Thursday, May 10, 2012

Open the Windows

“Inside these bars on the xylophone is a secret song. See if you can find it.” So began my class with the 5-year olds and off they went to the corners of the room for their sonic adventure. Leading with their hands, voice or mind, their urge to express something and the mind’s constant groping for coherent pattern, form and structure led them to find their “secret song.” Step two was to play it enough to remember it and then step three, bring their instrument to the circle and share it. “I like coffee, I like tea, I like Max to play with me” and off he goes. The other children listen intently and respond with a big smile and thumbs up. And off we go to the next—“I like coffee…”

I repeated the class with the 2nd grade, only this time in groups of three. In addition to finding their own song, they had both the stimulus and the limitation of having it fit with their partners. What fascinated me was that as soon as they got to their instruments, they started playing snippets of the pieces they just played in the Spring Concert. Or more interesting yet, parts of pieces that other classes had played that they had heard. So I had to remind them that the exercise was not to play what they already know, but what they don’t yet know. They had to resist the gravitational pull of going immediately to playing something familiar and search for the notes not yet played. With much coaxing, they managed to do it with pretty good results (though I did detect the bass line to “Smoke on the Water” in one of the group pieces!).

That tendency to go to the xylophone or piano or recorder and play everything we have learned is natural and necessary, the way the brain locks in the learning and paves the synapses. It gives us the comfort of the familiar and the pride of our practiced path. It is the floor and walls and ceiling and furniture of the houses we construct. If we choose something difficult that uses lots of us—say, a Beethoven sonata or Charlie Parker memorized solo or a Chinese gu-zheng composition, it has the possibility of refreshing us each time we play it. I mention the latter because I was struck with the way the five young gu-zheng (a Chinese zither) players I worked with in the World Music Festival, played a difficult piece with virtuosic techniques and great subtlety and nuance exactly the same way time and time again, like slipping into an expensive dress. That disciplined practice of precision with a beautiful piece of music is always admirable and mostly refreshing.

Why “mostly?” Because even the most inspired composed piece played by a skilled musician runs the danger of becoming rote, of shutting down any further thinking, listening or feeling. The house is decorated to perfection, every flower in its vase, piece of silverware in its place, painting hung straight on the wall, but without opening a window or door, the air can get stale and the bird song outside go unheard.

And so enter jazz and other musical styles that invite improvisation. They demand a rehearsed mastery of the tune, but also invite further exploration. The tune, worthy as it is, is not the end, but the starting point of the thinking brain’s, the listening ear’s, the open heart’s, continued investigation. Once the house is in order, you open the window and let in other ideas or converse with the other musicians gathered on the deck or smell the sweet jasmine bush in the yard. That’s the kind of musician we’re seeking to cultivate in this Orff practice, whether they be five years old, seven, or fifty-seven. And the kind of human being as well—perpetually listening, thinking, feeling, responding, searching for the next secret song.

(PS For those who live locally, see this process in action with my debut Pentatonics Family Jazz Concert at my school this Saturday. 300 Gaven St., 2 to 4. Not to be missed!)

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