Monday, September 19, 2016

Gathering to Plan

                                 “when you gather to plan, the universe is not there…

So wrote French poet Gerard de Nerval in 1854, admonishing us to stop controlling the world
with our self-serving plans and observe the wonder around us. He may have been a good poet, but he was not an Orff teacher! This morning I awoke with marvelous plans for today’s classes spinning around in my head. It’s true that it stole some attention away from the two pink dahlias on the kitchen table bathed in morning light, but the pleasure of envisioning how to set up the room for the 1st graders to play an imaginative version of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush was certainly equal to the pleasure of noticing the dahlias.

Can teaching be an art form in itself? Most artists scoff at this notion, but again, most artists aren’t Orff teachers. The work and imagination that goes into dreaming a music class where things move seamlessly from on activity to another is certainly an artistic process. I hope to go into this in detail in my eventual next book Teach Like It’s Music, the way a class can unfold like a piece of music itself, with an enticing beginning, connected middle and satisfying ending. The process of planning is parallel to the process of composing, imagining which kids would work together with complementary rhythms and soothing harmonies, figuring out transitions like Bach connecting fugue themes in an episode, exploring variations like Beethoven with his themes—modulating, re-harmonizing, augmenting. And the end result can—and should—feel like a good piece of music, kids leaving class refreshed by immersion in an experience where everything has meaning and makes sense and takes the nervous system on a journey with tensions and releases that change the way we feel.

For those curious, my ”Mulberry Bush” idea is to connect the old ways of work, hands that dial, scrub, wring, dab, chop, rub, scrape, etc., with the technique of small percussion instruments like ratchets, cabassas, whipsticks, triangles, guiros, woodblocks, hand drums and more. The fact is that if it’s true, as Montessori and Frank Wilson in his book The Hand suggest, that the hand shapes the brain and that the variety of physical work motions is essential to a certain kind of intelligence, then we’re in a bit of trouble. Because whereas “this is the way we wash our clothes/ chop the fruit/ pan roast the seeds/ grate the cheese/ dial the phone/ pull the weeds/ shake the rugs/ etc.” used to make for a good game for kids practicing a variety of motions, now it’s all reduced to button pushing with one finger or our thumbs. Our hands and bodies have been dumbed down by the convenience of electronics. It may just be that exploring percussion instruments in the Orff class and working in different media—clay/cloth/ paint/ etc.— in art class, may be the only routes left to keep our bodies engaged and intelligent.

I’ll let you know how it goes. 

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