Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Janus Portal

“One should stir oneself with poetry
  Stand firm in ritual.
  Complete oneself in music.”

I grew up in a household in which ritual meant watching the Walt Disney Hour on T.V. after my bath on Sunday night. Yet despite its absence in my own childhood, ritual became something essential in my music teaching and a significant part of what I had to contribute to the school community. And most importantly, I discovered that the kids warmed to it and both took it seriously and felt the play in it.

Like today. With my first classes of the New Year with 2nd and 4th grade, I brought out the metal standing song-sheet holder to be a doorway of sorts, put down a cloth before it with a large Tibetan bowl on one side and a small one on the other. On the other side was a circle of handbells on the floor. The kids walked in and immediately recognized it all, eager to tell their new fellow classmates what was about to happen.

It’s really a “you just have to be there” kind of event, but a short description is worthwhile here. The kids sit in line sitting in an aikido-like kneeling posture with hands on their legs and backs straight. One by one, they sit on the cloth between the gongs and privately to themselves, think of one music class challenge or behavior they want to put behind them. I give them a few prompts, mostly based on their behavior in the last five minutes. “For example, you might decide not to talk out without raising your hand or to stop pinching your neighbor while the teacher is talking or to not pick up the cowbell from the shelf without permission.” They then ring the larger bowl to send that behavior back into the old year.

Next they think of something they’d like to accomplish in the New Year. Again, some ideas: “It could be something like learn all the words to The Frozen Logger song or learn three new notes on the recorder or master the grapevine step in our Greek folk dance.” With their own intention in mind, they send if forward ringing the small bowl. They then step through the portal and sit behind one of the handbells. And there they wait, silent and still, while their classmates ring the bowls and step through the doorway one by one. It’s really quite something to behold, these serious young children so quietly reflective while the air rings with the long tones of two Tibetan bowls.

When the last one steps through and takes his or her seat, we lift up the bells and ring vigorously while exuberantly proclaiming “Happy New Year!!” —a perfect way to break the accumulated tension of so much solemnity! We then sing a familiar “Welcome to the New Year” song and off we go with a class about handbells, creating little pieces with different musical patterns.

Confucius had it right. We’ve stirred ourselves with a little sung poem, stood firm in the New Year ritual and completed the class with some fine music. We’ve learned that it helps to make conscious intentions and resolve to change, make little vows to leave aside bad habits and cultivate new good ones. (Here we keep it private, though I tell the kids that later I might ask them to share what their hope was or let me know when they’ve achieved it.) We learn that sending wishes out with the vibrations of beautiful tones adds another dimension to it all. We’ve enjoyed all the benefits of ritual common to all times and places without any of the baggage of dogma or theology.

We’ve also learned a bit of Roman mythology, that January was named for the god Janus who had two faces that could look behind and ahead at the same time, that he is the god of beginnings and endings, transitions, gates, doors and doorways. As such, he was the right figure to invoke for my first music classes of 2013 and the kids’ first time with me as their teacher again since two years ago (I alternate grades with my colleagues and see the same kids every other year). I needed it to make the transition, the kids needed it to make the transition and most importantly, it worked. We had a lovely, calm, centered and exuberant first class together, setting the tone for the rest of the year to follow.

After such a satisfying day, time to take a bath and watch an old Disney film. 

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