Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Armpit Music


I have become the master of the Tokyo subway system. The Chiyoda line, the Nambuko Line, the Ginza Line, the JR Line. I glide through them all with ease and familiarity. No need for going to the gym—the constant up and down the stairs is enough aerobic workout to keep me healthy. Yesterday, boarded the Tokyo Tokyu-Toyuko train (say that five times fast) and got off at the Motomachi Station (say that five times fast) in  Yokohama. I was puzzling why the name Yokohama felt familiar and realized it as the answer to a frequent Crostic word-puzzle clue—“Japanese port” Indeed, it is the port where Commodore Perry landed in the mid-1800’s and kick-started Japan opening up to trade with the West. There’s a European cemetery there and several European-style houses on the hill where the St. More’s School is. 
There I taught two 2nd grade classes of some 35 kids each.

Teachers often throw tomatoes at me when I confess at workshops that my average class size at my school is 12 to 15 kids, but though far from ideal, there is plenty you can do with 35 kids. We began with patting the beat to a nursery rhyme and then I invited them to make up their own way to express the beat, watch others and copy their idea at my signal. To demonstrate, I asked the kid next to me to show his idea and without a moment’s hesitation, he stuck his hand under his shirt and played some expressive armpit music. Of course, I had to copy. Kids. You gotta love ‘em.

After the two kids’ classes, the teachers were supposed to come, but even though this was announced a long time back and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to taste a different way of teaching and at least return to the kids with some fabulous activities that will brighten everyone’s day, they decided that they shouldn’t give up their weekly elementary staff meeting. Adults. You gotta wonder what the hell happened to them.

How do we choose what we do each day? What we read, what we listen to, what we practice? I think we’re driven by an intuitive sense that this will be useful someday and that won’t. We prepare ourselves for how we will be needed. Guest-teaching three middle school classes at the Nishimachi School yesterday made me grateful for the choices I have made. Taught a Ghanaian xylophone piece to 6th grade, complete with percussion parts and simple dances that they created, With 7th, gave a summary of the history of the blues that ended with kids playing Sonnymoon for Two on the Orff instruments with a clearer understanding of how the chords worked and growing confidence in their first attempts at solos. Then 8th and 9th graders, who I had observed in an earlier music class sprawled on the floor plugged into their computers with headphones on doing some music program, now playing simple drones and ostinato patterns on the xylophones and improvising melodies in each of 7 modes—so happy, so involved in their rhythmic bodies, so connected to each other and so excited about the group sound. How they need this. ( A teacher told me about going on a retreat with her high school chorus to a place in the country where the kids camped out dormitory style. When she went to check in on them at night, the room was aglow with the light of cell phones—they were texting each other in the bunks five feet away. Sigh. )

After the three middle school classes, 25 teachers came to chant the rhythms of their names and make music with their starting sounds, to spell letters with their bodies, to play evocative music on the Orff instruments to the poem, “A wise old owl sat in an oak, the more he heard, the less he spoke, the less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?) The room buzzed with excitement as classroom teachers realized they were more musical than they ever thought they were and that there are thousands of ways to animate language arts and math programs so that children feel the beauty of words and numbers, the power of their own imagination, the fun of creating with others and the satisfaction of understanding things with bodies as well as brains, with the heart as well as the paper test.

Out to a dinner of Japanese pancakes (Okonomiyaki) cooked at your table and I remembered a recipe from the Tassajara bread book that I used to make. Also remembered the custom of pouring your neighbor’s beer and keeping an eye out for refills. A wonderful structure for exercising your awareness of your fellow human beings. So simple, so eloquent. These the kind of things that get me up in the morning, the simple practices that give muscle to our capacity for empathy. Like the beanbag game I play with kids. They walk around the room with beanbags balanced on their head and if it falls they have to freeze. The only way they can move with it again is if another child notices and stoops to pick it up and place it back on the frozen child’s head. But in so doing, there is a risk that they might drop their own beanbag. Try it sometime! Fascinating study and lots of fun.

Today is the festival of throwing beans at the devil. Just my cup of tea. So off to the local temple—but first, have to practice my armpit technique. 

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