28 years after my mentor Avon Gillespie passed away, his juju remains strong. At my annual American Orff Conference, I helped lead a session of remembrance for him and damn if he wasn’t as strongly present as if he had passed away last week. How is that possible?
Some clues are found in the short tribute I was honored to give in front of the thousand-plus Orff teachers before I presented a posthumous award to his daughter. I’ll just share my speech here.
“Our greatest endeavor must be to make ourselves irreplaceable.”
-Miguel De Unamuno
To make ourselves irreplaceable. That was Avon’s work and he did it masterfully. There’s only a handful of people who have carried this work forward and put such a forceful stamp of their character on it that they left a gap that was unfillable. And Avon was one of them.
How do I know? Because 28 years later, I still feel a hole where he used to be. I still feel tears rise up when I invoke this man who changed my life—and many lives— so profoundly and irrevocably. We are all irreplaceable, but few of us live our genius deeply enough to leave such a lasting absence. Avon lived his to the fullest, owned who he was even as he knew he had to hide part of it because of an ignorant, cruel part of our culture that had the power to hurt. In one of his last concerts with the North Texas Men’s Chorus, they sang “Ain’t Got Time to Die” and that’s how Avon lived. And it worked. As they say, his spirit lives on.
And what a spirit it was! That voice! That dancing body! That way he could create an instant joyful community wherever he went. No one who went to an Avon workshop ever forgot that feeling of magic and inclusion. He brought the ideas and the ideals of Orff Schulwerk to new and far-reaching places and touched all who had the good fortune to work with him.
He was one of the few early African-American Orff teachers and had the capacity to not only raise the roof with the collective spirit of black music, dance and games, but equally to hush the room with a beautiful German canon or evocative Gregorian Chant. He embodied the spirit of play, the constant inquiry of what he called “possibility teaching” and the elemental close-to-the-earth quality of what he called “the barefoot connection.” In his own words:
“In Orff Schulwerk nothing is ever finished. We are not involved in mere problem solving, but in possibility seeking. What we are starting to see is more and more safe teaching, teachers afraid of taking the risks that real process demands, teachers looking for an unchanging curriculum, for recipes and information rather than experiences and discovery. In curriculum we have a prescription, but the lifelong work of Orff Schulwerk must be built on the roots of wonder.”
It is our great loss that we didn’t have a few more decades of Avon to remind us about what is truly important in this work, about keeping alive the roots of wonder. But we are blessed to have had him. And of course, he’s still here. In the African tradition, the ancestors are not people from the past, but those who passed over and are still present wherever community gathers to dance, sing and create. So here we all are and here is his daughter and isn’t this a fine thing, to remember the man and to remember his message and to renew our vows to keep his spirit alive by bringing our whole selves into our teaching. Yes, indeed.