Monday, November 20, 2017

Ping-Pong: Step 1


The recent Orff Conference was particularly fertile inasmuch as it stepped up my usual obsession with capturing Orff’s gifts in some articulate net of language. After defining and re-defining for over 4 decades what I think this work is about, I came up with a new rubric of qualities that I consider essential to good teaching. In any subject. But particularly music.

What follows is my five-step program that is no program, but simply a way of thinking, of doing, of being. Not precisely teachable, but available to those who already intuitively teach this way to do it more consciously and more clearly. So let’s start with ping-pong as Step 1, a metaphor for creating lively, involved and effective classes. 

In a good class, there is a vibrant interaction between teacher and student, a lively game of ping-pong. The teacher pings out a song, movement, game, idea, challenge, the student pongs it back at their level of ability to hit the ball. 

The teacher watches the student (s) intently, throws a few pings to help them sing better, play better, move better, think better, the student pongs it back. If the student doesn’t get the ball over the net, the teacher serves another one. If the student needs a gentle serve, the teacher will comply. If they need a greater challenge, likewise.

It might be music pinging and ponging across the net or ideas or an improvised musical conversation. The point is that the game is on, the student and teacher actively involved in making music together, with the teacher responsible for keeping score and helping shape the students’ game. And when the student lands an impressive point in the volley, the teacher notices and praises.

So much of teaching is ping-ping-ping and whatever pongs there are have to fall in the “correct place on the table” as determined by the teacher. What kind of game is that?

Or conversely, the teacher pings out an idea and sends folks off into small groups to make something up. Common practice in the Orff approach and a worthy one. But without some deeper thought, it falls short. I went to a one-day workshop recently where the teacher did this—six times! I began to wonder, "What are we paying him/her for?" Yes, the initial idea counts, but so does more rigorous work with technique, concepts, improvisational and compositional structures. The group's creation should be the starting point for the teacher to help shape, guide and improve. Always good ideas come forth, but rarely are they deeply artistically satisfying without more grist for the mill. So in this model, the teacher says "ping" and the rest of the day is "pong, pong, pong, pong…"

I was fortunate to have a teacher—Avon Gillespie— open the door of Orff Schulwerk who understood profoundly the art of the game. I dedicated my life to the game and it has never failed to inspire me with its lively volleys across the net. And yet because the Orff approach found its home in factory-belled-and-whistled schools and because the times of deep questioning and cultural upheaval when in began (the 60’s) have been replaced by endless mindless bureaucratic hoops and a system that doesn’t even care any more about the correct answers (it’s all “fake news” because I say so) never mind the provocative questions, I see this dynamic approach to music education reduced to Power-pointed steps on a screen evoking bland sounds from inert bodies while the teachers congratulates themselves on their awesome clever process.

All ping and no pong. Or all pong and no ping. Either way, the game suffers. 

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