It is my virtue and vice to make music work as my Secretary of Freedom, constantly transposing its musical lessons to life itself. I’m like a modern day John Muir, who once said something like: “When I try to pick out anything by itself, I find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Welcome to my Orff workshops.
Here in Salzburg, working with these most marvelous 16 teachers from 7 countries, I’m moving them through the Evolution of Human Consciousness and Development through the vehicle of scales and textural and harmonic accompaniment. The Drone places our feet on this Earth, connects us to the ground of our being and lets us know we are home and we belong. Our first tentative flight from the nest is a safe one, sheltered in the first two overtones of the harmonic series, sol and mi. The ambiguous La comes next, sends us fluttering a few feet away. Then the Re, the next in the overtone series after the others. And that completes the Pentatonic Scale, our training ground for future flights, always hovering close to the nest and the comfort of Mother.
Put in less technical terms, the kids playing on these five notes on the Orff instruments have removed all potential dissonant notes so that whatever they play sounds good. They have their whole life to deal with tension and conflict, so why not start them off with some comforting pleasing sounds? And so we do. Though we also learn that there are three distinct worlds (at least) inside of these five notes that can speak to three different moods we may have and that’s why music is so necessary to unleash, evoke, affirm and extend our emotional life.
Somewhere around 4th grade, they’re more prepared to face the realities of tension in the world, so we let them put the F’s and B’s (Fish and Bananas/ Fa and Ti) on the instrument and learn how to pass through them without getting too involved in their tense and anxious characters. We still have the drone to ground us, even after the drone itself starts to get restless and move to its neighboring notes. But now we’re flying further from home and armed with the knowledge of which parts of the forest to avoid.
Finally, we enter the territory of our cousin’s house down the block, the V7 chord that takes us squarely away from the comfort of our own room and into the adventure of the other. It’s exciting and a bit scary, but once we understand the route, we can handle the tension of the F and B/ Fa and Ti tones sounded together in the Devil’s interval of the tri-tone. Left hanging by itself, it is sheer hell, a straining tautness yearning for resolution, the F leaning toward E, waiting to fall in its arms, the B reaching upwards to embrace the waiting Do. (Try it on the piano and you’ll know what I mean).
And that’s where today’s title came from. We may feel like we’re in a Hell without end (read U.S. politics today or our own personal sorrows), but there should be some comfort in knowing that Heaven is but a half-step away. Let us fall into it or rise up to it—not a giant super-human leap, but a mere half-step—and in the glory of the homecoming, the sun will shine out and help erase the memory of all those storm-clouded days. Let Fa to Mi, Ti to Do be our mantra and play our new national anthem: One Half Step to Heaven.