Friday, May 4, 2012

Proposition 31

Another night of magic and miracles has come and gone. First through fifth graders created a sacred space in the Brava Theater as they played, sung and danced themselves—and all fortunate enough to witness it— to glory. Being kids and two-legged creatures, the magic was peppered with little squabbles, competitions, a couple of missed cues, a nervous stage fright with annoying giggles, but hey! bringing 100 kids together to accomplish what they did is indeed a miracle. A miracle built brick-by-brick by the tireless dedication and hard work of the teachers, who spend their nights thinking about where to put that F# glockenspiel bar and how to solve the problem of the shaky bass bar part.

Anybody with half a heart and one eye open who witnessed that night couldn’t help but notice that something extraordinary occurred, something worthy of our children and something necessary to all children. At the end of the program, I spoke to the audience about Proposition 13, that devastating bill the voters endorsed so enthusiastically back around 1978—“Hey, less property tax means more money for my Hawaii vacation! Sounds great!" And so down came the guillotine on the schools, with the arts programs, which had been relatively healthy in California and starting to embrace the Orff approach to music education, first on the chopping block. 34 years later, no signs of reversal. Three generations of children deprived of experiences like last night, experiences that give them just about everything a human being needs to be whole— group work, individual challenge, moments to shine their quirky and exceptional talents, confidence in front of the public, communion with their fellow classmates, immersion in sounds and motions that touch them to the core of their soul.

I ended with a plea for Propostion 31—let’s get together and besides just feel all right, do the political work to help all children feel all right. Not exactly my strength, the nitty-gritty of political lobbying, but I’ll jump up on that bandwagon in a hearbeat and trumpet down the walls of Jericho’s selfishness and ignorance. And I got three generations of kids at The San Francisco School who (if I only joined Facebook) I could gather together instantly to hit the streets running, petition in hand.

Meanwhile, being involved in this esoteric teaching approach that constantly needs explanation, I always try to educate a bit at concerts and help the audience reflect. For those who are curious about it, here are last night’s program notes.

Picasso once said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” He admired the rich imagination of children unfettered by adherence to specific techniques. Children surprise—and often amaze us—with their paintings, with their poetry, with their spontaneous observations and provocative questions. Recent studies show that five-year olds can think of 100 things to do with a paper-clip, whereas high school students, who have had the wings of imagination clipped by too much dull schooling, might only think of five. Classified knowledge, virtuosic techniques, routine and habit and disciplined mastery all have their place in every field of study, but too much too soon unbalanced by “what else can we do with this?” is a blow to our rich childlike imagination.

In the field of music, prodigies excepted, young children in our culture are simply on their way to finally making decent music after years of practice. We endure their squeaky violins and clarinets in hopes that someday Bach and Be-bop will emerge in all their glory. But what if there was a parallel track to this kind of music study that found ways to make exciting and beautiful music at each step of a child’s development without hours of solitary practice? What if there was a way to create a musical culture that soaked children in the soothing and cleansing waters of music and dance without it having to feel like a special study? What if there was a way to grow children’s understanding and technique alongside inviting their imaginations to be set sonically and kinesthetically free? And the good news? There is! The Orff approach to music education in the hands of teachers who live it, breath it, embody it and devote themselves to its demanding practice.

And so what we hope you see here tonight is the dignity and delight of the children’s musical expression at each stage of their journey to adulthood. Fifth grade is more sophisticated and consciously knowledgeable about musical principles than first grade, but it doesn’t make them better, just different. As we grow and develop, our artistic impulses may mature and reach new depth, but ultimately the young seedling and mature plant share the same nature. Again, Picasso: “I don’t develop. I am.”

Enjoy the show—the children certainly will!

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