Saturday, October 8, 2011

Good Vibrations

I was talking to a music colleague today who just started a new job with 8th graders. The previous teacher had them doing the software program called Garage Band, a way to sample sounds, mix them together and compose on the computer. Listening to their compositions, she was not impressed. “It’s like when you first try fingerpainting, you get excited about using ALL the colors and then everything just turns out brown.” Another colleague chimed in, “And the only way to know what each color does and feels like is to first feel all the instrumental vibrations in your bones.”

Two profound and related thoughts. Before music (or any art form) becomes ideas, theoretical structures, techniques, it is first and foremost that physical vibration in the body. We feel it in our bones first, it courses through our blood, excites our nerve endings, it is visceral long before it is abstract. We know music in the gut even before the heart and certainly before the head.

These are not metaphors. Since sound is vibration and our bodies are vibrating entities, sound works directly from vibration to vibration. There are sounds that are tuned to our particular bodies like the sympathetic vibrations of the snare drum when another drum is played across the room. There are particular combinations of sounds that strum the sympathetic strings of your heart (for me the bIII diminished chord), there are particular instruments that make your blood sing—the cello or oboe or large frame drum—and others that make your nerves scream—like my three favorite—banjo, bagpipe and accordion!. And (as witnessed by the existence of banjo and bagpipe aficionados) what moves or repels us is unique to our bodily physics and chemistry, independent of, but later formed by, cultural taste and emotional associations. Indeed, as musicians and music teachers can testify, we all have an instrument awaiting us that matches our particular way of hearing the world and feeling its vibrations and it gets very specific. A student at my school started alto sax last year and did okay, but just switched to tenor and felt like he had come home. We also have a particular musical style awaiting us, but that’s a matter for another posting—for now, let’s stick with pure vibration.

Maria Montessori was absolutely convinced that every child has an interior guide that knows exactly what the body and heart and intellect and spirit need at each given moment of its development. So she set out to create an environment of intelligent choice and allowed each child to go to the shelves and pick one of the materials. Why not do this with music? Leave children alone in a room of diverse instruments and see what they gravitate to. My colleagues and I have noted a certain personality type that always chooses the ratchet—the edgy, troublemakers who we will eventually appreciate and love, but will drive us crazy for a while. We like to know from the beginning who they are and the ratchet test never fails!

Shamans in some cultures take the patient aside and play certain instruments and rhythms and observe the reaction. Through their training, they can spot the particular song or expression the patient needs to heal, for what is sickness but faulty vibrations out of tune or out of rhythm? The doctor can spot the irregular EKG lines on the screen, but doesn’t know what song the patient needs. In short, beyond the math score nonsense, the social benefits, the discipline and even the beauty, music is perhaps the most powerful of all human expressions because it enters the body directly and through its power of vibration, can change our breathing, our heart rate, our brain waves, all of which profoundly affect our moods, feelings and spiritual connection.

So back to Garage Band. The real garage band with the guitars pumped up had plenty of vibrations, but this virtual model for kids who have never know the primary vibrations is the wrong tool at the wrong time. Without the profound feeling of each instrument in their bones and sense of how they pair together, all the colors will keep blending into a mushy brown. (Thanks to Nzingah Smith for this image.) Want to engage teenagers? Start them in their body with body percussion, movement, gesture and voice, with drums and shakers and the pitched percussion of Orff instruments, throw them into the vibrational soundpool and let them swim.

Vibrations in the bones. I like that. (Thanks, Martha Crowell). At the Orff Miniconference opening I led last April, we ending singing a song with our ears pressed to the back of the next person in the circle. If you found the right place on their shoulderblade, their bone amplified their singing. Profound. And in my last months with my Dad, I always put my hand on his back when he talked to feel the vibration of his voice. Highly recommended.

Yet one more plea to beware, to be aware, of raising our children in a virtual world more than a visceral world. The computer will be a welcome tool when all the proper vibrations are stored in the bones and remembered in the heart and understood in the head. But first things first. And last (see Dad above). 

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