As my Orff colleagues will testify, one of the most important skills a teacher can have is know who will play the bass bars or drum set or cowbell. Because we are training the entire musician and not just the technical instrument player, kids in Orff classes always play different instruments and different parts of the music in the Orff Ensemble. Following my strict oath of “teach all the parts to everyone all the time,” kids usually rotate through all the parts before settling on one part for an eventual performance. How that choice happens is relaxed, casual and mysterious, a combination of the child’s choice and the teacher’s suggestion. However, being fallible, we sometimes err in letting kids try things out they’re not prepared for and suddenly we realize the whole ship is going down unless something dramatic happens soon— like a child’s breakthrough or a way to switch them off of that part without evoking damage to their self-esteem.
In some ensembles, it is the bass and drums that are secretly in charge. Though they seem to be in the background, they are like the offensive guards of the football team. Without them, the quarterback would constantly get sacked. A good jazz drummer can make a whole band swing with a rolled up newspaper on the edge of the stage. A good bass player anchors all the harmonies that would otherwise collapse and crash without her/him.
And likewise in the Orff ensemble. The bass drones that provide the solid earth from which the melodies alight can feel like an earthquake if the child is not reliable and steady. A drummer just ahead or behind the beat (and not tastefully so), makes the group feel like they’re swimming upstream and getting nowhere. So the cardinal rule? Put your best, most dependable musicians on those parts and don’t think you’re doing anyone a favor by letting someone unprepared try it out.
And so yesterday, a child new to the school got what seemed like the easiest part in the Latin jazz piece— a cowbell playing a steady beat. But nothing is easy until you hear it and for a number of reasons, this child couldn’t. I can’t describe how maddening it feels to try to play with an erratic cowbell. When someone plays on the beat, we take it for granted and focus on the pyrotechnics of the horns or electric guitar solo. Now I am ready to personally thank every cowbell player who has ever successfully played it.
I tried moving the child to a quieter guiro, with more disastrous results. Finally, still trying to reward him for his sincere efforts, I told him I was giving him the most special instrument we have at school— a real donkey’s jaw with loose teeth that rattle (it’s called a quijada-look it up!). His new job was to hit it once every 8 beats, preferably on beat 1. He was thrilled and had a merry old time hitting it on beats 7.4, 6.8, 1.9 and so on. Still, it was better than the cowbell.
In my way, I like to draw parallels beyond music and here it is: Following the procedures and basic standard practices of a few century-old political system is like playing the beat on the cowbell. You may not like the music, but at least the cowbell is on time. What we have here is an errant child who simply cannot hear the most basic part of working in a group, listening to the others, holding his part and it is wreaking havoc. Unbearable. Let’s just give him a donkey jaw and tell him to go off in the corner and hit it whenever he wants.