“If you expect to see the results of your work, you’re not asking a big enough question.”
“When we win, it’s with small things and the winning itself makes us small…”
Rainer Marie Rilke
If my first Orff teacher had presented this work as a clever way for kids to play quarter and eighth notes accurately, I believe I would have declined the journey. How fortunate that Avon Gillespie had such a far-reaching vision of what this work offers to the soul and the spirit, to the best part of ourselves and the company of neighbors reaching for the best part of themselves. The beckoning finger that has kept me moving forward on this path is the one asking big questions about what the Orff approach has to offer beyond creating competent musicians.
Of course, my first questions when I started out all these years ago were things like:
• How can I keep kids in the class without them running out the door?
• How long can I pretend to know what I’m doing before people find out?
• How can I make some sounds with kids that resembles music?
But then the questions began to grow and so did I. What are the different, needs, interests and desires of each age between 3 and 14- years old? How can I organize the years of experimentation into a coherent curriculum and still keep the windows open? How can music connect and invigorate the whole school community? How can it help kids feel like they belong to something larger than themselves? How can they discover they’re more musical than they thought they were?
And as I reached each plateau and found a satisfying answer, the finger beckoned me to keep climbing. How does work training teachers inform the work with the kids? How does performing with other Orff teachers feed into the teaching of children? How to balance my practice as a musician with my practice as a teacher? How does it help to be a perpetual student, constantly trying out new things—body music, Balinese gamelan, Bulgarian bagpipe, Ghanaian drumming and dance and more? How does this work resonate in different cultures across the country? How does it touch teachers in different cultures around the world? How does music of diverse cultures fit inside of the Orff framework? How does jazz? How do new advances in body percussion? How does this work relate to myth and ritual and ceremonial life?
Pant, pant, puff, puff, on I kept climbing. How does this approach to teaching and learning fit with the latest findings of neuroscience? With the older insights of Montessori, Steiner, Whitehead, Dewey? How does a deeper understanding of orality and literacy play into this work? What is the role of advancing technology and/or how can this be a balancing point for too much screen time? How does poetry play into this work? Storytelling?
Enough? Not nearly! What about social justice? What about making music with babies and infants and seniors and the dying? What about high school and college jazz bands? Conservatory students? What’s it like to give workshops to Zen monks, computer folks, community food store workers? What about working with kids in Ghana?
The latest whisper in my ear is working with prisoners, kids in Juvenile Hall, kids in homeless shelters. And just yesterday, an exciting connection with someone doing precisely that work.
My biggest critique of some of the Orff teaching I’m seeing these days? The boundaries are too narrow, the horizon too close, the tone is one of answers instead of questions. Not from beginners, that’s to be understood, but more seasoned teachers and some of them out there marketing Orff Schulwerk like an packaged item that fits neatly inside a box. That reduces this twisting path with a heart to a freeway with fast-food stops.
And then at the end of all of this is the political side, the sense that I’ve done nothing to restore music to the public schools in San Francisco, music torn out almost 40 years ago with the passing of the property tax fiasco called Proposition 13. The best story I heard was that a teacher who was going to get her schedule cut in half had her administrator watch my TED talk and it changed her mind. Hooray for that! One tiny result in 42 years of advocating for music education. And hopefully a bit more, making some kids lives a little happier because of the teachers I’ve trained using the ideas and material I’ve passed on. But if the dream of quality music to touch the hearts, minds and bodies of every child who enters a school in this country— or any country—is ever to come to fruition, I don't believe I'll be here to see it. I guess that means I've asked big enough questions that I won't see the results of my work. I.F. Stone would be proud.
What new question awaits me tomorrow?