“I get lots of satisfaction out of my music quite naturally, and other folks’ music too, ‘cause I just love music. But for myself, it’s great to me when I’m singing and can think to myself that I’m singing something I need to sing. And I think to myself when I’m singing something that my old foreparents and the other folks of that tribe along in those days knew, that if their spirits came around me, I believe they would be rejoicing. They would know it; they would say, “That’s the song that we used to sing.” What we have to understand is that they’re here all the time. Not yesterday or tomorrow, but all the time. And as long as they’re around me, I believe they’d be happy.”
Bessie Jones: For the Ancestors (p. 177)
From Ghana to Guatemala to Papua New Guinea and beyond, hundreds of diverse cultures share similar beliefs about the Ancestors, those who lived and passed on and yet are still amongst us. Amidst many variations, the essentials go something like this:
• After we die, we live on in some form or another in some other world.
• The newly deceased need proper rituals to send them off so they can arrive in that world. If not done well or there is unfinished business, they hang around as wandering ghosts.
• The other world is deeply connected to this world. The ancestors need us in this world to do things on their behalf while we still have bodies and voices. We need them to awaken the spiritual side of this work. An old Irish saying: “What is hurting in the other world can only be healed by those in this world. What is hurting in this world can only be healed by those in the other world.” A healthy culture and life requires a conversation between the two worlds.
• The best way to bring the ancestors into the community is through music and dance.
I was talking about this in my recent workshop with SK Kakraba sharing Ghaniain xylophone music. This music from the northwest of Ghana is primarily played as funerals as part of that send-off to the other world. It also calls the Ancestors back to participate in community life. As Bessie Jones (leader of the Georgia Sea Island Singers) testified above, they’re here all the time and happiest when the music and dance is good.
We in the West feel their presence without naming them when we go to a concert where that extra special feeling enters, the players are “in the zone,” the Muse has descended, there is magic in the air, everyone is listening from a place of deep silence as if their lives depended on it. We can—and indeed, must— practice hard and with sincerity and with integrity and with the whole of our Soul to invite them into the room, but we can never guarantee they’ll arrive. It’s a mysterious thing.
And so I made a spontaneous suggestion that our job as music teachers is to do all in our power to invite the ancestors into our school classes. Our new motto is “No Ancestor Left Behind.” That means we need to understand what they like. They generally won’t come if the lighting is too bright or the teacher is angry or the material is too cutesy or contrived or if there’s more explaining about music than making music or if the teacher is judging the children to lock them into the jail of grades and behavior reports instead of getting down and playing with them. If we take No Ancestor Left Behind seriously, we would have to change our notions of teaching music, of teaching kids, of what schools are for.
Another way to talk about this. There are many steps to an inspired music class and each is necessary. Each is transparent and reveals the next one behind it, but our problem is that we treat it as opaque and stop too soon and short of the ancestral invitation. As follows:
• Curriculum is important, having a grand design in mind, a sense of sequence that reveals the next level of skill and understanding. But to realize curriculum, you must step through it to…
• Process, a way of teaching that brings it all alive and fully engages and involves the children. But be careful of treating process as just another noun, get stuck in a clever way of presenting a lesson and losing the flow of 100 other possible ways to teach it. Because behind the process is the…
• Music, the actual reason for a curriculum and process. At the recent Orff Conference, my old friend Rene sat down after-hours at a piano and let her soul out singing her church songs, body swaying, eyes closed, her powerful voice filling the room and others gathered around pulled into her orbit, felt the spirit and joined in. No clever process was used, no justification of where it fits in the curriculum, just straight to the heart and soul of the music. You can also get there through a clear curriculum and artistic process, but once you’ve crossed the river, don’t worry about the boat. You’ve landed. Make the music sing! And there’s more.
• Children are the folks we music teachers are trying to initiate into the joys and terrors of this world through song, the ones we’re trying to help find what they’re made of and how to express their character in a focused and beautiful way rather than a random one. The music is one of many paths to awaken children to their own glory and possibility. But there’s more—behind the children are…
• The Ancestors, the ones who the kids are deeply linked with, starting with their own grandparents and widening out to the people who bequeathed them music as profound as Bach or Bird or the Beatles or Bulgarian choral singing. The purpose of the curriculum is to focus the process, whose purpose is to transmit the music whose purpose is to reach the heart of the child whose purpose is to join the ancestors and then we arrive at a genuine…
• Community, the place where we work and sing and dance and laugh and grieve together and recognize that we belong and we are connected and we are part of a marvelous whole and we learn that we cannot harm any one small part of that whole without hurting us all. A community that not only includes each person on the planet, but those who have come before and those who will come after.
So that's my "design thinking." With these ends in mind, get the music swinging' and singing' enough so that the Ancestor's ears will perk up and think, "Hey, let's go check this out!" And then they'll see a roomful of children so happily playing and singing and dancing and improvising and movin' and groovin', they'll see the passion in their faces and joy in their bodies and happiness in the spirits and think, "Let's stay here a little while. This is good." 'Tall order for the music teacher, but hey, I believe that’s what we’re signing up for—a path with heart and a noble undertaking.
Who’s with me? No Ancestor Left Behind!
Who’s with me? No Ancestor Left Behind!