Sunday, December 4, 2016

Icarus Walks the Ground


To get the big picture, you have to fly high above this world, looking down at the rectangular fields and tops of mountains and cars like ants criss-crossing the highways. That’s where my mind often likes to be, racking up frequent flyer miles in the higher realms of thought, making sweeping generalizations that encompass the whole view below.

So when I had 20 minutes (4 times, 4 groups) to talk to prospective parents at our school’s Open House, my first impulse was to speak or read some poetic overview, condensing 42 years of work and play and vision and constant reflection into some elevated speech that would catch their attention. That might have been fine, but for most it would have just been the noise of a plane flying overhead and what good is that?

So instead I had the good sense to do what I do best. Ask a surprising question that brings them into the game as participants rather than mere listeners and then awaken their body and voice and get the air charged with music and humor and the instant community of people playing together. I began with my “Who’s a musician? Who’s musical? Who loves music?” knowing that the answers would fall somewhere around 25%/ 50%/ 100%.  And then, Bam! the explosion of stories that burst in people’s heads when I continue, “Happy that you’re all not musicians. There’s not enough work to go around. And not surprised that you all love music. But not happy that some of you don’t think you’re musical? What happened to you?”

“Hmm,” think the people, “Didn’t expect to have to open that wound at a school Open House.” I quickly reassure them, “It’s not your fault, of course. It’s our cultural, collective failure because we treat music like a specialty reserved for the “talented” and narrow the definition of music to mean scraping a bow across strings while looking at black dots on paper to play correctly—or else!—notes written by dead white men. Maybe you lived in California and never had music in schools because of Proposition 13 or had a mean music teacher who killed your confidence and never was charged for the murder or were forced to take dull piano lessons when you really wanted to play Taiko drums. A thousand reasons for our culture’s failure to lead out the music locked inside waiting to spring free, but also a thousand ways to heal that wounded bird and entice it out into the open and get it singing. Starting with a completely different idea of what it means to be musical.”

You can see how Icarus had entered the conversation, so I quickly folded up the wings and said, “So when the kids come in, we sit on the floor with our legs crossed. What word goes well with ‘cross?’ “Criss!” someone volunteers and off we go. Step by simple step we move those two starting words “criss-cross” into a full blown piece (Criss-cross Applesauce) using speech, body percussion, canon and musical form, faces alive with expression, bodies bubbling with rhythm, minds scrambling to get firm-footing on the sequence and heart peeking out from its habitual armor and thinking, “This is fun!”

Applause at the end and then I ask, “Was that musical?” Heads nodding. “Did you make the music?” Heads nodding. “Therefore according to the laws of logic (a faculty of mind on the endangered species list in this country’s discourse), what is the conclusion? Yep, you got it. YOU ARE MUSICAL! Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case."

"And that’s the kind of proof we’ll give your kids, twice a week for 45 minutes and every day for 20 minutes of singing. That’s how we’ll help the little ones who come in supremely musical with the way they chant and move and sing while they’re playing grow into the big ones who can play the heck out of Miles Davis and Vivaldi and Balinese gamelan, sing in 20 different languages in 20 different styles, dance what they feel and also get some pretty good samba, salsa, Ghanaian Bobobo and Lindy Hop moves. They’ll compose, create, improvise each step of the way, know intimately how to blend in in ensemble and how to stand out in solos and fearlessly perform in front of 4000 teachers without batting an eye. Sound good?”

So now Icarus is up flying again, but it all makes sense because they’ve first walked the ground that now they can view from above. If that old Greek guy had had the good sense to come down when he felt himself getting too far away, he could have avoided disaster. So note to self:

1)    Begin on the ground.
2)    Lift up slowly and enjoy the view.
3)    Come back down before you go too far.

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