Monday, September 8, 2014

Laborious Magic

It has happened so often. In a stirring Orff workshop, in a spine-chilling concert, in a brilliant lecture, we feel touched by magic and in awe of the teacher/ pianist/ speaker. We wish that some of the fairy dust of magical inspiration would flake off and fall on us. How lovely it must be, we think, to be in constant conversation with the Muse of Enchantment. If only we were so gifted.

But a quick peek behind the scenes reveals a different force at work. Mary Oliver speaks of such a revelation about a poet Stanley Kunitz in a poem of the same title:

 I used to imagine him
coming from the house, like Merlin
strolling with important gestures
through the garden…

But now I know more
About the great wheel of growth,
And decay and rebirth,
And know my vision for a falsehood.
Now I see him coming from the house—
I see him on his knees,
Cutting away the diseased, the superfluous,
Coaxing the new
Knowing that the hour of fulfillment
Is buried in years of patience—
Yet willing to labor like that
On the mortal wheel…

Fantastic! How well she describes (leave it to a poet!) what I try to convey to the teachers I train in my summer courses. 1% may be magic dependent on in-born genius and flights of inspiration, but the 99% is perspiration. It’s carefully cultivating a vision and then class after class, “cutting away the diseased, the superfluous, coaxing the new.” In my field, the diseased is all the old, ineffective, outdated notions of music and music education that care more about dots on paper or scraping away on instruments than the child’s overflowing musical being. The superfluous is all the crap schools pay attention to about achievement, assessment, standards, burying the child’s ebullient spirit in a mountain of paperwork. The new is one’s own relentless investigation into one’s own artistry and the next jewel from the treasure chest of creation. All of it brought forth by an unwavering patience and lifelong commitment to labor.

How I love her next line:

Oh, what good it does the heart
To know it isn’t magic!

That means it’s available to all. It’s open to anyone willing to do the work. But the good news is the bad news— we can’t just dismiss it as “magic” available only to the chosen few. We ourselves have to get down on our knees and start pulling the weeds and planting the seeds and watering the garden. It’s work!

Like the human child I am
I rush to imitate–

And that’s the next step, sitting at the feet of or side-by-side with the master imitating the techniques and gestures until one realizes that ultimately, those are his gestures and ways of working and slowly we are discovering ours. Many suggest skipping the step of imitation and just immediately being wholly ourselves, but as any jazz musician can tell you, their voice grew partly from memorizing the solos of those whose language they admired before they found their own phrasings and inflections. Imitation is not only not a bad thing, it may be wholly necessary. But only as a step, never as an end.

She closes with a few more lines that take her thoughts in another direction from mine. So I guess I have to write the new poem about it in my voice! Dang! Well, maybe this is as close as I get. Apologies for not pulling out all the weeds. 

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