Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tools of Revelation


Tonight I gave my fourth lecture of the summer. From Finland to Madrid to Carmel Valley to Seoul, the perpetual search for the words that give shape and meaning to these gatherings of music teachers. Tonight’s began with some thoughts from the participants about what they didn’t like about their formal musical training. Out came the stories of the harsh critiques, the demand for perfection, the painful practice, the punishment-reward system (including physical abuse) that turned something as joyful as music into drudge and misery. And equally some appreciations about the satisfaction of making progress, winning competitions, getting to wear a fancy dress and enjoying a kind teacher. (Or in my case, getting to eat the candy in the waiting room bowl that was forbidden at my own house.)

I gave my talk about the three stages of learning, The first is the period of play and playful exploration with no fear of right and wrong answers. After enough of this, the child is ready for precise techniques and concepts, right and wrong ways to do things for greater control and expression. The problem with the unsatisfying piano lessons was not that there was a call for precision, but that it came too early and with too much fear and shame. The problem with the grueling practice schedule is that it came from the outside rather than motivated from within and too often, was in isolation rather that playing in a community of musicians. The problem with the gifts and threats is that music became a means to something else rather than the sheer beauty and pleasure of the act of making music. There can also be the problem of too prolonged a period of playful exploration, so that the musical impulses never become precisely shaped and refined. But for most, it was the strange atmosphere of formal music lessons that drove people to seek another way of learning and playing music—and hence, their presence at this Orff workshop.

After giving examples at the piano of what I considered to be a more balanced and friendly private lesson, I asked if there were any questions. Somebody asked what to do with sullen teenagers who misbehave and don’t participate positively in their classroom. Out came the useful aphorism—“Behavior is the language of children. And such teenagers are still children. What they’re telling you is that they’re afraid and unseen and unloved and they’re putting on a front to protect themselves from the adults who will shame them and their peers who will ridicule them. Your job is to create a safe environment that will allow them to creep out of their armor, to give them the tools for revelation as to who they really are and to have infinite patience and a fierce faith that they’re worthy. Not easy when they’re blowing off your lesson plan, but stay with it and see what might come out. It takes time. Sometimes lots of time. Sometimes a lifetime.”

My translator choked up here and the tears started to trickle out in the audience. And these thoughts are worthy of tears. Nothing sadder than a kid who was not given what he or she needed from the culture, from the school, from the family. And there’s millions of them walking around, awaiting the one adult willing to take the time to open the door and take them out of their hiding place.

And that’s why I’m here in Korea. To give these teachers some tools to reveal the beauty behind the rolled eyes, the caring, sensitive soul hiding behind the posture. A xylophone is a tool of revelation, a clapping play is an open window, a folk dance is an invitation to belong. May it be so!

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