Monday, July 18, 2011

"Beware All Ye Who Enter Here"

I arrived in Madrid from Salzburg and the next morning, off and running in the next Orff Course. I was surprised to discover that one of the groups I worked with this morning were all beginners—this was their first Orff workshop. That was a moment of Shakespearean drama, worthy of blaring trumpets and drum rolls. I knew that for some this would be a life-changing moment, an opening of the door into a room they had dreamed about, but never entered in the flesh. For some, the Sound of Music soundtrack will go off in their head and they will “climb every mountain” to enjoy the refreshing rivers, meadows of peace and contentment and stunning views. For some, the heavens will part and they will step boldly and confidently into a glorious future of blissful classes with their children.

Well, not quite. As some people have complained to me, “I liked my life just fine and then this had to happen!” If we wholly accept the invitation, that mountain of work ahead that the Mother Abbess is exhorting us to climb can be a veritable Everest, complete with high winds, cold snow, landslides. Not to mention unpredictable children who aren’t immediately impressed with our transformation. And though we arrived at the Orff workshop because something felt too narrow, too dull, too uninspired or unsatisfying in our teaching, we may find ourselves doubting everything about how we have taught and enter a zone between dull, but okay and exciting, but not yet second nature. Should I warn my group in Madrid? “Beware all ye who enter here!”

Of course not. They’ll find out soon enough. If any of us knew ahead of time what awaited us when we embarked on a worthy endeavor—a marriage, child-raising, a career—I’m sure we would have turned and run the other way. We are guided into our choices by the carrot of pleasure and this is Nature’s great strategy (note the act that spawns conception and leads to changing diapers and wiping runny noses).

It seems clear that people are attracted by the freedom of the Orff approach and only later realize what a great responsibility is to decide what we will teach, when we will teach it, how we will teach it, how we will develop it with the children and so on and so on. Being handed a textbook and told to teach as it dictates leaves no room for our own passion or imagination or particular combination of interests and skills, but it occasionally must seem appealing when we’re wrestling with creating and re-creating our own curriculum.

There’s a gem of a book for Orff teachers just released with a long title (Texts on Theory and Practice of Orff Schulwerk). Orff’s brilliant colleague, Gunild Keetman, had just graduated from the school where Orff taught and she says: “Orff was looking for a colleague who could try out his ideas in practice and asked me if I would not like to stay on and help him. I agreed joyfully, not foreseeing that out of this a lifelong co-operation would ensue, not foreseeing the outcome and the way these experiments, begun in our restricted circle, would later spread, luckily also not foreseeing what a tough assignment it would be nor how much courage and overcoming of obstacles would be involved.”

And there you have it. Though we read our horoscope or go to fortune tellers, it really is best not to know, but proceed step by step in faith, guided by the pure pleasure of our work. In the case of Orff and Keetman, those little experiments begun in the 1920’s did indeed bear a remarkable and far-reaching fruit. But even if it hadn’t, I imagine they would have enjoyed it all the same.

After all these years of teaching, I sometimes wonder whether any of it meant anything to anyone. Of course, it’s nice to think that you may have made an impact on the world, ranging from making someone’s day a little more pleasant to transforming a life to reviving music education on a local, national or international scale. But ultimately, it’s the wrong question. More to the point—“Did I have a good time doing it?”—and to that I give a resounding “YES!” And I still am—and so off to plan tomorrow’s classes.

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