It has been a month of constant visitors at our school’s music program, folks from Germany, Austria and Spain hanging out with us for two weeks to see and hear and feel what we’re doing. Our door is always open and we’re happy to share the beauty of what these kids can accomplish. At the same time, it puts us as teachers in a vulnerable position, not able to hide behind the glory of a one-day workshop where we appear as gods and fully revealing what happens when day after day we are faced with the unpredictable chemistry of groups of children with all their explosive moments, strange behaviors, interpersonal fireworks alongside the magic and the breakthroughs. We’re on display and the observer is witnessing an education filled with inspiration, perspiration, frustration, dedication, imagination, all fully revealed.
And that’s as it should be. It brings it all down to the real ground of the work. Perhaps the most valuable things we SF School music teachers—Sofia, James and myself—have to offer are faith and humor. Faith in the imaginative potential of the kids, in the power of what we have to offer them, in our own capacity to respond intelligently and compassionately to everything they throw our way— and with a hearty sense of humor. I had two visitors witness my hilarious attempt to make polymetric body percussion patterns visible using math attribute blocks. They—and the children—got to see me thinking out loud far below any reasonable standard of intelligence, trying to solve my mistakes with pennies on top of blocks and then other blocks on top of blocks and while I’m figuring it out with money all over the floor, three kids are intrigued and the rest are wandering around the room looking for something more interesting than my failed lesson. Well, nobody got hurt and by the end of the class, I had my Eureka moment of how to show what I intended and the next class was smooth as butter. Though not necessarily”better”— both were valuable in their own way.
At the end of one visitor’s stay, I asked if she had any questions. Normally, the typical questions are things like “Where did you get that CD?” or “Are you really allowed to sing a song about kicking your boyfriend out of town?” But this young woman surprised me with “Why do you teach music?” Never at a loss for words, I started babbling about the pleasure of helping children express themselves through such a powerful medium that calls on the full range of the body’s capabilities, the heart’s capacity to feel, the mind’s ability to both analyze and imagine, the soul’s facility in connecting with worlds seen and unseen. And then she surprised me further: “Why is it important to express yourself?”
Again, my mouth started working before my brain, but it found its way to some solid ground. Sitting in front of the eucalyptus tree, I said something like this:
“Well, all of nature loves to express itself. That tree is expressing its tree nature, the wind is expressing its wind nature and the two together make a kind of a dance. Why do those plum blossoms bloom so colorfully and beautifully? I can’t help but feel part of them is showing off, like folks dressed in all their finery entering the party—"I will pretend to be casual, but I hope you're checking me out. I look good!" I stumbled into a YouTube video of flamingos in mating season and who can doubt that they are so happy exhibiting themselves in dance? It’s the nature of nature to display itself, express itself as precisely what it is. And that includes swarming bugs and writhing snakes and the darting tongues of lizards and the weeds crowding out the flowers. It’s not all flowers and butterflies.
And so humans as part of nature have it in our nature to express who we are. But though some of our display is hard-wired, most of it comes from our unique capacity to draw from a complex mix of possibilities. If no two snowflakes or dung beetles are alike, you can imagine how the expressive potentials augment geometrically moving up the evolutionary ladder. In company with a long list of poets, philosophers and spiritual teachers, I concur that part of our destiny is to discover our particular way of seeing the world, to claim our little corner of creation—and then display it so the world is refreshed. As Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it:
“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame…
each mortal thing does one thing and the same…
myself, it speaks and spells,
Crying, What I do is me, for that I came.”
In other words, since we have no choice but to be unique, let us be as unique as we can be. Not in the sense of cultivating an eccentric personality, but in the sense of going deeper into our particular capacity and expressing it in a way that all can recognize a part of themselves eloquently spoken (or sung or danced or gestured or painted or invented). When I hear an inspiring musician or poet or brilliant person in any field, my first response is 'You are amazing!' But the better and truer affirmation is 'Thank you for using your gift and doing the work to express so clearly and beautifully what I myself feel and think.'
Why do I teach music? To help children master the tools that will help them discover, cultivate, nurture, discipline and express at the highest level the gift of their uniqueness. Of course, only a few of them will do that specifically with music, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is simply making the attempt.”
I wonder whether my questioner would have been happier if I just said, “It’s a lot of fun.”Next time, she’ll know better.