Monday, November 13, 2017

What's Brought to the Table

Like any club or group of enthusiasts, music teachers whose work has been transformed by the practice of Orff Schulwerk tend to be convinced that theirs is THE way. Not that they’re not open to consider and even integrate other approaches—they are. But when out giving workshops, their hope is to convince others that this way of working is just about the coolest things anyone can do. And the workshop is the place to prove it.

So they cook and lovingly prepare the meal and artfully arrange it all on the table. And then invite all present to dig in and enjoy the feast. To savor and enjoy. To take some back to their children and share it with them.

All this is well and good and it indeed makes a difference as to what’s on the table and how it has been prepared. But it’s not the end of the story. For this work to reach its full promise, we need to attend to what each of the diners bring to the table. What is their capacity to fully appreciate the tastes and textures? To understand both the difficulty and the pleasure of the cooking? To distinguish between fine ingredients properly grown and mass-produced genetically modified versions? To understand the seasonality of the fruits and vegetables and be able to determine when something is truly ripe? And equally the question of what they will bring to enlarge or enhance the meal when they begin to cook? In short, what leaves the table depends a great deal on what's brought to the table.

What each person brings has two components—personal and cultural. The personal one asks what previous training will accompany you as the neophyte Orff student. Are you coming into it as a dancer, a singer, a percussionist, a violinist, a composer, an actor or actress or any other of a thousand possibilities? And if you come primarily from a music or dance background, did you learn with private lessons, school programs, family music-making and dancing, neighborhood gatherings, churches or temples? Did you learn by ear or by note? By messing around or formal classes? What styles of music are you bringing to the venture? Or did you come primarily as an educator? And then what grades? Montessori-trained? Waldorf?

It goes without saying that what you bring to the table affects your experience at the table and the outcome when you push your chair out to go back to your own kitchen. And since it goes without saying, maybe that’s why so few say it. But if we don’t say it out loud, then we think that Orff is what’s on the table alone and experiences shows that that ain’t so. Ideas and material are just ideas and material until incarnated anew in each teacher and for them to come alive, it’s important to note what each new Orff teacher is bringing to the table. If nothing else, it might help them consider to keep training themselves outside of the Orff workshop. Take classes. Read. Write. Discuss. Mess around.

And then there’s the cultural piece. Does your culture celebrate or repress the body? Is it comfortable with intimacy and touch? Do people spent three hours at meals discussing interesting subjects or sit for 20-minutes with fast food while watching TV? Does your culture revere teachers and feel they should be obeyed and not questioned? Does it disdain teachers and feel that they should babysit your child and cater to their every whim? Does your culture value the intellect or consider it elite and snobbish to know things? Does your culture prefer shopping at the mall to hiking in the woods? Are people in your culture expected to be musical and know the folk, traditional and classical styles? Do people sing? Do the children still play children’s games? Is there an active curiosity about and welcome of people from other places or a desire to keep these folks out?

Naturally, culture is complex and often many different cultures exist under one flag. Cultures are also constantly changing and the hyper-pace changes of technologies are affecting all cultures everywhere, for better or for worse. But as someone who has brought the Orff feast to some 45 different cultures, I feel the differences in each place’s ability to fully absorb and move further along the gifts of the approach. One culture completely at ease with the orally-transmitted body-based improvised ways of the Schulwerk may need more attention considering the scientific development of a scaffolded curriculum in schools. Another at ease with such curricular thinking may need to focus on getting away from the printed page, awakening the body and getting more comfortable with improvisation.

On one level, the workshops in each of those 45 plus countries have a very similar feel of discovery, comradery, freedom of expression and excitement. But when the workshop is done, the things that will stick to the ribs depend wholly on what was brought to the table to begin with. And then begins the long, slow process of transforming individuals, institutions and then bits of the surrounding culture by sharing the meal with children. Food for thought, as it were.

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