Monday, April 2, 2012

Mr. Small's Large Ideas

A few months back, I found out that a man I had much admired—James Hillman— had passed away in the Fall (see January 22nd post “Raise High the Roof Beam”). Today, I heard of another who also died last Fall and neglected to inform me, a musicologist and author named Christopher Small. Mr. Small and Mr. Hillman shared many things in common. They both left us in the Fall at ages 84 and 85, they both were the “bad boys” of their chosen fields, shaking up people’s too-easily accepted assumptions with their fierce, razor-sharp thinking. They both sought to enlarge the conversation and think beyond the narrow borders of their subject’s “-ology,” yet while looking far beyond the established horizons, could pin an idea like a dart hitting bullseye with the precision and specificity of their language. Hillman hit Oprah late in his career, while Small lived as an ex-pat in Sitges outside Barcelona, known to only a passionate few. And I was one of them.

I first heard of Christopher Small when a fellow Orff student back in the ‘80’s recommended his book Music, Society, Education. Had I been writing blogs at the time, I certainly would have titled one, “I Hate Christopher Small.” For not only did he steal the title of the book I wanted to write, but he elaborated on the theme with breathtaking articulation and eloquence. I didn’t get around to reading the book until some 15 years later and by then was well-entrenched in trying to explain to seatmates on planes what the Orff approach was about. And always—and still today—with great frustration. Because it was clear that to understand what I and my colleagues were trying to do required turning inside-out and upside-down our notions about what music is and what education is and what a healthy society is. Small wrote in that first book:

“Art remains a commodity whose production remains in the hands of experts, which we purchase when we feel the need of it and in whose making we have no more hand than we have in the manufacture of our breakfast cereal. We can perceive now that a true regeneration of western music and western society can come only when we restore the power of creation to each individual in our society.”

To “restore the power of creation” to make “music in the present tense” is indeed a cornerstone of inspired Orff education. In referencing non-Western musical upbringing in the village, he applauds the way children “increase the fluency, expressiveness and naturalness of their playing, not through technical exercises, but through constant playing and exposure to musical experience within the framework of society.” I always say that I’m not teaching a music curriculum in my school, but aiming to co-create a musical culture. Today we said goodbye to a beloved visitor and sang through the year, from the opening ceremony through Halloween and Winter festivals and Martin Luther King Day and Valentine’s Day to send her off. 100 children who knew all the words to the songs and all the reasons for singing them and all the skills to sing them with great gusto and great beauty. Music. Society. Education. One piece.

Back to Mr. Small. I went on to read his other superb books, Music of a Common Tongue and Musicking and felt like this was a man I would like to meet someday. His words hit bullseye after bullseye, describing what I experienced and aimed for others to experience in an Orff workshop. As many people have commented, we can’t enter territory for which we have no language. And I agree…but. The dancing body and singing voice have their own dialect and as many an Orff workshop can testify, you can enter a new land through their portals. And then search for the descriptive words after. Since we need both the direct experience and the language to describe and shape it, I always thought it would be a great combination if I could share the practical work and he could talk the theory. It was a far-fetched dream. 

But my moment came when I was giving a workshop in a conference in Barcelona and heard that Mr. Small would be presenting as well. I was doing my usual shtick, everyone up slapping their bodies and singing and smiling at each other in a sea of movement with great musical power when I noticed an elderly man enter the room and sit in the back. When the workshop finished, my host announced that Mr. Small would begin the next workshop and up he rose from his chair, walked to the front, arranged some papers at the podium and looked out at the group. Now I know I’m not going to get that Honorary Doctorate from Harvard. Punished by Universityland by spending so much time doing mere practical work with three-year olds, no college students are studying the Doug Goodkin Body of Thought Regarding Music Education. But imagine my pride and delight when Mr. Small looked out at the students, gestured to me, and said:

Everything that I’m going to talk about, everything that I think is important and vital in music, education and culture, you have just experienced with this man.”

Thank you, Mr. Small for your loving, caring and insightful body of work. I hope you’re out there somewhere organizing community harp choirs and philosophical study groups with Mr. Hillman. 

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