Monday, September 22, 2014

You Teach the Story You Carry

To continue the story theme. 

According to the smiles of the kids I teach, the testimony of the kids I have taught, the reflections of the teachers I train, I’m a reasonably good teacher. More and more I see that though it has something to do with all the hours I’ve put in learning and practicing the details of my craft— no skipping that step—it mostly has to do with the story I’ve cultivated about what music is, what teaching means, what children are, what people are—or could be if given permission to be wholly themselves. Without that background story, none of the clever techniques and brilliant class plans can wholly come to fruition. This is the missing piece of Orff training and time and again, I see the failure of young (or old) teachers merely copying the surface of the approach without fundamentally changing their notions of teaching, children and music.

I wrote an article years back titled “Teaching as We Have Not Been Taught” and suggested that it’s extremely difficult to teach in a way that was not modeled for us when we were children in school. Whether we loved or hated school, were wildly successful or dismal failures, whether we were stimulated or bored, doesn’t matter—the model itself seeped into our psyche and became the blueprint for all our notions about what school and education is. We may take the radical step of deep questioning and try to turn around the limiting ideas and follow the inspired ones, but that model lurks in the background like a magnet ready to pull us back at any moment. It takes great energy, great courage, deep thinking and despite our best intentions, there is always the danger of falling back into our default setting. At the end of the matter, to truly shake off the yoke of ineffective and uninspired education, we need to change the background story that drives education.

Here are some of the bad ideas I encountered growing up about music and children that shaped my first notions and fed my resistance to them:

About Music:
• Not everyone is musical. It’s a special talent reserved for some.
• Music is the notes on the paper that direct your fingers to follow their instruction. You learn music through the eye and the fingers.
• Music means playing an instrument.
• Music is sound only divorced from dance, drama and story.
• Music means playing other’s pieces.
• Music—and books titled “The History of Music”— are about the Bach, Beethoven and the boys.
• Music is a chore to learn involving scales and long hours of practicing alone. It requires doing unmusical things before arriving at music itself.
• Music is an optional specialized subject primarily useful as entertainment.

Along comes Orff Schulwerk, jazz and world music into my life to turn those notions upside down and inside out.

Everyone is musical. Without exception. But they need certain kinds of experiences to release, nurture, cultivate and refine their innate musicality.

• Music is in the air, in the body, in the voice, in the mind, freely available without formal study or deciphering black dots on paper. You learn music through the ear, the voice and the whole body.

• To be musical is to find musical potential in every object. To be a professional musician will require choosing one or two instruments as a primary expressive voice, but music is much more than simply playing an instrument.

• Music is joined at the hip with dance, drama and story and loses it full power when divorced from them.

• Music at its height and depth is a creative art form, brought to life through improvisation, composition, interpretation.

• Music is infinitely larger than Western Europe between 1600 and 1900. Books titled “The History of Music” would require at least one volume for every ethnic group that has ever lived on the planet.

• Music is primarily learned by the communal act of making music with joyful participation.

• Music is as essential as bread, as necessary as water, to our emotional life and our community life, a staple of the main course of daily life and not an optional dessert.

Deeply understanding the above story informs every choice I make about how to teach music to children. But to teach music to children, I need to question other assumptions:

About Children
• Children are lazy and need punishments and rewards to motivate them.
• Children are wild and unruly and need punishments and rewards to tame them, make them perform properly and obey the teacher.
• Children need to be made to sit still.
• Children have short attention spans and many of them have a disease called ADD.
• Children are to be judged, sorted, labeled according to talent and intelligence.

After 40 years of hanging out with kids, I’ve created my own assumptions about them that help them rise to my image of their potential

• Children are motivated from within to master worthy things. In the case of music, the combination of technical challenges, beautiful sound and stirring group music-making are enough (when artfully presented) to keep children on task. Rather than treat the learning of music as an economic transaction (“Do this and you get a sticker. Do this or else I’m sending you out in the hall.”), the innate pleasure of music-making is at the center of each class.

• Children have an infectious, dynamic energy that needs to be focused into artful expression. When their wildness comes into coherent form in a soothing or boisterous song, a crazy drama skit, a thunderous drumming, their scattered energy is focused in just the right way, finds the proper channel for its expression.

• Children need to move. Often and best with focused energy— as in dance. So do adults.

• ADD is not a physiologically-originated nervous disorder, but a reflection of the culture we have given them and/or our misreading of children’s natural energy. In the former case, remotes, cell phones, instant entertainment have created a hyper-distracted culture where everything is interruptable and requires greater volume, violence, sex and other lower-brain attractors to capture our attention. In the latter, we expect too much when we ask children to sit for long periods listening to or doing boring things. I’ve had 60 minute classes with 5-year olds that flow with their full attention. I can create a pin-drop silence for an hour or more with children of all ages when I tell a story.

• Children are to be cared for, valued, understood at each stage of development, known and appreciated for their emerging character, nurtured, held, touched and loved. Their particular blend of talent and intelligence should be carefully observed and helped along (as well as their particular challenges in the multiplicity of intelligences) so they learn not to compete with their classmates, but to celebrate with them each one’s way to contribute to the world.

The combination of the stories I carry about what music is and who children are account for any success I’ve had as a music teacher. So in training our future teachers, along with the details of the craft, can we spend some time examining these deeper stories about what we think our subject matter is, what we think children are, what we think it means to teach children our subject is?

Think about it.

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