that three, you can create a counter-rhythm in which the duration of three beats can be divided into two. During the solo, I emphasize this underlying two pulse, implying a new, 4/4 groove. I then utilize this same device during my own solo.

This idea extends to the tutoring session, as we can use different strategies and devices when working with students. For example, when working with students on revising, sentence structure is a paramount concern of mine. A common pattern I find among students that I work with is that usually there is a strong core and base to the paper, but it is muddled by sentence structure that obscures their ideas, rather than supporting them. I spend a great deal of time addressing these particular concerns, as this is where my strengths lie. Of course, if there are other more pressing issues, I address those first. This is commonly referred to as “Triage Tutoring,” where one focuses on “higher order concerns,” such as the thesis or structure of an essay (Southwest University, n.d., p. 1).

The development of experience manifests itself in interesting ways. Experience molds the tutor, and in that process, one develops an approach. In improvised music, there is a special emphasis on having a personal, unique approach. The musicians who are most revered in jazz are those who forged their own path, and developed a style that is all their own. We can do the same as tutors. For example, I encourage an organic and conversational approach to writing when I tutor. This parallels how I approach music. Personal style can even extend to tutoring methodology. For example, the way I tend to relay information is more like a lecturer. I like to give students tips and approaches, and relay general strategies, in the hopes that it can make an impact on their future writing, helping them with strategies for composing outside of the center.

Examination of Style

There are also implications as to how musical style can inform how we tutor style in writing. Edward Santos Garza’s (2017) “Style Makes the Writer: Expanding Considerations of Style in the Writing Center” is a valuable text concerning the role of style in tutoring. Garza (2017) describes style as both a “product and process,” much like improvisation. Style is both an organic, personal process and also a tool that Garza (2017) says can be “deployed . . . depending on the rhetorical moment” (“Getting into Style,” para. 3). Improvisers are very familiar with this idea, as the way we play is informed both by our personal aesthetic, as well as the conventions of different musical dialects.

Thinking about style is something that can be very valuable for a student’s development as a writer. In fact, as Garza (2017) says, “Style, especially when assessed by an authority such as a tutor, is an effective way of encouraging ownership of one’s ideas” (“Stylizing the Writing Center,” para. 14). Our goal as tutors is to help people become better writers, and one of the strongest lessons we can teach is this idea of ownership. Style opens up possibility, it allows us to bring our personalities into academic discourse. Ownership is the key to unlocking this realization. To view a work as one’s creation, as something to take pride in, allows that work to become stronger, as there is a natural urge to put greater effort into that work. When one develops a relationship with their writing, they start to examine it more critically and can come to better edit themselves. This allows the student, as Garza (2017) says, to see themselves “as an architect of their work, not just someone fulfilling instructions. Such a position is humanizing, if not just sobering, to someone writing an academic paper” (“Stylizing,” para. 14). Ownership is very important in creative work. As an improviser, I “own” my playing and take responsibility for the decisions I make when improvising. The way I play is a natural extension of who I am as a person, and the writing process should reflect that too. Ownership is also a large part of why I compose. I started to compose music not only to express my own ideas and feelings, but to create environments that encourage a way of improvising that aligns with my aesthetic principles. If one creates their own environments, then they can excel in them.

Considering stylistic ownership allows a tutor to not only to focus on the macro of a student’s work, but on the micro too, as Garza (2017) speaks to the idea of “flow” in writing, which “results from countless, effective choices at the sentence- and word-level” (“Stylizing,” para. 13). It is valuable to have students examine readability in this way, as it is more relatable to spoken, conversational language, rather than in the abstractions of grammar and syntax. Dealing with grammar conversationally allows a writer’s style to evolve naturally, in a way that helps foster ownership. This consideration of style develops a student’s relationship with various technical concepts, as often students operate under the assumption that “these elements are simply ‘rules,’ things to be obeyed rather than deployed” (Garza, 2017, “Stylizing,” para. 10). By engaging with these aspects of writing, rather than seeing them as absolutes, students are allowed more freedom and are encouraged to make something honest. Good tutoring can help a student realize this and help them navigate personal expression within the parameters of a given work.

