Jazz remains my north star of what I consider a life well-lived. Particularly the quality of being fully present in the moment and prepared and ready to respond intelligently and artistically to whatever is in the room at that moment. One does the necessary discipline and practice to be prepared—the hours of stitching together theory and technique, of learning 500 tunes, of working alone in conversation with your own voice—and then brings all of that to the bandstand and stays alert and listening and in genuine conversation with the other musicians, the audience, the music itself.
Of course, I haven’t been on the jazz club bandstand enough to speak authentically about that. But it is the quality I strive for in my teaching and indeed, a good Orff teacher should carry that same jazz skillset. And if you are working with preschool kids, even more so, as those explosive, unpredictable, quirky little creatures will test to the maximum your capacity to respond to the impulse of the moment!
So yesterday, I was in some inspired zone leading three workshops at the Oregon Music Educators Conference and had the added good fortune of being in a beautiful, light, spacious room with a sprung wood dance floor with some 100 enthusiastic teachers ready for something different from the Powerpoint Presentation. Each workshop had us up playing, singing and dancing, making satisfying music built from simple materials with a musical flow and not a single unnecessary word of explanation. There were opportunities for individuals to improvise, for groups to create, for variations to be explored in a vibrant mix of poetry, dance, body percussion, Orff instruments, recorders, drama and more. Each workshop was shorter than I prefer (60 minutes instead of 90), but each managed to develop with the clarity of a Beethoven sonata or Coltrane improvisation and reach a satisfying climax right at the stroke of the 60 minute limit. There were tender and quiet moments, high-spirited and boisterous laughter, soulful jazz grooves and yet more.
The highlight was Boom Chick a Boom with some folks playing the instruments in a circle, more outside that circle singing and dancing and a saxophone that appeared out of nowhere finding its way into the mix. Just as it all was reaching a high point, I noticed someone off in the corner with her 2 ½ year old daughter playing maracas. I rushed over and brought them into the center of the circle and danced with the little one while she played maracas and sang Boom Chick a Boom.
And there it was, the whole deal compressed in a few short minutes. A child in the center of a circle of playful childlike adults playing a killer groove, her joining in modeling my workshop title, Play, Sing & Dance and everyone just so happy. And for an extra perk, the child was mixed-race and her name was Naima, named for a beautiful song by John Coltrane written in honor of his first wife. A lovely little girl carrying on the legacy gifted to America from that continent so recently grossly insulted by our so-called leader. These the kind of victories that lift up our hearts. If someone told me that my entire life's work purpose was to prepare me to create this moment, I would be satisfied with that reading of why I was put on the planet. The whole thing lasted two minutes, but it was glorious.
Over in the exhibit hall were companies trying to sell their slick, marketed, Smart-Boarded, must-have music lessons so kids can identify a quarter note and sing a Disney song looking up at screens, but for my money, 2-year old Naima playing, singing and dancing in the center of a circle of adults playing soulful jazz on Orff instruments and more is the kind of future music education I’m voting for. And that’s why I’m willing to keep returning to airports and go through security lines and sleep in strange hotels, just putting' on my shoes, paying my dues, to spread the good news, the jazz and the blues.