Monday, August 6, 2012

Simple Notes Deeply Felt

I’ve been training teachers for almost as long as I’ve been teaching kids. It’s an ideal combination. Dreaming the classes and working it out with the kids’ active bodies and prodigious imaginations and then carrying some of the successes into the adult workshops. Then new ideas arise with the adults that filter back to the kids. A flow is set in motion between the two worlds that keeps both honest and real and keeps the waters clean and bubbly.

Both worlds have their joys and challenges. The kids are ever-surprising and infectious with their energy. It is a perpetual delight to watch their faces light up with excitement, their eyes twinkle with the recognition of beauty. But it can be exhausting to constantly reel in their increasingly short attention span and get Bobby to get up off of Billy as they wrestle around on the floor. Usually, adults tend to be more polite about things like that and since they mostly come to workshops voluntarily, they often listen attentively and rarely run around the room during the directions. Though I often find their “ahas!” and “Eurekas!” exhilarating and love to watch them remember their childlike playful selves, they tend to be a bit more serious than the kids.

But one of the great perks about teaching teachers is that you are forced to reflect deeply on the principles behind your teaching and communicate them clearly. And so I have a lifelong habit of trying to articulate what is essential about this work. And because there are a thousand ways to say the same thing, I’m always searching for the next combination of words that give wings to the idea and gets the listener flying into understanding.

And so in my 6th day of teaching piece after piece that the students can learn in 10 or 15 minutes and then play or sing or dance at almost a concert-worthy level, I keep reminding them to search for material that is simple, clear, easy to learn and easy to play, but whose total effect is both complex and heart-stirring. We humans are enamored with complexity and virtuosity, both of which have their place. But not in the classroom of young kids getting started who walk through the music room door because they have to. They don’t want to start working on something that will take 10 years of constant diligence, long hours of practice and complicated understandings before they arrive at something satisfying. They want something they can do right now, something that fits their small hands and fantasy-filled minds and at the same time, sound and feel good. Those interested have their whole lifetime to walk down the long and twisting path of virtusoic musical mastery, the rest of us just want to play, sing and dance and feel good and look good and sound good.

Enter the genius of the Orff approach, with its child-sized xylophone orchestra, recorders and percussion, with its elemental style of composition with simple patterns and repetitive melodies and blending-scales, with its inspired process of teaching in a way that includes the fertile imagination of the child and integrates the body, mind and heart.

When you find a piece of music that fits that criteria, that’s gold. Like the Estonian song we sang and danced to the other night. Standing in the dinner line, a teacher told me he transcribed it and was stunned to see how simple the melody was in the light of his sublime experience singing and dancing it. My spontaneous reply was, “Ah, that’s the whole secret of this training. Finding material with simple notes deeply felt.” As soon as those words passed my lips, I knew I had my next blog title and theme.

Simple notes deeply felt. That’s what it’s all about.

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