The Process

Identifying and addressing issues is a key facet of tutoring; what is interesting about that process, however, is how it relates to improvising. Tutoring requires quick thinking, a willingness to adapt to the situation, and an ability to land on your feet if things go awry. So does improvising! Improvising is, to put it in hyperbolic terms, flying by the seat of your pants. It is never certain what is going to happen when one improvises. One has to trust their experience, abilities, instincts, and fellow bandmates. It is the same with tutoring. You never know what to expect and must adapt to a student’s particular needs. There have been countless sessions where I have come in with a certain plan, or a student outlines specific needs, but then other more pressing issues within the paper arise. For example, I once had a student come in to ask about a certain paragraph that she felt did not fit. Personally, I found that paragraph fit fine within her essay, but found some other areas of concern, so I adjusted my approach to deal with those particular concerns.

Dealing with the unexpected is a common and constant challenge in improvising. The unexpected has happened numerous times in my work as musician, such as these times when it was great and added to the music. My piece, “Loner” is a jazz waltz, which means it is felt in three beats. In the middle of playing the melody though, the bassist and I spontaneously used the polyrhythmic device of two against three to emphasize the two pulse, creating a feeling of 4/4 time, much like what happened during the solos in “Green Mountain Boys.”

Another unexpected moment happens in “Green Mountain Boys,” at the end of my solo section, where we returned to the composed material. My original intent was go right back into playing a groove. In the moment though, I decided to use a more orchestral approach, emphasizing and coloring around the melody. If you pay attention, you can even hear me starting the groove, then abruptly switching gears to a coloristic approach.

There are also unexpected complications, like when my snare stand came loose and I had to adjust it in the middle of playing. Unexpected complications are a large part of the tutoring process, and they can range from having students come in with papers due in the next hour, to students having no idea what they want to write about. I’ve even had students walk out on me for unexplained reasons!

It is important to note that these events were not pre-planned, that while I may be able to explain certain facets of what happened in the course of an improvisation, I cannot explain exactly why they happened. I do not know exactly what causes shifts in how I might approach a certain soloist, or why something I had a preconceived way of playing shifts in the moment. In improvisation, the moment is our editor, the great equalizer in which the best ideas come out. There have been so many instances in improvising in which ideas I have never even thought of come out in the most surprising of ways. Improvising is like being a conduit of some other force, in many ways the performer is as much of an observer as the audience. This feeling is something that is hard to quantify or explain, but it is a deeply held conviction of many creative people.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1996 calls this concept “flow,” meaning, “the feeling when things were going well as an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness” (p. 110). This feeling is “the result of intense concentration on the present,” and that is the key towards using this concept in our work as tutors (Csikzentmihalyi, p.110). If as tutors, we can bring the entirety of ourselves to a session and really concentrate on our work, we can achieve a similar feeling. Tutoring is often like a puzzle, in which relaying the right guidance can be the difference between success and failure. The real challenge to this puzzle is that there is no one solution, no skeleton key for understanding. I have a particularly vivid memory of my favorite session I have had as a tutor. In this session, it seemed as if everything aligned. The student and I had a sense of shared communication, their discovery became my joy, and the session had a rhythm and sense of momentum and it felt like the work was doing itself. In fact, if you can lead the student effectively, they end up tutoring themselves!

