Sunday, September 1, 2013

No Progress


“I don’t develop— I am.”  Pablo Picasso

I wanted to title this blog “The Acorn and the Oak,” but thanks to my thorough documentation, I discovered I had already used that title. Next choice was “Testimony of a Pack Rat” and that would have worked well, since this posting was inspired by finally tackling the dreaded piles of papers I’ve referred to many, many times and uncovering an unexpected jewel. But the title wouldn’t have pointed to the main point, soon to be revealed. And so “No Progress” comes from Gary Snyder’s observation: “There is no progress in art or religion.” And though the topic here is my life of teaching music via the Orff approach, it is a religious affair for me and it does deal with transmitting an art form artistically. And so the story.

The year is 1979. My soon-to-be wife Karen and I are fresh from five remarkable months in India, at the tail end of year’s trip around the world. We have arrived in Surakarta, Java, where an old roommate of Karen's has been studying Javanese dance. She helps us get settled and I begin studying Javanese gamelan. For about two lessons, that is, before something suddenly seems terribly wrong. After a bad couple of days of misdiagnosis and useless antibiotics, I discover I have hepatitis. Probably from water in Nepal (it takes a while to manifest).

The cure? Simply complete bed rest and simple diet, with the fear of a much worse re-occurrence if I push the limit and become active too soon. And so I literally have to mostly lay in bed for three weeks with nothing to do but watch my weight go down to a record low of 135. I have a few books, but I need something to give me a continuity to connect the long days ahead. And so I buy some Indonesian school notebooks and set off to write a book (by hand) about teaching music via the Orff approach. Which I did. When I returned to San Francisco, my brother-in-law edited it a bit and typed it up and I sent it off to a publisher in Princeton. And it was this typed manuscript— all 231 pages— that I found today sorting through my papers.

Now keep in mind that I was 27 years old and had been teaching this way for a grand total of three years. Re-reading these pages I expected to laugh uproariously at my naiveté, to shake my head in disbelief how misguided I was, to want to quickly burn it all before someone discovered it and my reputation was forever damaged.

But instead I heard that inexperienced younger self saying the same things I just said to my Level III students. Yes, the language was more stilted, the delivery more clumsy, the experience to back it up wafer-thin compared to now. But I was astounded to see that everything was lined up in place, the ideas solid and dependable, the vision already wholly arrived. Really all that could be said about the 36 years of teaching that followed was simply filling in the details of all the ways the ideas could be manifested, experienced and lived by students and teachers alike.

Below are some paragraphs from the rediscovered manuscript:

Create a Supportive Atmosphere Free From Fear and Competition
Since we are concerned with process as well as product, the primary enmphasis is on each student’s effort to fully realize his or her own musical potential. In this realm, there is no room for comparison with other students. The child’s (or adult’s) motivation should come from within, not from a need to compete. Since making mistakes is part of the process, there is no reason to induce fear. This will only destroy the equilibrium and the sense of relaxation necessary for the music to emerge. A teacher should correct mistakes patiently, like a parent helping a baby learn to walk. The baby is encouraged to pick himself up and try again. Thus, with a well-paced program and a patient teacher, the student will develop the positive self-image vital to success. Free from competition, free from fear of rebuke, encouraged in all serious attempts to express themselves, even initially shy students will eventually participate happily.

Not bad, Doug! And then my closing of the whole book (which needless to say, was rejected by the Princeton publisher and has sat for decades in my closet):

The particular balance of material presented in this book is not a model for all to follow, but simply the aspects of music and teaching that have worked well for me. I invite you to filter it all through your own personal vision, to truly make it your own. Rather than go through the frustration of trying to “do it all,” start from where you are and dig in. Using that as a center, you can begin to expand outwards to broaden the base of your exploration and to dig further to add to the depth.

Good luck to you in your efforts. Remember that your failures are your most valuable teachers. It may two years of teaching every day for things to click and fall into place. Persevere, knowing that you never arrive “there” but are constantly in the process of expanding and refining. To give children the tools and opportunity to express themselves in music and dance is reason enough to plow through the setbacks and frustrations. It is their rightful heritage.

I have nothing to add here. It was true then and it's true now. 

My friends, hold on to your old papers. The oak tree of your life is contained in those acorns. We don't develop— we are.

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