When I first taught in Beijing in 2006, I was astounded by the food in the restaurants. Last night, I was treated to a vegetarian banquet and there it was again—some 25 different dishes astonishing in their creativity and new combinations of tastes and textures. And then again at lunch today, with delicate desserts served on dry-iced steaming platters. And a drink of Pumpkin, Hazelnut and Chestnut Milk. Really? Whoever dreamed up that combination?
But then again, who ever imagined that a little baby fingerplay like Whoops Johnny would proceed step-by-step to a Stravinsky/ Steve Reichian improvisation? That the Danish folk dance Seven Jumps would end up as a modern-dance choreography exploring group shapes? That reading rhythms with plastic cups would end up with an evocative Philippine kulintang piece complete with dramatic boat-rowing and bamboo pole dancing? These are some of the surprising places I’ve arrived at by asking “What else can we do? Where else can this lead?”
This is the kind of dynamic music education we can cultivate if we look at each piece as the beginning, not the end of the next creative possibility. These are the questions that will move your Orff classes from pedestrian to inspired.
As Bach did with the Goldberg Variations, as Charlie Parker did with the I Got Rhythm changes, as the Ghanaians have done with drum rhythms surrounding a 12/8 bell pattern, as Silicon Valley folks have done putting together different technologies on a single hand-held device, so the Chinese have done with their extraordinary cuisine, putting unexpected combinations together and composing 32 different dishes with the humble mushroom. The result is consistently surprising, often delicious and a strike in favor of the human imagination. Whether working with tones, gestures, i-Phones or mushrooms, it is the extraordinary ability of the mind to conceive of new combinations that moves human culture along—or at least makes life a bit more interesting.
And so in the Chinese Orff workshops to come, I will encourage them to transfer the creativity in the kitchen to the same creativity in the classroom. To habitually ask, “What else can we do with what we have on hand?” To discover astounding new creations from a few well-earned failures and to keep the conversation alive in each venture of cooking the musical intelligence. No need to throw out the tried-and-true of jasmine tea or almond milk, but to simply consider another taste for the palate. Like pumpkin, hazelnut and chestnut.
Which, for the record, was delicious.