The process of improvisation may seem frightening or intimidating, and there may be spots where you may feel frozen, or unable to contribute. But even if things do not go as planned, there is a thrill when people connect on the bandstand. As tutors, I’m sure you have felt the same way in sessions. You have felt the joy when you connect with a student, the sense of defeat when a session does not go as planned. This is an important lesson to learn. There is a word I love to use in situations like these: vicissitudes. Vicissitudes are the “natural change or mutation visible in nature or in human affairs,” or in layman’s terms, the ups and downs of life (”Vicissitude,” n.d.). There’s a common wisdom in jazz, that you are only as good as your last gig. You are only as good as your last tutoring session, too. While this may seem depressing at first, it is actually quite liberating. If you take this attitude, when a session does not go well, you can learn from it and move on, making your next session better. Certainly, there are consequences if things go horribly awry; a student may not return to the center, or you may not get a call back for another gig. But often in these cases, perseverating on the negative only cripples you from doing the right thing next time. In the times when a session does go well, enjoy it, and always be looking forward to the next opportunity. Accepting vicissitudes is an important life lesson, let alone a tutoring strategy.

The Importance of Communication

Communication is a core value in improvising and in life, as well as tutoring. If a tutor cannot communicate with a student, their job becomes impossible. Communication can be viewed like style, both as a goal or product, and as a skill or process. The overarching goal of a session is to communicate with the student about writing in hopes of reaching a shared understanding of what can be done to improve it. Within this process, a tutor needs the skills to be able to effectively relay feedback of a student’s work, as well as the grander goal of guiding the student through a learning experience. Without communication skills, one cannot achieve the overarching goal. This concept also manifests itself in improvising. Improvising is about communicating with the musicians you are playing with. To achieve this goal, one needs not only technical fluency on their instrument, but trained ears that can pick up and process musical information in real time as well.

Take for example this outro vamp where the group was really communicating and interacting with each other. Note especially how each member of the group weaves lines and melodic ideas between each other, leaving enough space for other musical statements. This includes using each other’s melodic ideas to make their own musical statements.

Tutoring is the same push and pull; you need to listen to the students’ needs and respond accordingly, just like how I responded to Jim Robitaille, the guitarist in this example. In particular, I tried to match his energy during his solo, as when his playing became more intense, I tried to respond with dynamic swells, as well as more rhythmically adventurous phrasing.

This level of communication can prove invaluable, especially when the unexpected happens. You may have one conception of what a student needs, but the session may take you in a wholly different direction, like how the music takes on different directions in this example, where the soloists are trading, which is when soloists take turns playing over different sections of the song. This is especially apparent in the dramatic switch from the quieter, more spatial section of the first piano solo, to the louder, busier guitar solo right after. The band was able to do this because we were really listening to each other and were completely open in the moment. As tutors, having this same approach allows us to connect with students. Boquet (2002) comes to a similar conclusion in Noise From the Writing Center, stating “I began to see myself—as tutor, as teacher—also as a receiver of information. My newfound awareness of the reciprocity between sender and receiver would, I was certain, draw me closer to that perfect session” (p. 3).

Composition and the Writing Process

Something worth mentioning as well is the connection between both writing in English and in music (for the sake of clarity, I will refer to writing in English as writing and in music as composition). It is important to note that our identities as writers are connected to how we tutor. The primary connection I see between writing and composition is the work process. The approach I take as a writer is the same I take as a composer.

Take for example my piece “Green Mountain Boys.” I wrote this piece in 2014, in the beginning of my college career, when I had very little knowledge of music theory or harmony. For this piece, I followed my intuition. Composing music is an extension of improvisation, an intuitive process. Writing is an extension of spoken language, something most students have been doing since they were children. It is the old trick of reading a paper aloud to see if it rolls off the tongue, or as scholar Jeff Brooks (1991) says “The sometimes slippery principle that good writing should sound good” (p. 3).

I have gone through a number of drafts with different pieces, such as “Uprising,” “Umoja,” “Loner,” and others. This again is like writing. Students may show up with any number of drafts before they have a finished product, and it is useful to understand that each kind of draft brings its own set of unique challenges.

