Saturday, August 25, 2012

Lie, Cheat and Steal

I was the proverbial bad boy in school and that mischievous fellow has never quite gone away. As a teacher, I’m responsible for cultivating solid, upright citizens who vote, pay their taxes and are kind to their neighbor. Yet I get such pleasure from telling my students that to be successful in my class, they have to learn to lie, cheat and steal.

I start by asking them what lie I constantly say to them. The astute kids know: “When we’re practicing, you keep saying ‘One more time!’” Then I teach them the Old Doc Jones game. Tell a story that’s on the edge of believability and then sing,

Old Doc Jones was a fine old man, fine old man, fine old man.
Old Doc Jones was a fine old man, He told ten thousand lies.”

The kids put thumbs up if they think every part of the story was true. If even one part was a lie, it’s thumbs down. The storyteller then must fess up— true or false. The success of the storyteller has something to do with how well they can lie.

This is old hat for storytellers, whether they be telling a tale at the dinner table or writing a novel. Pick an interesting story and elaborate, exaggerate, stretch the truth as needed for dramatic effect. Artists are always more interested in the emotional truth of a work than a literal one. As Picasso put it, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

Yet another lie I tell my children is the rules for composition. “This note is more important than that note, these two rhythms always go together, this chord leads to that chord, etc.” All of which are true—until they aren’t. The rules have an internal logic, are useful and helpful and sometimes appear as irrefutable truths. But the imagination refuses to be boxed and in the hands of a master composer like Debussy or Thelonious Monk, they are consciously and delightfully broken time and time again. Indeed, one of the most difficult tasks of the emerging artist in any field is knowing when to break the rules and why.

As for cheating, I take such delight in telling the kids that if they’re not looking over at their neighbor while learning a piece on the xylophone, they’re in big trouble. In math class, peeking at your neighbor’s paper when taking the test is bad. In music class, not peeking at your neighbor’s xylophone or recorder fingering is bad.

Then there’s our illustrious “xylophone fakers club.” Kids who really didn’t get their part, but the teacher hasn’t noticed yet and they’re too shy to admit it, so they sneakily move their mallets around “as if.” Of course, I want them to really learn it, but also tell them faking it well is a great skill. Other forms of cheating I encourage:

     • Just play the skeleton of the melody when the elaborations are too technically demanding.
     • Improvise the forgotten line in the school play.
     • Play the wrong version of the body percussion part as if you were improvising a new one and
       make it look you meant to do that.

 And finally stealing. Duke Ellington once quipped that he’s taller on one side than the other from leaning over listening to piano players and stealing their ideas. Some say that Louis Armstrong used to put a handkerchief over his fingers while playing trumpet so that fellow musicians wouldn’t steal his fingerings. With all the improvisation we do in the Orff class, kids are constantly watching each other and stealing each other’s ideas—and I encourage them!

As a responsible teacher, I do encourage my students to Eat, Pray and Love, but as a responsible artist, I also make sure they Lie, Cheat and Steal. I’m thinking about elaborating on this to write my own New York Times bestseller, but by the time I get around to it, one of you readers has probably already stolen the idea, lied about it being your own and cheated me out of my 15 minutes of fame and fortune. And since you might be one of my former students, I only have myself to blame.

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