Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Love and Mastery


My talk on the “Humanitarian Musician” sparked a lot of discussion amongst the students here at the Levels. It brought out all the scars that we grow to expect as our due in this life, that passive acceptance of an educational system that doesn’t care to know us and teachers who feel just fine insulting us, putting us down, ignoring us. One woman noted the difference between the feeling in her University that everyone—teachers and fellow students— wanted to “cut her head off” and her sense of welcome, celebration and support here at our course. Another noted that in her culture, strictness was the criteria for being a good teacher. The stricter the teacher, the better the result. Being nice and personable is a sign of weakness or incompetence and the students will learn nothing. And the students themselves grow to believe this, purposefully put themselves out on the road where some fast car will rear-end them and give them “whiplash” (yes, reference to the movie is purposeful) because it shows both the tough love of the teacher and the resilience and determination of the student.

But I beg to differ. My own experience is quite different and though I don’t have prize-winning musicians or Pulitzer Prize’s in Education to give weight to my views, I have ample proof that kids— and adults— can achieve a high level of mastery through love, encouragement, acceptance and yes, fun and games. I hope to get the video of our Middle School student’s performance in Salzburg in 2011 up on our school Website for public viewing as Exhibit A. You will see seventeen 11 to 14 year-old kids playing a remarkable variety of music (from South Africa, Ireland, Bulgaria, Brazil, Bali, Ghana, Venezuela, Estonia, Argentina, compositions by Vivaldi, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie) for over an hour. They switch instruments on each piece, learned every note by ear and never look at a piece of paper, improvise, dance, smile, connect with the music, each other and the audience, all as naturally as most of us walk and talk. And the stitching that held it all together is love, love and yet more, love. Love for the music, love for the pleasure of teaching, love for the students, love for their ideas and expressive potential, love for their innate drive for mastery without any carrots or sticks to goad or threaten them. With love, one doesn’t need threats or scowls, the pleasure of doing things well— especially things worth doing like playing great music— trumps all techniques of motivation.

I praised my Level III students in yesterday’s blog before they had even reached the end of their teaching lessons and the last lessons did not disappoint. The standard was sky high and everyone felt just enough tension to take it seriously, prepare it meticulously, rehearse the steps and then let all that go and enjoy teaching their fellow students. All in their own character, their own voice, their own way of thinking and working. Had I as their teacher allowed any fear to enter or gave them reason to think I would judge them sternly and harshly, nothing would have gone as it did. Yes, I wanted great lessons, but great meant fun, natural, thought-out, prepared and enjoyable and that they all were. Now every time they think about this “final exam” of their three-year Orff levels training, the flood of happy chemicals released into their joyful bodies will erupt forth again. And with a little bit of luck and a lot of intention, the same will happen when they teach their children.

So World, consider. We know that strict and joyless teachers occasionally produce outwardly successfully students, but we also know that there are many walking wounded amongst us, people scarred for life by such thoughtless and wrong-headed teaching. The price is too high.
And no, I’m not suggesting superficial “you’re all beautiful!” with no rigor or technique or struggle behind it. As the Salzburg students and my own in these Levels and other classes can testify, love is not the only ingredient in the Mastery Soup. But at the end of the day, it just might be the most important one.

Try it and let me know.

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