Thursday, December 4, 2014

Bread


A music teacher recently posted on the American Orff Association’s Facebook page a question from his third grade student:

Why do we have to learn music if we’re not going to become professional musicians?”

Bam!! Apparently it went straight to the nerve of fellow Orff teachers, as some 50 people immediately responded with their own answers. You could feel both the bristle of having to defend their life’s choice and their thoughtful ruminations on how to convince an 8-year old of music’s wonders. Such reflection is always a good idea, a way to affirm and describe and identify and bring into language what you intuitively know and feel. I wrote a response myself, turning the question back to the questioner: “Why study language if you’re not going to be a poet? Math if you’re not going to be an engineer? Basketball if you’re not going to make it to the NBA? Etc.” And like my colleagues, could have answered it twenty-five or twenty-five-thousand different ways. But then the following occurred to me.

With a question like that, Louis Armstrong’s answer is a good starting point: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” If an adult asked that question, you’d have to wonder, like Louis, “What happened to you that you would ask a question like that? Or rather, what didn’t happen to you that you missed out on this most essential of human pleasures?”

But if it’s a child, especially a child in our music class, our response is “Yikes! We better get to work here!” Two possibilities:

      1.  It’s new for the child and they haven’t yet been initiated into experiencing down to their toes 
           the nutritious bread of music that builds our bodies, the sweet ripe apple of music that tickles  
           our tongue, the refreshing sparkling water of music that slakes our thirst. And so we might 
           answer, “What a treat you’re in for! Spend the year with me and then let’s talk again at the 
           end.”

2.   We’re faced with the difficult possibility that our teaching is less than musical and
       short of effective, that we’ve continued the cycle of music as a dreadful chore of
       practice and a mere technical matter of pushing down keys at the right time, to be
       reprimanded when we miss or squawk. We’ve failed to unleash the vibrant, joyful,
       musical soul each child carries into the world and reduced the whole affair just
       another boring subject in the school day.

Hard to face that, but if we do squarely, there’s hope we can turn it around. Goodness knows there are enough models, particularly (though not limited to) in the dynamic practice of Orff Schulwerk, a veritable playground of possibilities for children to romp freely around in. But the Orff training is just the structures and intent— without a childlike musical teacher to accompany the children, one who understands when and how long to let them play around freely, when to give some loving guidance as to how to traverse the monkey bars and swing to a groove, it means nothing.

In short, it’s less important to answer that child with words and more with inspired teaching that cancels out the question. Most human beings in the midst of ecstatic experience don’t stop to question whether what they're doing is important. Of course, these days, you might turn to that child after a stirring dance, exquisite song, expressive improvisation and say, “Now do you see why music is as essential as bread?”

And the child’s response: “But I’m gluten-free!”

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