Thursday, February 4, 2016

On Its Own Terms


(The following is Part 1 of a talk I gave at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia yesterday. The audience was mostly music teachers, but preaching to the choir is still a worthy endeavor. Part II tomorrow).

I’ve been told that music education in Australia is in a precarious position and that I’ve been flown across the ocean with the job of convincing everyone in this talk that it’s important. No pressure!

First let me say that music education in Australia has been in a precarious position ever since I first came here in 1994 and I don’t think you’d be surprised to hear that it’s the same just about everywhere I’ve taught. And here I’m speaking of almost each of the 50 states in the United States, each of the provinces in Canada, the countries of Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, Ghana and South Africa, some 15 countries in Asia and some 20 more in Europe. Music education  in schools here, there and everywhere, has been, is, and continues to be, in a precarious position. There are some years and some places where it rises and thrives. But always the sense that it can be taken away in an instant—and far too many times, has been. Why is this?

To start to answer this, I often ask the audience three questions: Who’s a musician? Who’s musical? Who loves music? I see that this group is heavy to the side of musical musicians and since most of you are music teachers, I should hope that’s true! But typically in any group of people, the first percentage is necessarily small and the last in unsurprisingly 100%. And isn’t it odd that something that everyone says they love needs to be defended? But the reason why has something to do with that middle one, the fact that some 40% to 60% of the people in any given room feels they’re not musical. I want to find out what happened to them and the sad reality is that it often comes back to bad music teachers.

So the first challenge is to reform music education itself. We music teachers have far too often taught the subject of music so unmusically that it is painful for the musician inside of us. We have taught it with attention to the wrong things—winning the competition or reading and writing before speaking and singing music or learning how to wiggle our fingers correctly on the keys like a mere physical exercise to be mastered. We have taught with far too little love and encouragement for the child and far too much emphasis on the right answer and the right note before the right feeling and enthusiasm. How many of you felt wounded by a music teacher? How many of you don’t feel you’re musical because some music teacher told you you’re not? Or you never had music in schools or music lessons to find out.

And so I travel the world under the banner of a dynamic pedagogy called Orff Schulwerk to try to assist and inspire my fellow music teachers to do this work better, with better results, more joy, more love, more understanding of what the heck we’re trying to do. Convincing school boards to fund and support music is a daunting task, but teaching our classes better is within our reach. Without it, any further advocacy is pointless. With soul-stirring classes that hit children where they live, we can make our classes memorable and our work irreplaceable. Still the cuts may come, but with the support of the children, parents and colleagues who see how integral we have become to school community, we stand a chance of surviving and thriving. In short, the first principle of advocacy is to do good work.

The second challenge is to understand that in order to have quality music education for children, we have to have a deep understanding of  each of those components—what education is and what music is and who children are. And we so often have too-narrow understandings of all three. The word education, for example, comes from the Latin “educare” which means to lead out, to draw forth that which we already have within us. All people in all places in all times are born linguistic, mathematical, visual-spatial, kinesthetic, social, emotional—and yes, musical beings. They come with all intelligences in seed form that then require watering through experience, shaping and cultivating through disciplined attention. That’s what schools are for, to follow nature’s timetable of the brain’s most receptive and flexible stage of development to lay down the neural pathways that form the foundation for a lifetime of blossoming. Anything neglected will wither and die, anything cared for badly without loving attention will grow sick and suffer.

And then, music.  Far too often we equate that word with reading notes written by dead white composers on instruments we have to practice painfully. But when I say that everyone in this room is musical, I’m starting from the fact that each of us is a
walking polyrhythmic being, filled with the life-sustaining rhythms of breath, heartbeat, brain-waves and more. If those rhythms fail us, we are dead. We walk rhythmically, speak in phrases with musical inflections, eat and sleep and work in rhythmic cycles. We are vibrating beings within inner strings receptive to and responsive to the vibrations of tones sounded outside of us. The conversation between our inner music and the outer is what grows out musical intelligence. And because music goes directly from vibration to vibration, with no needed intermediation from dogma, concepts, ideas, beliefs, it carries a great power. It changes those inner rhythms of heartbeat and breath and electric impulses and those shifts in movement create e-motion, thus changing the way we feel, the way we think, the way we live. That’s why 100% of people in any audience raise their hand when I ask, “Who likes music?”

And then children. They’re not miniature adults, they’re a whole different creature altogether and just when we’re getting used to who they are and how they think and what they need, they change! They are superior to us in many ways— more honest, more imaginative, more enthusiastic, more energetic, more curious, more surprising, more filled with wonder, more expressive in their faces and bodies. They’re also more whiny, unreasonable, liable to tantrums, fantastic liars, and prone to making really bad choices.  As teachers, we are both delighted by and inspired by their freshness that awakens the child in us and patient with their shortcomings, helping lead them to the emerging adult in them.

95% of the time all the fuss and bother in educational policy debates fail because they don’t include the children in the discussion. And I mean that both metaphorically and for real. I believe every proposal should be explained to children in a language they can understand and their feedback included in the decision-making process. You’ll hear the children’s voices later on here and I think you’ll be impressed by their ability to articulate what’s important.

In summary, to achieve quality music education worthy of guaranteed inclusion in school curriculums, we should enlarge our vision of education, of music, of children.

But the third problem is the most difficult one. We need to enlarge our very vision of human potential. Music as I’m describing it is not popular in schools because it is so damn difficult. It uses more of us than anything else, calls forth every single one of our seven plus multiple intelligences. Music is math, music is language, music is visual-spatial understanding, music is kinesthetic, music is interpersonal connection, music is intrapersonal connection and music is—well, musical. Music is academic, because Plato Akademia included it. It is everything plus. There are a thousand ways to assess how effective it is, but none of them can be run through a computer (though brain waves can be measured) and so it appears messy, too emotional, too touchy-feely, not the kind of stuff that will land you a job with prestige and money and all your feelings neatly arranged in boring little predictable compartments. When we refuse to consider music a place at the banquet of human possibility, or a place reserved for some notion of the talented, or a place as a mere consumer, we are publicly showing that we’re settling for a lesser definition of a human being who can walk on this earth without a song in his heart and think that’s okay.

So many try to get music into schools by trying to convince parents and school boards that it will make kids better in math, language, social skills, etc. My own experience shows that it does give children a much larger facility and understanding of mathematical pattern, linguistic pleasure, physical coordination and so on and so on. How could it not? But the reasons we need music are in the “plus.” Music needs to join the party on its own terms ,doing what only it can do in the way that only it can do it.

So let me show you some examples of what that “it” is—with middle school kids, with toddlers, with 90 + year-olds.

(Here I showed some videos and than gave closing comments, to be posted later.)

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