Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dance, Sing and Read

I noticed that yesterday was my 100th posting. There are 26 followers and the Stats part indicates that the site has had 4,809 visits since its inception in January. I know that compared to Justin Beiber’s billions of hits that’s pretty small potatoes and there’s probably some irony that I would complain that music and dance trump the slow world of print and ideas by an astounding ratio. But still I’m inspired by the act of trying to corral impressions and transform them to expressions via the written word, grateful that there are people still willing to go through the work of converting mere arrangements of letters to the fireworks of imagination. 

Some years back, I wrote a manifesto for my ideal culture titled Dance, Sing and Read. I had been reading a number of books on the history, psychology, anthropology of literate culture and was forming a sense of how every technological shift (and a book certainly qualifies as a technology) brings both gifts and losses. The printed word became a new way to store information across time—we can read the thoughts of Plato and Shakespeare—and across space—the poetry of Basho or Rumi. It extended human memory far beyond the bodies and minds of the elders in the village and expanded human thought and discourse past the edges of a particular tribal lore and custom. The educated literate person can handle multiple perspectives, grow larger and find affirmation from people far away in time and place, understand abstract ideas and build book by book whole philosophies and systems of thought. The rise of mass literacy— really, a recent phenomena of about 100 years amidst hundreds of thousands of years of the human experiment—has contributed enormously to our collective thought and knowledge.

But not without a price. The oral culture’s method of storing, disseminating and passing on knowledge relies on artistic media—poetry, song, dance, storytelling, icon and image, ritual and theater. Each member of a community is valued because they can contribute to the collective knowledge and the elders are particularly honored as the storehouse of local knowledge wedded with wisdom. Whereas the scope of the knowledge is more limited, it is also more connected to the local land and weather and culture and breeds a sense of belonging and meaning. Oral peoples are more likely to be connected to their own bodies and voices, their neighbors, their local landscape and biology, their sense of belonging and cultural identity.

All of this turns out to be directly relevant to the teacher because we all begin life as oral learners. All preschool children are exquisite dancers, expressive storytellers, intuitive singers and chanters. When we initiate them into print, we need them to shut down their bodies so the energy can concentrate in the left hemisphere of the brain to decode those abstract symbols. We hear their voice grow flat and dull as they piece the words together and later, if we put on a play with a script, we shout them to “add expression!” But the preschool child is expression, needs no exhortation to add dynamics or punctuate with the hands or body. It is literacy that, left unchecked, can shut down the body and even the heart, asking for cold calculation and objective handling of ideas free from pesky emotion.

And so, dance, sing and read. In another words, keep the natural propensity the young ones have for dancing and singing growing and developing. And Orff Schulwerk is a fabulous way to do just that.
At the same time that they develop scientific thinking, critical analysis and the capacity to open the heart in a different way through printed poetry, stories, novels, they also need to keep exercising the ancient ways of remembering, storing and transmitting information through the body and voice. If they give their power over to a book or computer, they can’t stay awake driving from Verona singing 100 rounds and reciting poetry.

The other day, our SF Orff Ensemble broke spontaneously into three-part Bulgarian harmony in downtown Salzburg and gave the passing tourists a few moments of pleasure. We put on a lunchtime body percussion show on top of the fortress. Yesterday, they entered the Orff Institute for the first time (a historic moment!) and accidentally met the man who composed one of the songs they sing. We sang for him in the entryway and then he led us down singing through the halls and into the meeting room where the delegates from the 47 International Orff Associations where meeting. After the thunderous applause and clear delight of the music teacher audience subsided, the kids went off on a bike ride, smiling from ear to ear to feel their power to sing and play in a variety of styles at a moment’s notice, the way it connects them together, the way it connects them to an audience. We improvised a piece with our differently pitched bike bells while we rode and later that night, while James, Sofia and I had to be elsewhere, they went to dinner with our parent chaperones and entertained the waiters with another song and Table Rhythms.

Earlier, I was talking with one of the 7th graders about the film Midnight in Paris and she told me that after the movie, she went to the library and checked out some of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s books. These kids have been habitually trained to access their imagination through reading, to develop their thought and follow their curiosity about how the world works and this indeed makes them educated and interesting young people. But at the same time, they also have trained their bodies to be expressive, trained their voices to help unlock their hearts, turned their understanding of Vivaldi’s sequences or West African polyrhythms or the 12-bar blues to express another faculty of their soul. They are the leaders in an “oraliterate” culture that combines the gifts of both oral and literate culture.

Back to my 100th Blog, my little piece of literary heaven. Thank you, dear readers, for lifting this out of the private journal mode and giving me the sensation that these little entries might at the least be mildly entertaining and at the most, contribute to a small community of thought and public discourse. The capacity to comment and make it more dialogue than monologue has yet to be fully exploited (I think my daughter Talia has made the most comments!), but I have a feeling I’m competing with Facebook here, a technology much more friendly to the quick reaction. Nevertheless, I still would welcome any ideas or parallel experiences you might have that were kick-started by these ideas and stories.

Meanwhile, on to today’s rehearsal and the next 100 postings. 

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