Deadlines are also a useful tool in both writing and composing. When I write, I find deadlines help me accomplish my work. Brooks (1991) agrees, as he finds that “any experienced writer knows the deadline is the ultimate energizer” (p. 4). As a composer, I will create functional deadlines for myself that encourage me to finish compositions that may otherwise just sit there to rot. These deadlines include ideas like having a piece ready for a specific performance, or even loftier goals, like aiming to write a certain amount of material within a timeframe, such as a year.

While working on both writing and composition, it can be valuable to share work with others with the express purpose of receiving input. Much like how tutoring is a valuable resource for writers, composition courses and lessons are a valuable resource for musicians. I have been ‘tutored’ as a composer during my time studying music in undergrad. I studied harmony and composition privately with a teacher, in which we not only worked on some of the devices that composers can use to refine their work, but also worked with individual pieces, developing them to their full potential, as my teacher would expose me to different ways and ideas of how I could develop a composition I was having trouble with.

In both writing and composition, completing a work is only the first part of the process. Displaying one’s work is the next step. There are even parallels in the ways writing and composition are shared with others. Both mediums can be presented in a performative aspect, as in performing at a poetry slam or working a set at a jazz club. There are also preserved mediums, such as the novel or album. This part of the process is very important, and perhaps the least considered. Jazz musician Adam Benjamin (2016) calls this “COMPLETE THE CYCLE.” To complete this process, Benjamin (2016) states:

1. Make the complete thing

2. Bring it to the World

3. Hear it back and live with it

4. Edit as necessary

5. DONE now start a NEW CYCLE! (para. 4)

Going through this whole process is important in all kinds of creative work, from writing to visual art. While writers may change or move around some steps, the principle of Benjamin’s (2016) “COMPLETE THE CYCLE” still stands. To tutor is to help aid in the process of creating, and understanding the whole process helps us to better serve students.


I hope this work is an invitation and a challenge for tutors to draw from their own lives and bring it to the session. When one draws from their identity, they can begin to see the connective tissue between a whole myriad of subjects we deal with as tutors. Your business acumen could lead you to help people realize how to have economy with words. Perhaps a passion for science can lead you to promote a tutoring style that values empiricism and analysis in writing. Maybe your love of comedy can encourage a student to try and find the fun in writing. One’s love of visual art could encourage students to find the descriptive power of words, to ‘paint’ with their writing. And perhaps one’s experiences with identity politics could encourage a student to find their political voice and speak truth to power. There are a myriad of different prisms with which we can view tutoring, and looking at it from the perspectives we already hold within us is a powerful tool. Often, broadening our horizons can start with the simple act of looking inward.

Ultimately, the tutoring session, much like playing on the bandstand, is a fleeting moment. You may meet someone once at a gig, and never play with them again. The same goes for tutoring. Oftentimes, you may work with students you never see again. While there is a tragedy to this, there is also a certain fulfillment to be found within this framework. In Ken Burns’ documentary, Jazz, Burns describes jazz as making a “masterpiece by midnight.” This “masterpiece” is music made in the moment, which only exists for that moment. It is here, and then gone. In a quest against the odds, we strive to create something beautiful within that framework. In this process, we can make uncanny connections with people. This is also the magic of our work at the writing center. As a tutor, I have had really interesting and meaningful conversations with students, oftentimes with people I have never met before, or seen since. We only have so much time with a student, and we may never see them again. Acknowledging that impermanence changes our approach, and how we attempt to make an impact on students. Tutoring and music have certainly had a great impact on me. Tutoring has helped me to examine the world as a critical thinker and to find the joy in sharing in that process with others. Music has allowed me to process my examination and to give a greater context and meaning through my own self-expression. Tutoring has clued me into the “what” of life, the details; and the music is the “why,” the meaning of it all. Not only has tutoring helped me see the inherent value in everyone’s voice, but it has helped me find my own. My own voice is expressed most clearly through my music. And helping people express their voice should be the goal of all tutors.


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