A colleague wrote to me asking me about something she had heard me say that she wanted to quote. I looked around on the desktop and in my mammoth blog file to see if indeed I had written such a thing. I've talked about it a lot in workshops, but apparently never quite wrote it down. So I set off trying to explain to her how I talked about it and lo and behold, I wrote it down! And here it is:
I often tell the kids that I just want them to do two things in my class.
"Blend in. Stand out."
They look rightfully confused and then I add, "And know when each is called for."
The "blend in" is to release yourself to the music or dance, become part of something bigger than yourself, a grand swirl of motion or body of sounds of which you are a small contributing cell, the amazing feeling of not being able to tell where you leave off and your neighbor begins. Your voice joins in the grand choir and you are lifted up higher than you can fly with your own wings.
Indeed, all of music and much of dance requires this kind of blending. If we sing Twinkle Little Star and I sing out of tune, out of time, too loud, with the wrong words, the wrong quality of voice (all of which I demonstrate to the kids), the whole edifice collapses. There can be 20 of you singing perfectly and one person off can bring it down. Likewise with group drumming or a set folk dance with precise steps and style. When you can learn to move in unison, to sing in unison, to play in unison, you have the possibility of forgetting yourself as a separate individual and feeling part of something larger, more grand and more wondrous. Not unlike a feeling you might get lying down at night looking into a skyful of stars. You're small and insignificant, but beautifully so.
The "stand out" part is to show how you can express yourself in the fullness of your character, in the way you understand the world, experience the world, perceive the world. Over a blended background, you can have a moment to soar across the sky like a magnificent shooting star and light up the world with your unique presence. Every artist works on the same basic techniques and disciplines and concepts and compositional rules, but every artist learns how to break the rules in her or his own way or to fill the technique with their own style or touch. The uniqueness is not a self-conscious urge to be different, it's the inescapable force of our character that shows itself young, but takes a lifetime to fully grow into. Here's a quote from Martha Graham to encourage that sense of apprenticing yourself to your own uniqueness:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
There is a kind of blending in that political parties, religious fanatics, peer groups, corporations and gangs ask for, demands that you give up your identity and thoughts to tow the party line, to conform. But that's not what art is asking for. In fact, the opposite.
There is a kind of standing out that is the "I am a rock, I am an island" kind of bravado, the rugged individualist that don't need nobody nohow, the eccentric performer who aims to be different just to be different. That's not what I mean here.
I'm looking for a conversation between the blending in and the standing out, each singing back and forth to each other. When it comes to practical classes with real live children, this is a frame to re-direct kids who are standing out when it's time to blend in—we all know that that's like— and equally kids who are hiding when it's time to stand out. We're often more comfortable with the latter because the kids are not in our face actively disrupting our program, but in my book, they need as much help as the others. One needs to learn how to cool down and give more to the group, the other how to heat up and show the group what they're made of.
The beauty of talking to kids like this is that it's not a simplistic good or bad, it's a realistic assessment about what's helping the music sing more beautifully and the dance move more gracefully. The kids off-task are invited to learn how to direct and re-direct their energy to make the class more beautiful, more satisfying, more happy. Less blame and shame, more "here's how you can help yourself be a better student."
Try it and see.