Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Encouragement to Fail

I left school after Singing Time (love songs—it’s that time!) and drove up to Napa for an evening with parents about Music Education. I have an opening shtick for such things these days, the same one I used for my TEDx talk. (What? You haven’t seen it yet? Get thee to Google). “Who here is a musician? Who here is musical? Who here likes music?”

The percentages held up. Some 10 to 20% for the first, 30 to 50% for the second, 100% for the last. I assure them that the first makes sense— to be a “musician” in our culture means putting in the 10,000 plus hours to master one’s craft and most of us have other things that we consider more important. The 100% means that some part of us understands that music is essential to energize us, to soothe us, to give language to the complexity of emotions we feel, to get us away from words for a while and pay attention of the feeling side of life.

But what bothers me is that middle category. Why do over half the people in any given adult crowd in our culture feel that they are not musical? (The one child in the audience, by the way, raised his hand for all three.) What happened to them? And so one brave parent said, “I used to play piano and when I made a mistake, my parents rapped me on the head.”
I asked her, “Did they rap you on the head when you played with blocks and they fell down? When you did a stick figure drawing that didn’t look precisely like a human being?
When you told a great story at dinner but made one grammatical mistake?” Why is it that we treat music like a concrete task with correct fingering at the piano and every pre-composed note in place? Why do we put up the toddler’s scribble-scrabble drawing on the refrigerator and greet it with admiring oohs and aahs? Why do we celebrate their first sentence “Me want cookie?” Encourage them to get up again when they fall down in their first attempts to walk? And then shout at them to stop banging on the piano!!!!!

All learning requires a long period of trial and error, of messing around, of playing with broad strokes before the fine tuning of precision. It needs adults who encourage the attempt with the equivalent of proudly displayed refrigerator art. This is the first step toward leading forth each of the potential intelligences we carry, one that we do pretty well with linguistically, kinesthetically, visually-spatial, mathematically, one that we are pretty patient with interpersonally (“Let’s learn to share.”) and intrapersonally (“Let’s learn to use our words to tell how we’re feeling.”), but one that we do a miserable job with musically.

One reason is our musical intolerance for unfocused and loud sound. I get why the banging on the piano is hard to bear. But an easy solution— buy one of the pentatonic Orff instruments with a quiet timbre and musically-pleasing well-chosen five notes and the beginning musician has permission to take that first step into their natural musicality.

But the larger dimension is to re-define and enlarge our notion of what musicality is and what the best route is to unleash it. And that’s my life’s work. So my goal for those 50% plus parents was to convince them that they were wrong, that they indeed were musical, each in their own way and in each at a different point in the spiral. And that it doesn’t matter who’s ahead and who’s behind, just who’s moving one inch forward. So up they got and we did some activities that gave them surprising instant success (and produced some truly lovely music) and others that showed them what challenges they might face to refine their musical expression. All in that loving circle of fun, play and encouragement to fall and fail knowing that I and their fellow travelers would pick them up. Nobody was going to rap them on the head.

At the end of an hour and a half, I asked them again. “Who here is musical?” You got it—100 %. It was worth the three hour round-trip drive.

Any other parents out there need convincing? Invite me.

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