Like in Colombia, Brazil and Nova Scotia last summer, like in the Salzburg course with folks from places like Turkey and Iran, like in all my years of teaching in Spain and my jazz course in Thailand and my once trip teaching in South Africa, I’m finding a similar reaction from the 80 folks in my Beijing course. They are excited about what I am offering, appreciative of my musical examples and 100% able to see how much time, energy, thought, imagination and dedication went into every second of each activity. One man presented me with an extraordinary piece of art and told me he had come to my workshop 10 years ago and was still thinking about how that changed him. He was naming me as the master of master teachers.
This is no idle boast to boost a fragile ego. I humbly accept these accolades as affirming of the kind of mastery I’ve strived for, stitching together each and every one of the multicolored threads that define the Orff Schulwerk. It goes without saying that it is gratifying to be seen and known in this way, that people of great depth can feel the depth I’m aiming for. They get it. And the fact that people from so many diverse countries react in the same way is extraordinary. All except one country.
Yep, I’m talking about the good old U.S. of A. A country and culture I remain fiercely loyal to, a country that spawned so many artists, poets, novelists, musicians, athletes, dancers, movie stars and more that I’m proud to claim as fellow Americans. But more often than I care to say, there is not the sense at the end of the workshop that they got it. They might say the workshop was “awesome” and then use the same word to describe a teacher who I consider mediocre. Our criteria for “awesome” seems to come more from the shopping mall than the rigorous thought of the university or the authentic life lived in the cultured village.
What I feel leaking in here to all aspects of our national discourse is the infantilization of human thought and feeling. When someone ventures an opinion about something, it’s more meaningful when it’s backed by a disciplined practice of reading and reflecting, by a nuanced feeling life made through serious artistic engagement, by a cultural expectation that one must back up an opinion with actual facts, examples, diverse perspectives.
And here is precisely where we are in deep trouble. When television and shoot-em-up movies, fast food, right-wing and/or evangelical talk radio, bad architecture, shopping malls, chat rooms and the relentless shouting of advertisers to consume move to the center of national discourse, we are unable to articulate well-founded, well-thought-out and genuinely felt opinions about anything, be it the latest political disaster or the quality of the Orff workshop. When the head of a country has the emotional intelligence of a toddler and the vocabulary of a 4th grader, when “my ignorance is as good as your education” is accepted nationwide, when facts no longer matter and intelligence is viewed as “elite,” we are in grave danger.
Goodness know that each culture I praised in the first paragraph has their lion’s share of cultural shadow, but here I just want to note their capacity to see, feel, appreciate and honor the level of mastery I’ve achieved in my particular trade. Again, let me be clear this is not about me and me whining that I feel unloved by my fellow Americans. It is a symptom of something far more serious and that something worries me. It is my constant disappointment that we are not better than we are and my constant hope that we can remember how good we can be. And upgrading our capacity to see, appreciate, value things created with intelligence, sublime feeling, disciplined mastery, is a good place to start.