Saturday, September 17, 2016

Portable Ping-Pong Pulpit

I have sometimes called myself a preacher without a pulpit. I’m ambivalent about calling myself a preacher because of a wide range of associations with the calling, ranging from the TV evangelist to Martin Luther King. On the negative side, there is that sense of haranguing the audience, talking down to them, talking at them. On the positive side (Dr. King), there is the quality of unleashing your passion and letting some mountaintop sense of truth, justice and beauty talk through you and lift the audience higher than the pleasant conversational voice can take them. That sense of larger-than-life passion, that theatrical side of public speaking is as true for the zealot and the genuine spiritual leader alike. The difference is whether the sermon is for self-glory, money, power, adoration or (in Joseph Campbell’s words) “transparent to transcendence,” speaking on behalf of the voiceless, revealing the truths deliberately buried in mainstream discourse.

In my more generous reading of my own motives (and I hope this is true), I’ve committed myself to speaking on behalf of children, of community, of art and beauty and goodness and revelation and individual character and fun and humor and play and jazz and social justice and–well, it’s a long list. But it’s all tied together in the glorious multi-colored robe of a life in Orff-Schulwerk. And so in the midst of my Orff workshops, while recognizing that people want and need good material to take back to their class, that they need inspired models of presenting and developing the material, that they need sound pedagogy and clear steps and artful musical arrangements, all of what I strive to give them, I also offer something that they didn’t sign up for— the deeper thoughts behind it all, the reminder to re-focus on children rather than systems, develop relationships rather than behavior management techniques, stand up for art as its own field and not just a stepping stone to math scores.

And because I hear, like I did today, discouraged teachers talk about all the unnecessary hoops their schools put them through, the endless bureaucratic mazes that lead nowhere and distract everyone from the real work at hand, I can’t help but name the contrast between the multi-colored dreamcoat and the deadly dull and spirit-killing drab uniform that schools keep wearing. I can’t talk about giving children what they need without reminding us what we are giving them in the form of addiction to machines. I can’t talk about meeting folks with “nothing up our sleeve” without mentioning Ray Kroc of MacDonald’s and the entire advertising industry that only cares to trick us for its own profit. And so things get a bit edgy sometimes and no time to discuss it before we’re off playing the next game.

So in fact I have a portable pulpit that I carry with me, but the rub is that no one is necessarily signing up for the sermon when they come to the workshop. If you come to church, you can expect a sermon. If you come to a poetry reading, you can expect poems being read. But when you come to learn a few cool games for Monday’s class and the teacher (me) starts talking about the Spirit we share regardless of the name we give it or planning classes that help you love your students more and the like, well, it’s a bit edgy. But hey, I can’t help myself and some people like it and some people love it and some people don’t particularly enjoy it and some people hate it. And I don’t care. Because my job is to say the things that I think need to be said that not enough people are saying, things that always make sense in the context of the material we just did and in fact, will help bring it more fully alive if properly understood. If people just copy the steps without that deeper understanding, what’s the good in that?

The good news is that I’m getting better at noticing when the eyes start to glaze over and am always ready to jump immediately into the next song. My pulpit is really a ping-pong table. The activity throws out the ping, the reflection the pong, and back and forth they go.

So that was my day in Chicago today, with 100 or so teachers at the Fall Workshop. I started in silence as I always do, the first twenty minutes the wordless sermon of great music and dance. And I ended with a lovely Estonian song sung so beautifully by the teachers, heads laid on backs of the neighbors to feel the full vibration and a few closing words about music’s power to transform us directly, from vibration to vibration.

I write this on the plane winging back, the traveling preacher with his portable ping pong pulpit. I like it.


  1. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and wisdom. Your sermon always fills my heart and soul with the joys of music.

  2. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and wisdom. Your sermon always fills my heart and soul with the joys of music.


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