Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Beginning, Middle, End

An enticing beginning. A connected middle. A satisfying end. This is perhaps the simplest definition of good music that I know. And it works pretty well for novels, films, a life well-lived— and a class well-taught. And that is precisely what I had the good fortune to witness as my 20 Level III students taught their 15-minute practicum in San Francisco International Orff Course.

They each had their own way to draw us into the circle— a boisterous song, a silent motion, an intriguing sculpture of instruments, a whispered sound effect. Each one invited us into a world distinctly different than “Sit down, get out your pencil/laptop and open to page 24.” There was intrigue, magic, mystery, the promise of surprise and the excitement of immediate involvement. Our bodies were awake with movement and sound, our attention razor-sharp needing to observe the next step, our sense of belonging nurtured through the simple formation of the circle. An enticing beginning is as necessary to a class as it is to the opening lines of a novel or the first notes of a symphony.

But having promised something interesting, the next step is to develop the opening idea and lead us to someplace we have never traveled before. And so the song leads to a dance or sounds on the body prepare the sounds on the instruments or the text points us to a dramatic interpretation. Like the old ways of photos developing in darkrooms, a picture starts to emerge and come into focus and before we know how it happened, we find ourselves in the midst of some thrilling piece of music or dance where all the parts that led us there were connected and everything made perfect sense. Especially in our fragmented lives of random bits of information, a connected middle brings meaning and purpose and the brief sense that all is not chaos, but a beautifully designed form and structure. These lessons all moved forward at their own paces and in their own ways, but always seamlessly without a single extra word spoken.

And like the story, film, music, dance performance, all art forms bound by time, we are taken out of clock time and into that other world, but eventually must return to paying bills and changing the oil in the car. And so there is a forward momentum that builds in intensity and reaches some sort of climax before gently—or dramatically—reaching the final notes or words that set us back down into the everyday world. A satisfying end. Though my student’s lessons were timed by Radio Shack’s timer, most got to hit those last notes before or soon after the obnoxious beeps and you could feel the appreciation of the 19 other students for the gift of inspired teaching.

How I wish all teachers and administrators could have witnessed these lessons! There is always the next “latest and greatest 15-minutes-of-fame educational technique,” but it is a crying shame that nobody ever looks to the well-trained Orff music teacher for guidance and inspiration. Everything a child needs and loves was in these lessons. Not only the musical flow of the teaching, but the constant activity, the involvement of all the senses, the social connections and the constant invitation for the imagination to participate and contribute. And not incidentally, the universality of this approach is impressive. These teachers come from Argentina, Brazil, China, Columbia, Ireland, Spain, Turkey, U.S.A., Venezuala, but language and culture is not an issue when you teach from the body and sound and gesture and tap on our common need to move, sing, play, feel.

Class after class well-taught gives the model for a life well-lived. We would hope that each child born is wanted and loved and dreamed about before emerging into a world filled with love, caring and enticing delights. Right now my granddaughter is enjoying the exhiliration of free movement as she crawls around her house and is equally enjoying the different tastes and textures of avocado, quinoa, black beans, ribs and electrical cords. Her world is a panopoly of sensual delights, made even more exciting with each encounter with dogs, cats, birds, summer lakes, sandy beaches, books read out loud, music played and danced, art viewed and made, hugs and kisses. She's off to a great start and of course, I wish for it to continue like this. A happy childhood is a gift beyond measure.

And then we set off into the development section of our life’s music as we follow the initial ideas of what attracts us. Life may throw obstacle after obstacle in our path, load us down with grief or bolster us up with surprising opportunity, but if we stay true to our theme, we begin to see and feel how all the chapters in our drama are connected and moving toward some kind of stirring climax. Indeed, observing these teachers I’ve helped train is certainly a high note in my own constantly emerging music.

And then comes the satisfying end. Or not. I love the image of the elder surrounded by loved ones in his or her home passing to the other side carried by song and holding the hands of the surrounding family. Occasionally it happens like that and that’s a beautiful gift. But we don’t get to write those last notes and more often than I would wish, the instrument goes out of tune before the final phrase and the concert venue shifts to the bright lights of a hospital room.

Indeed, both the beginning and the end are out of our hands and we’re at the mercy of karma, good fortune or the luck of the draw. But the middle is the part we have the best chance of affecting and that’s why these teachers have given up the chance for two weeks on the Hawaii beach to feed their own promise, re-tune their instrument and learn how to create and pass on beautiful music to the children they serve. 

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