I’ve been noticing a strange phenomena lately—children in my music classes thanking me at the end of the class. 5-year-olds, 4th graders, 8th graders, no particular pattern to the age. And all without promise of reward or threat of punishment. An authentic sincere thank you as they go out the door. Not the usual M.O. of our school culture. What’s going on?
Hard to say this without appearing too prideful or full of myself, but I think it has to do with the fact that I am at the top of my game and the 41 years of polishing each class like a precious jewel has paid off. I know how to bring them further into the music than most every thought they could go and that’s a big part of what they’re thanking me for. And it’s not just about the yee-haw! fun of it all. Today I gave a 4th grade class that was a model of the precision stage of teaching, taking one melody and having them read its rhythm on the board, sing it with solfege, sing it with the text, play it by reading on the recorder, play it with eyes closed, play it while walking to the beat away and back to their place, play it at slow, medium and fast tempo, figure it out on the xylophone, play a version with passing tones, move seamlessly back and forth between playing it on recorder, on xylophone, singing, with all different combinations of orchestrations. Etc. At the end, a boy I’ve taught off and on for seven years said, “This was the best music class of my life!” I think he was amazed that he could actually accomplish all those varied ways of playing the songs and dang, it felt good!
Meanwhile, in 8th grade, kids have just about mastered blues form and specific blues piece in three classes and sound great, they’ve discovered the difference between Big Mama Thornton and Elvis and realized that so many classic rock songs they know are actually 12-bar blues. The 5-year-olds had the time of their life exploring the thousand things you can do with a hand drum—which included sitting in it to row their boat, skating in it with one foot, rolling it on the floor with a mallet, pulling it like walking a dog, dancing around it, jumping over it, balancing it on a body part, using it as an umbrella or soup bowl or Frisbee (without throwing it!), all while singing songs they know and dancing expressively. The thank-yous at the end were their appreciation that I understood what they liked and how they thought, that I could reveal familiar things in a new light, that I had a spent a lifetime figuring all of that out and was still happily dedicated to offering it to them.
What is the gift of longevity? With the proper attention and habitual intention to improve, just a clarity of purpose, a clarity of process, a clarity of pleasure. The kids know that I like them, am interested in them, am clear enough about the importance of what we’re doing that I won’t tolerate nonsense. They know I love music and dance and the surprise of creation and the fun of invention and the satisfaction of good, hard work that gets results. What they don’t know is how long it took me to arrive at this place and how I owe apologies to all my former students! But I can’t see any other way to have gotten here except through the muck and mire of mistake after mistake until I finally found some solid ground.
The past few years of my teaching life have been the most rewarding and satisfying of my life, my relations with kids better than ever, my pleasure in every single class without exception at its height. Does that sound obnoxious? I hope not. I share it here just to let young teachers know it’s possible to feel perpetually refreshed when you walk a path with heart, how in fact, things just get better and better, how all the years of exhaustion, doubt, relentless work, despair, all that steady pressure and heat of emotion do eventually form diamonds.
I can’t wait for my classes tomorrow!