“How do you deal with the kids who don’t participate in class?” This the question that keeps coming up as teachers observe my classes. Because inevitably in a simple 30 or 45 minute class, some kids won’t participate as fully as others— or at all.
The first thing I do is notice it, then keep my eye out. If it persists, I might make some subtle signal to the kid that I do notice and give some tiny gesture of invitation. If they still don’t respond, I keep the class flow going and think about other possible kinds of invitations—“Hey, would you like to try this cool cowbell part on this piece? No? Okay, who does?” If they do cross the line into participation and do well, I may stop class for a moment and go over to publicly shake their hand and thank them for the remarkable progress they made. And then we all get back to work.
But in the long run, there’s more work to do. On my part, the first thing is to make sure my class is as enticing and engaging and exciting as a class can be. I want it to be as refreshing as a gelato ice cream on a hot summer’s day. Just offer it up, give the kids a choice of flavors and no extra coercion necessary.
But I understand that music class is not as simple as eating ice cream. It suggests expressing yourself in front of a group, opening yourself to emotion, risking failure in getting the notes right or knowing how to sing the words. If it’s new to kids, it can be scary, especially in the Orff class when we gather and hold hands in a circle—nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. In the end, music properly felt and understood asks us to be vulnerable, to open ourselves up and often to do it publicly. And that can be terrifying.
So it requires time—lots of it—and the constant cultivation of safety before a child can trust the teacher, the group, him or herself. And it can’t be rushed. Hiding parts of ourselves is not just uptight repression to be solved by some New Age pap about letting yourself go. There is a wisdom and a timing to hiding, a need to protect and armor the most tender and delicate parts of ourselves until we feel confident that it’s safe to emerge. And it can’t be scheduled or ordered on demand. It has its own timetable that is a mystery beyond our capacity to fully understand. All we can do is keep gently encouraging it to come out into the light and welcome it when it does appear.
There are a thousand things that can shut kids down, in class and outside of it. They can be overwhelmed with too much information, underwhelmed by too much boredom, hindered by undiagnosed (and diagnosed) learning differences, scarred by emotional trauma, addicted to electronic sensation or chemical substances, victimized by cultural and institutional trauma or simply hungry, tired or having a bad hair day. But there are only a few things that can open us up. And a teacher’s faith and interest and encouragement and offering of something worthy to open up to is one of them. (One teacher noted that a child who generally had not participated was super-involved in the jazz piece I taught and volunteered to do a solo—and it was great! Sometimes it’s simply a matter of finding what the style of music, the book, the sport, that fits the child’s way of thinking and doing.).
We all can use some reminders and encouragement and I’ve found a beautiful folk tale, The Tiger’s Whisker, that has helped instruct me in the art of patience. Here’s a version:
A man comes home from the war a mere shell of his former self and much to the dismay of his wife, sits around all day hollow-eyed and non-responsive to his wife’s encouragement. She goes to the village elder to ask advice and he instructs her to bring him a whisker from the tiger who lives in the cave. The tiger is well known to be ferocious and dangerous, but the wise man offers her no other solution.
So she cooks some rice and meat, puts it in a bowl and walks partway up the path to the tiger’s cave, leaves it and turns away. The next day, she notices the bowl is empty. So she repeats the procedure, leaving it just a little further up the path. Day after day she continues like this until one day, she puts the bowl right at the cave’s door and steps back ten feet to watch the tiger eat. Each day, she steps back less until finally she stands next to the tiger and pets him while he eats. Finally, she reaches for his whiskers and plucks one.
She rushed back to the Wise Man and gives him the whisker. He asks her to recount how she obtained them and then says, “You have answered your own problem. Show to your husband the same kind of patience you showed to the tiger and one day, he will come back to himself—and you."