Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Everything In Its Place

Today I gave a little talk to the Interns about Montessori and Orff. Some robust discussion followed and a few new insights that provoked further thoughts. I began in great admiration of Maria Montessori’s accomplishments— her keen insight into the nature of children, her astute observations that led to carefully thought out pedagogy, her hard work and dedication. Our school begain as a Montessori school (and still is in the preschool), my own children were Montessori-trained, as are just about all the children I’ve taught there over the years.

As brilliant as she was, her genius in one direction necessitated some gaps in another. As a doctor (the first woman doctor in Italy), she was a scientist and as a scientist, she leaned heavily toward the logical, the practical, the analytic mind, the work ethic. She believed in an ordered universe and created a Montessori environment in which there was “a place for everything and everything in its place.” This credo ranged from the material put back neatly on the shelf to the proper steps of good work habits. I admire that. My front room is still pleading with me to act on it. It’s a vital part of solid education and child-raising and some semblance of a successful adult life. But it’s not the whole deal.

What’s missing? Precisely the things that Orff Schulwerk encourages— the communal circle more than the individual workplace, fanciful play more than practical work with right and wrong answers, attention to the imagination more than the intellect (at least at the beginning stages of music education. As the children progress all these apparent opposites marry in equitable doses according to the developmental level.) My colleague Sofia astutely observed that the Montessori bells, the one musical activity Montessori invented, are simply about getting the right answer in ordering them in a scale. She never suggested that the children actually create music with them.

And here is where Montessori and Orff part ways. One seeks to discover order through the rational mind, detailed observation, analysis of cause and effect. The other seeks to create order through a carefully-honed intuition searching for just the right note, just the right gesture, just the right color or shape on the canvas. There are rules to guide it, but no rule can open the door to the finished work of art. Leonard Bernstein once said that Beethoven wasn’t as good as others when it came to melodies, harmonies, forms, but his genius lay in composing music in which note felt inevitable, fell precisely into “its place” as if ordained from above. One can say the same about Miles Davis’ improvisations or Bob Dylan’s song lyrics. For the scientist, the right understanding can crystallize into a technology that can be made the same each time. The artist has no such comfort. The right note one day might be the wrong the next.

At my school, Montessori and Orff form a good complementary team. Two contemporaries who never met (as far as I know) but their work resonates on in life-affirming ways. One can only be grateful.

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