Sunday, August 18, 2013

Loving Judgment, Strict Encouragement

At the end of my summer Orff training courses, one theme keeps emerging. Each class I teach, it becomes clearer and clearer that all the clever ways to structure a music lesson, all the effective routes to cultivating a deep musicality, all the social benefits of learning in the circle of community, will fall short if the teacher doesn’t understand the theme that ties them together, a theme worthy of caps and bold:


(Or as the poet William Blake said a few centuries ago: “Damn braces, bless relaxes.”)

In my trainings, I often remind people of some of the most basic things we know about the brain. First and foremost, that the lower region of the brain (called by some the Reptilean brain) is programmed for survival by responding to danger with one of the 4 F’s—fight, flight, freeze, feed (is the latter the reason why we gorge on chocolate when we’re stressed?). Those four F’s are tied together by another—fear. When we feel fear, the energy goes to the old primal brain and we can’t access higher thinking skills or other positive emotions. Fear comes in all sizes and shapes— from the car running the red light to an angry, threatening face to worry about being shamed or embarrassed in front of the class by a strict teacher. Stress is a cousin of fear and all things that create fear, anxiety, worry, stress, are enemies of education and obstacles to full human development.

In my lecture in the Korean course, I began by asking people to share their experiences in their music lessons they had growing up. As I noted in the post Tools of Revelation, “out came the stories of the harsh critiques, the demand for perfection, the painful practice, the punishment-reward system (including physical abuse) that turned something as joyful as music into drudge and misery.” No one looked back on those feelings with affection, to put it mildly. And yet unconsciously (or consciously when folks believe that fear makes the enterprise more serious), so many of us continue the same patterns. Whole cultures of child-raising and certainly most schools have been built on the premise that strictness and fear make the students pay attention and reaps results.

But what kind of results? And at what expense? Before Sofia and I taught the kid’s class in Korea, Sofia asked them why they thought they were here. “To be tested” said one, with a look of anxiety. The hugs they gave us at the end, as noted in the post Kim Chee and Corn Flakes, was their way of saying, “Thank you for not judging us.” Of course, I was silently judging their first attempts at leading echo clap and improvising on xylophones, but with the motivation of helping, not labeling and sorting.  My job is to accept everything at first, but also shape it and improve it in future classes. But the first step is to simply accept and notice and not critique too soon. In fact, their echo clapping examples were excellent and their xylophone improvisations mostly between good and exceptional. By creating a safe atmosphere, the results were actually superior to what would have come out in the tension of knowing they were being judged, assessed and graded. Their desire to come back for more was amplified, their motivation to improve yet more was fed and their innate love of moving and playing was preserved.

At the same time that I’m advocating for loving encouragement over harsh judgement, I know that up the food chain of development in a particular area, a certain kind of strictness has its place. I’m thinking of the cymbal tossed at Charlie Parker’s feet, Nadia Boulanger’s composition classes in Paris, the Zen teacher rejecting the student’s answer to the koan with a whack of the stick. Perhaps it’s a question of timing— loving in the first stages, strict in the second and lovingly strict and strictly loving at the end of the path. Or an ongoing balance of loving judgment and strict encouragement.

But the summer’s theme of healing the scars of harsh strictness and re-discovering possibility in an atmosphere of friendly encouragement kept coming up time and time again, a sign that I’m on to something here, something that mostly came natural to my teaching style, but has grown in depth. And really, it’s so simple, summed up in the happy phrase that fell into my head many blogs ago—permission to be beautiful. So I’ll close with a testimony recently received from one of my summer students.

“I felt more free and more true and more connected to myself as the teacher, musician and artist that I want to be during these two weeks than I do throughout the year in my job.  I attribute this to being highly evaluated and criticized by a strongly-opinionated teacher, administrative and parent community in my school.  Although I feel respected, valued, and have a tenured position, I feel highly scrutinized and often criticized by other teachers who do not get the way I integrate the Orff approach in my teaching. having to prove myself and be “perfect.”  This leaves little room for mistakes and also little room to feel free, flexible, and even have fun.  The joy I felt during this course allowed the opening of my heart and every pore to fill with the potential, fun, and freedom that I know is inside of me but often goes into hiding due to the rigid and critical environment that I teach in.  I felt like the gates of my mind and heart flung open during these two weeks and that I was able to truly connect with the creative teaching ideas I have, the freedom in my body as a dancer and mover, and my skills as a musician and singer.”

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