Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Edge of Your Craft

Some 80 music teachers gathered at a weekend workshop I co-taught and I asked them:

“How many of you feel like your job allows you to teach to the edge of your craft? That pretty much everything you have to offer the kids is given the necessary time, space, materials and support to actually give it to them? That you have the satisfaction of seeing your students grow to the height of their musical promise?”

Three hands went up. And two of them were myself and my colleague James Harding, both teaching at the same school.

That is sad news. Here are these teachers giving up a Saturday to improve their teaching, advance in their craft as both a musician and a teacher, learn the 1001 necessary details to give inspired and effective classes— and then go back to jobs on Monday that don’t wholly allow them to teach fully.

A few weeks back, I went to a workshop with an accomplished Orff teacher how sees 600 kids in his school, each class once every six days with class sizes of 25 to 30. Can he teach to the edge of his craft? Does he have the satisfaction of playing music with his kids at the high end of accomplishment? Can he casually throw out, “Basses, work out a drone, altos ostinato, glocks color part, let’s play the melody twice and then who wants to solo?” and get some stirring music happening with 3rd graders within five minutes? Can he call out, “12-bar blues in F with a II-V- I turnaround. Go!” and start jamming with the 8th graders?” Can he see which of the 30 kids in the recorder group needs some extra help with fingering?

I don’t think so. And it’s not his fault. The fact of the matter is that more of the music teachers I meet are in a situation like this than not. Why do they accept it? Some are simply happy just to have a job in a field where so many colleagues’ jobs have been cut. Some just love kids so much that they’re willing to accept less than they (or the kids) deserve. Most have the kind of flexibility we music teachers need and will take one for the team, as it were.

I encourage them to educate their administrators and school boards as to what the bare necessities of an authentic music education require. I even posted an article on my Website titled “The Ideal Orff Classroom” as a guide to what to ask for, in hopes that each year, one little item gets ticked off the list.

But is that fair? Aren’t we music teachers busy enough? Does the reading or math teacher have to beg for enough time in the schedule to actually get the kids to be able to read and add and subtract? Does the computer teacher have to plead for a couple of machines in class?  Something is rotten in the state of Denmark here.

I cannot begin to describe the joy of actually nearing the edge of your craft, the supreme pleasure of throwing out a ping and the students returning a game-worthy pong. Without sufficient time, space, support or realistic class size, teaching music is like trying to play ping-pong with someone who can’t hit the ball back or get it on the table or sustain a volley for more than two times. Frustrating for teacher and student alike. But when the teaching and the support system is genuine, you can serve a challenging Scott Joplin or Jelly Roll Morton to the  8th graders and they’ll hit it right back and keep the volley going—the games is on and it’s glorious! You can play 10 games with 5-year olds that flow one into another and change the form and make variations on the motions and throw in a new verse and they’re right with you—30 straight minutes of volleying back and forth. Such joy! And mind you, this is with music classes only two times a week (Oh, why oh why can’t I have them every day??!), but in a dedicated music room with all the appropriate technologies (grand piano, drums, recorders, xylophones, beanbags, etc.) and an ideal class size of 12 to 15. And why not? Don’t the kids deserve it? Don’t the teachers? Doesn’t the school and culture?

More I could say about advocacy, but I have an hour of work ahead to plan for 15 minutes of tomorrow’s class. I couldn’t tolerate it if no one hit the ball back, but they do and it’s a fun and satisfying game.


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