Friday, May 27, 2016

Critical Enthusiasm

The beauty of the Orff approach is its invitation to partake of music's gifts freely, without judgment, without fear, without worry about right and wrong notes. From the use of the blending tones of the pentatonic scale (all dissonant notes removed—almost!) to creating your own motion to a song or piece of music to working with a small group to create something, music is more a party than a rigorous discipline. For people used to music as the stern teacher ready to pounce when the finger is not curved or the wrong note is hit, it’s akin to a religious conversion to realize that music can be fun!

And likewise, teachers trained in courses that require memorization of the 26 steps of the latest and greatest pedagogy or wade through cumbersome assessment criteria or trudge through 30 pages of Scope and Sequence curriculums, it’s a joy to have a teacher invite you to figure out your own way to do it, to choose five or six simple but vital skills and find your own way to awaken them in your students—with a little help from your friends, ie, over a half a century of Orff Schulwerk practice to draw from.

But after the initial rush of freedom comes a sobering realization, the moment when “I can do anything I want!” becomes “Whoah! I can do anything I want. It’s up to ME.” Which translates as, “I have an incredible amount of work ahead of me.”

And you do. How indeed will you create a coherent sequential curriculum over a five to eleven year span? How will you decide which quality material to choose? How will you increase the diversity of musical styles represented when you yourself  are not thoroughly trained? How will you attend to all the different strands of an Orff program—body percussion, speech, song, movement, dance, recorder, Orff instrument ensemble, drama, literacy, improvisation—and then weave them together into one seamless cloth?

And that’s just the beginning. How will you deal with classes of 30 kids in inadequate spaces? Token schedules of just 30 minutes a week? Kids who need more attention than others? Kids who take attention from others? Kids who hide and don’t cause trouble, but actually need attention? How will you deal with their diverse issues, most of which now have names (Asberger’s, autism, dyslexia, ADD, etc.) and their own strands of strategies? How will you deal with demanding parents and administrators who don’t understand the arts and disinterested colleagues? How will you defend music amidst pressure to replace it with computers or testing?

Well, the initially enthusiastic teacher will find out soon enough and I don’t say this as a cynic waiting for them to lose their innocence. I say this to suggest that all will need one vital tool to help them navigate through the treacherous waters of inspired teaching. I’d call it Critical Enthusiasm.  (Or perhaps Enthusiastic Critique?) I am enthusiastic about my fellow Orff teacher’s enthusiasm, but that enthusiasm alone is not enough. We need some rigorous critique, some aesthetic judgements, some pedagogical perceptions about what inspired teaching actually is.

I think as American Orff teachers, we are a bit too quick to praise ourselves and talk about how awesome and amazing the Orff approach is. There’s a sense (as shown in a recent Facebook post) that all Orff courses are fantastic and that’s sweet as far as it goes, but perhaps a little na├»ve? I find that a new student will come away from a remarkable workshop with enthusiasm and also come away from a mediocre workshop with the same enthusiasm. Not their fault—they simply don’t have enough criteria to distinguish between good, bad and extraordinary. But the danger is when they don’t know that they don’t know and receive encouragement to treat all courses and workshops as fantastic.

As sophisticated musicians, we simply need to know the difference between Kenny G and Branford Marsalis, between George Winston and Keith Jarrett, between me playing a Beethoven Sonata and Richard Goode playing the same. The same standards apply to distinguishing excellent from good from mediocre teaching. It concerns me that such critical discernment in my Orff world is seen as some kind of intellectual elitism and why can’t I lighten up and accept that all courses and teachers are simply wonderful? But they’re not. They all have something valuable to offer, no question about that, but there are degrees of depth and breadth and 99% of it is related to the teacher’s willingness to keep questioning, keep working, keep developing him or herself, keep enlarging understanding, keep thinking, keep reading, keep writing, resisting the urge to think “they’ve got it” and nothing more to do than explain it to others.

By most standards, I’ve had a successful career as an Orff Schulwerk teacher— 41 years teaching kids from 3 years old to 8th grade at one school, workshops and courses in most every U.S. State and 44 countries worldwide, eight books published, most in second and third printings and so on. What saves me from excessive pride or arrogance is the certainty that there’s so much more I could—and should— do better and the constant habit of noting what that is and striving to improve. So I’m not criticizing from a lofty perch here.  Or rather the height of that perch is directly proportionate to the habit of self-critique.

In short, both art and artistic teaching are a perpetual question that can never be wholly answered. The moment we think we know it, we are lost. 

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