After a lecture, an admiring fan gushed to mythologist Joseph Campbell, “You’re incredible!!” He humbly replied, “It’s not me. It’s the material. When you’re working with the great myths of humankind, how can you go wrong?”
Of course, you can go wrong and the work he did to research, connect and communicate the depths of this material was indeed praiseworthy. But it is true that when you’re working with great material, it almost teaches itself. Your job is first and foremost to find worthy material by knowing what you’re looking for and keeping your antennae up. Then shine the light on the essence of the chosen piece or song or dance and then get out of the way.
And what are you looking for? In the Orff world, there are four baskets in which to place melodic/harmonic material that I have found work wonderfully when following the developmental needs of children and the evolution of musical style. The first are games, songs, chants, rhymes, dances that unleash the music stored in the body and meet children in their world of fantasy and play and movement and extravagant expression (more on this in Step 5). Next comes pentatonic material accompanied by drones and ostinato, then modal material with shifting drones and triads and countermelodies and then harmonic music with the vertical motion of chords underneath the horizontal motion of melody.
Because you’re working with children who come to music class because it’s on their schedule, you need simple material in which they can feel immediately successful, but not simplified music, like Bach or Bird minus the hard notes. Orff called this elemental—simple but musical. You’re looking for pieces with much repetition, with logical sequences, with immediately comprehensible patterns.
Another criteria is picking material that you love. After all, you have to listen to the kids playing for a long time! And if a piece has a personal meaning, by all means, share it with the students. These things are infectious and will mean more to the kids if they know it means something to you. And keep going with the story of the music itself, where it came from, who created it, what it meant to people of that time and place.
And finally, pick something with teeth, with bite, with energy beyond the notes. Folk music that has withstood time’s efforts to erase it, been renewed by each generation because it’s worthy is a good starting point, but also composed music. Just be wary of the overly cute and contrived. We have so little time with the kids, they deserve the best.
And then when the kids and parents praise you, you can reply:
“It’s not me. It’s the material.”