Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Electronic Wailing Wall


A reporter goes to Israel to do a piece on the Wailing Wall. She notices that the same man comes three times a day every day to pray. Finally, she goes up to him and says, 
“Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice your devotion in coming here so often to pray. How long have you been doing this?” 
“About 40 years,” the man replies. 
“40 years! That’s dedication, indeed! Tell me, what do you pray for?” 
“I pray that the Christians, Muslims and Jews will recognize that their God is one and the same, that all fighting and wars will stop, that we will treat our children with love and respect and they in turn will love and respect us, that kindness and compassion will win out over hatred and greed.” 
The reporter says, “That’s very commendable. 40 years of praying for these things! How does that feel?” “Like I’m talking to an f’in’ wall!!!!”

I love this joke. It expresses exactly how I feel after almost 40 years of speaking on behalf of music education. Today, a letter from an Orff colleague came my way with the same-old same-old news:

Just as it is in many states around the country, the state of New York is facing a critical financial situation that will impact the schools terribly. Last evening, I received a call from the teacher who took my place when I retired from public school education.  She informed me that, despite the wonderful work she has done to maintain the program I established, the principal is cutting ALL ART and ALL MUSIC in that school.  This type of situation is varied from school to school in this urban district.  Of course, I am livid beyond words. 

I sent her an excerpt from my recent talk in Hong Kong—“Why Music Matters.”

“Every time has its particular challenges and ours is the astronomical rate of change we are experiencing. When a tool (computer) three years old is considered archaic, when we are trying to train students for businesses that don’t exist yet (who would have predicted Google twenty years ago?), when yesterday’s solutions are woefully inadequate for tomorrow’s problems, we desperately need to re-think what is important for schools to teach. The only preparation for the future is training children to think, respond, imagine, work together in groups, problem- solve with flexible minds, cooperative spirit and soaring imaginations. They still need to learn their times-tables, practice scales and learn the history of civilizations, but always with an eye as to how to use that knowledge to meet the present and future.

When seen in this light, suddenly quality arts education takes on a whole new meaning. It becomes so much more than a frill that makes children feel warm and fuzzy inside. It becomes the most important subject in the curriculum, especially when taught in a way that emphasizes improvisation, composition and small group work. The only way to meet constant change and variation is to cultivate a flexible mind accustomed to improvising and responding with intelligence. That’s what great Orff programs do.

In the Variability Selection Theory proposed by Richard Potts, he states that humans have thrived because of our ability to change. He suggests that the cream of the crop of the gene pool were those who had the imagination, intelligence and flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances and that is why our ancestors “became increasingly allergic to inflexibility and stupidity.” 

And that well-describes all the politicians across the country who, when met with financial crisis, respond by taking money from schools and from arts program within schools. They could decrease the Pentagon budget, put ceilings on corporate CEO salaries, or look at a hundred other parts of the culture that do nothing to prepare us for our future. But to take the money from our children who ARE the future, from the schools that should be designed to cultivate their innovative skills, from the arts programs that are the highest level of integrated thought and improvisational disciplines, is the height of stupidity.

Let’s try something new and daring here. Let’s increase the money to schools and arts programs, increase opportunities for teachers to train themselves to nurture tomorrow’s innovators. Those already knowledgeable about how to do this—for example, Orff Schulwerk teachers with a half-century of tried-and-true practices and proven successes—are waiting patiently for the opportunity to help. Let’s do it!”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I had the great pleasure of working with the 17 students at my school who are preparing a performance for the International Orff Symposium in Salzburg this summer. They had already been working with my brilliant colleagues, Sofia Lopez-Ibor and James Harding, and in a few short weeks, were ready with pieces from Vivaldi to Argentinia tangos and malambos to the Rice Krispies’ acapella theme and beyond. In two short hours, they quickly mastered complex body percussion patterns, two xylophone pieces from Ghana and the beginning of a Latin jazz piece. For every “ping” I gave them, they responded with an equally powerful and interesting “pong.” People kept poking their heads in the door to find out who was making this dynamic music. My new motto for music teachers: “Create the kinds of musicians you want to play with.” And it seems this is exactly what James, Sofia and I had done. These middle schoolers felt absolutely like our peers, not only in terms of musical skills, ideas, hearing, techniques, but also in terms of their sense of humor and enjoyment.

So Wailing Wall, indeed. The height of the joy of the above experiences makes the grief of its absence for kids around the country even deeper. But the difference with this electronic wailing wall is its potential transparency. Instead of my complaints rebounding off into stony, unresponsive silence, this has the capacity to reach further, especially if the readers see fit to pass it on. W.H. Auden famously said, “All I have is my voice to undo the folded lie” and in this case, the lie is that art is expendable, that financial troubles means punishing the children first, that we must passively accept inflexibility and stupidity (which is paramount to consent). So let’s join our voices together and see what might happen. 

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