Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Orff Village Elders


Some 44 years ago, 10 people sat in a living room and dreamed up an American association that would carry forth the vision of Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman’s revolutionary approach to music education. They named it the American Orff Schulwerk Association (AOSA) and watched it grow from those humble beginnings to an association 5,000 strong at its peak, with an additional 5,000 or so members belonging to over 100 local chapters. The entire edifice was built on volunteer labor, music teachers who had to learn the basics of running an organization on top of their day job teaching children. They figured out how to host a national conference that grew from some 100 attendees in the earlier ones to over 2,000 at their peak, launched a quality quarterly magazine, created a structure to incorporated local chapters in most of the states across the country and much more. The national headquarters were in someone’s garage for years. The whole show was run by passion, can-do confidence and trust in their own intelligence. And it worked.

But they didn’t do it all alone. Every step of the way there was partnership with profressionals outside the music education world. There were the musical instrument companies, the publishers, the printers, the bookdealers, the accountants, the lawyers, the insurance people, the hotels and conference centers— in short, all the folks any organization needs to realize its mission. These auxiliary relationships played—and play— an essential role. No organization can do without them.

But what was essential, is essential and will always be essential, is a clearly defined relationship between the keepers of the vision and the supplemental professionals. Those volunteer music teachers turned National Board Members, magazine editors, workshop, conference and summer course organizers are the ones qualified to make the important decisions. The outside hired professionals are in a secondary role in service of the vision. They are there to help, not lead. When we give our power over to the marketing folks or the lawyers or the loan companies to make policy decisions, that’s when the trouble starts. When we apply the business model to all situations, when branding and image and profit sit at the head of the table where wisdom and vision and experience formerly sat, things start to get a little crazy. And that’s the cliff that AOSA is teetering on now.

What kind of thinking sits behind this willingness to let people who don't know us determine our future? The idea that the trained professional is smarter than the village elder. And so the guy sitting in University classrooms studying agriculture by reading books and taking notes on Power Point presentations goes to Italy or Bali to tell the farmers how to do things right. And of course, he knows nothing. The local farmers who have lived intimately with the land and inherited practices suited precisely to their place have very little to learn from this outsider. Maybe something— no need to slam the door entirely. But they get to decide what will make sense based on their intimate knowledge of their particular situation.

And that’s precisely the same for us Orff teachers. We know exactly how to recruit new members— do good work and show it. Virtually every single person of the thousand plus in our recent Conference will testify— “I’m here because I went to a workshop and it changed my life forever.” Some might say they read a book or heard a recording or visited a class or went to a kid’s performance or even saw something on Youtube and that’s what brought them to the workshop. Supplemental media are real and important, attractive advertising images are fine, state-of-the-art Website helps, but the real deal is the work itself and hooking people into a lifetime of difficulty and challenge that will ultimately bring deep reward.

In short, we veteran Orff teachers are the village elders with the wisdom and knowledge far beyond the narrow confines of the marketing guy. We’ve proven that we can create and sustain an organization that touches thousands of children and teachers worldwide. We’ve responded to changes in technologies, political climates, educational trends and have the capacity to be at the forefront of determining our own future. We’re smart, we’re savvy, we’re dedicated and committed. When we don’t know something, we know who to ask. When we need help, we figure out how to get it. When we get advice, we filter it through our intimate knowledge of who we are and what’s fundamentally important about our work. At least I hope we do. I’ll keep you posted. 

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